Saturday, April 7, 2018

Those Pesky Declinists and Their Dangerous Ideas
Declinists claim to see the big picture. Their portraits are grandiose, subsuming, total. Consider one of the all-time bestsellers, the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972). With more than 30 million copies sold in 30 languages, this ‘Project on the Predicament of Mankind’ gave alarmed readers a portrait of demise, mapped out with gloomy confidence about ‘feedback loops’ and ‘interactions’. In fact, it shared much in common with the good Reverend Thomas Malthus, including the obsession with diminishing returns. Fixated with the decline of arable land, Malthus could not see sources of increasing returns – at least not at first. Some of his friends eventually convinced him that machinery and colonialism solved the problem of too little food for too many mouths; later editions of his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) went through contortions to figure this out. In the same way, systems analysts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology simulated the whole world, but could not admit little pictures of ingenuity, problem-solving and adaptation – some of which had the perverse effect of unlocking so many more sources of carbon that we’d begin to bake the planet several generations later!

This piece by Jeremy Adelman is not worth of a detailed rebuttal, but I think it is deserves to be read as a literary piece. Truly brilliant, read it for its magniloquent sound, for instance, "Declinists have a big blindspot because they are attracted to daring, total, all-encompassing alternatives to the humdrum greyness of modest solutions."

But, apart from the daring, total, all-encompassing, etc, what is that Adelman finds so "dangerous" in declinism? Curiously, the term "dangerous" is used only in the title but never in the text. So, the whole danger of declinism seems to be that it can "impoverish our imagination." Honestly, that doesn't seem to be so dangerous. All his literary brilliance seems to have led Mr. Aldeman to forget what he was supposed to say. 


  1. Professor Aldeman is latest version of Professor Julian Simon, another believer in technological progress as a solution for all problems.

    Several months ago there was an interview on the Radio Belgrade with young Serbian scientist working in a famous European lab. The lab tries to solve the problem of fusion reactors. The young lady interviewed gave some possible dates for the future fusion reactors to become reality. Experimental reactor is promised for 2030 and production scheduled for 2050. The whole idea is supposed to work until the young lady's retirement! After that the idea can be exposed as fake science. Unfortunately, many scientists today are just interest groups.

  2. I am both amused and annoyed that the critics of Malthus make it abundantly clear that they have not actually fully read and understood his arguments. Namely, that IF humans did not control their own population growth, starvation would. With the advent of modern birth control, we see partial fulfillment of Malthus's prophecy to the positive side.

  3. Very true: they address not Malthus, but misprepresentations of Malthus, mostly ideologically-inspired.

    It's also forgotten that he was a humane man, and was horrified by the poverty induced by having too many children and not enough money to pay for them, which he saw very clearly in a collapsed industrial town in Norway when he toured there.

    He admired the old Norwegian laws which controlled population humanely, by restricting the right to marry to those who had done military service and were too old to be called up - this was quite late in life.

  4. It seems to me, the "Seneca's Curve" is an hystoric reality, there is also a strong euristic evidence into the mankind history: Easter Island Apocalypse is a good metaphor of the Mankind into the first years of this XXI century

    The fate (sovrapopulation, climate change effects, lack of resources, regional wars, may be WWIII too) it's on its way.
    Lets wait and see things to come, for sure history of mankind will tell who is right, and who is wrong!.

  5. As Bertrand Russell (at least) once said, there is never a good reason for believing that which is not true. If a society (or a civilization, an empire or an ecosystem) is in decline according to the evidence, there is no good reason for believing otherwise. Focusing on the psychological complexes of so-called declinists only obscures the issue.

  6. He seems like a man who confuses THINKING that decline is on the way with WANTING/MAKING decline happen. Why else would "declinists" be dangerous?

    I was planning to read the article but then I saw that it can't be commented on. If they themselves don't think their ideas can withstand scrutiny then it probably isn't worth reading.

    1. I seen myself in both sides of this kind of the conversation so I could say that the most important reason is because economy has a lot of feedback so our actitude could really impact into the results.

      Think that there is no technology that could help us... more than that, that technology is dangerous could push the civilization into don't do the necessary investment on that and create the crisis itself.

      Economy could easily because a self fullfilling prophecy, specially if you bet for the crisis.

      If you put the economy in control of someone that thinks that crisis is unavoidable, it will put every resource into a very low energy future, displacing every resource needed for a different future so provoking the low energy future even if was avoidable.

      Pessimistic people never put the resources into things that "maybe" could work just because they think that will never work.

      Of course, optimistic people can spend a lot of effort into something that will never happen, but pessimistic won't even try it.

      To create a better future you need to believe in that kind of future.

    2. It seems to me pessimism is being used here in a simplistic maner. Thinking things are not working well does not mean one is not trying to sort them out!

  7. Mankind IMHO could be segmented in 4 type of people:

    1st type is the ostrich: if there's a problem, people puts head under the sand, because they hope the problem will solve itself or simply it will fade away itself.

    2nd type is the optimistic: if there's a problem, this mind thinks a problem is not a problem but it's an opportunity. Sometimes this way of thinking works, sometimes not.

    For example: look at the Race to moon, the USA did the run versus URSS because it was an hard race, and it would have been a big technology leap especially in military technology and Air Force stuffs.

    For example: the crew of the Apollo 13 they faced off of unavoiable limits of their broken spaceship, so they changed completly their targets: returning in live to the Earth as soon as possibile, instead of exploring the Moon for a couple of days.

    3rd type is the pessimistic: if things goes wrong, sooner or later things will turn into worse. This means that the pessimistic mind will prepare itself for the worst, because Murphy is always right.

    For example che Catholic Church in XV century: they told the sun run around the earth and the world is made in the aristotelic way only, and nobody have to say Aristotelic model is wrong. So because Catholic Church thought if things had changed, then it would have happen the worst.

    4th type is the pragmatic: this kind of mind prepares for the worst but it hopes for the best. what it means to prepare? do the right thing, not simply doing something.

    It's a pragmatic stuffs, to say -Survivable IPCC projections RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 are science fiction: reality is far worse!-

    It's a pragmatic stuffs, to say -Sea level rise, is rising faster and faster-

    It's a pragmatic stuff, to say -rising sea: how fast? and how far?-

    It's a pragmatic stuff, to say -climate change is a climate crisis-

    It's a pragmatic stuff, to say -Robust assessment of the expansion and retreat of Mediterranean climate in the 21st century-

    It's a pragmatic stuff, to say -Is THC really at risk? Yes, impact of a THC slowdown-

    It's a pragmatic stuff, to say -AMOC shutdown what are the potential implications-

    It's a pragmatic stuff, to say -is the AMOC slowing? the answer is yes-

    It's a pragmatic stuff, to say -climate change early warning signals and climate change boiling points-

    It's a pragmatic stuff, to say -Hubbert peak is real, we are at 50%-

    It's a pragmatic stuff, to say -Shale gas/oil is not a good idea-

    It's a pragmatic stuff, to say -Shell Scenarios?! Well, that's lot of unsaid, in those Shell stuffs-

    I hope to be useful. Greetings



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)