Thymos and Logic – Why we know, yet do not act

Francis Fukuyama, arguably America’s most profound political scientist, enriched our understanding of man and history by an important notion of Greek origin – “thymos”. This term, used extensively by Plato in “The State”, is well suited to illuminate our present situation. The Greek philosopher speaks of thymos to describe a decisive dimension of human action. In his opinion, man does not obey reason alone; in truth, something else is added, namely will, desire, passion, anger, self-assertion – in short, “thymos”. Whoever ignores this driving force hardly understands human behavior.

This allocation of human motivation

seems to me particularly relevant in view of a threat that Fukuyama leaves undiscussed in the fore-mentioned book, but which is set to decide the fate of humanity within the near future. I am, of course, referring to the ecological crisis that has gradually been gathering strength during two hundred years of fossil economy. If our response to this existential challenge were to follow logic alone, there would not be the slightest hesitation as to what humanity needs to do. Science – the embodiment of logic and reason – leaves us in no doubt whatsoever. But thymos, i.e. human desires, passions, self-assertion, as well as individual and national pride are basic and often unsurmountable forces that oppose logic and reason. To make this contradiction visible in all its incisiveness is the purpose of the following considerations.

I) What logic tells us: Radical change has turned into an imperative

William E. Rees, father of the “ecological footprint”, leaves no doubt as to the scale of our predicament. If humankind continues to engage in that enormous overexploitation of energy and raw materials Western developed countries have come to take for granted, the world could support a population of two billion people at most: that is, only one-fifth of the ten billion people we can expect to inhabit the globe by 2050 and who will all claim the same high standard of living as we currently enjoy.*1* That would still be twice as much as in the 18th century before we ignited the fossil fire.

If this statement proves to be scientifically correct,

we are entitled to draw a disturbing conclusion. The current development entails more than just a hopeless overtaxing of our planet’s ecological foundation – it is leading the ecosystem directly and inevitably towards collapse. It would do so even if, by some miracle, we were able to replace fossil fuels completely with green energy or if nuclear fusion were to endow us with an inexhaustible cornucopia of nuclear energy. Even in this best case scenario, a large part of this energy boon would be used to transform raw materials into finished products. In other words, cheap or even free energy would tempt us to exhaust remaining resources even faster. The fact is, however, that these too are running out, as scientists like Ugo Bardi and Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek did convincingly demonstrate.*2* Although we would have effectively fought CO2 emissions and the climate crisis, we would still accept the poisoning of nature by all the remaining non-biodegradable residues of industrial civilization (electronic scrap, plastics, chemical waste, etc.).

The excessive burden on nature

by ten billion people expected to be crowding the globe around the middle of this century can no longer be reduced by simply limiting fossil energy consumption. If humans do nothing, nature herself may take revenge by doing what she did for thousands of years destroying man by means of epidemics and internecine wars. In order to avoid such an outcome, logic of a quite inexorable kind tells us that only one alternative remains if we want to bring about the transition to sustainable economic activity in a peaceful way, i.e. without nature reducing the number of people in her own gruesome way. The ten billion inhabitants who will soon be populating the globe must not consume more than a maximum of two billion people.

What this elementary postulate of simple logic means

should be understood by everyone. We will have to radically reduce our current standard of living in order to make it environmentally compatible – theoretically to one fifth. But in fact more than that. As wealth is quite unevenly scattered, the demands on Western states will be much higher, because among the so-called undeveloped states (e.g. India, Indonesia, Madagascar) there are still some who, in their dealing with nature, get along with the one single globe at their disposal, while the most developed countries consume between up to three or more globes (e.g. Qatar, Canada, USA).

The same inexorable logic therefore tells us that states such as the US or Germany that are still engaged in this immense exploitation of nature, must reduce their claims not only to one-third or one-fifth, but far beyond that, perhaps down to one-tenth, so that the remaining, non-Western states, will in the end have some of the common cake too. Renunciation – a word the young generation certainly doesn’t want to hear as it does already find itself in a much worse position than their parents – renunciation becomes an irrefutable demand. It logically derives from the premise that at most two billion people will be able to maintain a standard of living similar to that of present-day Western countries without hopelessly overtaxing the planet.

II) Thymos: 

Scientists are in a privileged position since they need only follow reason and facts. In the best case, they are only committed to proven and demonstrable truth. Thymos plays no role in their case, or only to the extent that a coherent theory secures the hoped for recognition by their colleagues. An obvious falsification of truth could instead rob them of their reputation. For this reason we may assume that they would have told us long ago if they had seen any way out of our predicament by other means than radical renunciation.

The Greens are different

They too are concerned with upholding truth, but only as long as it is compatible with their political intentions. And these consist above all in their desire to be elected in order to have a say in state and politics. For them as for any other party, thymos plays a very important role indeed, and it inevitably has a significant influence on their relationship to scientific truth. Even if many of them are well acquainted with the results of ecological research or at least know the most relevant theses, they are clearly aware of the fact that nobody would vote for them if they seriously demand radical renunciation. For this reason, we may safely assume that they would rather impose on “Saint Greta” (Thunberg) the same fate as suffered by St. Joanna, before committing themselves to a scientific logic that would instantly block their hoped-for access to power. Elections are won by promising voters further and greater benefits, but not by demanding blood and tears.

Even a mere halving of today’s prosperity

would cause riots – as proven by the sudden collapses in living standards that we know from recent history. The great inflation of 1923 led to political convulsions in Germany, but worst of all was Black Friday of 1929 imported as “The Great Depression” from America into Germany. Eric Hobsbawm, a highly respected historian of Jewish origin, who certainly had no reason to relativize the German guilt for World War II, let alone to twist the facts, Hobsbawm nonetheless sees a clear connection between the Great Depression and the disastrous history that began with Hitler and reached its terrible climax in the Second World War. “But for it /the Great Depression/, there would certainly have been no Hitler… Would fascism have become very significant in world history but for the Great Slump? Probably not. Italy alone was not a promising base from which to shake the world… It was patently the Great Depression which turned Hitler from a phenomenon of the political fringe into the potential, and eventually the actual, master of his country” (Hobsbawm, 1994).

In other words, thymos – the understandable resistance of the poor to an imposed renunciation – would make it completely impossible for all parties, including the Greens, to put into practice a policy that would reduce prosperity to half its previous level. We may even assume that thymos would forbid green parties to accept scientific theses like that of William Rees. Supposed that they would admit them at their face value, they would discredit their own policy of procrastination and soliciting voters. It is thymos, political self-interest that ultimately leads parties of all stripes to repress, ignore or even disclaim scientific truths.

Of course, we understand quite well why they do so

The obvious consequence of radical renunciation would be that we not only reduce air traffic to one tenth, but also the number of cars, including electrically powered ones (whose consumption of lithium and rare earths is considerable and causes increasing ecological devastation). Each of us would merely consume a tenth of the amount of industrial goods on whose production the well-being of companies and the incomes of employees are based. The consequences of such an intervention are obvious: they would consist in a total collapse of our economic system and possibly lead to civil wars from which a new Hitler could very well emerge. For we should not forget that more than anything else it is the collapse of economies that furthers the rise to power of populists and demagogues. /At the outbreak of the world economic crisis/, Hitler declared “never in my life have I felt so well and inwardly satisfied as in these days /of collapse/” (Joachim Fest, 1973).

And that’s not all. Domestic upheavals would probably lead to wars between states as well, because economic interdependence has become so close that none can take radical measures without tearing it apart.

III) Objection of logic: radical renunciation without loss of living standards is quite possible

Torn between truth and will, logic and thymos, today’s situation appears at first glance to be rather hopeless. But it is much less so as soon as we dare to take a second look. For – as unlikely as it may sound – far-reaching renunciation is perfectly compatible with our current standard of living – provided that we put an end to “throw-away society”.

Here again scientific logic comes to our aid

The consumption of resources can be significantly reduced in a relatively simple way if we use industrial products ten times longer giving them from the outset ten times more durability. We know that the pyramids of Egypt have lasted for almost five thousand years and our great cathedrals for more than half a millennium. How could it possibly be a problem for present-day high-tech civilization to extend the life of our products even more than ten times? The first and simplest step on this path would simply consist in reversing that artificial obsolescence that currently ensures the death of many goods quite soon after the end of warranty.

