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."

Friday, April 7, 2023

Why we Can't Change Anything Before it is Too Late.


Yours truly, Ugo Bardi, in a recent interview on a local TV station. note the "Limits to Growth" t-shirt and, as a lapel pin, the ASPO-Italy logo. 

A few days ago, I was invited to an interview on a local TV about the energy transition. I prepared myself by collecting data. I was planning to bring to the attention of viewers a few recent studies that showed how urgent and necessary it is to move away from conventional engines, including a recent paper by Roberto Cazzolla-Gatti(*) that shows how the combustion of fossil fuels is one of the main causes of tumors in Italy. 

And then I had a minor epiphany in my mind. 

I saw myself from the other side of the camera, appearing on the screen in someone's living room. I saw myself as one more of those white-haired professors who tell viewers, "look, there is a grave danger ahead. You must do as I say, or disaster will ensue."

No way. 

I could see myself appearing to people as more or less the same as one of the many TV virologists who had terrorized people with the Covid story during the past three years. "There is a grave danger caused by a mysterious virus. If you don't do as I say, disaster will ensue." 

It scared people a lot, but only for a while. And now the poor performance of TV virologists, Tony Fauci and the others, cast a shade over the general validity of science. As a result, we now see a wave of anti-science sweeping the discussion while carrying along the flotsam of decades of legends. Fake lunar landings, earthquakes as weapons, how Greenland was green at the time of Erik the Red, and don't you know that climate has always been changing? Besides, Greta Thumberg is a bitch.

But it is not so much a fault of the TV virologists, although they have done their part in creating the damage. It is the human decisional system that works in a perverse way. More or less, it works like this:

  1. Scientists identify a grave problem and try to warn people about it. 
  2. The scientists are first demonized, then ignored.
  3. Nothing is done about the problem.
  4. When it is discovered that the warning was correct, it is too late. 

Do you remember the story of the boy who cried "wolf"? Yes, it works exactly like that in the real world. One of the first modern cases in real history was that of "The Limits to Growth" in 1972. 

  1. A group of scientists sponsored by the Club of Rome discovered that unrestrained growth of the global economic system would lead to its collapse.
  2. The scientists and the Club of Rome were demonized, then ignored.
  3. Nothing was done about the problem.
  4. Now that we are discovering that the scientists were right, collapse is already starting.
More recently, we saw how, 
  1. Scientists tried to alert people about the dangers of climate change.
  2. Scientists were demonized and then ignored.
  3. Nothing was done about climate change.
  4. When it was discovered that the warning was correct, it was too late. (it is).
There are many more examples, but it almost always works like this. Conversely, when, for some reason, people take heed of the warning, the results may be even worse, as we saw with the Covid epidemic. In that case, you can add a 1b line to the list that says, "people become scared and do things that worsen the problem." After a while, line 2 (scientists are demonized) takes over, and the cycle goes on.  

So, what are the conclusions? The main one, I'd say, is: 

Avoid being a white-haired scientist issuing warnings about grave dangers from a TV screen

Then, what should you say when you appear on TV (and you happen to be a white-haired scientist)? Good question. My idea for that TV interview was to present change as an opportunity rather than an obligation. I was prepared to explain how there are many possible ways to improve the quality of our life by moving away from fossil fuels. 

How did it go? It was one of the best examples that I experienced in my life of the general validity of the principle that says, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." The interview turned out to be a typical TV ambush in which the host accused me of wanting to beggar people by taking away their cars and their gas stoves, of trying to poison the planet with lithium batteries, and of promoting the exploitation of the 3rd world poor with coltan mines. I didn't take that meekly, as you may imagine. 

The interview became confrontational, and it quickly degenerated into a verbal brawl. I am not linking to the interview; it is not so interesting. Besides, it was all in Italian. But you can get some idea of how these things go from a similar ambush against Matt Taibbi on MSNBC. What did the viewers think? Hopefully, they switched channels. 

In the end. I am only sure that if something has to happen, it will. 

(*) The paper by Roberto Cazzolla-Gatti on the carcinogenic effects of combustion is truly impressive. Do read it, even if you are not a catastrophist. You'll learn a lot. 

(**) CJ Hopkins offers some suggestions on how to behave when you are subjected to this kind of attack. He says that you should refuse to answer some questions, answer with more questions, avoid taking the interviewer seriously, and things like that. It is surely better than trying to just defend oneself, but it is extremely difficult. It was not the first time that I faced this kind of ambush, and when you are in the crossfire you have little or no chances to avoid a memetic defeat. 


  1. Heureusement que je ne suis pas italien.... J'aurais certainement changé de chaine immédiatement si j'avais vu un scientifique aux cheveux blancs soutenir que "les scientifiques du club de Rome" avaient raison... Et j'aurais sans doute débranché ma télé s'il avait en plus affirmé que "les scientifiques du changement climatiques" (c'est un oxymoron ça non ?) avaient raison...

    Aujourd'hui, malheureusement "les scientifiques" s’achètent et se vendent comme les savonnettes, les médecins et les hommes politiques.

    Ils ont donc une réputation équivalente, soit moins que zéro :(

    1. Bref, si tu avais été Italien tu aurais même débranché ta TV. On aurait manqué ton commentaire remarquable ; lequel moi je trouve remarquablement impertinent.

  2. Ugo, you could shave your head and look confused. As long as they talk to you, everything is fine. So escalate.
    I also see that simply everything becomes real that is somehow possible. So the mass society fails, because it is possible. It's easier to give people some tips on how to survive the mother of all disasters. After all, there are empirical values. Then everyone can choose whether he accepts your Ratscläge, or whether he knows it better.
    And of course, we are happy about everyone who knows better, and encourage other strategies. Yes, agree with them - no matter what they say - but stick to your Story.
    Never forget the one eternal rule: he who gets angry first has lost.

    Grüße von Marcus

  3. I have always appreciated your insights to do with the medieval ages following the decline of the western Roman Empire. It seems that many of the church leaders at that time decided to pretty much ignore wider society. In other words, they became monks and nuns.

    Maybe the best approach is to find people who recognize that we have hit Limits to Growth, and work with them on a path forward. (This is not the same as simply retreating because people such as Benedict created flourishing social institutions.)

    Another approach is to persuade business leaders that recognition of climate change and other ills is a way to make money. They don’t want their own ‘Kodak Moment’; they don’t want to be the next Sears Roebuck.

    I see no value in talking to local TV stations.

  4. My guess is that there are broadly 3 categories of viewer for that interview. Most watch in a vegetative state and don't care, being too apathetic to change the channel whatever happens - these are born a lost cause with the fate of sheep. Secondly, those who will believe the authority figure even if the party line is different to what they are seeing in that moment with their eyes - these are also lost, their opinion is always that of the person they heard last. Finally a small % who are both willing and able to think for themselves, these will get frustrated at the trivialisation of the subject by the TV presenter's blatant attempt to create drama and either change the channel or fact check the topic to get to the truth. The number of the thinkers sadly is too small to stop the ship sinking due to the stupidity of the rest, the only hope being they escape with the lifeboats while the others are arguing and partying.

    But I am a scientist and might well be wrong on this as we are untypical people, trained to be skeptical and know that our colleagues can make mistakes or fake data, depending on where they are in their grant money cycle.......

  5. I don't watch tv anymore, the popular interview method has become akin to a public denunciation during the Cultural Revolution, the victim has already been tried and found guilty before the interview starts, the interview is the punishment, a public humiliation,

    there are some interviews worth watching as examples of the badgering and hectoring, of the methods with which the victim parrys the blows,

    Jordan Peterson was mauled by Cathy Newman on CH4 News, he handled her quite adroitly,

    Roger Hallam was brought onto the BBC to be publicly humiliated by interview, he stood up pretty well,
    a bonus was the post interview exchange that was captured on film,

    Jean-Marc Jancovici is now a media celebrity in France, the corporate media was pretty antagonistic towards him for years, but lately he seems to have broken through into acceptance,
    he's able to talk openly about his concept of sobriety and is being well received.

    France does seem to have got past denial, is in the process of bargaining and heading towards acceptance.

  6. Did we read the same paper? Where does it show the combustion of fossil fuels s one of the main causes of tumors in Italy.

