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

Monday, April 13, 2020

Resignation and optimism on the brink of the apocalypse

Guest post by Federico Tabellini

Despite the misleading title, I will not talk to you today about the coronavirus, but of that other, far more insidious crisis that we cannot hope to solve with a vaccine. The global ecological crisis: a crisis in which we are the virus. I would like to share with you some brief reflections on human agency, human nature and their relationship with the possibility of a sustainable society. I know, philosophical stuff – but with very practical implications. 

The idea for this article came from a series of conversations I recently had with a reader of my book ‘A Future History of the 21st Century: How We Overcame the Crisis of Civilization’. The text debates the nature of the current socio-economic system, and analyses which of its structural elements constitute obstacles to our transition to a sustainable society. It then discusses how we could potentially overcome those obstacles, focusing on specific economic, institutional and political reforms. All of this while avoiding the well-known trap into which many Degrowth theorists still fall today, which can be summarized by the dead end idea that bottom-up change is the only way out of the crisis, and that to change the world we first need to change ourselves. In short, this is a dead end idea because it cannot be translated into concrete policies. Conversely, to be carried out successfully, a bottom-up change requires a top-down change that facilitates and supports it. In other words: institutional, political and economic reforms.
After this necessary introduction, let’s get to the core topic of the article. The reader I spoke of earlier agrees with the book’s analysis of our current situation and acknowledges that the solutions proposed could produce the desired transition to a sustainable steady-state economy. However, he argues that human nature will never allow us to implement those changes. In other words, not only can human beings not change themselves – they can’t even change the very institutions they created. And this is not an unlikely change either, he claims, but an absolutely impossible one. This is the same as saying that we are trapped in a car that is heading speedily towards a ravine, with a functioning brake in easy reach of our hands, but sadly we are programmed not to pull it.
To put it another way, the problem is not to be found in a defect of the hardware (our hands) or in the resilience of the system (the car), but rather in the software code (our head). The software, he argues, is programmed for accumulation, for a growth without limits and without purpose, for constant acceleration. These things are not cultural constructs, but rather inalienable characteristics of human nature.
He then proceeds to claim, based on fringe clyodynamic theories – which he of course accepts as undisputable scientific proofs – that history demonstrates this; that civilizations have always grown until they could, and when they stopped doing so, they without exception collapsed. The only solution, he concludes, is exactly that: collapse. A non-solution. Worse still: to embrace the very idea that a solution is not possible. That we cannot pull the brake. That we cannot change direction. That we need to give up and accept that we are going to fall into the ravine, and die along with the system. Not everybody, of course. Those of us that will survive will have the chance to start again, little by little, from down there, the slow climbing of the cliff. Only this time with fewer resources. And this ad infinitum, with our heads forever preventing us from learning from the mistakes of the past: until the final suicide.
Of course – I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now – I do not agree that this is the unavoidable destiny of our species. I do acknowledge, however, that we are indeed genetically programmed for accumulation and growth, and that we are not programmed to individually impose limits to ourselves. We get immediate pleasure from accumulation, while the most we get from limits is a kind of long-term serenity. To obtain the latter we need effort and perseverance, while to accumulate more and more, we just need to follow our instincts.
In other words, starting from a clean sheet and without culture, we tend to long for growth. To have more, to produce more, to do more. What I do not agree with is that our culture has to strengthen this inclination, and cannot instead compensate for it, for everyone’s sake.
Let me be clear: contemporary global culture intensifies these human tendencies more than any other culture that preceded it. The fact that we live inside this culture makes us see it as the most natural outcome of human nature, just as the ancient romans thought of their own culture as the peak of human civilization. Neither they nor we were right, of course. In the same way as we constrained our human tendencies to indulge in gratuitous violence, and no longer slaughter slaves in an arena, so people in the future can stop growing their production and consumption beyond the carrying capacity of the ecosystems. What allows us to do this is human agency: the ability to change our culture and our institutions based on what we think is right. In this case, what is right for most people (including the author of this article) is to increase the lifespan of the human race on this planet, and make sure that life is worth living for future generations.
In this sense, we should note that our current situation involves never before seen elements that work in our favour. Here are some of the most significant:
1.      Today, for the first time in history, we know that our socio-economic model is environmentally unsustainable, and that a change is necessary (although there is currently no complete agreement on what type of change we need, or how to produce it).
  1. Today, for the first time in history, the entire world is interconnected, and can potentially discuss shared solutions (although coming to an agreement is not as easy as we hoped).
  2. Modern technologies make producing the goods and services essential to human survival more efficient. We produce and consume too much, but each unit we produce and consume has a lower impact on the environment compared to the past.
