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

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The pandemic as the end of consumerism. Everything that's happening is happening because it had to happen

 These Medieval ladies look like fashion models. With their splendid dresses in silk brocade, they are displaying their wealth in an age, the 14th century, in which Europe was enjoying a period of economic growth and prosperity. They couldn't have imagined that, one century later, Europe would plunge into the terrible age of witch hunts that would put women back to their place of child-making tools. It is the way history works, it never plans, it always reacts, sometimes ruthlessly. And all that happens had a reason to happen (above, miniature by Giovanni da Como, ca.1380)


Can you tell me of at least one case in history where a society perceived a serious, existential threat looming in the future and took action on it on the basis of data and rational arguments? Yes, sometimes they can fight relatively minor problems and, in the case of our modern society, we do have some examples of success, say, the attempt to control the ozone hole problem. But how about truly major threats, those that can wipe out an entire civilization? With the best of goodwill, I can't think of a society (including ours) that perceived the problem in advance and acted on it decisively and effectively. Normally, problems are denied or misunderstood. At best, societies react to existential threats using a primeval stimulus-reaction that may be aggressive or defensive, but almost never rational.

Curiously, our society, that we call sometimes "The West," was the first in history to have a chance to do something rational to avoid the destiny awaiting it much before the threat was clearly visible. It was in 1972 when the newly developed digital computers were coupled with a powerful analytical tool, "system dynamics." The result was the study called "The Limits to Growth" that foresaw how the gradual depletion of natural resources coupled with increasing pollution (that today we call "climate change") would cause the whole Western economic system to collapse at some moment during the first half of the 21st century. The study also suggested rational solutions to avoid collapse: reduce consumption, stop population growth, manage pollution, and the like.

As we all know, the attempt was a remarkable failure: society reacted as if the threat were the people who were trying to sound the alarm. The "Limits to Growth" study was ridiculed, demonized, and ignored. Now, it is much too late to apply the remedies that had been proposed almost 50 years ago. 

It could have been expected. Society lacks the tool that allows people (sometimes) to act rationally: a central processing unit like the one that's part of our brains. My friend Nate Hagens uses the term "superorganism" to describe how society works. I use the term "holobiont" for the same concept. I think it is more correct: an organism needs a central nervous system, but a holobiont may be perfectly functional without one. The kind of holobiont we call "human society" at best has just embryonic structures acting as control systems. Sometimes, control takes the form of a "great leader" who usually does more harm than good. 

So, in most cases, the societal holobiont reacts to perturbations by a mechanism of local interactions among its components. It may well be an effective method: by a series of trials and errors, the holobiont is normally able to absorb an external perturbation and re-establish a certain balance. But it can't plan for the long term, nor for perturbations so strong to require a rearrangement of the whole structure of the system.  

What we are seeing in the West nowadays is the reaction of the societal holobiont to a threat that, in itself, was not large. The COVID-19 pandemic could have been ignored, instead it triggered and amplified a series of effects that were the result of much stronger perturbations. Resource depletion and climate change are making what we call the "consumer society" (aka "consumerism") obsolete. Simply stated, there is little left to consume, and consuming it is bringing not just a climate disaster, but a possible collapse of the whole ecosystem. That just can't go on.

Dimly, the great human holobiont is perceiving these threats and it is reacting as it can: using the tools at hand. Of course, it is very difficult to convince/force the majority of the people to stop consuming resources. It can't be obtained by rationally explaining to them the concept of resource depletion (it has been tried, it just didn't work). But it can be done by using propaganda to scare people and that seems to be working (*).

So, what's happening is perfectly rational, at least in a certain way. The consumer society is being disassembled and destroyed: people are forced to consume less, to travel less, to use less resources. International mass tourism has disappeared forever, commerce has taken a tremendous hit, and other institutions that we took for granted seem to be standing in line waiting for their turn to jump off the Seneca Cliff: schools, universities, public health services, and more. 

Of course, not everybody will consume less. The resources not used by the poor anymore are being funneled into the military system which, in turn, is expected to make sure that the elites can keep consuming as much as before, and possibly much more. That's still possible because the members of the elite are few and their impact on the resource base is much lower. 

There is nothing strange, here: a "consumer society," wasteful as it is, is rare in history and it doesn't usually last for long. In most societies of the past, commoners had no such thing as a "right to consume." Their role was of producers or of soldiers and there was no surplus available to them: just the bare essentials they needed in order to survive. And we may well be reverting to that situation. 

It all happened so fast that we have all the reasons to be surprised, even stunned and bewildered. But nothing really new is happening, it is just an adaptation to a new situation. It takes a form that hides the perception of what the real problem is: we think it is an epidemic, whereas it is mainly resource depletion. It was the same thing when, during the period called "Renaissance," the newly formed European states realized they needed manpower for their industries and their armies. Their reaction was indirect. It didn't consist in explaining to women in rational terms the reason why the state needed more children from them. It consisted in unleashing a hate campaign against women, accused to be witches and burned at the stake in considerable numbers. It was, in a certain way, effective. Women were pushed back to their traditional role of child-making machines. And population exploded.

Last week, I wrote a post on how witch-hunts are related to the current pandemic. Later, Timothy Sha-Ching Wong sent me some excerpts from a book by Peter Sloterdijk. He says the same thing I had said:

The misogynistic excesses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, with their numerous live burnings of women, should not be understood as a regression of modern ‘society’ into medieval ‘barbarism’, nor as an epidemic sexual neurosis, as psychoanalytical commentaries usually claim. They were rather the hallmark of early modernity itself, which followed its main impulse in accordance with the new demographic imperative: to ensure an unlimited availability of subject material.

And you see how history doesn't exactly repeat itself, but it surely rhymes a lot. 

(*) Disclaimer: I am not saying here that the pandemic was invented by the powers that be, I am not saying that the virus was created in a biological weapon laboratory, I am not saying that Bill Gates is trying to kill us all with a fake vaccine, and I am not supporting any of the many conspiracy theories that we can see around the web. It should be obvious that the SARS-Cov-2 virus exists and that it is a real threat. But given the situation, such a disclaimer is necessary.


From Peter Sloterdijk’s “You Must Change Your Life” (pages 340-341). Excerpts provided by Timothy Sha-Ching Wong