  7. Yeah, but being in the center of a media circus, where your words are encouraged, and the love of thousands, maybe millions, is flowing towards you, to you, and to you alone, is like nectar of the Gods. You are the God of moment, worship is your due. The opposite, of course, is trying to defend yourself while you are being spat upon, slapped in the face by well prepared, well practiced, professionals in the public opinion arena.

    I guess that Jesus learned a hard lesson. On Palm Sunday he was worshiped as the God he was. Four or five days later, he was just another asshole nailed to a cross.

  8. People can't understand the limits to growth. Everybody reading this can, we are receptive to the idea.

    Being receptive makes all the difference. People don't have special powers here. In our own way people here are as stupid as we can imagine masses who ignore limits to growth are. All people can be stupid.

    A local TV host will pander to his/her audience. Expecting anything else is not so smart.
    In fifty years the Club of Rome could not figure out what to do with the information they have. How to make people care? What can people who are just finding out about collapse now do.

    I don't know how to stir up an interest in the future. As things get bad, it appears people will only feel more powerless. People will become more apathetic as the cliff fall nears.

    If people were truly powerless, apathy would be the appropriate response. But powerlessness is a state of mind. People have power if they take it.

    But control what you can and let go of the rest.

    If perception went the other way. About as likely as being risen from the dead, local TV hosts will become your best friend. A TV host panders to his/her audience. When the audience becomes receptive, they will know.

    Until perception changes, avoid all interviews with the unenlightened. It won't do anybody any good. The weather needs to change before a message of limits can be heard.

    And change the weather will.

    In other news, the Doomstead is reborn.

    1. Signed up. Not enough doom and gloom just from Ugo, may as well see what the other optimists have to say. ArtDeco

  9. You should have told them that we will have nuclear fusion, perfect conductors at room temperature, and high-density batteries made of light and abundant materials in ten years. Instead, you told them you will cure cancer and climate change by giving everyone two solar panels and an E-bike.

    1. A cornucopian no limits approach. Be so ridiculously positive that people reject your positive message and begin to wonder what is actually reasonable. But the approach is hard to pull off.

      The audience is long gone before mockery induced enlightenment will manifest, if it does. With mockery not appreciated. All the greater audience takes away is a Steven Pinker message.

  10. The governments and think tanks know very well the situation. They have decided to not intervene on the short term mode of business as usual. A most fascinating question to me is: When will heavy handed edicts get rolled out? Ugo, you and many others who have been trying to get ahead of this do not enjoy support from decision makers, lawmakers and financial institutions... it seems all are betting on some silver bullet to fix things. I suppose they have a B-Plan and have no worries about putting it on place when the crunch is painfully obvious.

  11. As fossil fuels deplete more and more - and centralisation fades out globally, people - in the future - will be able to change some things, sometimes - before it is too late....

    "The Abu Coffin gang terrorizes the people of Baghdad.. Dawn visitors leave a "coffin" with bullets inside in front of the targeted houses"

    The news is a typical campaign - subliminally telling the community watching it -

    Look! you can change nothing, you have to live with it...

    All fossil fuels burned in digital platforms propagating the news - become - the gang - against people...

    Let fossil fuels deplete - the gang will shrink in power - when nobody will be promoting its crimes 24/7 - this strong and wide...

    In the future, communities around the world - will ultimately deal with their problems
    one-2-one rather than one 2 fossil fuels - and sometimes before too late


    "In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most"


  12. "Avoid being a white-haired scientist issuing warnings about grave dangers from a TV screen. " Too true. Why anyone ever believed that people who are just sitting around watching TV would want to hear warnings about anything confuses me.

    But anything on TV has about the same credibility as a soap opera to me. ArtDeco.

  13. A polititian first rule: Never answer a direct question.

    Scientists in a TV hall are fooled because they think they are going to talk science, and that the debate is going to follow the rules. That is never the case. You are in a show. The broadcasting company wants audience, the owners of the channel want to hear the right message for them (one where more profits follow).
    A polite discussion of well educated people is bad for their bussiness.

    Unless you are well versed in rethoric, the most useful action seems to be to give your speech and ignore others. If they seek confrontation, just repeat and keep ignoring them, If it helps, think that the people in front of you are just clowns trying to amuse the audience, they have zero interest in knowing the truth.