The consequences of such an intervention

are still serious, however. If German industry were to increase the longevity of all products by a factor of ten, then economic output and income would equally shrink by the same amount.*3* Economic output would thus fall to a fraction – just as the exact opposite would occur if life expectancy were to be further reduced. Supposed that industry (in global agreement with all competitors) cuts the durability of industrial goods by half, then economic output and income would double – growth through greater waste production.

What is completely ignored in such accounting,

is, however, the balance of profit and loss. It is true that a tenfold increase in the average lifetime entails a concomitant shrinkage of output and income by the same amount – to one tenth if sales decrease accordingly. Since, however, consumers will have to buy those durable goods far less frequently – say, only every ten years instead of every year as before – there will be neither profit nor loss for them as they now get by with one tenth of their original income. In other words, they do not have to make any sacrifices regarding their previous standard of living. So, after all, radical renunciation of growth or even pronounced negative growth need not result in a loss of material well-being.

IV) Thymos: the race of nations makes economic shrinkage unthinkable

In the ideal case, the end of “throw-away society” need by no means entail renunciation, but its effect would nevertheless be immediately noticeable as the age of innovation would come to an immediate standstill. The very moment that we start to use our mobile phones, computers, washing machines, refrigerators, etc. ten times longer, we suppress innovations because they cost a lot of money – money, which until then had been put into the coffers of companies by the sale of ever new products and the concomitant “throwing away” of old ones. Growth and innovation form a tandem – they both prosper or decline at the same time.

We should not underestimate the addiction to things new so characteristic of our time. After all, we will have to freeze the golden calf we’re all dancing around: innovation and development. Nevertheless: this hurdle seems to be surmountable, because we have to surmount it – throw-away society simply kills the planet.

But unsurmountable 

under prevailing conditions of a politically polycentric globe, seems to be the demand on a particular state to start with such a decisive step. This is where national thymos comes in, the most powerful thymos of all.

Inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg and disturbed by the increasing number of natural disasters, thousands, perhaps millions of people will take to the streets in major cities to demand action here and now. They will probably achieve some success in doing so. In the past they have been able to prevent further destruction of the ozone layer or overfishing of the oceans – at least to a regionally limited extent. So, we may trust that such agreements will always be possible – but with a substantial proviso. They will be possible only as long as none of the players suffers disadvantages that seriously endanger his position in the race between nations. As soon as this danger exists, no further steps will be taken, because

Scientific logic and national thymos

are diametrically opposed to each other. Reason would dictate to nations such as Germany, the US or Japan to reduce their current exploitation of nature from an average of up to three globes to a single one, since only such a drastic change in their economy will ensure collective survival for future generations. But any government that decides to embark on this path would immediately and irretrievably weaken its own position in relation to all others. That’s why it never even thinks about it – driven by fear, envy and ambition, thymos immediately whispers into its ear that it is risking nothing less than suicide.

The resulting conclusion

seems to me undeniable. As long as the race of nations continues, a race that has dominated the globe for three quarters of a century, there is not the slightest hope that humanity will break out of the spiral of progressive natural destruction (any more than it will break out of the nuclear arms race). Any pioneer who sets a good example would immediately see himself being turned into a fool because  he sacrifices himself in relation to all others. That would be the case, for example, if the EU were to raise its environmental standards so much that the industries still at home in our country were to emigrate to China, where they would then be subject to far less stringent requirements and even cause more damage to the environment than before. Not only would Europe be harming itself, but harm nature as well: the good would become the worst example.

The ominous impasse into which mankind is maneuvering itself through this inter-national race can be described even more drastically. As long as the world is made up of individual sovereign nations engaged in an ongoing struggle for greater economic and military power, humanity will, in full consciousness, be heading straight for the abyss. Never will logic and reason be strong enough to override national thymos.

V) The voice of logic is clear and unequivocal: the race of nations must be stopped

Human history has entered a stage where the unlimited sovereignty of individual states becomes the greatest threat to humanity as a whole. From an opportunity for self-determination it has become an acute danger: All states push each other towards the abyss.

But as long as developed nations are driven by this race, none of them will think of reducing its consumption of three globes to that of one, even if that is the only way to achieve sustainability. Such a decision would, as we have seen, require a radical and, in the short term, extremely painful break with the current economic system. Anyone who takes it without the others following him will weaken himself to such an extent that, in the race of nations, he will end up in the dreaded company of failed states.