  3. It is now a consolidated fact that beyond certain levels of consumption, further consumption does not equal more well-being for human beings.[1] We already passed those limits, which means that a reduction of our per-capita consumption would not produce a reduction in aggregate well-being.
There is also historical evidence that points towards the possibility of complex social models that are not based on the relentless accumulation of material goods.
There have been entire communities in Asia and Africa that for centuries lived in societies in which the individual accumulation of material goods was socially sanctioned. These are examples of instances in which culture compensated nature, producing ecologically sustainable social models as a result.
Thus, the real fundamental question is not whether it is possible to build a sustainable society, but rather whether it is possible to do so without sacrificing the fundamental values of the West and people’s well-being. If by ‘fundamental values of the West’ we mean things such as human rights and political and civil liberties, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ (you can find a demonstration of this in my book). If we instead mean unchecked capitalism and a lawless market, then the answer is ‘realistically, no’.
However, we do not need to ask history to know this, because history does not include the full range of possible futures. If there is a constant in human history, it is novelty. The creation of new things that constantly confute the idea that history is destined to repeat itself. History is not the full toolbox we have at our disposal to build our future. Many things that exist today did not exist before. These things are as varied as computing technologies and the internet, but also liberalism, the state of law, and human rights. We also, for the first time, live in a full world, without new frontiers to exploit. Human history has always been a history of exploitation because, among other things, there was an abundance of resources to exploit; now we are consuming (far) more than what nature produces. The situation has changed, and there is no reason to believe that we cannot change also. Before we did not need to change. Now we do. The very fact that we can see this as a problem is a relatively new thing, and a hint that we have the power to solve it.
My reader, however, appears to be blind to the very possibility of change, any change. This is because he draws his arguments not from history, but from an interpretation of history. A highly deterministic interpretation that excludes human agency. Doing so, he looks at the forest as an actor independent from the trees it is made up of. In this way, culture becomes an entity separated from people, which controls them as a puppet master. It has its own will, or moves as if it had one. There is no way we can control it. And even when it looks like we are in control, in reality we are just executing its directives. It is not the trees that make up the forest; it is the forest that makes up the trees.
Conversely, my position is one shared by most social scientists: the forest makes up the trees and at the same time, the trees make up the forest. The influence is mutual. Under certain historical conditions, it is mostly the forest that shapes the life of the trees. It decides where they lay roots, where they extend their branches, where they spread their seeds. In times of uncertainty and crisis, however, the trees can shape the life of the forest. They can shape which direction it expands. Whether it grows or retreats. If it provides sufficient nourishment for the living beings that inhabit it.
In a similar fashion, human beings are not slaves to their culture, although going against it, to change it, requires a considerable effort. An effort that the majority will not want to undertake unless they perceive it as absolutely necessary. Unless – and this is the main message I want to pass here – they believe that a change is possible.
Such a change is not likely to occur spontaneously, without direction. Most great changes in history have occurred when capable and innovative leaders (not only politicians, but also intellectuals) come together with a mass of people united by a common goal. A mass that starts small, but little by little grows until it reaches the critical threshold necessary to spark a change. This happened with women’s rights, with workers’ rights, with the liberal-democratic model, with communist revolutions, with Nazism. Change is not always positive. But it is almost always possible.
This does not mean it is probable. Often it is not. Today I think it is not probable. But it is possible. And this is really, really important. Another thing is important: change becomes more probable if we believe it possible. If the ideas of my aforementioned reader spread, change would become less probable: a self-fulfilled prophecy that could condemn our race (and others, too) to a dreadful future.
It is true: human beings are, to a certain extent, programmed by genes and culture. But they can also reprogram culture. Often they can only do this indirectly, like when the standard working day was reduced to 8 hours (an institutional reform). This produced more free time for individuals, which in turn translated into a proliferation of new activities, giving birth, among other things, to the entertainment industry and sport (previously, sport had been something that only athletes and nobles engaged in).
In conclusion, between my reader and myself there is both agreement and disagreement. We agree that the world is hurrying towards a ravine. We disagree on the possibility of pulling the brake. I firmly believe that resignation is the worst enemy of change. It paralyzes us. And I believe that optimism is needed more, not less, on the brink of an apocalypse. If we want to produce a positive change in the world, we need to look at the ravine with a smile on our lips, but also – and especially – with rolled up sleeves and our brains at work. It may be highly unlikely that we will be able to pull the brake. Nonetheless, we have the moral obligation to try. Success might not be probable, but it is surely possible. And this possibility, being rooted in the present and not in the past, is something that no deterministic interpretation of history will ever be able to disprove.

