Opinion: The Awakening from the Cartesian Dream?

Mario Giampietro

The current coronavirus crisis has succeeded where climate change has failed: it has made us aware of the shortcomings of the Cartesian Dream of prediction and control. The idea that our society is able to control events by using science and technology has suddenly lost its credibility. In the Church of the Carmine in Naples the Crucifix of Miracles, used in 1600 to protect the city against the black plague, has reappeared on the main altar. For some, the crucifix has become a more effective means to combat the stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic than the scientific advice given by experts. As the virus directly threatens our own life, the implausibility of the claim that ‘everything is under control’ has become evident. The coronavirus has shown us just how fragile our society is. We have now come to realise that everything that is dear to us, like visiting family or having a coffee with a friend, can suddenly change or disappear.

However, an important lesson we can take away from the COVID-19 pandemic is that, if need arises, it is possible to make changes to our lifestyle and, more importantly so, in a very short period of time. At present, society is enduring the restrictions imposed by governments in the hope of controlling the virus and returning to normality. But what if there will be no return to normality? What if this crisis will bring about lasting societal changes (another “black swan”—Taleb, 2007); changes that will not be determined by the grand narratives and plans about how to fix the world (e.g., the European Green Deal) but by a forced need to adapt to new circumstances? This looming possibility adds to the current feelings of unease and fear.

The Cartesian Dream of prediction and control is exactly what has prevented us from making changes to our social practices in response to the threat of climate change. In fact, it is currently unthinkable for us to adopt new solutions without assuring ourselves that we will be able to control them. But what happens if society is faced with the realisation that ‘total control’ is simply impossible? Are we condemned to do ‘more of the same’—technological fix after technological fix—until our system collapses and we will be forced to accept alternative solutions? 

The fragility of our identity

Our contemporary identity—I like to call it the ‘cyborg identity’—is imposed on us by our capitalist economy, as well as by media and influencers (hyper-cycles of self-referential messages). It no longer reflects the culture and traditions passed down through generations. As a consequence, our identity has become increasingly shallow and vulnerable to perturbations such as the COVID-19 pandemic. We are becoming less and less capable of handling ‘the tragedy of change.’ In order to fight, resist and adapt to change, we must have a clear and shared understanding of who we are and where we want to go. A fragile identity hinders decisions about what we are willing to lose in order to preserve what we would like to retain. We are increasingly unable to see, let alone thread the difficult path through change.

Technology is no match for nature

In the 1953 movie The War of the Worlds, Earth is attacked by spaceships from Mars. The US army employs its best weapons but cannot compete against Martian technology. After several defeats, the US army decides to drop the best they have—an atomic bomb—but, unfortunately, also this last resort fails. When humans are resigned to their fate a miracle occurs.  The Martian ships start crashing to the ground, their occupants having succumbed to a viral infection. The narrator concludes the movie by saying: “[…] the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth…”; a virus! The morale is that technology is no match for nature. Descartes’ vision of humankind as ‘masters and possessors of nature’ must be modified by Bacon’s maxim: ‘nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed’[1]. Friend or foe, viruses are part of nature and we need to accept to live with them.  

Can we avoid the collapse of complex societies?

The inability of our health care systems to handle the COVID-19 crisis in a ‘prediction and control’ mode confirms Joseph Tainter’s (1988) concern regarding the risk of over-complicating the functional structure of society. It is impossible for societies to guarantee absolute prediction and control over all potential future perturbations. As a consequence, allocating resources under such assumption may not be a wise choice. It may be more useful to govern society using strategies based on: (i) monitoring and anticipating by considering non-equivalent perceptions of our interaction with nature based on feelings and concerns held by the extended peer community (not only based on data generated by scientific experts); (ii) preserving the diversity of social practices in society to boost adaptability.

The role of science in governance

Apart from satisfying our curiosity, science is expected to provide society with useful information to guide decision-making processes and in this way to reduce stress for its citizens. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown that science not always lives up to this expectation. It can provide us with essential information on the mechanisms of the epidemic outbreak, but it does not provide us, for example, with a solution on how to deal with the shortage of ventilators needed for treating COVID-19 patients. Science cannot help us decide whose concerns, fears, and needs to prioritise. In the Cartesian Dream, science is purported to reduce stress by controlling the world and calculating risk. It does not acknowledge that danger (e.g., death) is an unavoidable part of life (Saltelli and Boulanger, 2020). To date, science has been predominantly used to selectively improve the quality of life of some social groups, providing them with an edge on the competition, and replacing religion as the source of legitimization of their power. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the expectations about science are losing their credibility, even for the selected few. As a result, the more reflexive citizens have begun to re-think the validity of the Cartesian Dream, while others have stocked up on toilet paper.

Further reading:

Waltner-Toews D, Biggeri A, De Marchi B, Funtowicz S, Giampietro M, O’Connor M, Ravetz JR, Saltelli A & van der Sluijs JP (2020). Post-Normal Pandemics: Why Covid-19 Requires a New Approach to Science.

Saltelli A & Boulanger PM (2020), 'Technoscience, policy and the new media. Nexus or vortex?', Futures, vol. 115, 102491, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102491.

Tainter JA (1988), The collapse of complex societies, Cambridge University Press.

Taleb NN (2007), The Black Swan, Random House Publishing Group.


[1] Quote from Jerome Ravetz, personal communication.

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