“The measure of all measures in this field is the state- and church-sanctioned maximization of ‘human production’ – even Adam Smith, in his main work of 1776, speaks calmly of the ‘production of men’, which is governed by the ‘demand for men’. It was set in motion by the systematic destruction of the informal balance between the manifest patriarchy and the latent matriarchy, and thus by the annulment of the historic compromise between the sexes that, under the mantle of the church’s life-protection ethics, had become established in Europe since late antiquity and remained in force until the late Middle Ages. Hence the unprecedented offensive to enslave women to the imperative of reproduction and the systematic destruction of knowledge about birth control, which went down in history under the misleading name of ‘witch hunts’. 
As Gunnar Heinsohn showed decades ago in co-operation with Otto Steiger and Rolf Knieper, the misogynistic excesses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, with their numerous live burnings of women, should not be understood as a regression of modern ‘society’ into medieval ‘barbarism’, nor as an epidemic sexual neurosis, as psychoanalytical commentaries usually claim. They were rather the hallmark of early modernity itself, which followed its main impulse in accordance with the new demographic imperative: to ensure an unlimited availability of subject material.
With its terror against midwife-witches, the early nation-state handed its business card to ‘society’ as the latter modernized itself. The question of whether one can genuinely ascribe a ‘highly developed expertise’ to the ‘wise women’ of that time in matters of contraception will perhaps remain open; supposedly, however, over a hundred procedures for the prevention of unwanted offspring were known before the repression began – procedures whose effectiveness may, in some cases, be open to doubt. But apart from this, the consequences of ‘witch oppression’ were soon plain to see – and represent statistically. During a long period of rigid demographic policies, the modern state in alliance with the Christian clergy refused to tolerate the conventional controlling function of wives over the ‘source of humans’ at all, let alone respect it. The guided sensibility ofearly modernity declared infanticide the exemplary crime against humanity and a direct attack on the national interest; here one finds a rare case of total congruence between family and state morality.
It is anything but coincidental, then, that the greatest modern state theorist after Machiavelli, the jurist Jean Bodin (1530-96), a former Carmelite monk, distinguished himself as one of the most rabid witch hunters of all time. The writer of the epochal Six livres de la république (1576) was at once the author of the most brutal witch-hunting tracts of all time, published in Paris in 1580 under the title De la démonomanie des sorciers.
What he wanted to achieve in his dual function as the founder of the modern theory of sovereignty and master thinker of the inquisition against reproductively able but self-willed women is plain to see. The crux of the matter had already been revealed a century earlier by the authors of Malleus Maleficarum, alias The Hammer of the Witches: ‘No one does more harm to the Catholic faith than midwives.’
From now on, Catholic faith implied an unconditional subjugation of married persons to the consequences of marital intercourse, regardless of whether they were in a position to ensure a sufficient inheritance, and thus a productive future, for their offspring – without consideration, even, for the question of whether one can expect workers with no property of their own to bring up children at all. The policy of ‘capital expansion through population increase’ calmly passed over objections of this kind. In truth, the population explosion of the Modern Age was triggered in part by the extensive incorporation of the propertyless workers, the subsequently much-discussed and usually wrongly declared ‘proletariat’, into the family and procreative praxis of late aristocratic-bourgeois ‘society’.
In matters of procreation, the attitude of most Reformation theologians was even more Catholic than that of the papacy. Martin Luther, who produced half a dozen children with Katharina von Bora, taught – intoxicated by the élan of his own faith – that Christian men should rest assured that if they increased the numbers of the faithful, God would not withhold the material means to nurture them as long as they were sufficiently diligent. Heinsohn and his colleagues incisively sum up the maxim behind such thinking: ‘Generalization of individual irresponsibility in the form of responsibility to God.’
One should note here that the concept of responsibility is significant neither in theology nor in classical moral philosophy; it only moved to the centre of ethical reflection in the course of the twentieth century, when the explosively grown problem of actions and their unintended consequences gained a large part of the moral attention.
It is undeniable, however, that to this day, Christian sexual ethics – in its official Catholic form – shows a resolute blindness to consequences that would like to be mistaken for trust in God. Because of their commitment to the protection of unborn and born life, an honourable thing in itself, Modern Age churches of all confessions acted as de facto accessories to the most cynical biopolitical operation of all time.”

This post was slightly modified after receiving suggestions from Louis Nuyens III, AD Mitchell, and an anonymous commenter.


  1. Who understands the reason for the thunderous collapse of the Western world caused by the virus in the face of its substantial irrelevance in the East?
    We cannot speak of Italian fatalism, I am italian, because it has involved all Western countries.
    I believe the clue is that we didn't implement the "tracking all and constrain few", TACF, tactic when possible.
    Governments should have understood that TACF is less unpopular, let alone less damaging, than the generalized restrictions we have now.
    One demonstration is the reelection of Jacinda Arden vs the failure of Donald Trump.
    If one could have predicted with certainty the second wave, even a stupid government would have followed the winning path.
    So my interpretation of the Western disarray is that "people in power" were not convinced that the second wave would have struck and therefore did not have the courage to convince its citizens to comply with the, very modest, restrictions of TACF.
    The Asia Pacific countries, perhaps thanks to previous experiences, were much more conscious of the real possibility of successive waves and being convinced of the effectiveness of TACF, acted accordingly.
    Certainly the geographical homogeneity is impressive, p.-

    PS - When a rational picture will emerge, and it will, someone will be hailed as a genius. Where will the genius come from? The ministry of health, the entrepreneurs organization, trade unions, with their study centers, bocconi, the milan polytechnic, the economist, NATO?
    What a wasted opportunity for Europe not to find the right allies at this juncture. Time is not completely over though, it would be a fantastic redemption of the inaction, or worse, I am thinking of Greece, which has distinguished our top body of government in the past.

  2. It's not obvious that SARS-Cov-2 exists. It hasn't really been isolated, is not used in tests and patients are never verified to actually be infected with it. There is illness, but no lucid factual

  3. And it hasn't been shown that SARS-Cov-2 is actually infectious. If one had any of it could be tested to see if it causes infection.

  4. hi Ugo - in my writings I admit 'superorganism' isn't the perfect term -I often use the 'Amoeba' - mindlessly sloughing forward seeking entropy. Biologically a superorganism is self-regulating - human society obviously doesn't regulate our waste - but it is pretty good at regulating/maintaining growth at all costs.

    The pandemic will do many things.
    One will be cementing global peak in oil production at Nov 2020. Another (in a few years) will be removing peoples implicit assumption of growth. Another will be recognition of how complex our globally connected supply chains really are.

    These are the physical repercussions. The social and political ones will be what we notice. Based on recent in person work at high levels in US and Europe on these issues, I am pretty skeptical that (current) leaders and structure can respond to either end of growth or complexity. They are focused on a) their political tribes narrative/goals b) very short term problems and c) simple solutions (instead of complex/systems perspective).

    Still we have to try. Ugo let's catch up on zoom (*if you have your internet figured out ;-)
    Un abbraccio grosso di Sasquatch

    1. Yes, maybe amoeba is a good term. I speak a lot of my pet amoeba, Amalie, in my book "Before Collapse" -- the little critter is very nice, too bad she has a tendency to eat people's brains.

    2. Ouch... I mispelled her name, it is "Amelie" -- now she'll be looking for my brain. Aaaaaargghhhh.....

    3. There is no such thing as 'self-regulating' system, even in Life - without master parameters

      'Master Parameters' means the system is ultimately externally governed and controlled - which means it is not a 'self-regulating' system - at all.

      This far, fixing the oil price for stability since the 1900s Rockefellers, for instance, has turned our system a Communism disguised Capitalism:

      The price of oil has to be set to allow the 'burger flipper' driving to work, cheaper than what's possibly paid for 'burger flipping'.

      This is exactly how the Soviet Union operated!

      Despite we see our system 'free' and 'self-regulating', it is not, or why the B-52s are ready to action on 24/7 - now for almost a century?

      Ask Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians, Yemenis and many others and they'll tell you the truth about what is called - 'self-regulating' systems.

  5. "Can you tell me of at least one case in history where a society perceived a serious threat looming in the future and took action on it on the basis of data and rational arguments?"

    what about the ozone hole repair? though of course now undercut completely, at the time as i recall it was a collective world effort based on reanalyzed 'outlier' data of an invisible threat connected to refrigerators somehow.

    1. Correct! Indeed the ozone hole has been proposed many times as a blueprint for what we should do (have done) for climate. But it was a relatively easy task: there were good substitutes for CFCs and it involved only a relatively minor industrial sector. For climate, it is a much bigger task

    2. and Rome wasn't built in a day...

  6. I guess there is no black Friday or cyber Monday in Italy? This seems like wishful thinking, hoping civilization will gradually adapt to narrowing limits. Instead of maximum-consumption, all the time, right up to a sheer cliff.

