"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

The Seneca Book by Ugo Bardi

Springer: The Frontiers Collection

The Seneca Effect

Why Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid

Authors: Bardi, Ugo

Presents wisdom from an ancient Roman Philosopher that you can use today. Explains why technological progress may not prevent societal collapse. Provides a true systems perspective on the widespread phenomenon of collapse. Highlights principles to help us manage, rather than be managed by, the greatest challenges of our times.
The essence of this book can be found in a line written by the ancient Roman Stoic Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca: "Fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid". This sentence summarizes the features of the phenomenon that we call "collapse," which is typically sudden and often unexpected, like the proverbial "house of cards." But why are such collapses so common, and what generates them? Several books have been published on the subject, including the well known "Collapse" by Jared Diamond (2005), "The collapse of complex societies" by Joseph Tainter (1998) and "The Tipping Point," by Malcom Gladwell (2000). Why The Seneca Effect?
This book is an ambitious attempt to pull these various strands together by describing collapse from a multi-disciplinary viewpoint. The reader will discover how collapse is a collective phenomenon that occurs in what we call today "complex systems," with a special emphasis on system dynamics and the concept of "feedback." From this foundation, Bardi applies the theory to real-world systems, from the mechanics of fracture and the collapse of large structures to financial collapses, famines and population collapses, the fall of entire civilzations, and the most dreadful collapse we can imagine: that of the planetary ecosystem generated by overexploitation and climate change. The final objective of the book is to describe a conclusion that the ancient stoic philosophers had already discovered long ago, but that modern system science has rediscovered today. If you want to avoid collapse you need to embrace change, not fight it. Neither a book about doom and gloom nor a cornucopianist's dream, The Seneca Effect goes to the heart of the challenges that we are facing today, helping us to manage our future rather than be managed by it.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Seneca Effect: Soon to Become a Book!

Reposted from "Cassandra's Legacy"


"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

This is very early as an announcement: don't expect this book to appear before Spring 2017 (and, BTW, the cover above is purely a fantasy of mine). However, I thought that things are advanced enough that I can announce this work in progress. I have signed a contract with Springer for publishing this book in their "Frontiers Collection" and it should appear in Spring 2017. The German edition should appear a little later, published by Oekom Verlag.

So, I have been working at full speed on this book all this summer and I can announce to you that, today - actually half an hour ago - I finished it!!! Yes, I arrived at the end of it; 97,000 words in total. I can tell you it was some work. Quite some work! And I looked at everything that I had made, and behold, it was very good!

Well, to say that the book is finished is a bit of an exaggeration: as it is, the manuscript requires a lot more refining, retouching, and rearranging. But it has taken a shape, a logic, a form - it is something that says what I wanted to say (more or less) and excludes what I didn't want to say (more or less). So, things are moving onward according to plan.

So, what will you be able to read in this book? It is a veritable smorgasbord of collapses: you'll read about the mechanics of fracture, the collapse of Egyptian pyramids, about financial collapses, famines, extinctions, the demise of the dinosaurs and - of course - about the fall of the Roman Empire, a favorite subject of mine. But the book is not just a list of collapses, it deals with the theory behind them: system dynamics, network theory, thermodynamics, entropy and more abstruse things which I am not sure I understand myself. And something about Seneca and Stoic philosophy, of course!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Seneca Cliff goes mainstream

The concept of the "Seneca Cliff" seems to have gone mainstream. Below, it is mentioned in a recent post by Dennis Coyne on "peakoilbarrell" as an obvious concept. Just as when you say "Gaussian Curve", you don't have to specify what shape the curve has, so it is for the "Seneca Curve". It looks like I started some kind of avalanche with my 2011 post when I introduced the term. See also my blog wholly dedicated to the subject.

Here, the projections by AEO (annual energy outlook) seem to me very optimistic; can production really keep growing until 2035-2040? If that were to happen, however, the subsequent collapse would be truly abrupt.


EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook and the Seneca Cliff

The scenario above shows an Oil Shock Model with a URR of 3600 Gb and EIA data from 1970 to 2015 and the Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) 2016 early release reference projection from 2016 to 2040. The oil shock model was originally developed by Webhubbletelescope and presented at his blog Mobjectivist and in a free book The Oil Conundrum.
The World extraction rate from producing reserves must rise to 15% in 2040 to accomplish this for this “high” URR scenario. This high scenario is 100 Gb lower than my earlier high scenario because I reduced my estimate of extra heavy oil URR (API gravity<10) to 500 Gb. The annual decline rate rises to 5% from 2043 to 2047 creating a “Seneca cliff”, the decline rate is reduced to 2% by 2060.
The scenario presented above uses BP’s Energy Outlook 2035, published in Feb 2016. This outlook does not extend to 2040, maximum output is 88 Mb/d in 2035 at the end of the scenario. This scenario is still optimistic, but is more reasonable than the EIA AEO 2016. Extraction rates rise to 10.6% and the annual decline rate rises to 2.5% in 2042 and is reduced to under 2% by 2053.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Donald Trump and the Seneca Collapse

From "Cassandra's Legacy" Saturday, April 2, 2016

In this post, I argue that the ascent of Donald Trump in the US presidential race is a symptom of the ongoing breakdown of society, in turn caused by the loss of control generated by resource depletion. At the bottom of this post, you'll find a simple system dynamics model describing the situation and generating another example of "Seneca Collapse

Donald Trump seems to have taken everyone by surprise. Whether or not he gains the Republican nomination, and whether or not he becomes president, he took the media by storm: people writing on blogs and newspapers are reeling from the impact, asking themselves: where the heck did this come from? What is he? A God? The reincarnation of Hitler? Or of Mussolini? The devil? Or what? Personally, I don't claim to have been less surprised than most by Trump but, rethinking about the situation, I think it is reasonable to say that something like Trump was unavoidable. He is, really, best defined as the visible effect of the ongoing social phase transition. A discrete change in our path in the direction of collapse.

For a good number of years, I have been studying the reasons for the collapse of societies. And, at the beginning, I tended to explain it as mainly the result of the depletion of crucial resources; crude oil, in our case. But, the more I think about that, the more I understand that the relation between depletion and collapse is far from being straightforward. A society can very well collapse without running out of anything; think of the case of the Soviet Union. When it collapsed, the Union had still plenty of mineral resources, but it couldn't find a way to exploit them in a convenient manner. In the case of the Roman Empire, also, there is no evidence that it run out of food or of any basic resource. Rather, it ran out of the resource it used for paying its troops, gold and silver for its currency. In both cases, it was a question of the collapse of control. As we all know, power without control is nothing.

Note that the loss of control is related to resource depletion, but the relation is not direct. It works like this: any complex society can exist only in certain conditions: it is not enough to have access to natural resources. It is necessary to be able to distribute these resources in such a way to keep all the sections of society supplied; this is a question of control. You can also use the term "governance" if you like to avoid a term that has a military ring to it. The point is that if a society is unable to allocate the a resources in such a way to make most people accept the way they are allocated, it will break down, or collapse, or both things.

In our world, resource allocation is controlled by the entity we call "the market", with some correction on the part of another entity that we call "the government". Generally speaking, the government is supposed to correct for the fact that the market is not supposed to provide a fair distribution of wealth. For instance, the government is supposed to provide health care services even to people who can't afford it. This is why taxes are progressive (or used to be, before president Trump took office). This is what we normally call democracy: it works on the shared belief that society is kept together by a certain degree of fair sharing of the available resources.

It works, but only in some conditions. In particular, it works under the assumption that the available resources are relatively abundant. If that's the case, it is more convenient to create new wealth by exploiting some untapped resource than to steal wealth from others who already have it. But that's not always the case. Lets'imagine that you are out of your job. In normal conditions, you look for another job. But if there are no jobs available, or you are too old to get a new job, your only possible survival strategy is theft or robbery (it is happening). Then, if those silly Arabs are sitting on our oil, then it makes sense to bomb them to smithereens and get it. And why should the poor get our money for their health problems?

Note that you don't need to run out of anything to cross the critical point. Within some limits, you may assume that the cost of exploiting a natural resource goes up with the inverse of the resource abundance while the cost of stealing it from someone who has it may be taken as approximately constant. So, there has got to be a point where stealing becomes a better strategy than finding new resources. It is a phase transition in society (see the model, below). At this point, society goes to a crisis that leads it either by some form of breakdown, including "ethnic cleansing," or to some kind of centralized military control. The second outcome can be said to be better than the first. That's what the Romans did when it moved from a republic to an Imperial system. That's the path in front of us.

If we see the situation in these terms, then Trump is, really, nothing unexpected. He is a symptom of the ongoing breakdown of the social pact in the US and all over the West. Indeed, he is capitalizing on this breakdown by using his aggressive rhetoric, playing on the attempt of the white (former) middle class to maintain at least some of its previous prosperity and privileges. Trump is not (yet) an emperor and probably he'll never be one. But he is a step in that direction; an unavoidable consequence of resource depletion.

