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

Sunday, May 24, 2020

How catalytic events change the course of history: From the 9/11 attacks to the coronavirus pandemic

The 9/11 attacks of 2001 are classic examples of  "catalytic events" that change the course of history. They can be seen as triggers for "Seneca Collapses," sudden and catastrophic, they are well described by Seneca's words, "the way to ruin is rapid." It is the way history moves: never smoothly but always in bumps. The most recent example of a catalytic effect of this kind is the current epidemic of coronavirus.

If you are a chemist, you know very well how catalysts can work small miracles: you had been trying for some time to have a reaction occur, without success, then you add a little pinch of something and - suddenly - things go "bang." In no time, the reaction is complete. Of course, as a chemist you know that catalysts don't really work miracles: all they can do is to accelerate reaction that would occur anyway. But that may be mightily useful, sometimes.

The concept of catalysis can be used also outside chemistry, for instance in politics. Let's go back to the year 2000, when the group of American neoconservatives identifying themselves as the "Project for a New American Century" (PNAC) issued a document titled "Rebuilding American Defenses." In that document, they argued that the American public could be led to accept a major shift of the available resources to military purposes only by means of "some catastrophic and catalyzing event like a new Pearl Harbor."

Surely, the PNAC members were highly successful with their plans, perhaps more than they themselves would have imagined. One year later, in 2001, the world saw the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and on other locations, providing exactly the "catastrophic and catalyzing event" they had invoked. It was Pearl Harbor again: a new attack on the American soil that catalyzed a strong reaction on the part of the American people. The result was that several of the PNAC proposals, such as a significant increase in military expenses, were adopted in the following years.

The PNAC may be credited for having proposed perhaps for the first time the concept of "catalyzing event" for a class of events that change the course of history. It is normal that human societies tend to resist changes, but changes are unavoidable. Small changes pile up until something gives way and the result is the big change called the "Seneca Collapse."

The oldest catalytic event in history may be the defeat of the Roman army at Teutoburg in 9 AD that generated a perennial state of war of the Empire on the Germanic peoples. In modern times, we may cite the sinking of the US "Maine" that started the US-Spain war in 1898. Then, the iconic fire of the Reichstag in Berlin, in 1933, that consigned Germany in the hands of the Nazi party. Many of these events are related to the current world empire, such as Pearl Harbor in 1941, that started the war on Japan, the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, that started the Vietnam war, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) in 2014 that started the ongoing economic war against Russia.

There have been many more incidents of this kind, in most cases in the form of military attacks, never serious enough to be an existential risk for the attacked side, but sufficient for an aggressive media campaign aimed at terrorizing people. The recent coronavirus epidemic has similar features. It was not a military attack, but it was surely a catalytic event that deeply changed society also with the help of an aggressive media campaign that succeeded at terrorizing everybody.

It is often said that these events are "false flags," that is, they are engineered by the attacked side with the specific purpose of creating a desired political change. Indeed, why should the attacker engage in provocation against a stronger adversary when that is likely to cause a strong reaction? Yet, actual proofs of false flag attacks for these events are rare. Even for the paradigmatic case of the Reichstag fire, often defined a false flag, we don't really know what role the Nazis exactly had in the story. Mostly, it seems that these events involve the opportunistic exploitation of a mistake. Pearl Harbor, for instance, was surely not a false flag but a gigantic strategic miscalculation on the part of the Japanese government. About the 9/11 attacks, there is a whole cottage industry engaged in describing them as having been perpetrated by forces controlled by the US government, but there is no proof that this was the case, nor that the PNAC could actually create the event they were hoping for. Even the Covid-19 virus, the culprit for the current pandemic, has been said to have been manufactured in a lab or spread on purpose by someone. Very unlikely, to say the least.

In any case, the "false flag" aspect of these events is a moot point, what counts is that they acted as catalysts for major changes that would have occurred anyway. In 2001, the American Empire was finding it more and more difficult to maintain its grip on its vast possessions worldwide because of rising costs and dwindling resources. The most obvious reaction was to increase military expenses, a typical evolution of most empires of the past. It was unavoidable and the 9/11 attacks provided the kind of push that was needed to trigger it. It matters little whether or not the attacks were organized by a mad sheik living in a cavern in Afghanistan.

