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STIAS Lecture Series: Prof. Mario Giampietro – Taking the red pill: the failure of reductionism in sustainability analysis

STIAS Public Lectures Series

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Prof. Mario Giampietro from ICREA (Catalan Institute of Advanced Studies and Research) at the Institute of Science and Technology for the Environment, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona and STIAS fellow will present a talk with the title:

Taking the red pill: the failure of reductionism in sustainability analysis


It has become more and more evident that conventional scientific narratives are inadequate to analyze the sustainability of current patterns of economic growth. This presentation explains the reason for this failure: simple narratives based on a drastic simplification of the representation of the socio-economic process have worked well in the phase of dramatic expansion of human activity and economic growth in an “empty” world. However, they are no longer effective in dealing with the representation of the socio-economic process in a phase in which human activity is taking place in a world of “excess” –  peak oil, peak soil, peak water, peak everything.

The presentation starts by illustrating several examples of misleading narratives still used to deal with the predicament of sustainability: (i) the misleading assessment of food energy consumption per capita in developed and developing countries; (ii) the misleading use of per capita indicators in economic analysis; (iii) the misleading idea that increase in efficiency increases sustainability (Jevons’ paradox); (iv) the misleading concept of dematerialization of the economy of developed societies.  These examples show that conventional economic narratives are prescribing the “blue pill” (à la “The Matrix” film) preventing us from finding useful insights into the existing crisis.

I continue with examples of applications of more complex analytical tools based on the concept of societal metabolism.  These tools can generate an integrated assessment of socio-economic development based on a multi-dimensional and multi-scale analysis. They also provide a richer understanding of the sustainability predicament and have the promise of providing us the “red pill”.  One can accordingly develop a better appreciation of the seriousness of the situation and the existence of a direct relation between the effects of “peak oil”‘ and the ongoing financial crisis.

Date and time

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

13:00 – 14:00​

All times are in SAST (UTC+2)


No location.

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Journal Article

Francois Diaz-Maurin and Mario Giampietro. 2013. A “Grammar” for assessing the performance of power-supply systems: Comparing nuclear energy to fossil energy. Energy, 49, 162-177. doi: 10.1016/

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