The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Cataclysms and the Megamachine: Is History a Cycle or a Progression?

This image by the Tuscan painter Piero della Francesca exudes such power that it may truly blow your mind. Apart from the mastery of the composition, the perfection of the details, the fascination of the human figures, a canvas in the hands of a grand master is not just an image: it is a message. In this case, all the figures are static, there is no one moving. Yet, the painting carries the message of a tremendous movement forward in time. It shows a great change occurring: something enormous, deep, incredible: the triumph of life over death. And those who sleep through it are missing the change without even suspecting that it is happening. Just like us, sleepwalkers in a changing world, where gigantic forces are awakening right now. 

"Cataclysms" (*) is a recent book by Laurent Testot (Univ. Chicago Press, 2020) that goes well together with "The End of the Megamachine" (Zero Books, 2020) by Fabian Scheidler of which I wrote in a previous post

Both books see human history using the approach that I call "metabolic." It means to take the long view and see humankind in terms of a living entity. Call it a "machine" (as Scheidler does), call it "Monkey" (as Testot does), call it a "complex system" (as it is fashionable, nowadays), or maybe a holobiont (as I tend to do). It is the same: humankind is a creature that moves, grows, stumbles onward, destroys things, builds new things, keeps growing, and, eventually, collapses. 

Bot "Cataclysms" and the "Megamachine" catch this multiform aspect of the great beast and both emphasize its destructive aspects. Both understand that the thing is moving. More than that, its trajectory is not uniform, it goes in bumps. It is a continuous sequence of growth and collapse, the latter usually faster than the former (what I call "The Seneca Effect"). 

So, what's happening? Is history going in cycles, or is it progressing in some ways? It is a question that has been asked and answered in various ways over centuries of historiography, at least from when Edward Gibbon (in 1776) started wondering why the mighty Roman Empire had disappeared. 

For the Christian eschatological view, there was no doubt that the Empire had served its purpose and it had to disappear to leave space for a new world which, in turn, was bound to disappear in the Final Judgement. For the thinkers of the 19th century, instead, a different kind of teleology was at work. It was an interpretation of Darwin's ideas that saw evolution as a movement toward higher and higher levels of perfection, with the white European man as the pinnacle of the trend. 

Later, these ideas started to look naive, and a catastrophistic streak of thought started to grow. The collapse of the Western Civilization was clearly seen for the first time in a telescope aimed at the future in 1972, in the study sponsored by the Club of Rome titled "The Limits to Growth." The study had gone full cycle, returning to the old eschatological view of the end of the world. It was a cataclysm. Unavoidable, unless the megamachine could do something that the megamachine could not do: to stop growing.

But the universe is complex and the best-laid computer models of mice and men gang aft agley. Over the history we knew, no collapse has ever been the final one. After every collapse, there has been a rebound. So, history is both a cycle and a progression. There is something on the other side of the unavoidable collapse we are facing nowadays. All collapses bring change: it may well be their purpose in the universe. Just as the Romans couldn't imagine what would come after that their empire was gone, for us it is impossible to imagine what will come after us. We can only perceive that something enormous is stirring. Now we see it through the glass of our models, darkly: but then we will see it face to face.

(*) I had started this post with the idea of writing a review of Testot's book, but as I kept writing, the text grew by itself and it became something else. But, about "Cataclysms," by all means it is a great book -- not just dealing with catastrophic events but giving you an organic view of history, full of concepts and ideas that you cannot find anywhere else. By all means, do read it! It will change the way you see the world.


  1. The last two sentences in the last paragraph says it all. Book sounds good

  2. No 'something enormous is stirring' at all, probably - only undoing all Christopher Columbus' legacy and all what followed it of history – “The ash will dissipate; what benefits people will stay on earth” - simple

    In 1972, the Club of Rome needed to sharpen its telescope and call for trading fossil fuels on the basis of being finite, not under the doctrine of what is called ‘supply and demand’, too.

    Mixing fossil fuels with Life should’ve been seen by the Club of Rome explosive, like burning Magnesium - bright, short lived, leaves behind severe marks and a waste of Energy.

    Not seeing or not alerting on all what they’ve seen, the Club of Rome might have been keen not to interfere with the trajectory of humans soon hitting The Limits of Growth – and that wouldn’t be recorded for the Club as their best achievement.

    The new Israeli-Arab alliance in the Middle East should be left alone to think freely, and they’ll be likely coming up with a new protocol of trading the very little left of remaining fossil fuels in their hand – the stuff is finite.

    The world doesn’t need another Mosul or Raqqa everywhere, or routes to America become now cut and dismantled – from a £30 flight ticket between Europe and America just two years ago - extreme to extreme.

    Time for the Club of Rome to re-invent itself, put together the world into new line of thinking, inline with the Laws of Physics instead of the current state of affair where it looks like as if in a free fall.

    Catherine Austin Fitts believes Injections are installing alternative nano-size ‘operating systems’ inside bodies ( Video Link)

    A Technician hiring due to a surge of failing systems of magnifying lens-size electronics ( Video Link)


  3. La Resurrezione di Cristo, Sansepolcro, Pinacoteca Comunale, only 130km south of Florence. A good reason to make a trip there.

  4. "There is something on the other side of the unavoidable collapse we are facing nowadays."
    Not necessarily 'something' that earthlings will observe and if they do see it, it may not be anything current earthlings would recognize. Ugo, can you acknowledge the possibility that the cycle may 'blow up' at a specific point? i.e. nothing continues for earthlings

  5. the clouds in the picture look like flying saucers.

    1. Also look at the wings on the left knee of the soldier.

  6. Even Chryst halo in the frontfore looks like a flying saucer. And so what? ;-)

  7. At the same time the Club of Rome published their report, somewhere in America a french writer, in the autumn of her life, wrote her memoirs called "the World's Labyrinth".
    She was not an expert or a scientist, but she could already see what we are experiencing today.
    She was Marguerite Yourcenar and she wrote then that "coal and oil has turned our slow adventure into a frantic race of the horsemen of the apocalypse".
    Maybe she had seen the other side of the Apocalypse too, but she did not say.

  8. Chères toutes, Chers tous,

    Pour info Catraclysms a été publié en français en avril 2017.

    Merci pour les blogs.

    Ps : Monsieur Bardi je vous sugère de vous mettre en relation avec Monsieur Jorion je suis sur que vous avez des choses à vous dire.

    Antropologue de formation dont la thèse fût dirigé par Claude Lewis Strauss il aura une carrière multiple qui le conduire a faire parti du club fermé qui publia avant la crise des subprimes sur la survenu de la crise.
    N’hésitez pas à le contacter sur son blog, il est anglophile.

    1. Merci, Pierre, un blog interessant que je ne connaissais pas!

  9. A favourite quote of mine is what Gibbon said about ancient Athens:

    "In the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all -- security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again."

  10. I am just reading the book, and it seems to me that Laurent Testot did not understand (or worse, did not study) Taoism. The non action principle does not mean doing nothing and contemplate. This is doing what is necessary only.
    Plus, he forgot to talk about the Yi Jing which is the oldest and most important book to know if you want to understand both Taoism and Confucianism.
    So many holes in his story of humanity makes me doubt that we can learn much from him.

  11. Glad to see that Laurent Testot's book was translated in english, I enjoyed it a lot when I read it in French a few years ago.

    I actually made a summary of the book at the time, in French: