Friday, June 23, 2023

The Lucky Demons that Rule us. Why Pay to Risk Your Life?


The acrylic plexiglass dome of a modern submersible is a technological marvel, but it is also extremely dangerous. A small crack, and it is gone. 

In his "The World Until Yesterday" (2012), Jared Diamond tells how he seriously risked his life having boarded a boat that sunk, managed by an incompetent crew. It is a story that resonates with the recent case of the wreck of the Titan submersible and its passengers. How could it be that they had accepted to embark on such a risky enterprise? And paying a lot of money for it, too. It can only be explained by considerations about how the mind of rich and powerful people works.

In Diamond's book, you can find a fascinating discussion of how traditional societies deal with risk. Diamond makes a convincing argument that our ancestors, just like people living in modern traditional societies, were much more careful, even paranoid, in comparison with most of us. He tells us how his Papua friends spent an inordinate amount of time discussing whether a broken twig was the result of someone having been there before or just an effect of the wind. It is paranoia, yes, but if they reasoned in that way, it had to be because that attitude helped their ancestors to survive. 

Now, think of our society. It is true that we encourage risk-taking and that it has a certain logic. Risks are risks, but the rewards you can reap in our world are enormously larger than anything a person living in a tribal society could hope to obtain. By acting crazy, you may become the local big man, maybe, but the rewards are not so large: there is no money to accumulate in a small village 

But, in our world, rewards can be enormous if you are enormously lucky. Think of Benito Mussolini: an elementary school teacher with political ambitions. When he was wounded by the explosion of an artillery piece in his own trench, it was a double stroke of luck for him. Not only he survived, but he also avoided being caught in the rout of the Italian army after the defeat of Kobarid. Actually, it was a triple stroke of luck because he gained the fame of a war hero due to his light wounds. After the war, he set up a political party, and he launched his followers marching on Rome. They could have been crushed by the Italian army, and Mussolini himself was ready to escape to Switzerland. But the King of Italy refused to give the order, and then Mussolini became the absolute ruler of Italy for more than 20 years. He was also lucky enough that some of his initial military adventures were successful. It is true that eventually, his luck ran out, but from a genetic viewpoint, Mussolini was hugely successful. Some sources say he had at least 11 illegitimate children plus five legitimate ones.

It is not just a question of having been lucky once. Mussolini came to think that his luck was not just a random event but a feature of his life. You can read about this attitude in the diary that Mussolini's son-in-law kept. He really thought he was infallible and even immortal. Late in his career, Mussolini thought he could get away with murder -- actually with genocide. He did, until he didn't anymore. 

There are other cases of rulers who interpreted their luck as a manifestation of supernatural benevolence toward them by the almighty powers. Hitler was one. He barely survived the trenches of WWI, and it is said that he thought he was immortal. Until he discovered he wasn't. Probably, Saddam Hussein reasoned in the same way when he launched the ill-fated attack on Kuwait in 1991.

The case of the four rich passengers who boarded the Titan submarine in 2023 is probably similar. They may have been thinking they were immortal, enough to make them engage in this reckless idea. Apart from the human tragedy of their death, the point this story raises is that they may well be representative of the elites ruling us today. They are reckless and convinced to be always right and even immortal. It is a deadly combination for people who control enormously powerful weapons: from nuclear warheads to propaganda. Deadly for them, but not just for them. 


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)