Similar considerations hold for other catalytic events in history, but let's move to the current coronavirus epidemic. As a catalytic event, it is surely one, complete with the related aggressive campaign aimed at terrorizing the public. But what kind of change is it catalyzing? Chuck Pezhesky has correctly identified the epidemic as something "akin to a Dirac Delta, or Impulse function." Applying a Dirac function to a system is like whacking it with a hammer. The system oscillates in response and it shows its "natural" frequencies. There is no doubt that the coronavirus was a sledgehammer hitting society, what we are seeing are resonances scattering all over. In practice, everyone is trying to emphasize the frequencies they think are favorable to them. But, in this game, there are winners and losers.  

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, there were some attempts to emphasize some frequencies different than the main ones, such as proposing that the West should have been acting less aggressively toward Islamic countries. But these feeble attempts were rapidly swept away when the balance of power decisively moved in favor of the military-industrial complex. In the case of the coronavirus, something similar is going on, with various lobbies trying to frame the event in a favorable light for their specific economic interest. The fossil fuel industry, for instance, is asking the elimination of "useless environmental regulations" in order to "restart growth." The military-industrial lobby cannot claim that they can bomb the virus into submission, but they are using it as an excuse to make war on China.

But, overall, it is clear which frequency is resonating most intensely. It is the "new capitalism" of the Silicon Valley companies. Those who are benefitting from it are the communication industry, the surveillance industry, the e-commerce industry, and just about everything that involves virtual communication. It is Bill Gates' triumph over the Koch brothers, but not just that. It is a resonance that rings deep in many layers of society: we had been told many times that we had to get rid of fossil fuels, airplanes, private cars, and activities such as tourism, and more. That's exactly what the virus is forcing us to do, at least the way it has been interpreted by our governments.

But, again, as well known in chemistry, catalysts don't do anything by themselves: they just trigger unavoidable transformations. And if something is unavoidable, it means that one day or another it has to take place. It is what we are seeing.

There remains a question: why does history have to go in bumps? It is, of course, because we are unable to plan ahead and so the future always takes us by surprise. And the fact we can't plan ahead is also deeply ingrained in the way modern society works. The wonderful technologies that link everybody in virtual space won't make us better able to predict the future -- perhaps they'll have the opposite effect. And so we seem to be condemned to march toward the future as a ship that sails onward climbing great waves one after the other. Maybe we'll arrive to a safe harbor, someday, or maybe not.

A note from Ugo Bardi's personal troll, Mr. Kunning-Druger

So, Mr. Bardi, this time you are showing us that, in addition to being a climate warmunist, you are also a conspiracy theorist. Sure, you think you are clever by telling us that it is not so important that the 9/11 attacks were a false flag or not, but really, what you mean is that they were: you think it was a conspiracy, don't you? You and your climate alarmist gang are friends of Osama Bin Laden and of the Islamic terrorists who want to destroy the American way of life, all because they hate our freedom. And, now you and your gang are probably behind the attempt of using the coronavirus scare to lock Americans inside their homes and stripping them of their freedom in the name of the climate change scam. But we are resisting and our cure for the coronavirus has been developed by two doctors whose names are Smith and Wesson. Remember that!


  1. Marching into the future driven by our evolutionary history and imperative. Can we escape through cultural evolution?

  2. Hate to be the one to mildly disagree again Prof Bardi :).

    Of course you are right about catlyst events, I am not sure though, that this concept apllies to corona. I would say that these events need some (however weak) connection to an outside enemy to qualify for a "catalyst" as you call it.

    The american right tries to construct that enemy by blaming China for the virus, but it is just too ridiculus a proposition and nobody really falls for it (yet).