[1] See, for example, D. G. Blanchflower, A. J. Oswald, Well-being over time in Britain and the USA, in “Journal of Public Economics”, 88 (2004), pp. 1359-1386; R. Layard, S. Nickell, G. Mayraz, The marginal utility of income, in “Journal of Public Economics”, 92:8/9 (2008), pp. 1846-1857; D. Kahneman, A. Deaton, High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being, in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America”, 107:38 (2010), pp. 16489-93; E. Proto, A. Rustichini, A Reassessment of the Relationship between GDP and Life Satisfaction, in “PLoS ONE”, 8 (2013).


  1. Are you resigned to a quadrupled human population of 8 billion -achieved in one century- increasing perhaps another 50% this century? The world simply accepts this growth which is destroying the planet and many civilizations. We're obviously as smart as yeast. How shall we reverse this plague?

  2. As Mr. Tabellini mentioned in this article: there used to be many indigenous societies that followed rules to preserve the ecosystems they depended on. Western culture is not the only one possible.

    1. Industrial Civilization vs. Spiritual Civilization.

      How were the Megaliths built -

      And define for me 'Western Culture' I wold argue that it is based upon Central Banks lending at interest - fiat money.

      Do you believe that is long term sustainable?

    2. Western culture is based on uncontrolled exploitation of the worlds resources, and has temporarily escaped any population constraints by using fossil fuels and technology. Now that pollution and a declining ecosystem are starting to apply constraints, we will be forced to adopt a more restrained culture, similar to old indigenous cultures that were constrained by their ecosystems. Hopefully an equilibrium will be not too painfully established by using our intelligence, rather than a painful transition driven by instinct. If the human tendency towards communal cooperation triumphs over the tendency towards tribal conflict, then the new culture will be long term sustainable.

    3. And as for Eastern Culture - especially the CCP and the former USSR?

      WE have been fighting amongst ourselves for thousands of years - each group fighting for supremacy over resources. I'm not really sure that Humans can come to agreement on communal cooperation - but then again - we shall see what evolves.

  3. It can be difficult to find - but I still believe that Jay Hanson got it all Right.

    RIP Jay - who died in a diving accident -in his old age.

  4. A very nicely argued post from Federico! A very pertinent topic and Federico's treatment gives oxygen and succour to a type of optimism seemingly always in danger of suffocation.

  5. I suggest to take into those stuffs

    Arctic impacts on Weather and Food: How do we mitigate the effects?

    The Climate Crisis

    Global Warming and Collapse of Civilization

    Is the Gulf Stream Slowing? The answer is YES!

    Survivable IPCC projections RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 are science fiction: reality is far worse!

    Science for Alaska Lecture Series, prof. Vladimir Romanovsky

    The Russian Far East as a Regional Actor in Asia

    1. So - basically you are arguing for Climate Change based upon natural actions vs an Overpopulated Planet (?} coupled with that of a Overbearing Urban Population which is over whelming and limitlessness increases of Human Civilization does not apply = due to seemingly cheap and endless supplies of stored energy?

      Much of those cheap resources supplied from then Third world pays down current debt demanded by the modern money lenders.

    2. @ TSE April 14, 2020 at 12:58 PM
      Sorry guys, it is too late for fixing african demographic bomb and climate change damages in Africa, and all problems producted by those two strictly entagled factors: Punic Wars II in the Mediterranean area are already unavoidable.

      Italian people will not survive at the XXI century because of Punic Wars II; Italy will be one, of the many nations in the world that it will collapse in this century, as limits to growth's paper foresee before the 2070s.

      In Asia WWIII is probable, but for the moment WWIII is not ineluctable: if Russia sell Siberia in many parts to China, India, Pakistan-Bangladesh, Iran, it will be theoretically possible to avoid the WWIII in Asia.

      Have a nice day

  6. From Soylent Green:

  7. Agreed: "There is also historical evidence that points towards the possibility of complex social models that are not based on the relentless accumulation of material goods'.

