Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Friday, April 10, 2020

Fate is coming back. What do we do when no choice is good?

Guest post by Jacopo Simonetta 
Originally published in Italian on "Effetto Cassandra"

It is called 'triage'. It happens in the emergency departments when the influx of ill or injured patients exceeds the capacity of the hospital. So, doctors must decide whom to save first and whom to save later, if they are still alive. I have always thought this is the worst thing that a doctor may be forced to do, but it happens, and doctors, like other emergency professionals (firefighters, soldiers, policemen etc.), are, at least in part, prepared to face these situations.

We normal people are not, but this does not mean we can abstain from making choices, when even failing to make a choice will have consequences. In fact, the extraordinary bubble of peace and well-being that has cocooned the western world for 70 years is vanishing, making us completely unprepared to face the very idea of 'tragedy'.

I am not referring here to the crises of collective hysteria that overwhelm us at every little difficulty, but to our inability to sustain the weight of the responsibility of choices that, whatever we decide to do, will provoke great damage and suffering. Outside of our collapsing bubble, this kind of situation is instead frequent and has been masterfully illustrated in many masterpieces of ancient philosophy and literature.

These are the dynamics of Fate: men are not simply dragged by a 'scornful destiny'; they are instead called upon to make choices whose consequences will be inevitable so that not even Zeus could change them. Sometimes, in the range of possible choices, there is one that could put an end to the suffering and the tragedies. For example, Paris could put an end to the war by letting Helen return to Sparta or Hector could win, granting the Achaeans a dignified surrender and a return to home.

In both cases, the heroes make the wrong choice and the consequences overwhelm them and their people, but it was not inevitable.

There are instead cases in which every possible option will have disastrous consequences, and nevertheless the hero must choose. Orestes' dilemma is paradigmatic: it is his sacred duty to avenge his father, but this means to commit the sacrilege of killing his mother and he well knows that whatever he decides to do, the consequences will be catastrophic. A similar dilemma torments Antigone, who must choose whether to bury her brother, violating a precise order from her king, or leave him unburied, violating a precise duty of hers.

This kind of dilemma lies at the core of Tragedy that, not coincidentally, was closely connected to the cult of Dionysus: perhaps the most ancient and certainly the most enigmatic of the Greek Gods.

We have pretended and continue to pretend we are immune to this kind of situations, but the truth is knocking at our door harder and harder, and visible cracks have opened in the physical and psychical walls we have built against it.

Let us make an easy example of the kind of tragic choices that we are in any case forced to take. Taxing air flights so as to drastically reduce their number would surely have positive effects on the environment and climate, but, would immediately force tens of thousands of people out of their jobs, most of whom would not easily find another one.

So what should we do? This is just a little detail of the fundamental topic that humanity will have to face from now on: actual degrowth, which is appearing to be a lot more problematic than the theoretical one.

In fact, we could discuss details for a long time, but nobody in good faith can deny that humanity, as a whole, has largely passed the Planet’s limits of sustainability. Just to mention a few numbers, today the technosphere (a.k.a. anthroposphere, that is humanity with all its infrastructures and symbionts) amounts to about 40,000 million tons, some 4,500 tons per person.

We and our domestic animals are about 98% of the world’s fauna, about 40% of the Earth’s surface is completely artificialized (urban, suburban, agricultural, etc.), 37% is made up of natural habitats heavily modified for anthropic use (pastures and almost all forests), only 23% can still be classified as 'wild' (a few remote forests, but almost only deserts, mountain tops, and Arctic regions). (data from IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 1919, Laboratory for Anthropogenic Landscape Ecology, 2020).

Things are even worse at sea: we estimate that only 13% of the oceans is still basically intact (data from IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 1919).

But these are all very optimistic assessments, as factors like global warming and the related acidification of the seas, global diffusion of polluting agents of all kinds, the growing number of barriers to movement by wild species and the contemporary spread of alien ones, industrial fishing and hunting of rare species, the dying off of insects and amphibians, the worldwide alteration of nearly all bio-geo-chemical cycles tell us that the Earth is by now a planet inhabited by a single species (Homo sapiens industrialis, alias H. colossus sensu Catton) with its symbionts, commensal species and parasites.

Everything else survives in extremely precarious conditions in the interstices and cracks of the technosphere, but it is only these survivors that still ensure the existence of conditions favorable to biological life on Earth.

This means not only that substantial degrowth is the only sensible thing to do, but also that it is an inevitable fact. There is no way we can prevent it and postponing it will only mean paying a much bigger price, a little later.