    There is, on the other hand, the concept of disaster capitalism as described by Naomi Klein in her book "shock doctrine". Disaster capitalism has been the favorite tool for class warfare by the rich and powerfull for many decades. After a natural(?) desaster strikes, social violence against lower classes often follows when elites use the disaster to further enrich themselfs on theyre misery

    A late example was the "cleansing" of poor New Orleans minority districts (lower 9th Ward) by real estate sharks in the Katrina aftermath.

    Certainly disaster capitalism and the catalysts you speak of are related but I think there are enough differences to conclude that they are two kinds of animals.

    While the catalysts (like 9/11) mostly are a tool to further the interests of the empire by giving some legitimacy to aggresive expansionist politics, disaster capitalism usually is a tool used by the elites to legitimise exploitation and marginalisation of lower classes.

    Sometimes, as in the case of 9/11, the disaster is used both ways, but that woud not be true for Pearl Harbour or the Tonkin incident.

    Right now I see more of disaster capitalism in the wake of corona, even if some imperialist/expansionist plans have moved along while the public eye has been turned away (attack on venezuela by US mercenary led "opposition" forces, attack on Kurds by Erdogan, ...)

    1. Nothing wrong with disagreeing on some (or even many) things. About Naomi Klein's definition of "disaster capitalism," I think it is more about making a lot of money out of people in distress, it is happening also with the coronavirus. But events such as the Katrina hurricane didn't cause the same sweeping political changes that events such as the 9/11 attacks generated. So, I think there are many similarities, but we have two different categories. A little like comparing a normal thunderstorm to a cat 5 hurricane, just to stay in theme!

  3. Here is Naomi Klein herself on disaster capitalism in times of corona:

  4. For those of you interested in Electric Power generation, this discussion with Irv Mills may be to your liking.


  5. A catalyst is rather generic. A false flag is a more specific type, and as you point out, it’s largely irrelevant whether the catalyst is categorized accurately within a subcategory to be effective and/or actionable. No doubt the world gets hammered repeatedly by events planned and unplanned. Again, it’s irrelevant which type of hammer is employed or whether the event is foreseen through thought experiment or scenario building. As with war, planning tends to go out the window with the first shots fired and improvisation takes over. However, some actors are clearly better positioned to maneuver in new improvisational spaces that open up. I agree with alien observer’s comment that this dynamic fits Klein’s shock doctrine. It’s more reactive and opportunist than provocational. So long as the character and motivation of opportunists in positions of power and influence are directed toward self-enrichment and -aggrandizement, we will continue to see the strong preying on the weak and the slo-mo destruction of socioeconomic and ecological systems until the final catalyst appears to take us all down.

    1. The effectiveness of the propaganda system we have developed is fabulous. Assume that -- just as a hypothesis -- Dick Cheney were to publicly confess on his deathbed that he had personally organized the 9/11 attacks. Would anything change in the public perception? I bet nothing would change. People would just disbelieve or ignore him. After all, did anything change when it was discovered that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

    2. Doesn't Italy have a long history of false flag "catalyst" events? Events like the Bologna massacre for which the left "brigade rosse" were first blamed but but then turned out to have been a false flag terrorist attack by fascists supported by the CIA?

      As long as secret agencies or organisations use real conspiracies to deceive the public, like the Bologne massacre, there is a good reason to suspect real conspiracies behind major events. Exactly because we know that such events are a very effective vehicle for mostly reactionary powers to control the public and further their interest (like the PNAC).

      A very successfull propaganda tactic is to through critical questioning of such catalyst events together with delusionary idiocy like flat earth theories. My "conspiracy theory" is that this tactic is being used to suppress critical questioning of such events.

      Right now that very same tactic is used to marginalize protests against disaster capitalism that here in germany have been labeled equal to right "flu clux clan" protesters.

      There is a war going on in our public space by different forces trying to claim to stand for "the truth". This has always been the case, but I cant help but feel that none of them actually care for the truth anymore. The lies that became so loud that hearing the truth has become more difficult than it ever was.

