Thursday, February 11, 2021

Why the Hummingbird is the Most Dangerous Animal in the World

This is a revised translation of a post that I published in Italian a couple of years ago. The concept that the Hummingbird is NOT a good example of how to deal with the problems we have is also explained in some detail in my book "Before the Collapse" (2019),


If you can understand French, do watch this clip that tells not only the story of the virtuous hummingbird, but how it ends. The conclusion is "if you think with a hummingbird brain, you end up screwed". (h/t Igor Giussani). (In French, hummingbird is "colibri")

Have you ever heard the story of the hummingbird and the fire? It goes like this: there is a gigantic fire raging in the forest. All the animals run for their lives, except for a hummingbird that heads towards the flames with some water in its beak. The lion sees the hummingbird and asks, "Little bird, what do you think you are doing with that drop of water?" And the hummingbird replies, "I am doing my part".

If you studied philosophy in high school, you may think that the hummingbird is a follower of Immanuel Kant and of his categorical imperative principle. Or, maybe, the hummingbird is a stoic philosopher who thinks that his own personal virtue is more important than anything else. 

Apart from philosophy, the moral of the story is often interpreted in an ecological key. That is, everyone should engage individually in good practices for the sake of the environment. Things like turning off the light before leaving the house, turning off the tap while brushing one's teeth, take short showers to save water, ride a bicycle instead of a car, separate waste with attention, and the like. Small things, just like the drop of water that the hummingbird carries in its beak against the fire. But if everyone does their part, we will achieve something.

Maybe. But I have my doubts and I think that this story is not so wise as some people understand it. Actually, I think this matter is something akin to the stuff that comes out of the back end of the male of the bovine species. More than admirable, the hummingbird seems to me a very dangerous animal. To explain why, let me tell you a little story.

Some time ago, as I walked along the street, not far from my home, I found myself immersed in a cloud of smoke. Not pleasant nor healthy, of course. Someone had thought that it was a good moment to burn a pile of clippings from their garden, generating the cloud. Apparently they didn't worry too much about the people walking in the street or the neighbors.

Is it legal to burn stuff with big smoke in the middle of an urban area? Back home, I did a little research on the Web and I found that, in Italy, yes, you can do that, but only in small quantities and according to some strict rules designed to avoid smoking out one's neighbors and passerby. So, it seemed to me appropriate to write a small post for the local discussion group, pointing out the existence of the law and inviting people to be a little more careful with burning things in their gardens.

My gosh! What had I done! In the comments I received insults of all kinds, even threats of a lawsuit. Someone even said to me, "If you say this, you must be a very unhappy person!" (true, I swear!). The curious thing was that the insults all arrived in the name of good ecological practice. Burning the cuttings, I was told, is a natural thing, the smell they make is good, the old farmers did it and so those people who were doing that are true ecologists whereas I had no title to bother anyone with my "legalistic" considerations.

Note how the people who took this position seemed to believe that their commitment to good environmental practices, caring for their gardens or whatever, puts them in a position of moral superiority over those who do not do the same. Consequently, they felt that they could afford to ignore certain laws, for example they can smoke out their neighbors by burning clippings in the garden.

We could call this attitude the "hummingbird syndrome." The fact of being virtuous in a field, gives you the right to be a sinner in another. (I think it is also a problem of Kant's categorical imperative and maybe of the whole concept of the stoic philosophy, but I am not a philosopher so let me stick to hummingbirds). In short, some people seem to think that they can save the world by small and virtuous actions, that is behaving like the humminbird of the story, dropping a little water over a giant forest fire. And having done that, they feel that they can continue polluting in other ways.

Once I got into this order of ideas, I found that I am not the first to think about this matter. Among others, Jean Baptiste Comby wrote similar considerations in his book " La question climatique. Genèse et dépolitisation d'un problème public"(Raisons d'agir, 2015). He does not use the term "hummingbird syndrome," but he basically says what I am saying here. 

Comby's idea is that the climate issue, and in general the ecological one, has been" depoliticized ", that is, it has been entirely transferred to the private domain of good individual practices. What happens is that the members of the upper middle classes create a little personal innocence for themselves by taking care of some details when, on the other hand, they are the ones who do the most damage to the ecosystem. A petty bourgeois morality that Cyprien Tasset rightly calls "green phariseeism ." 