However, the vast majority of people rejects this view, preferring to imagine strategies, even very ingenious ones, to have it both ways. They have very good reasons to do so because accepting 'overshoot' would mean accepting the price of the 'environmental debt' that we have piled up. Of course we will pay it anyway, but we cannot blame those who prefer looking the way. In fact, I have the impression that, even among 'degrowthers', there are few that have deeply reflected on how much it will be necessary to degrow to stabilize the climate and stop mass extinction.

Obviously it is impossible to make a precise estimate, but to have a rough idea we will make a very easy calculation, using energy consumption as an indicator of general impacts. This is an approximation, but it is close enough to reality.

On a global level, we estimate that humanity passed the planet’s carrying capacity in the early 1970s, when worldwide energy consumption was in the order of 70,000 Twh, whereas now it is about 165,000. Let us imagine going back to the 70,000 Twh of fifty years ago, what would per capita consumption be? Between 1970 and 2020, human population has doubled; this means that, to bring global consumption back down to about 70,000 TWh, per capita availability would be less than a quarter of what it is now. This means a level of consumption similar to what we find today in Moldavia, Albania, Egypt or Nigeria, to make some examples.
Speaking about Italy, it would mean going back to nineteenth-century per capita consumption levels, without considering that such poor societies would probably not be able to produce the technologies that consent the life of 8 billion people, starting from the sophisticated devices necessary to convert sunlight and wind into electricity.

With this I am not saying that in few years we will be living with candles and horses, I just want to clarify that we do not have to give up just the unnecessary; we have to give up a lot that we see as necessary or an acquired right, starting from a life expectancy of over eighty years.

This opens a wide range of questions that, whether we like it or not, we will have to face because when the blanket gets too short, we have to choose whether to cover our feet or our shoulders. In actual terms, this means choosing who must be sacrificed so that the others have more chance of surviving.

Right now, we are seeing a practical example of choices that we will have to make more and more often, with the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic. We have seen that this disease is particularly treacherous because it spreads easily and has a relatively low death rate, but on condition that long and costly care is available.

We have several possible choices.

We can try to stop the outbreak in every way, but this would have devastating economic consequences that could even throw the global economy into a crisis much worse than that of 2008.

We can keep the main economic flows active, but this would mean a lot more infections, and thus sanitary costs that could send entire states in bankrupt. Without counting that the saturation of hospitals would also mean a definite rise of mortality.

We can also pretend nothing is happening and bury the dead in secret, but we cannot predict how many they would be, nor the practical consequences of the panic that would overwhelm the world a lot more than it does now.

We can look for compromises between the different options, but in any case we cannot avoid very painful and largely unpredictable consequences.

Another example, even more brutal, is the drama that is taking place these days at the border between Greece and Turkey. Putting aside the complicated story that brought tens of thousands of people to try to break through the barbed wire, we find ourselves in front of another tragic choice.

We can welcome the refugees, but this would have devastating social and political consequences in Europe (there is no need for guesswork here, because we already made the experiment in 2015).

We can drive them back, but these are people that cannot go back to Syria where the government would kill them, nor can they remain in Turkey because the Turks are sending them away.

We can confine them in 'refugee camps', which are actually prison camps with no foreseeable release.

We can please Erdogan so he takes them back, and support him in his war against Syria.

We can also think of other solutions, but anything realistically feasible will mean tragic consequences for someone.

There are many other fields where we see similar dilemmas: how do we face the situation? Because, in the end, every one of us will have to find a compromise between our mental model of the world and the physical reality that is coming back into our lives, peaceful up until now.

I would say we basically have two options:

The first is to deny one or more pieces of the puzzle, so as to simplify it and restore the satisfying dynamics of good versus evil. At this point we must choose our side, and then assume things do not work because of the other side, whatever happens.

The second is to accept that in many key matters of the present and the near future we have several possible choices, but none of them will not cause major damage and suffering for which we will share responsibility. Even if we choose not to choose:  because there will be painful consequences anyway. Just like it was for Orestes and Antigone.

Translation by Maddalena Martinez. Link to the version in Italian


  1. We have the technology to satisfy our energy needs using wind and solar. I think the population limiting factors will be disease, famine, extreme weather and conflict.

  2. How about a link to the original text in Italian. Some of us like to have the chance to read those articles in Italian.


  3. CIRCUMSTANCE: The Age of Exuberance is over, population has already overshot carrying capacity, and prodigal Homo sapiens has drawn down the world's savings deposits.

    CONSEQUENCE: All forms of human organization and behavior that are based on the assumption of limitlessness must change to forms that accord with finite limits.