    3. It is a long story and, indeed, the Italian government was a pioneer in applying this tactic. For instance, in 1940, false flags were used as a routine part of the preparations to attack Greece. I discuss that here:

      Then, yes, there is a lot of false-flagging in modern Italian history. Some are extremely dramatic, such as the various massacres of innocent people that took place during the 1960s and 1970s. Right now, they are playing with a relatively innocent tactic to scare people into submission: giving great relevance in the media to minor incidents involving the local police sanctioning people for wholly innocent activities such as, say, sitting on a bench in a park, drinking a coffee in the street, or kissing one's girlfriend in public. It is a very simple game, but it does work. It sends the message "you are watched by the police." Scaring people works everytime

    4. It doesn't seem necessary to invision a conspiracy in this case. Plain old incompetance and criminal greed/lust for power seems like it is enough to turn a problem into a disaster...

    5. Not a conspiracy. A way of operating

    6. There is a name for that way of operating, its "Strategy of tension" :

    7. I think we can call it B.A.U. business as usual. And I think it is P.I.T past it's time.

    8. it seems strange, but it seems that behind both there is the peak of oil

  6. The Right for Humans to Understand What Energy Really Is - The Magna Carta-Overhauling Movement…

    Paralysing the quest for understanding nature and life in humans, similar to what happened under the Western Civilisation, promoting panacea Energy, Technology, Economics, Social Programming and War projects – is an extreme behavior of social-Darwinism, never seen in past Civilisations or in rest of the animal kingdom.

    Let The Magna Carta-Overhauling Movement resonate and grow – a seed for future humans to fight for – hard, nurture and progress.

  7. Thanks for an interesting post. I wonder about our missing ability to plan: obviously in a small temporal/spatial context planning works: I can plan my work projects etc. to some more or less satisfactory degree. Where is the point at which planning stops to work? Does it come from increasing complexity? And what could we do in modern society / technology to either make our planning better or to make structures more resilient against unwelcome surprises?

    1. That's an interesting point. It seems that a common way of operation for human beings is to ride one crisis after the other. (James Schlesinger: "humans have only two operating modes: complacency and panic). It works even at the individual level: people would quit smoking only after they experience a stroke or a heart attack. Sometimes I've wondered if it could be a good idea for the Surgeon General to set up a program of fake strokes to convince people to quit smoking. It would be a little invasive of people's privacy, sure, but it would save lives. But if people were able to plan, they won't need to be tricked in this way. So, what to say? It seems to be the way the universe works

  8. This is a terrible idea. It's patronizing and infringes on personal privacy and agency. I recognize in it not only the familiar ends-justify-means rationalization but also the flawed behaviorist notion of human perfectibility engineered through an endless loop of stimulus/response training. We don't even know how to optimize diet and accept all manner of distortion of the food supply (such as added sugar) because of profit-making incentives. Tackling "sins" like smoking, drinking, and drug use will lead only to resistance and criminality throughout the population. That lesson has already been learned.

    1. Yes, of course I wasn't proposing do do it for real! But if you notice the way cigarette packs are made, note that the Surgeon General uses scare tactics by showing images of sick people and the like. It is one of the many strategies of communication -- as many others, it can backfire badlu

  9. I'm having a hard time with the "terrorizing" description for the coronavirus. I know people who have suffered with it and a few who died. Killing 350,000 people worldwide in 2-3 months is not the flu. Most people are not stupid and act accordingly. Almost everything else in your post is really good. I just don't understand this position.

    1. I understand your point. Nobody says that the virus didn't kill people. It is the same for terrorism: nobody denies that there are crazed fanatics who kill others in the name of some distorted belief of theirs. The point I wanted to make is how the reaction to these dramatic events is predictable and, in many cases, exploited for purposes which have little or nothing to do with the events.

    2. "Exploited for purposes which have ...nothing to do with the events"This exactly. I was told that Amazon's sales exceeded $10000 US per second at the height of the US lockdown while all their competition was closed. ( didn't check it, doesn't matter). Amazon is publicly traded, your local hardware or clothing store is not. Elites own stock in Amazon. No coincidence?