For the departure from growth and innovation throws an economy back in relation to others; a sharp contraction would virtually paralyze it. As long as the global race continues, the path to a sustainable world is therefore blocked. All nations must, at the same time and in agreement with each other, renounce the mutual military threat and the unbridled economic exploitation of the planet.

But such simultaneousness of purpose and action

is at best spontaneously created in very small communities; a humanity numbering soon ten billion can neither be persuaded to renounce the personal possession of weapons (even in a democracy like the US this seems to be quite impossible) nor to renounce disposable consumption. We have to accept this conclusion as undeniable evidence.

But again logic provides a clear way of escape. Any measure that gives immediate advantages to those who do not comply with it can only be enforced from above – by a world government. This already exists today, but so far only in exceptional cases, when the UN Security Council enforces binding decisions. Only such a supranational authority will be able to ensure that reason and logic triumph over national thymos.

To put it a little more pathetically: a world government is the only institution that can save humanity from itself.

1 Cf. “Ecological economics for humanity’s plague phase” in Ecological Econom-ics, Volume 169, March 2020, 106519. The article was kindly sent to the author by Mr. Rees prior to publication.

2 See Bardi, Ugo (2013): “Extracted. How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet”, Chelsea Green Publishing 2014, and: Schmidt-Bleek, Friedrich (2014): Grüne Lügen. Munich: Ludwig Verlag.

3 Historically it is undoubtedly that the reduction of emissions resulting from a slump in growth may result in economic catastrophe: “… an 8 to 10 percent drop in emissions, year after year, is virtually un-precedented since we started powering our economies with coal. In fact, cuts above 1 percent per year >have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval<, as economist Nicholas Stern put it in his 2006 report for the British government… Only in the immediate aftermath of the great market crash of 1929 did the United States see emissions drop for several consecutive years by more than 10 percent annually, but that was the worst economic crisis of modern times” (Naomi Klein, 2016).

Per email I get the following response from Prof. William E. Rees:

Dear Gero (if I may be so bold) – 

I much appreciate your invitation to comment on your most recent piece.  Let me say immediately that my left brain is vibrating in near-perfect harmony with the overall thrust of your arguments and your reasons for invoking general discomfort — I am certainly comfortable withany interpretations/conclusions you have drawn from my work. 

A supportive comment or two on key passages.  You note that: 

“We will have to radically reduce our current standard of living in order to make it environmentally compatible – theoretically to one fifth…

“The same inexorable logic therefore tells us that states such as the US or Germany that are still engaged in this immense exploitation of nature, must reduce their claims not only to one-third or one-fifth, but far beyond that, perhaps down to one-tenth,…:


“The consumption of resources can be significantly reduced in a relatively simple way if we use industrial products ten times longer giving them from the outset ten times more durability. “

Absolutely. And as you acknowledge, these will be seen as outrageously impossible goals to most residents in high-income countries today.  However, there is a clear and surprisingly early precedent for your calculus (given the passage of time, you might even be considered conservative.)  As  I note in an already 10-year old paper on What’s Blocking Sustainability? a 90% reduction in throughput:

“… is not entirely a novel proposal. As early as 1993, a workshop report by the Business Council for Sustainable Development (now the World Business Council for Sustainable Development) concluded that “[i]ndustrialised world reductions in material throughput, energy use, and environmental degradation of over 90% will be required by 2040 to meet the needs of a growing world population fairly within the planet’s ecological means” (BCSD, 1993)”  (p. 20)

You can find my entire argument here:

While I am at it, I thought you might be interested in other ideas in this paper that support youranalysis.  For example, on the effect of competition on H. sapiens propensity to consume: 

“There is, however, a compound problem. First, despite material abundance, humans’ innate competitive drive as K-strategists seems relentless. We do not have a built-in “off” switch that is tripped by sufficiency.  Indeed, we habituate to any level of consumption (once a given level is attained, satisfaction quickly diminishes) so the tendency to consume and accumulate ratchets up. This is particularly so if we perceive that another social group—or country—is “getting ahead” faster than we are…  (p. 16)

Much of my article is dedicated to the idea (which you share) that humans are not primarily rational in their decision-making.  I argue that: 