    And what are the "Fundamental Values of the West"

    It seems to be - He who dies with the most Toys wins.

    How were many of the Ancient Monuments of history built? by forced labor? or Magic? Today we can't do what the Ancients did - yet we are told to believe that enough forced labor did it. Really?

  8. 2010.09.18. "Human Devolution" Michael Cremo - Riga, LATVIA

    A Talk relevant to these times:

    Human Chromosome 2:

    Since the mid-1800s, biologists have generally shared the belief that all living things descended from a single common ancestor. Based on fossil evidence and comparative anatomy, Charles Darwin proposed that humans and great apes–which include chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans–share a common ancestor that lived several million years ago. More recent research has propped up Darwin's theory of common descent (also called common ancestry): genome analysis reveals the genetic difference between humans and chimps to be less than 2 percent. In other words, humans and chimps have DNA sequences that are greater than 98 percent similar.

    While the genetic similarity between human and ape strengthened Darwin's theory, a significant, unexplained discrepancy remained. While great apes all have 48 chromosomes (24 pairs), humans have only 46 (23 pairs). If humans and apes shared a common ancestor, shouldn't both have the same number of chromosomes in their cells?

    The phases through which chromosomes replicate, divide, shuffle, and recombine are imperfect, as DNA is subject to random mutations. Mutations do not always produce harmful outcomes. In fact, many mutations are thought to be neutral, and some even give rise to beneficial traits. To corroborate Darwin's theory, scientists would need to find a valid explanation for why a chromosome pair is missing in humans that is present in apes.

    A fundamental part of the process by which science is done involves developing a testable prediction, also known as a hypothesis. Scientists offered two possible explanations for the discrepancy: Either the common ancestor had 24 pairs, and humans carry a fused chromosome; or the ancestor had 23 pairs, and apes carry a split chromosome. Their focused research led them to find a mutation on one human chromosome that explained what had happened.

    In 2005, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published results of the tests. It turns out that chromosome 2, which is unique to the human lineage of evolution, emerged as a result of the head-to-head fusion of two ancestral chromosomes that remain separate in other primates. Three genetic indicators provide strong, if not conclusive, evidence of fusion. First, the banding (or dye pattern) of human chromosome 2 closely matches that of two separate chromosomes found in apes (chimp chromosome 2 and an extra chromosome that does not match any other human chromosome). Second, a chromosome normally has one centromere, or central point at which a chromosome's two identical strands are joined. Yet remnants of a second, presumably inactive centromere can be found on human chromosome 2. And third, whereas a normal chromosome has readily identifiable, repeating DNA sequences called telomeres at both ends, chromosome 2 also has telomere sequences not only at both ends but also in the middle.

    But of course - I could be wrong.....

    1. And so Adam and Eve became into existence, not with the aid of a missing rib or missing penis bone, but as a mislaid, fused chromosome. The earliest phenotype feature of these aberrant apes, of departure from ape-dom, in the fossil record, seems to be upright stance, walking ability, with musculo-skeletal changes to spine, pelvis, legs and feet, changing the entire anatomy with respect to gravitational force direction. This could be accompanied by such a major rearrangement of chromosomal blueprints.

  9. I like the social sanity arguments and hopes expressed by Federico Tabellini, and wondered how such amazing stability might arise from today's global multisystems train-wrecks in progress, particularly the momentum of our massively rapid global heating, and biodiversity ecosystems collapse. We are absolutely dependent on complex biological systems to maintain our life supports, which we get to find out for sure after they are gone.
    I pondered at the identity of the "reader". I might have been me, but my next thought picked Ugo Bardi, our very significant collapse theorist, as I prefer to be a non-significant, un-historical nobody. Human social systems revolutions happen with directly experienced crisis, like right now, which display the bankruptcy of all current notions. And so the rapidly changing now displays both systems collapse, and consequent behavioural change adaptions. I expect that seeking and temporary achievement of new systems of survival stability cannot happen without the initial break-down train wrecks or collapse of the old ones.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. The reader is not Ugo Bardi, but I will not reveal his identity for privacy reasons (these conversations were private). Now, regarding your thoughts about collapse and change: I think that a crisis is indeed needed, but this is not the same as a complete collapse of the system. A crisis can create opportunities for structural reforms. And structural reforms are always more efficient (and often more rational) than revolutions. In my book I explain in detail what I mean by structural reforms. You can read the pdf version for free here if you are interested:

  10. "I expect that seeking and temporary achievement of new systems of survival stability cannot happen without the initial break-down train wrecks or collapse of the old ones".