    3. Yes, I mentioned Bill Gates in the post, but Jeff Bezos is the real winner!

  10. i agree. pre 'planet of the humans' most people on earth thought solar panels and ecars entirely made from petroleum could sustain forever an ever growing megacancer planet eating capitalist machine of 8 billion large hungry primates. now, nobody but all of the neoliberalist establishment and the ordinary normal man and woman believes it.

  11. catalyst events smell like junction events, and they sounds like the prepper acronym WTSHTF :-)

    .If italian politicians were not thieves and idiots, then Italy would be prepare for the threats of XXI°century. They did nothing, so the worst scenario is emerging (and it is too late, for avoiding the Punic Wars II in the Mediterranean area)

    .If Catholic church didn't fu*k up beyond any recovery the italian people's mind, then italian people would ask to politicians to prepare Italy for the threats of XXI°century.

    .If Renzi didn't pile €400 billions of pubblic debt in Italy 5 years ago, then nowdays things in Italy would be easier.

    italian politicians and this particular Catholic church are slaves of satan: everybody didn't want to prepare Italy for the XXI°century threats, so italian politicians and this particular Catholic Church planned for having the joy of marthyrdom of the italian people, and for having the worst scenario as a concrete reality.

    Italian people start to have their joy of marthyrdom in this months, and in the next decades of XX°Century, things will turn from bad to worse, because italian politicians and this particular Catholic church didn't prepare Italy for the threats of XXI°century, but italian politicians and Catholic church planned for having the joy of marthyrdom of the italian people.

    Not only italian politicians and this particular Catholic Church are slave of satan, infact:

    .If Juncker didn't write bullsh*t into the white paper for future of Europe on March 2nd 2017, then Europe would have CED=European Community of Defence.

    .If Von der Leyen didn't say bullsh*t into her opening dialogue on december 1st 2019, then Europe would have CED=European Community of Defence program.

    Italy is passing through a junction event/catalyst event, and the worst context is emerging: Clone Events and Early Warning Signals are showing exactly that for long time. So there is nothing new, under the sun!.

    Even if it is virtually possible, I think it is very unlikely Italy sells Sicily and Sardinia to kock down the italian pubblic debt. So there are 2 exits only, because Italy can't live of its pubblic debt as it did since 1980.

    a)Default or massive Haircut of the italian pubblic debt into the Euro area: this collapse will not dissolve the Euro area, but it will turn Italy into a fuc#ing peones contry, unable to protect its people and its national interests.

    b)ITALExit will mean hyper inflation crisis, and the dissolution of the italian nation into a New Middle Age, because the XXI°century context is not the 1970s context of XX°century.

    1. While I think there are real grievances you speak of, more self reflection would be nice. Italy has an upper layer of rich and corrupt people (like Berlusconi), but they could not exist without a majority of italians supporting them willingly.

      These rich people are a problem and mafia is a problem but they exist because italians produced them. Its not that a majority of italians wanted a progressive party to prepare italy for the 21st century. In the recent decades elections italians voted only reactionaries. By idiotic default they voted the people that blamed others for their misery rather than taking actions.

      Dont get me wrong, italians are no different than others. In general, the disenfranchised and frustrated loosers of neoliberalism turned to rightwing gangsters everywhere, and often voted them into office.

      Blaming the catholic church wont help italy, just as blaming immigrants wont help. Your solutions also only blame others instead of really questioning the status quo.

      There is a systemic problem at the heart of this crisis but systems are hard to change. To do so, you will probably need a catalyst, just as Prof Bardi says. But good news, there is an opportunity right now to change the system.

      There is a famous song by Germanies greatest punk band "Die Ärzte" that says: "Its not your fault that the world is as it is, its just your fault if it stays that way."

    2. Sorry I don't speak german, only italian, english and french.

      The italian financial collapsing is matter of italian massive pubblic debt, it is not matter of Punic War II.
      Instead the italian financial collapsing will define for sure, the initial conditions of Mediterranean area for the XXI°Century, where che reasons of Punic Wars II will detonate somewhere in the 2030s or somewhere in the 2040s or 2050.

      Eurobond Corona bond MES: la cicala e le formiche!

