Children are refusing this rotten inheritance

Strega Nona is a child’s story published in the seventies portraying a good-hearted grandmother witch (the “strega nona”) and her young assistant. In the plot, the assistant spies on the witch to learn a spell that produces large amounts of cooked pasta from a magic pot. One day, when the witch is not around, he pronounces the right words and the pasta start growing and growing…

However, he had failed to notice the closing parts of the spell, which stop the production of pasta — a simple sequence of kisses blown by the witch towards the pot. When strega nona returns, the pasta has overflown from her house, threatening to flood the entire village.

The people, who were initially happy from having free delicious food, now want to lynch the assistant. The witch, however, is able to stop the ongoing disaster and to convince everybody that a better punishment is to make the assistant eat all the pasta he created.

I use this simple story to illustrate the consequence of activating a positive feedback loop. Without constraints, this kind of feedback loop produces an exploding amount of any material in a system, be it the pasta in the story or human beings living on the planet Earth.

Indeed, as you can see in the figure below, human population has been growing exponentially over the last millennia, ranging from a few thousands by the time we dominated agriculture to an expected 9.2 billion in 2.050, clearly overshooting our planet’s capacity and putting our future in danger.

As if there were no tomorrow, there are estimates pointing even to a number above 12 billion people living in the year 2,100. If we make it through.

The problem is clear: nothing in natural or social systems grows this way without inviting, eventually, collapse. When there are too many people aspiring to clearly unsustainable living standards in a finite planet (welcome to 2019!), the scenario of a climate tragedy seems increasingly imminent.

Expectations for more “pasta” in business

Perhaps the reader of Strega Nona may chalk up the assistant’s failure to account for exponential growth to blunders only fictional characters can make. When it comes to the complex problems of our real world, on the other hand, we like to think we know better.

However, consider what world-famous management guru Roger Martin writes in the book Fixing the Game (2011).

Martin argues that there are two distinct markets in today’s capitalism: the real, where firms offer products and services and there are customers to satisfy, and the expectations market, nested in the financial system, where the only metric that matters is stock price.

Ideas have consequences and Martin severely criticizes agency theory, which emerged in the 1970s, giving rise to the practice of rewarding executives with stocks of the companies they run. Although the intention was noble, what followed, in practice, was the development of a distorted game.

In this game, like the pasta of Strega Nona, there is constant pressure for ad infinitum growth in stock prices. In practice, no one but hedge funds and big players in financial markets win the game. CEOs can only aspire to short-term victories, often at the expense of sheer manipulation, as vividly described in the book.

Worse, unrealistic expectation for more “pasta” fosters the ideology of infinite growth, helping to drain natural resources. As typical ideologies, the demand for endless growth blinds us to the obvious physical limitations of economic activity.

Not only do we treat the supply of natural resources as infinite, but also the fiction that we can produce “pasta” without any negative consequences hinders charging for externalities. No country has managed to tax the production of CO2 and other damages to the environment produced by business ecosystems.

Believing in narratives that justify the status quo, we keep living in predatory mode, treating the planet as a gigantic toilet. The daily glance at newspapers confirm we are not paying attention to the problem. It is all business as usual — it is profitable, after all, to let the world go to hell.

The reaction, ironically, has been coming from the children, led by the Swedish teenager Greta Thumberg, already nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Moved by idealist mindsets, children are the ones able to see things for what they are. They easily perceive the rotten inheritance they are receiving from older generations.

No wonder they are in a panic: the “pasta” is overflowing and they have realized that no magic kisses can stop it. The lesson is clear: get the grown-ups out of the room!