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...from Cassandra's Legacy: Fate is coming back. What do we do when no choice is good? by Jacopo Simonetta 

Reprinted with the permission of Cassandra's Legacy.

"Fate is coming back. What do we do when no choice is good?" by Jacopo Simonetta, guest contributor. Translation by Maddalena Martinez.

Link to the version in Italian

Friday, April 10, 2020




It is called 'triage'. It happens in the emergency departments when the influx of ill or injured patients exceeds the capacity of the hospital. So, doctors must decide whom to save first and whom to save later, if they are still alive. I have always thought this is the worst thing that a doctor may be forced to do, but it happens, and doctors, like other emergency professionals (firefighters, soldiers, policemen etc.), are, at least in part, prepared to face these situations.

We normal people are not, but this does not mean we can abstain from making choices, when even failing to make a choice will have consequences. In fact, the extraordinary bubble of peace and well-being that has cocooned the western world for 70 years is vanishing, making us completely unprepared to face the very idea of 'tragedy'.

I am not referring here to the crises of collective hysteria that overwhelm us at every little difficulty, but to our inability to sustain the weight of the responsibility of choices that, whatever we decide to do, will provoke great damage and suffering. Outside of our collapsing bubble, this kind of situation is instead frequent and has been masterfully illustrated in many masterpieces of ancient philosophy and literature.

These are the dynamics of Fate: men are not simply dragged by a 'scornful destiny'; they are instead called upon to make choices whose consequences will be inevitable so that not even Zeus could change them. Sometimes, in the range of possible choices, there is one that could put an end to the suffering and the tragedies. For example, Paris could put an end to the war by letting Helen return to Sparta or Hector could win, granting the Achaeans a dignified surrender and a return to home.

In both cases, the heroes make the wrong choice and the consequences overwhelm them and their people, but it was not inevitable.

There are instead cases in which every possible option will have disastrous consequences, and nevertheless the hero must choose. Orestes' dilemma is paradigmatic: it is his sacred duty to avenge his father, but this means to commit the sacrilege of killing his mother and he well knows that whatever he decides to do, the consequences will be catastrophic. A similar dilemma torments Antigone, who must choose whether to bury her brother, violating a precise order from her king, or leave him unburied, violating a precise duty of hers.

This kind of dilemma lies at the core of Tragedy that, not coincidentally, was closely connected to the cult of Dionysus: perhaps the most ancient and certainly the most enigmatic of the Greek Gods.

We have pretended and continue to pretend we are immune to this kind of situations, but the truth is knocking at our door harder and harder, and visible cracks have opened in the physical and psychical walls we have built against it.

Let us make an easy example of the kind of tragic choices that we are in any case forced to take. Taxing air flights so as to drastically reduce their number would surely have positive effects on the environment and climate, but, would immediately force tens of thousands of people out of their jobs, most of whom would not easily find another one.

So what should we do? This is just a little detail of the fundamental topic that humanity will have to face from now on: actual degrowth, which is appearing to be a lot more problematic than the theoretical one.

In fact, we could discuss details for a long time, but nobody in good faith can deny that humanity, as a whole, has largely passed the Planet’s limits of sustainability. Just to mention a few numbers, today the technosphere (a.k.a. anthroposphere, that is humanity with all its infrastructures and symbionts) amounts to about 40,000 million tons, some 4,500 tons per person.

We and our domestic animals are about 98% of the world’s fauna, about 40% of the Earth’s surface is completely artificialized (urban, suburban, agricultural, etc.), 37% is made up of natural habitats heavily modified for anthropic use (pastures and almost all forests), only 23% can still be classified as 'wild' (a few remote forests, but almost only deserts, mountain tops, and Arctic regions). (data from IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 1919, Laboratory for Anthropogenic Landscape Ecology, 2020).

Things are even worse at sea: we estimate that only 13% of the oceans is still basically intact (data from IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 1919).

But these are all very optimistic assessments, as factors like global warming and the related acidification of the seas, global diffusion of polluting agents of all kinds, the growing number of barriers to movement by wild species and the contemporary spread of alien ones, industrial fishing and hunting of rare species, the dying off of insects and amphibians, the worldwide alteration of nearly all bio-geo-chemical cycles tell us that the Earth is by now a planet inhabited by a single species (Homo sapiens industrialis, alias H. colossus sensu Catton) with its symbionts, commensal species and parasites.