    1. Come on! We are a colony of the Global Empire. And we do perform the Imperial rituals here, too!

  7. Great post Dr. Bardi. Was pleased to see Mr. Hagens referenced as he is another realist I try to read when I can. (then bonus...his comments).
    One of my fears is that as human quality of life deteriorates due to resource depletion, toxic pollutants and spiralling climate change the base causes will escape blame. Climate refugees will be "radical muslims, coming for you" or "oil production has collapsed because of the radical, socialist environmentalists against fracking!". God forbid anyone might reevaluate our collective actions as to how we have gotten here. Much easier to tune in some stentorian TV or radio celebrity to confirm our biases as to whom is to blame.
    Of course, as things get worse, the next step would be to determine what to do about "those people" who are to blame.
    I do fear history repeating itself, just the details may differ.

  8. Witch hunts are an example of "diabolical thinking" that seems to guide the hands on levers of power in modern states. According to "system dynamics", levers of power regularly get pushed in the most harmful direction. In Australian federal politics (30-Nov-2020) legislation has been introduced to "mess up" the "Family Court" laws and supporting infrastructure. To those who work within the system that handles "break-up" stresses on couples and family units, the legislation seems crazy and mystifying. Our conservative government displays a lack of interest in debating their rationale.

    The measures imply reduced support for specialised justice for conflicted parental relationships. Maybe underlying male instincts about the child-rearing roles of women, and state need for cheap dumb-worker caste. Maybe similar motivations to Catholic doctrine. The state pushes its levers for quantity of population growth while environment carry-capacity declines.

    Australia responded to covid with an island-continent lockdown, plus masks and distancing measures. It has almost zeroed community transmission. Lock-downs were enforced between states, and limits on overseas travel return. The cost is so many system disconnections. Large numbers of people have become jobless, large increase in government debt, and the economy of "building industry" and "real-estate" is ready to sag. The university system closed down a lot, being dependent on income from private foreign students.

    I read an article how Australian birth rate has "transitioned" below replacement levels, (<1.6) and "economic growth", has been faked by a large migration intake over the past decade. Anti-covid measures have put a sudden stop to migration. (Population Decline and the economy - The Saturday Paper)
    The elites do so like to panic.

  9. "The pandemic as the end of consumerism. Everything that's happening is happening because...." - Excess Energy Resources, or the Lack of It

    The more oil depletes, the more oil will be burned to tighter-control the little oil remained...

    These days, deafening echos in the Middle East speculating the region is heading to yet another war.

    When it happens (god forbid), the war would be no more than a reflection on a decision taken that the region (and might be Russia too) must reduce its own oil consumption, or critical exports overseas will be fall behind - and this is a red line.

    It makes sense, as the 47-year calculator doesn't take in consideration wear and tear in the industrial base. It assumes that technology replicates seamlessly, like Life.

    Oil produced on the right hand side of Hubert's curve will only be enjoyed by fewer and fewer people inside any nation, as more oil will be burned for Control - and hence Civil and International Wars need to be choreographed.

    (Watch poverty ridden youths riot in oil-rich Iraq asking for employment and basic services)

    Many think this has already been repeatedly said over the years - Price is what will make oil not affordable for the masses - therefore, scarcity will cause a peak in oil-demand, never an oil peak!

    This circular causation will never happen, unless you squeeze the masses in every nation to live in a newly revived, very big Soviet Gulag.


    Scenes of tribe-fighting over densely populated oil-rich city of Basrah in Southern Iraq - Control! The exercise became a routine after the 2003 US invasion of the country.

  10. Back in the good old Oil Drum days there was a guy who came up with a concept called "Export Land Model" where one by one the major oil exporters would increase their own consumption even as their production declined, until no more oil, or at least very little oil was being exported then BOOM! Peak Oil!

    Then came General Wesley Clark stating that the US wars were planned for seven countries in five years. All were major exporting countries or key players and BOOM! Not all of them...yet...but many were bombed back to the stone age and the US took over most of their production.

    P.S. Mexico is no longer a net exporter of oil.