Here is an exceprt from Tasset's review of the book by Comby

The fifth chapter deals with the "social paradox according to which the prescriptions of eco-citizenship symbolically benefit those who are, in practice, the least respectful of the atmosphere and ecosystems" (p. 16). Indeed, existing data on the social distribution of greenhouse gas emissions show that "the more material resources increase, the greater the propensity to deteriorate the planet" (p. 185). The cultural capital, here is inclined to "show itself to be benevolent towards ecology" and allows for symbolic profits, usually going hand in hand with economic capital, is "without real effect" positive in terms of limiting emissions (p. 186). Jean-Baptiste Comby has the merit of posing this paradox without resorting, as other sociologists sometimes allow themselves to do, to the ideologically overloaded category of "bobos" (fake ecologists) (*).

In short, in my humble opinion the hummingbird is a son of a bitch: flies over the forest, throws his droplet of water, then leaves, happy to have done its duty. And all the animals that can't fly die roasted.

Which could happen to us too if we continue like this.

(h / t Nicolas Casaux)

(*) In French, the term " bobos " indicates the "Bourgeois-Bohemes" - members of the upper middle class who like to paint themselves as caring for the environments but who pollute and consume resources much more than the average citizen.


  1. Would buying EV falls into the humming bird syndrome?

  2. Hello Ugo
    just a "Hello" since you moved your blog after I dug out a windows based machine that can comment on your old one, I believe.
    You can see this type of false virtue activity in much more than ecology, I think. Incidents of child abuse by Priests and taking advantage of clients by social workers both seem to be linked to a feeling of "since I do good work, it's excusable if I slip up once in a while".
    And on the futility of fighting a forest fire with a beak full of water ... "If we all do a little, only a little will get done." is the quote that pops to mind. Good luck with your new blog and stay well.

  3. Ugo, I love your blog(s), but I believe this post misses the mark.

    You are correct in identifying the following problems:

    - "Environmentalists" can often be some of the worst polluters and quite hypocritical. Some are more concerned about preserving their industrial lifestyles than protecting life on the planet, and many play this game for social status reasons. Many are hypocritical.
    - About those people online: It is always wrong to be inconsiderate and rude on the web and it is equally wrong to take a position of moral superiority on any issue.

    But, I think you got it wrong on these things:

    - The hummingbird analogy doesn't really work. To be accurate to the problems you described, the hummingbirds would have to be simultaneously dropping lit matches and gallons of gasoline over the forest as they carry their tiny bucket of water; and the hummingbird would be super pretentious about its tiny help in putting out the fire, instead of just saying it's "doing its part."
    - You don't really understand Kant or the Categorical Imperative, nor Stoic philosophy. Nothing in these ideas would say, "be a hypocrite, point out the speck of sawdust in your neighbor's eye and ignore the beam in your own, be real self-righteous about it, and give yourself moral license to go be a jerk in other areas of life." Nor would these philosophies oppose taking scaling up moral ideas into the realm of social and political action.

    With all due respect, as someone who really appreciates your blog and your writings, but as someone who has a better grasp of philosophy, this post is, "akin to the stuff that comes out of the back end of the male of the bovine species" !

    1. Anonymous, sorry, but my comments about stoic philosophy and Kant's moral imperative were intended to be ironic. I see that you understood them as serious. My fault, I should have been clearer. Maybe I can modify the post when I have a moment, but please understand it as something written in a light mode, not a treatise of philosophy (and I am happy to acknowledge that I know very little about Kant!)

      Apart from that, I am not sure I understand your point about the hummingbirds carrying gasoline to the forest. But there are different facets of everything!

    2. Oof, my apologies! I appreciate your patience and for clarifying your intention! Again, thank you very much for keeping your blog(s) alive and well! Best wishes!

    3. Ah... my fault, nothing to apologize about. I was rereading what I wrote, and I also noted it had suffered from being translated from Italian. I'll see to clarify what I meant. And thanks for the note!