    William Catton described 5 conditions which Humans might embrace as they try to deny Reality.

    You can accept or deny Professor Catton's statement:

    "The Industrial Revolution made us precariously dependent on nature's dwindling legacy of non-renewable resources, even though we did not at first recognize this fact. Many major events of modern history were unforeseen results of actions taken with inadequate awareness of ecological mechanisms. Peoples and governments never intended some of the outcomes their actions would incur.

    To see where we are now headed, when our destiny has departed so radically from our aspirations, we must examine some historic indices that point to the conclusion that even the concept of succession (as explored in previous chapters) understates the ultimate consequences of our own exuberance. We can begin by taking a fresh look at the Great Depression of the 1930s, an episode people saw largely in the shallower terms of economics and politics when they were living through it. [1] From an ecologically informed perspective, what else can we now see in it?

    The Great Depression, looked at ecologically, was a preview of the fate toward which mankind has been drawn by the kinds of progress that have depended on consuming exhaustible resources. We need to see why it was not recognized for the preview it was; this will help us to grasp at last the meaning missed earlier.

    We did not know we were watching a preview because, when the world economy fell apart in 1929-32, it was not from exhaustion of essential fuels or materials. From the very definition of carrying capacity—the maximum indefinitely supportable ecological load—we can now see that non-renewable resources provide no real carrying capacity; they provide only phantom carrying capacity. If coming to depend on phantom carrying capacity is a Faustian bargain that mortgages the future of Homo colossus as the price of an exuberant present, that mortgage was not yet being foreclosed in the Great Depression. Even so, much of the suffering that befell so much of mankind in the 1930s does need to be seen as the result of a carrying capacity deficit. The fact that the deficit did not stem from resource exhaustion in that instance makes it no less indicative of the kinds of grief entailed by resource depletion. Accordingly, we need to understand what did bring on a carrying capacity deficit in the 1930s".

    But we are approaching the point where Planet Earth is being systematically destroyed by a species - Human - who demand more resources that a Finite Planet can provide if they are to continue to grow in numbers, prosper, and accumulate goods manufactured by Industrial Civilization.

    The morality play of Orestes and Antigone sim,ply describes a dilemma - a difficult choice between two different paths whose outcome may still be the same.

    "a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones.
    "the people often face the dilemma of feeding themselves or their cattle"

    Slaughter all your Cattle to stay alive - and when the Cattle are gone.... what then?

    Solar and wind are dependent upon massive amounts of POL technology to create them - find, mine, refine, manufacture, distribute, and maintain the higher technology levels of Solar and Wind.

  4. "I would say we basically have two options:

    The first is to deny one or more pieces of the puzzle, so as to simplify it and restore the satisfying dynamics of good versus evil. At this point we must choose our side, and then assume things do not work because of the other side, whatever happens.

    The second is to accept that in many key matters of the present and the near future we have several possible choices, but none of them will not cause major damage and suffering for which we will share responsibility. Even if we choose not to choose: because there will be painful consequences anyway. Just like it was for Orestes and Antigone".

    Define for me "good" and then "evil".

    How many children shall I be allowed to produce?

    Shall I travel by Horse - or by a POL fueled manufactured vehicle?

    Shall I light my home by electricity - and all the supportive POL fueled subsidiaries required to maintain that electric option?

    Shall I heat my house by what - and if we say hand cut wood - where did the tools come from to cut that wood - what is the technology?

    We live in a complex World - dependent upon many others who we cannot envision - in order to simply survive.

    Who needs Farmers? I get my food supply from the grocery store.

    Who needs Chemists, Engineers, Laborers, - my clean water comes on demand from a tap. My sanitation needs are taken care of by a whole host of those I can't see - involving a large scale of unrecognized infrastructure - and those who built it - and maintain it.

    From Dr. Joseph Tainter:

    The layers of complex society - and that of Industrial Civilization depend upon an even increasing level of symbiotic relationships and organizations - remove one - and the party ends.

    1. I think the best outcome would be:
      Self regulated population numbers through education.
      All energy supplied from renewable sources (but not biomass).
      Transport powered by renewable energy, e.g. hydrogen.
      Solar powered distillation to supply fresh water.
      Buildings passively heated and cooled.
      More food grown in greenhouses.
      All waste products recycled.
      Education and health prioritized.

    2. Those are nice thoughts - but they still require complex infrastructure supported by a means of stored energy. And just WHO is going to do that/be employed?

