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

Friday, July 10, 2020

On the Edge of the Cliff: We need a new way of seeing the world

A new blog by Ugo Bardi, "The Proud Holobionts"

Long-term predictive models don't have a very good record, but some turned out to be prophetic. One case is that of Hubbert's 1956 prediction of a peak in the production of fossil energy shortly after the start of the 21st century. He was optimistic about the possibility of replacing fossil fuels with nuclear energy, but, apart from that, he was right on target. Now we are on the edge of the cliff and we have to take a different attitude toward the ecosystem that supports our existence. The concept of "Holobiont" may help us a lot in this task. We are holobionts, the ecosystem is a larger holobiont, we must find a way to live together. 

The American geologist Marion King Hubbert deserves the credit of having been the first to see the main trends of the 21st century, nearly 50 years before it were to start. In his 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, he presented the figure above: a bold attempt to place the human experience with energy on a 10,000 years scale.

Of course, Hubbert was overly optimistic about nuclear energy which, in reality, started declining decades before fossil fuels did. But, with this graphic, Hubbert had laid down the human predicament several years in advance with respect to more famous studies such as "The Limits to Growth" (1972). Catton's "overshoot" (1980), and many others. Without a miracle that could replace fossils well before they would start declining, the human world as it was in the 20th center was doomed. Nuclear energy was not, and could not have been, that miracle.

Hubbert's may not have been always cited, but the debate on the decline of the natural resources raged for decades -- with most of the debate being based on various interpretations of the concept of technological progress. In the most optimistic views, depletion was not considered a pressing problem and, in any case, it was believed that technology would chase the problem away, automatically and without pain for anyone, purely on the basis of market forces. In this view, it made no sense to slow down economic growth in order to save resources: on the contrary, accelerating the exploitation would lead to more growth and to the consequent availability of more and more advanced technologies. The opposite attitude was that the problem was important and imminent, but that predictive models could lead to planning efforts based on slowing down the exploitation of the remaining resources, giving sufficient time for a technological switch toward higher efficiency/new sources. Over time, the debate veered more and more toward the concept that climate change was a much more important problem than resource depletion. But the contrasting attitudes didn't change.

All the debate led to nothing. Nothing was decided, nothing was done. Society turned out to be impervious to early alerts and technology unable to be the miracle that was touted to be. In 2020, we have arrived at a critical point: the start of the irreversible decline of the technological society that had been developed over about two centuries of use of fossil fuels as an energy source. We are seeing the "Seneca Cliff," the unavoidable destiny of a system that has expanded beyond its limits, that has gone in heavy "overshoot" to use Catton's definition?

And now? Clearly, it is too late to deploy miracle technologies: we are starting to go down and the question is how to face the decline: can we still avoid to turn it into a crash? The data show that it would still be possible to soften the decline and to go down on a relatively smooth slope. But the resistance to the unavoidable is actually worsening the situation. Politicians and most of the public are still convinced that the way to go is to "growth" without realizing that they are hastening collapse and making it faster and harsher.

How did we arrive here? It was not a failure of science and technology. It was a cultural failure. We tried to manage the future without the right tools. In retrospect, it was obvious that tools developed in an age of abundance wouldn't be useful, actually counterproductive, in an age of scarcity. Imagine a banker stranded on a remote island trying to get food by building a automated cash teller. You get the point.

At this point, we could say that we need a new vision of the ecosystem. That's correct, although reductive. It is not a question of what we "need." It is a question of an unavoidable cultural transformation that's going to come, whether we like it or not. We have to come to terms with the ecosystem. In different terms, we could say that the ecosystem is going to decide what it is going to do with us -- not consciously (probably) but just practically. Either it is going to get rid of an obnoxious species -- the humans  -- that has done only damage to everything, or that species is going to take a different attitude that will make it less obnoxious.

That's the challenge we face, not an easy one, but not impossible either. The cultural tools we need have been partly developed and are being developed. A basic one is the concept of "Holobiont" the idea that the fundamental components of the ecosystem are not organisms, but holobionts intended as colonies of creatures that hang together for mutual benefit. Human beings are holobionts, trees, forests, steppes, and tundras are holobionts. The whole ecosystem is a holobionts. And we can be proud of being good holobionts and learn to live together with the larger holobiont we call "Gaia" . Will we be able to do that?

We can discuss these matters on the new blog "The Proud Holobionts" and in the Facebook group with the same name. Onward, fellow holobionts!


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)