When the first barrel of oil was extracted from underground in 1859, it might have been possible to imagine that depletion would cause big problems, at some moment in the future. It would have been impossible to imagine that, one century and a half later, it would lead to a presidential candidate with carrot-colored hair whose motto could be "we shall overcomb." But so is the future: it always surprises you.


Cannibal foxes and the Seneca Collapse
by Ugo Bardi, April 2016

Here is a simple model that explains the transition of a complex society from a strategy mainly based on exploiting new resources to one based on the theft of resources from those who have them already. The model is based on well known the "Foxes and Rabbits" model; where we assume that foxes are the predator and rabbits the prey. Here, we examine only a single cycle of the model; assuming that rabbits reproduce too slowly to make a difference. For more details on how this model works and how it can be used to fit historical data, take a look at this paper of mine.

To describe the phase transition, I assume here that some foxes can become cannibals and eat other foxes. These cannibal foxes can use a double strategy, if rabbits are abundant, they will eat rabbits, but if they are not, they will eat other foxes, especially if the latter are very abundant. Here is the model, implemented using the standard conventions of system dynamics and the "Vensim" software.

And here are some results of the model, showing the evolution of the populations of the regular foxes and of the cannibal ones

You can see how the cannibal foxes grow as a "parasite" of the regular foxes, causing their population to collapse more rapidly than it would have done without the cannibals. It is another example of the "Seneca Collapse".

This is, of course, a very simple model, but I think it conveys the basic mechanism of the breakdown of society. This breakdown occurs not when society actually runs out of anything, but much earlier. That seems to be what's happening to us and Donald Trump is just a symptom of the change. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

CO2 emissions facing a Seneca collapse?

Reposted from "Cassandra's Legacy". I argue here, among other things, that the Seneca collapse of the world's production system might "save" (so to say) us from climate change. But, on the other hand, not even that may be enough!

Living in interesting times: have CO2 emissions peaked?

Image from MIT Technology Review

The projections that had been circulating during the past few months turned out to be correct. Now, it is official: the global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions peaked in 2014 and went down in 2015. And this could be a momentous change.

Don't expect the emission peak, alone, to save us from the impending climate disaster, but, if CO2 emissions will start an irreversible decline, then we need to rethink several assumptions that we have been making on how to deal with climate change. In particular, depletion is normally assumed to be a minor factor in determining the trajectory of the world's economy during the coming decades, but that may not be the case. Depletion is not a good thing in itself, but it might help us (perhaps) to stay within the "safe" limits and avoid a climate disaster.

CO2 emissions are mainly the result of the combustion of fossil fuels and of activities made possible by the combustion of fossil fuels. And, since we expect the production of fossil fuels to peak and decline as the result of depletion, it shouldn't be a surprise that CO2 emissions should peak too. But it is surprising that we may be already seeing the peak. For instance, Laherrere had assumed the peak for all fossils to occur not before around 2025. And many people would have seen these projections as ridiculously catastrophistic. Most of the published scenarios for the future saw CO2 emissions increasing for at least a few decades in the future unless draconian economic or legislative measures to limit them were taken.

So, what we are seeing may be simply a fluctuation; not necessarily "the peak". But, it might also be the big one: the point of no-return. From now on, we may find ourselves rolling down on the other side of the Hubbert curve. It would be the true vindication of the "base case" scenario of "The Limits to Growth" that had seen the combination of gradual depletion and pollution to cause the start of the terminal decline of the fossil based industrial system at some moment during the 2nd-3rd decade of the 21st century.

Let's assume that we really are at the peak of both emissions and fossil energy consumption, then what? First of all, the event will be surely misinterpreted. The techno-optimists will say that what we are seeing is proof of how human ingenuity can solve all problems while the anti-science crowd will hail these results as the evidence of two things: 1) that climate is nothing to be worried about and 2) that those silly climate scientists have been proven wrong one more time.

Of course, none of these interpretations is correct and the situation remains critical for various good reasons. I can list at least three of them

1. There is really no reason to congratulate ourselves for being so smart. The reduction in emissions may be partly due to better efficiency, renewable energy, and the like. But, mainly, it is the result of the global economic slowdown. The IMF data indicate that the world's GDP has peaked in 2014, together with CO2 emissions and 2016 could shrink even more (see also Tyler Durden). The reasons for all this have to do with the gradual decline of the energy yield of fossil fuels, in turn related to progressive depletion. That has generated the disaster that struck the oil industry and the whole mineral industry in the form of collapsing prices. With the decline of the extractive industry, the reason why emissions peaked is because people are poorer, not smarter (so much for the so-called "dematerialization" of the economy).