  12. I had mentioned Michel Foucault several times in discussions here, and there are certainly some thoughts on this that Foucault might add.

    In Discipline and Punish Foucault basically argues that the bubonic plague has been the catalyst for our modern form of government.
    The measures taken against the spreading of the bubonic plague he says, have been a complete imposition of political power over the population and, concretely, over the individuals into which this population can be divided. Since then division has been one of the primary tools of power. I just learned recently that the modern passport and the division of the worlds inhabitants in nationalities was an invention of the spanish flu.

    The plague (says faucault) is “the marvelous moment when political power is exercised to the full”: “Plague is the moment when spatial partitioning and subdivision … of a population is taken to its extreme point, where dangerous communications, disorderly communities, and forbidden contacts can no longer appear. The moment of the plague is one of an exhaustive sectioning … of the population by political power, the capillary ramifications of which constantly reach the grain of individuals themselves, their time, habitat, localization, and bodies.” (Michel Foucault, Abnormal)

    Social distancing has already been very successfull in stopping any "upward" political discourse. It has made organizing and protesting extremely difficult and is being instrumentalised in a many places (i.e. in Hungary) for eroding democracy.

    Even as we learn that solidarity and mutual help are the tools most powerful against the virus (and any other form of disaster), we have to be especially vigilant of efforts to seperate us politically. This is not a conspiracy theory but a very real threat.

  13. « There remains a question: why should the story unfold in spurts? This is, of course, because we are not able to plan in advance and the future always takes us by surprise. »
    Perhaps it is simply because people have been occupying functions for a long time that they do not have the skills, and therefore that nothing and no one is more where it should be normally?
    The important thing is not in the event, but to know by whom, why and how the event happened.
    There are naive people who believe that history is the exact account of the facts of the past. They seem to ignore that the world has long been ruled by lies and that the disorder of today's society is the consequence.
    It is curious to study how this order of things began, what were the motives for the first desired errors, and which men, the first, had the audacity to write them.
    At all times, and even today, there have been parties which, wishing to seize a power to which they were not entitled, based their claims on an idea, a system, a religious theory or social, which they propagated by violence, by fraud or by cunning. Two means were used in particular to remove the annoying testimonies of the splendor of the regime that had come to overthrow: the destruction and alteration of the texts.
    It is the beginning of the reign of man, and therefore of official history to teach (obligatorily).
    Remember, and this may shock the most misogynistic, but, all over the Earth, in turn, women and men have dominated.
    Also, here is the truth that should not be remembered:
    The era of destruction opened in the 8th century. The date is even specified: it began in 747 BCE, that is to say at the time when the priestly class was formed.
    A king of Babylon named Nabou-Assar, filled with fanatic pride and irritated by the praise he intended to lavish on the previous regime, imagined that it was enough to make his trace disappear in history to fill the universe with its name and make its domination legitimate. He had all the inscriptions erased, all the brass tables broken, and all the papyri burned. He wanted the time of his accession to the throne to be the one that began history. And this idea was to triumph; history before the male regime had to be erased for a long time.
    We know that a similar idea came to the Romans who destroyed the books of Numa which certainly contained facts which made known the previous regime still existing in its time.
    The memory of such an event is perpetuated in India. We know enough that it took place in China and that the emperor Tsinchi-hoang-ti went even further than Nabou-Assar, forbidding under pain of death to keep no literary monument before his reign.
    This system remained in the habits of all the conquerors, of all the usurpers, it even took formidable proportions in modern religions.
    Let us not forget that the famous Library of Alexandria was burned three times, that the Christian popes had destroyed a large number of ancient monuments, that the archives of Mexico and those of Peru disappeared to satisfy the fanatic zeal of a Spanish bishop.
    The emblematic example of Catholicism which, by a striking antithesis, is called "a religion", while its work was the collapse of "LA RELIGION": 07 / originsethistoireduchristianisme.html
    No particular complaint against Christianity in general because all the other religions (Judaism, Islam, etc.) which are based on universal ignorance, have all undergone the same alterations, and lying has since triumphed.



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)