      Some of us have self-regulated and chosen not to reproduce - but I cannot control others, without force. Education and health has been given large amounts of money in SE WI yet the ghettos and slums continue to proliferate. Here in Racine, WI (USA) they have special rooms in High Schools for underage single Moms to breast feed their babies - some "Progress".

      The Human species - as wide and diverse as we are - are merely detritivores always in search of another easy meal or source of energy. The conveniences of modern industrial civilization have made it so comfortable that the old, aged and infirm want to live forever - watching their TV's in endless entertainment. It is NOT sustainable - but that is now the dilemma in which we find ourselves - The Baby Boomers lived in an era of vast material wealth - cheap, abundant, and seemingly limitless energy supplies, and decadence. Decadent Rome on steroids - but *WAIT* with the Covid comes cheap energy supplies, yet once again - so we can have another blast from, the past - $20/bbl oil - available now at your local gas station until it is no longer available.

      The best outcome would be if Heaven rained limitless Manna down on us and we were all free to do what we want.

      For many of us - today is a Holy Day - celebrate as you will (or not). A gallon of gas - presented by the Kinks - Ugo willing to post - ? And yeah - the price is crashing - along with the Producers. I'm going to take a bicycle ride on my carbon fiber Motobecane and drink too much Whiskey.

  5. One of the biggest issues today is a majority of people do not accept we are in a carbon trap with path dependencies. They don’t understand what it takes for a finite planet to have 7BIL people with 1BIL consuming like kings. This is a catch 22 with no good outcomes at least at the macro level. Overshoot is what it is. There is no amount of happy faces one can put on that. As far as Gaia is concerned, I don’t think it is a big deal because Gaia works in balance with evolution but also succession and occasionally extinction. This is a planetary cycle governing life that humans put a human face on just like many picture a higher power with grey hair and a beard looking down on us. In my opinion Gaia has a very small human element because we are really small in the bigger picture. Yea, we changed the planet immensely in 10,000 years but so did cyanobacteria when it ruled. Personally, I think the human scale is going way down soon enough in historic time frames. Our stint as rulers in my opinion has a shelf life.

    Where these dynamics changes are at the individual and local level. Modern man has too many digital eyes and ears so we get caught up in the global and neglect the local. This is an occupational hazard an individual should try to manage but it is hard even for the best and brightest minds. We are trapped and facing severe consequences to a declining globalism in overshoot. These consequences will be global, local, and individual. They will very over time and place in a process with events. We as a global people need to be honest that the planet and the web of life are in succession and because of that adapt accordingly. In some ways this adaptation that many other historical eras faced is the same but also different. Now it is global and there is nowhere to migrate to where one can avoid it. Personally, I think not much has change for humans in some way but lots have changed in other ways in regards to how we face shocks. We have lots more resources to mitigate decline compared to previous times but what is now in such short supply is meaning. People had more meaning and less stuff to battle decline in the past. Today we have more stuff but less meaning. I think more meaning and less stuff is more advantageous. Today some people live like kings but inside they are empty and dead.

  6. "Today some people live like kings but inside they are empty and dead".

    Yep. The spiritual has been discarded -just a feature of Industrial Civilization.

    The Beatles said it long ago:

  7. "Fate is coming back. What do we do when no choice is good?"

    We pick one of the choices -- and accept the consequences with equanimity.

    I'm actually not sure if the word 'fate' is suitable for describing the predicaments facing us and facing folks like Orestes. In my understanding, something is 'fated' only if there is absolutely no way to change the course of events leading up to it. Is that the case with our current predicament -- and that of Orestes? Not sure about the latter, but as to the former, we were warned about the limits to our resources by people like Jimmy Carter and the Club of Rome back in the 1970s. I don't see why we couldn't have heeded the warnings and changed course then; it was only the denial of irresponsible jerks in positions of power and influence that prevented the change.

    (As for Orestes, hey, who stated that killing one's mum and dishonoring one's dad are both violations of 'sacred' rules under any circumstance? If, in Aeschylus' play, the gods could come together for a big debate on whether Orestes should be punished, then why couldn't they have in the first place written the rules in such a way as to allow for special situations in which killing one's mum or dishonoring dad might be acceptable -- as when one finds out that one's dad is Stalin, for example?)

    As for what we are to do when no choice is good, maintaining an inner serenity is a perfectly possible option. In the Hindu tale of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna faces a very difficult situation in which he must kill his very own kin in battle, who have turned evil. His charioteer Krishna, actually God in disguise (!!), counsels him: do it, but do it with peace in your soul; know that in the end I will always love you. A rather different outlook from the Greek plays, if you ask me. And why not?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)