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’.


  1. It follows that the inhabitants of a very advanced alien civilization would have evolved to think in long term time scales, unlike our short term tendencies. I wonder if this will happen on earth?

    1. I think that despite our natural shortcomings, we could build institutional systems that make us take the long term into consideration. The concept of 'faceless democracy' proposed in my book is one of such systems. If you are interested, the pdf version of the book is currently available for free: http://federicotabellini.com/en/the-pdf-version-of-the-book-is-now-available-for-free/

  2. I am pretty optimistic that it is possible to adapt to longterm pressures as a society. The Indian holy cows are a great example how even the greatest short term interest (hunger) can be held in check for long term benefits. As anthropologist Marvin Harris describes, indian plow agriculture harvests are depending on the cows for plowing the fields. In times of crop failure, hungry indians could eat the cows instead of starving, but without the cows there would be now ploughing and now harvests in the future. So a strong tabu against eating cows has developed in indian society to guarantee long term survival of civilisation.

    We would just need as strong tabus against burning fossil fuels or deforestation to stop impacting our climate. Maybe we already see this developing right now with Gretas movement. Tabus need no arguments and no discussion, just immense social pressure. Our Planet should be our holy cow.

  3. Federico, I don't disagree with your assessment of the predicament that our civilization faces - an incompatibility of time and spatial scales between necessary solutions and animal (for that is what we are) processes. But I'm not sure that your implicit remedy is realistic. In your book you highlight the importance of the informed voter. Someone who is knowledgeable and engaged. I used to share this view, but a friend of mine disagreed emphatically (he has since died, but he was a very skilled and talented engineer who had lived and worked in many countries, so I take his views seriosuly). As an example of a well-educated, economically secure (at least by global standards) population he offered Germany. He also pointed out that the decisions that Germany has made in regards climate action are demonstrably counter-productive at least in the medium term, which is the timescale that matters – your book is set in 2097 afterall. For example, the phasing out of nuclear has increased dependency on brown coal, which will now not be phased out until mid-2030's to be replaced by gas; this is coupled with embracing socially regressive roof top solar. So in my opinion, the problem that you highlight runs deeper than the interaction of the socio-economic environment and the democratic process. I don’t have an answer, but I am reminded of a short story by Isaac Asimov call Franchise. In this future, instead of universal suffrage (as envisaged by many utopians), Asimov imagines the ultimate reductive opinion poll: one carefully selected person who is in some way representative of the population is interviewed at length, and then the mood and intentions of the people as a whole are extrapolated. Maybe this is a more realistic pathway? But it sounds dangerously like autocracy, albeit mediated by computer. But actually this is as much a fantasy as the universally enlightened voter since there is a benevolent overseeing AI, who effectively protect us from ourselves as a parent would a child. I am also reminded of what William Nutall pointed out in his book Nuclear Renaissance - people want a reduction in fear not a reduction in risk. This I think touches on the reality that what is needed is for people to emotionally, rather than intellectually, accept the right path. And that comes back to a charismatic leader, regardless of the political process.

    1. Open the pod bay doors Hal.

    2. Thank you for this comment Craig! Germany does not fit in the definition of an informed, educated electorate. Of course there are many informed and educated people in germany, but they are not the majority. Compared to the population of other countries, Germany might have more people that are well informed, but that is not enough. Also, this could easily change in a few years, because it is not the inevitable result of the way the german political system is structured. So the example of Germany does not disprove my point, simply because Germany has not implemented the system I describe in my book. Also, in my book I make it clear that such a system alone is not sufficient to spur a change. Other elements that are essential are, among others: a radical change in the education system, a change (i.e. a reduction) in the time allocated to work (together with an economic safety net that makes it socially achiavable without compromising aggregate wellbeing), several economic reforms (described in the book).

      As for this idea:

      "one carefully selected person who is in some way representative of the population is interviewed at length, and then the mood and intentions of the people as a whole are extrapolated"

      It really sounds like a dictatorship, but I am not sure I fully understand what you mean. Anyway, there are of course many solutions that might be politically more 'realistic' than mine in the current cultural environment. The question is: are these solutions desirable? Most 'realistic solutions' sacrifice people's wellbeing. In my opinion the real challenge is preserving people's wellbeing on the long term AND saving the planet. Also, being a libertarian I really think that wellbeing should include things such as civil righs, human rights and political rights. All these these things are also deemed essential in Martha Nussbaum's capabilities approach, whose definition of wellbeing is the main (unstated) definition frame I use in my book.

  4. In the Indic traditions, the great death is to be sought; after it (if the little death does not occur simultaneously with it) there is only one more little death.
    The "I-ness" is the last vestige of the phantasm of plurality in which it identifies as separate from the "not-I". The "I" recognizes "mine" and "not-mine", and incorporates spatio-temporal phenomena into the "I". The recognittion of the "I-ness" as phantasm with no reality of its own is extinguishment and is referred to as "The Great Death".



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)