  11. There's something here that I just cannot put my finger on. Maybe you have thoughts on this: the pandemic is not ending consumerism in the most populated country in the world. It's going great guns and buying up everything and using resources like mad. I cannot figure out why The Great Reset and its pandemic is doing this, except for theft and consolidation of wealth. It's not affecting consumerism in China much at all...therefore, will not diminish resource use or even population, which is being offset by China. Africa is considered to be the largest new market in the world as I understand it. So, what is this all about? The only thing that I can see that can stop this is the US visiting limited nuclear war on the world. Surely the Davos crowd understands all of this. Are they thinking they can survive the nuclear war...or that it doesn't matter since something big has to happen. I just can't put the Chinese piece of the puzzle into the pandemic being the end of consumerism...because it is not unless something much worse comes along. You must have thought about this even though you are writing as if the Western world is in isolation. if you are willing to comment.

    1. I don't know, either. The Chinese came out of the pandemic unscathed and they restarted consuming. But the Western PTBs have no power on China, so I think it makes some sense. I came also to think that the great reset in the West is to be seen mainly as a military reset. All the available resources have to be directed against China in the great game of global domination. It is a myopic strategy, because it leads straight to collapse because of military overspending. But it has a certain perverse logic.

    2. Christine, it has to do with the market. Consumption in the US is only high because the market is way up, but its a mirage. US govt spending now is approaching 40% of GDP, there is no buyers remaining for these insane deficits. ZIRP creates the increasing stock market, but that can't last for long because the government refuses to stop spending in the red.

      My prediction has been a massive spike in the dollar will ultimately break the whole global system. There are $40 trillion in dollar denominated debts abroad, so if the dollar strengthens, it forces asset sales to raise dollars, which forces the market down, which forces rates higher. This all happened in March all at once, but the DXY only went to 102/103, as the market cratered.

      I think we're weeks away from it happening again. There are too many forces at odds with one another to maintain the status quo. Either mass defaults on mortgages harm the US financial system, or corporate debt begins to default, or we get this major dollar spike. Higher dollar will force oil prices down again, which then forces bankruptcies in the oil market too, which has knock on effects which are almost incomprehensible.

  12. FYI, Secrecy News, The American Federation of Scientists Bulletin, Steven Aftergood, ed/compiler, put a piece up in the last 6 months about the Pentagon's request for money in the Feb. 21 budget to contact all 800,000 retired military in the US and see who would be willing to serve in "war or pandemic." Aftergood specifically said that the request was put in before the George Floyd killings. Although I read Manufacturing Consent long ago, I only recently became acquainted with the idea of predictive programming. I think the Pentagon releases to the press re "limited nuclear first strikes" are part of this. And, although I cannot document it, it disappeared, I read that the Pentagon had posted that a loss of 20 million Americans to an attack in response to first strike would be acceptable. One other matter: Biden's mention of Dark Winter, twice in the last debate, led me to the document, 2001. It is a pandemic exercise that specifically notes if 48% of Americans were convinced that a bioweapon had been released against them, they would consider a nuclear attack justified. I debated nuclear deterrence for a full year in high school. I was never afraid of nuclear war because of mutual annihilation. They are now propagating the idea they have a different capability. So....we have different strange pieces on the board that don't seem to make sense, but maybe they won't. Maybe the Great Reset is military...or, contrary to the blathering of a group of effete Davos power nuts and assorted thieves, ....will be used that way.

  13. Re Barzun's comments in Dawn to Decadence, (The Great Illusion section) he refers to The Great Switch, which sound suspiciously like The Great Reset, despite its flowery coverings..."By Great Switch I mean the reversal of Liberalism into its opposite."...I'm not clear what this means, but there was Great Switch legislation, which led to Chesterton and Belloc writing The Servile State, which seems to be where we are with the oligarchs in control.This is a complicated section of the book. Maybe I misunderstand, but Barzun notes that Mussolini took note of the whole movement. From this section, I think I understand why Peter Turchin (War Peace War) says the next 5 years in the US will be horrible. Why 5? He didn't say in the interview I read, but the world wars have been 5 more or less.



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)