"It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The World is a Fountain

Originally published on Cassandra's legacy Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The world is complex, variegated, convoluted, multi-faceted, interconnected, complicated, circuitous, and more. And, yet, there is a logic in the way it works.

Look at the Trevi Fountain, in Rome, it is complex and variegated, but in the end there is a logic: water always goes down. It is physics: it is the gravitational potential that makes water move.

The same is true for the whole world. Lot's of things are going on, but there is a logic: energy goes down, it degrades, it is a chemical potential driven by the second law of thermodynamics.

So, no matter how complicated the Trevi Fountain is, water always goes down. No matter how complicated is the world, chemical potentials always "go down."

This is the idea at the basis of the paper that I published in "Sustainability", titled "Mind-Sized World Models." as part of a special issue dedicated to the 40th anniversary of "The Limits to Growth"

The term "mind-sized" comes from the ideas of Seymour Papert, who said that models should be simple enough to be understandable, if one has to act on them. On the basis of this idea, I tried to put together simple, "mind-sized", models which can still tell us something of the way the world works. World Models, in short.

So, I build these models as if they were multi-level fountains, one basin, two basins, three basins, and more.

Each basin represents a stock of energy, which is dissipated in steps, going from top to bottom (in energy terms). It is a concept that I already described in a post of mine titled "Entropy, Peak Oil, and Stoic Phylosophy" but that now I examined more in depth.

Now, imagine a multi-level fountain; imagine that it is dry at start. Then put some water in the top basin. It will go down, step by step, until it reach the bottom basin, and then disappear falling on the ground. It is, in the end, what we have been doing with fossil fuels; burning them until they disappear as they become atmospheric pollution.

Here is the model for the "three-level" fountain. It is the one that gives rise to the "Seneca Effect" (When things go wrong, they go wrong fast)

This is the model that originates the "Seneca Cliff" that we may also call "collapse" and that we may experience at some moment in the future.

My paper in "Sustainability" is "open access". Here is the link