Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Small deaths and the real death: how humans are failing

Guest post by Federico Tabellini

This article was originally published last year on the Italian blog ‘Effetto Cassandra’. I repropose it here because I think the coronavirus crisis has made it somehow more relevant. The current situation raises new questions: is this new crisis just another ‘small death’ on a much wider scale? Or is it an opportunity to highlight the global ecological crisis we’ve been ignoring for decades? If it’s the latter, will the lights turn off once the emergency is over? Will the world return once more to blissful ignorance?

Seneca used to say that death, real death, is a process  lived day by day. Yet people deal with the real death only when its effects come to a head when the proverbial last straw breaks the camel’s back, and the camel falls upon us with all its weight. Then, yes, we notice both the straw and the camel. Until then, however – or perhaps we should say, until now – the small deaths dominate our thoughts.

The difference between these small deaths and true death lies in three factors: spatial proximity, temporal proximity, and speed of execution. What's near worries us more than what's far, the present issues more than the future ones, the event more than the process. Such is human nature. We are biologically programmed to pay more attention to current events, the forthcoming ordeal, the tragedy that we can experience first-hand. We mourn the tree burning in the garden while the forest on the horizon is slowly eaten up by parasites.

The media and the political sphere, instead of compensating for this human weakness, inflate its effects. They concentrate on events because events have a wider audience. They sell more. On the front page, the terrible flood: 24 injured and 3 deaths. Facebook is grieving. The systematic accumulation of plastic in the oceans that risks compromising entire ecosystems forever? Page 15, after the sports section. On prime time, a special report on a local earthquake: six deaths and tens of people injured. At 2 a.m. a documentary on the sixth mass extinction: no meteorites this time, only pink apes with an insatiable hunger.

But it’s not our fault if the true death is slow and prosaic, boring, lacking dynamism. The media cannot be blamed if we struggle to stifle a yawn while looking at it. There are some who’ve tried hard to make it look more interesting. The most effective way is to transform it into an event: capture it in a dramatic instant, when it’s more photogenic, and present it as ‘news’. We’ve all seen the best snapshots: Earth Day, the latest fruitless international political meeting to fight climate change, Greta Thunberg. The most politically active among us took a step further to reverse the decline: they shared the news on Facebook. Unfortunately, their heroic efforts have yet to change the world.

And then there are the modern stage democracies [1], which function in more or less the same way. What matters here, again, is the audience. Politicians who propose short-term sectorial solutions to ephemeral problems – the small deaths – can reap rich rewards at the ballot box. Those who propose systemic solutions to hinder the deterioration of the ecosystems – the real death – are welcomed by a thunderous silence. The necessary complexity of such solutions, after all, is difficult to explain to an electorate concentrated on the here and now. It can’t be condensed into a TV interview, a tweet or a Facebook post. The fact that those solutions require time intervals much longer than those of a single political term to bear fruit doesn’t help, either. Proposing and implementing long-term solutions is simply not politically profitable.

‘But those solutions would save billions of lives in the coming centuries!’ 

Who cares? The men and women of the future cannot vote for the political leaders of the present. So let’s muddle on with yawn-proof marketing stunts! Preserving biodiversity in mountain areas? Useless, the most you’ll get is some praise from a few animal-rights activists. Instead, save a dog from a flooded area and tweet a picture with it. You too can become a national hero!

And this is how the world dies, you know? Not gunned down onstage, but one small piece at a time, far from the spotlights. In the meantime we, the pink apes, jump from event to event, like mosquitoes chasing lights around a Christmas tree. Imprisoned in the ephemeral. Absorbed in our little problems, or maybe fleeing from stress, seeking refuge in a shelter of entertainment and consumption. The camel is still standing, barely. For a few more years.

[1] The concept of ‘stage democracy’ and its profound effects on the political agendas of the states are explored in my book ‘A Future History of the 21st Century: how we overcame the crisis of civilization’.


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)