Thursday, July 16, 2020

The End of an Age: The Great Failure of Catastrophism

Colin Campbell, the founder of the association for the study of peak oil and gas (ASPO) explaining the essence of oil depletion.

The considerations below originate from a post by Michael Krieger where he describes how he is so dismayed by the reaction of the public to the current epidemic that he is closing his blog to rethink the whole matter over. You can read of similar feelings in a post by Rob Slane of the "Blogmire" and of Chris Smaje on "Resilience." Many others are dismayed at how badly the Covid-19 crisis was managed: a threat that was real but by all measures not so terrible as it was described. Nevertheless, it generated an overreaction, more division than unity, political sectarianism, counterproductive behaviors, and it ultimately led people to accept to be bullied and mistreated by their governments and even to be happy about that.

The "peak oil movement" was started by a group of retired geologists around the end of the 1990s. You could call us "catastrophists," but catastrophe was not what we were aiming for. We were not revolutionaries, we never thought to storm the Bastille, to give power to the people, or to create a proletarian paradise. We were scientists, we just wanted society to get rid of fossil fuels as soon as possible, although we did think that the final result would have been a more just and peaceful society. 

But how to reach this goal? Of course, we understood that humankind is a vague term and that people tend to seek for their personal well-being, rather than that of their fellow human beings. But we saw no reason why the people in power shouldn't have listened to our message. After all, it was in their best interest to keep the economy alive. So, the plan was to diffuse the message of resource depletion as a scientific message, not a political one. We did our best to produce models, to make studies, to convene meetings, to publish scientific papers. The very fact that our main talking point was a bell-shaped graph meant that we were speaking to the tip of the social pyramid. We knew (or at least we should have known) that most people cannot understand a Cartesian graph. There is a reason, after all, why in Excel the default graphical representation of data is a bar chart.

It was an utter failure. We might have expected it, but we were much better as scientists than as politicians. We thought we could speak to "the ear of the prince" as Niccolò Machiavelli had tried to do, centuries ago. He discovered, as we did, that the prince doesn't want counsel, he only wants obedience. The prince operates according to a time-tested strategy that goes as "scare them, then force them to obey." The commoners operate on an equally time-tested strategy that goes as "be scared and obey," or, at least, "pretend to be scared and pretend to obey."

So, what happened is that some threats were just ignored: peak oil, resource depletion, and now climate change. Instead, other threats were amplified beyond recognition and some elites used them as a chance to reinforce their power on other elites or on the commoners. That was the case of the recent coronavirus epidemic.

As a combination of overreaction and non-reaction, we are now facing the downward slope that I had termed the "Seneca Cliff," the start of a probably irreversible descent, at least for several decades. No wonder that many of us are dismayed. But how is it that the human society either overreacts or doesn't react to external perturbations? Compare with the behavior of a system such as a forest. It is a system in many ways as complex as the human economy (quite possibly, more complex) but it tends to reach and maintain a certain level of stability. Forests manage and conserve their resources, maintaining an incredibly complex diversity. And when a fire starts, the forest waits for it to burn out, and then it patiently re-colonizes the burned area. It is the way natural systems work -- today we tend to define with the term of holobionts. 

Why can't human systems behave in that way? Clearly, we have a lot to learn, especially on how natural holobionts evolved and attained their stability. Perhaps we are moving in that direction in any case. It is a question of natural selection, those entities which are unstable tend to disappear in favor of the more stable ones. Maybe human society naturally evolves in this direction, even though it will involve a lot of suffering and it will take a lot of time before we arrive there. Perhaps, we could think of some kind of "directed evolution," with the human intelligence used to turn society into a societal holobiont. But that's exactly what the catastrophists, peakers and the others, failed to attain -- evidently it is not easy. Whatever we do, in any case, we keep marching toward the future. And so, 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)