    So the Phoenix arises from the ashes.

    And to consider:

    "The Om (or Aum) is said to be the "sound" of cosmic creation that occurs throughout the universe. It is described in Hindu and Buddhist teachings and texts and many claim to hear it during meditation. In the context of the ancient physics of subquantum kinetics, it may be interpreted as the constant fluctuation of the ether substrates that extend throughout the universe and underlie our physical wave-like existence. This vibrating ether may be be compared to a choppy sea, or to the white noise snow many have seen on an untuned analog TV set. Subquantum kinetics predicts the existence of such a cosmic vibration as a collective of minute energy impulses, each of which is a momentary localized ether concentration pulse (or energy pulse) imparted when an etheron changes from one state to another either through a transmutation or reaction process. There may be an infinite number of such ether states in this possibly endless journey through ether states deployed through the higher dimension of space, but we have no way of knowing for sure. We can only hypothesize with some certainty that our universe exists at a particular juncture in this river of transformation, a flux that extends both "above" and "below" our physical plane".

    Just remember - that we who live on Planet Earth are moving from the Age of Pisces - to that of Aquarius. Look to a more spiritual solution - because the formerly rich physical resources on Earth are running out. Those physical resources will either be doled out based upon need - to responsible Citizens - or consumed in haste by a species gone wild. Either - OR - and the resources are diminishing.

    What is your choice?

  11. I really do think a very important part of the whole problem is a total lack of recognition of the spiritual in the modern West -- and for that matter the entire modern world, considering the influence of the West today on the rest of the world. As Dostoevsky said (yes, he really said it), "without God, everything is permitted." (And by God we don't have to narrowly limit ourselves to the Abrahamic conception of God, which is basically bankrupt.) In discarding all religion during the so-called Age of Reason and Enlightenment, the West basically threw out the baby of genuine spiritual pursuit with the bathwater of religious dogma. The result is that we see the world around us as devoid of value and meaning, as so many billiard balls flying around in a void. And we are now free to indulge in any form of depravity we like; there's no Higher Power to guide us in what we say, do and think.

    If there's to be any serious change to our global predicament, the problem spelled out above must surely be addressed. People like the contemporary American philosopher-theologian David Ray Griffin are addressing it. And I think the rest of us need to look at it too.

  12. Good post. The first "optimists" thesis I can live with in a long time. Probably because he's more of a lucid realist with a burning seed of angst inside, like the one inside my own gut, that's compelling him to yell that -- yes we're positioned for a disorderly and very disagreeable collapse, but our accumulated knowledge, know how and capital contains all the ingredients to engineer a descent in a surprisingly non-fatally debilitating way, despite the unavoidable hardship.
    In my opinion as a professional Doomer [and 12 years in the business is nothing to sneeze at ;-)], to do so will require nothing short of taking the stupid and the violent, out of capitalism.
    Very few people understand the underpinnings of that system, because the history of economic thought has been removed from the curriculum in most universities. After 2008, we've seen a few reintroduction of it here and there, but from what I understand, it's not the norm.
    The root cause of much of that impetus to grow comes from the political structure evolved to manage land without without the ability to control births.
    'Land rent' is still a taboo subject, relegated to the "pretend to be resolved" case drawer. Pay the rent, or hit the street. If no means of sustenance afflicts your locality, the system is programmed to uproot you ... and then, in Western countries, a variety of short term assistance have been introduced over time to cushion the threat, but **when push comes to shove** , you pay the rent or you hit the street ... yet one has to be reminded that we are free.
    Surplus people can earn their keep with a "make-work project" -- whether they be provided by governments or by markets should ultimately not matter much.
    The social engineering feat the next system will have to achieve will be to maintain a minimum of capacities, but also provide an orderly system of work & participation in the most primal of human necessities: food, clothing & shelter and health.
    If they did n o t h i n g else , make'em grow food, sew the clothing, maintain the buildings and care for the sick and the old.
    We would need an explicit social contract coupled with an honest education system, and the uprooting threat would have to end.
    Since chaos is debilitating and nobody wants nor wins anything out of it, I consider this solution to have made itself obvious in the past weeks...



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)