“…humanity is a deeply conflicted species. We are torn, on the one hand, between what reason and moral judgment say we should do and what pure emotion and baser instincts compel us to do, particularly in stressful circumstances. As Damasio (1994) explains, “There are indeed potions in our own bodies and brains capable of forcing on us behaviors that we may or may not be able to suppress by strong resolution.” The neocortex, the seat of reason and logic, is a relatively late arrival on the evolutionary stage and does not always play a commanding role. In this light, it would be folly to assume that either individuals or society, especially global society, will necessarily deal rationally with evidence for accelerating global ecological change..” (p. 19)

On inequality: 

“…..Assuming our best science is correct, the only certain way to address poverty while avoiding irreversible overshoot and “irretrievably mutilating” our planetary home is to rejig the growth machine and to implement a world program for income/wealth redistribution. Some movement toward income equalization is necessary because, apart from being morally reprehensible, gross income disparity will eventually lead to social unrest—possibly geopolitical chaos—thus making the achievement of eco-sustainability impossible ” (p. 20).

I conclude, as you do, that an unprecedented level of global cooperation is necessary if we are to resolve the crisis (I proposed a scheme called ‘Survival 2100’ whose ultimate goal would be the creation of a much contracted, dynamic, more equitable steady-state global economy serving the entire human family within the means of nature) but, also, that the  emergence of the necessary treaty is highly  improbable: 

“…for the many reasons presented earlier in this article, there is only an infinitesimal probability that anything like “Survival 2100” will actually be initiated. Nevertheless, the effort to bring it forth is worth the potential reward. By achieving a planned sustainability, humanity, that wondrous “work in progress,” would gain an opportunity to pull itself up another rung on the bioevolutionary ladder, one in which collaborative, reasoned intelligence plays a larger role in moderating maladaptive emotion and instinct. (p. 23).

I also take the liberty of attaching a book chapter I wrote on the increasingly ‘unsustainable entanglement of nations’.  This article, in effect, makes the case that globalization and trade have enabled population expansion, increased consumption,  greatly accelerated the eco-degradation of Earth and now threaten geopolitical stability.  You make similar points in your recent articles about the risks of excessive dependence on others. Some quotes from my paper: 

“Using ecological footprint analysis, we can show that: a) globalization and trade enable individual countries vastly to exceed their domestic carrying capacities; b) the aggregate human eco-footprint is excessive by half and; c) material trade is producing an increasingly unsustainable and destabilizing material entanglement of nations. Restructuring this system is essential if the world community is to avoid precipitating a global ‘state shift’ that could destroy human civilization.” (p. 2)

“– this is a world in overshoot. Trade has become a negative sum game. The few national eco-surpluses are insufficient to cover most other countries’ eco-deficits. Trade-stimulated economic growth can therefore only accelerate the depletion of critical natural capital.” (p.9)

“Indeed, the present form of globalization facilitates the increasing growth-driven entanglement of nations in a sticky web of interdependence even as it undermines the ecological foundations of the entire system. This has created a perfect storm of unsustainability. We live in an ecologically over-full world breaching the limits of critical life-support systems whose behaviour provides the very archetypes of lags, thresholds and multiple equilibria. Should any major system (e.g., global climate) be forced over a previously untested threshold into a hostile stability regime, there may be no recovery on a time-scale relevant to human civilization. Preventative action is inhibited not only by ignorance but also by denial that feeds on powerful individuals’ and nations’ short-term economic interests in maintaining the status quo.” (p. 10)

Again, many thanks for this opportunity to respond to your piece and resonate with your ideas (and apologies if I have overwhelmed you with ‘agreement’). 

Please do feel free to use our exchanges in any way that might enhance your new book compilation. 



PS:  You cite Hobsbawm as follows: 

“But for it /the Great Depression/, there would certainly have been no Hitler… Would fascism have become very significant in world history but for the Great Slump? Probably not. Italy alone was not a promising base from which to shake the world… It was patently the Great Depression which turned Hitler from a phenomenon of the political fringe into the potential, and eventually the actual, master of his country“ (Hobsbawm, 1994).”

Makes me ponder nervously the Trump phenomenon in the US as half the population flirts with poverty and 80 of national income growth goes to the 1%.