Everything else survives in extremely precarious conditions in the interstices and cracks of the technosphere, but it is only these survivors that still ensure the existence of conditions favorable to biological life on Earth.

This means not only that substantial degrowth is the only sensible thing to do, but also that it is an inevitable fact. There is no way we can prevent it and postponing it will only mean paying a much bigger price, a little later.

However, the vast majority of people rejects this view, preferring to imagine strategies, even very ingenious ones, to have it both ways. They have very good reasons to do so because accepting 'overshoot' would mean accepting the price of the 'environmental debt' that we have piled up. Of course we will pay it anyway, but we cannot blame those who prefer looking the way. In fact, I have the impression that, even among 'degrowthers', there are few that have deeply reflected on how much it will be necessary to degrow to stabilize the climate and stop mass extinction.

Obviously it is impossible to make a precise estimate, but to have a rough idea we will make a very easy calculation, using energy consumption as an indicator of general impacts. This is an approximation, but it is close enough to reality.

On a global level, we estimate that humanity passed the planet’s carrying capacity in the early 1970s, when worldwide energy consumption was in the order of 70,000 Twh, whereas now it is about 165,000. Let us imagine going back to the 70,000 Twh of fifty years ago, what would per capita consumption be? Between 1970 and 2020, human population has doubled; this means that, to bring global consumption back down to about 70,000 TWh, per capita availability would be less than a quarter of what it is now. This means a level of consumption similar to what we find today in Moldavia, Albania, Egypt or Nigeria, to make some examples.
Speaking about Italy, it would mean going back to nineteenth-century per capita consumption levels, without considering that such poor societies would probably not be able to produce the technologies that consent the life of 8 billion people, starting from the sophisticated devices necessary to convert sunlight and wind into electricity.

With this I am not saying that in few years we will be living with candles and horses, I just want to clarify that we do not have to give up just the unnecessary; we have to give up a lot that we see as necessary or an acquired right, starting from a life expectancy of over eighty years.

This opens a wide range of questions that, whether we like it or not, we will have to face because when the blanket gets too short, we have to choose whether to cover our feet or our shoulders. In actual terms, this means choosing who must be sacrificed so that the others have more chance of surviving.

Right now, we are seeing a practical example of choices that we will have to make more and more often, with the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic. We have seen that this disease is particularly treacherous because it spreads easily and has a relatively low death rate, but on condition that long and costly care is available.

We have several possible choices.

We can try to stop the outbreak in every way, but this would have devastating economic consequences that could even throw the global economy into a crisis much worse than that of 2008.

We can keep the main economic flows active, but this would mean a lot more infections, and thus sanitary costs that could send entire states in bankrupt. Without counting that the saturation of hospitals would also mean a definite rise of mortality.

We can also pretend nothing is happening and bury the dead in secret, but we cannot predict how many they would be, nor the practical consequences of the panic that would overwhelm the world a lot more than it does now.

We can look for compromises between the different options, but in any case we cannot avoid very painful and largely unpredictable consequences.

Another example, even more brutal, is the drama that is taking place these days at the border between Greece and Turkey. Putting aside the complicated story that brought tens of thousands of people to try to break through the barbed wire, we find ourselves in front of another tragic choice.

We can welcome the refugees, but this would have devastating social and political consequences in Europe (there is no need for guesswork here, because we already made the experiment in 2015).

We can drive them back, but these are people that cannot go back to Syria where the government would kill them, nor can they remain in Turkey because the Turks are sending them away.

We can confine them in 'refugee camps', which are actually prison camps with no foreseeable release.

We can please Erdogan so he takes them back, and support him in his war against Syria.

We can also think of other solutions, but anything realistically feasible will mean tragic consequences for someone.

There are many other fields where we see similar dilemmas: how do we face the situation? Because, in the end, every one of us will have to find a compromise between our mental model of the world and the physical reality that is coming back into our lives, peaceful up until now.

I would say we basically have two options:

The first is to deny one or more pieces of the puzzle, so as to simplify it and restore the satisfying dynamics of good versus evil. At this point we must choose our side, and then assume things do not work because of the other side, whatever happens.

The second is to accept that in many key matters of the present and the near future we have several possible choices, but none of them will not cause major damage and suffering for which we will share responsibility. Even if we choose not to choose:  because there will be painful consequences anyway. Just like it was for Orestes and Antigone.



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