2. The fact that emissions may have peaked does not mean a reduction in the CO2 accumulation in the ecosystem. We are only slowing down the flow, but the stocks keep being filled. CO2 accumulates in two main reservoirs: the atmosphere and the oceans and we may already have too much of it in both. And that says nothing about possible feedback effects out of human control, such as the release of methane from hydrates. So, we are still risking a lot in terms of the very unpleasant things that could occur in the future (including a runaway climate change).

3. Even assuming that emissions are facing an irreversible decline, the decline rate is likely to be still too slow to stay within the limits that are perceived as (perhaps) safe. Let's assume that emissions will follow a "Hubbert" curve, that is they will go down at the same speed as they went up so far. It means that in the future we will emit approximately as much we have emitted up to now. Can that save us from catastrophic climate change? Not really. So far, we emitted a grand total 1465 gigaton (Gt) of CO2) that might be the amount that we'll emit in the future. Unfortunately, according to Meinshausen et al  in order to have a 25% probability to stay below the 2 degrees limit, we cannot emit more than about 1000 Gt of CO2. And we are not there. According to Meisenhausen, with 1500 Gt of CO2 emitted, we are almost exactly at a 50/50 probability of staying below 2 C. If your hobby is to play the Russian roulette with a real gun, you should enjoy the situation we find ourselves in.

Still, the possible peaking of the CO2 emission. although not sufficient to save us, may not be a bad thing since, at least, it eases the task of staying within the safe limits. And not just that. These new data should lead us to rethink about some of our entrenched assumptions. So far, we have been assuming that a herculean effort will be needed to force the economic system to stop using resources that were assumed to be abundant and cheap. So herculean that it seemed to be totally impossible. But, if we really are at the peak of fossils, then the effort needed could be much less herculean: depletion will help us a lot. At this point, the emphasis should shift from "phasing out" fossil fuels - that would go largely by itself - to "phasing in" renewables - that needs a specific effort. And if we want to phase in the renewables we need to do that before the collapse of the fossil fuel industry makes it impossible to invest enough in their deployment.

Finally, there is another interesting possibility (in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse: 'may you live in interesting times'). The decline might not follow a
Hubbert curve but, rather, a Seneca curve. That is, emissions may decline much faster than they grew in the past. That implies, of course, a parallel crash of fossil fuel production and of the world GDP. The resulting  economic collapse might keep us within the "safe" climate limits. That would be so bad to be almost unimaginable, but, at least, better than some truly horrible climate scenarios. And, why not, we could have both the collapse of the economy and a runaway climate change! (not just fire or ice, but fire and ice)

Truly, we live in interesting times.


Note: from some messages I received, it seems that many people find that the mere concept that the world GDP could decline is unthinkable and contrary to some universal principle. And, yet, it is shrinking. See this plot from Vox.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The abrupt collapse of the twin towers in New York: a case of "controlled demolition"?

The concept of "Seneca Collapse" is supposed to be applied mainly to socio-economic systems. Here, however, I would like to discuss it in the framework of the 9/11 attacks in New York and of the related legend of the "controlled demolition". Image above from xkcd (licensed under creative commons). 

In 2004, I attended the 4th ASPO conference on peak oil, in Berlin, and there I met Michael Ruppert (yes, that Ruppert!). Among other things, Ruppert told me that some CIA agents he personally knew were attending the conference. Later on, the same day, someone whom I had never met before introduced himself and chatted with me for a while. He told me of something that I had never heard before. It was about the 9/11 attacks in New York. It has been proven, he told me, that the towers didn't collapse because they were hit by the planes. No, it was a  controlled demolition: explosives were detonated inside the towers in order to make them collapse. It was an inside job! After that conference, I never heard from him again.

More than one decade after that conference, I still wonder about all this. Was it true, as Ruppert had told me, that there were CIA agents attending? And the person who had told me the story of the controlled demolition, who was he? Was he one of those agents engaged in "planting" an absurd story with a group of people known for their somewhat conspiratorial theories? I can't say, of course, but let me tell you that I am paranoid enough that I can't discount the idea that Ruppert was perfectly right.

One thing that I can say from these recollections of mine is that the legend of the "controlled demolition" of the Twin Towers was being diffused in 2004. This is an interesting point in itself; because it is not clear where the legend originated from. Some data seem to point out that it was proposed for the first time just the day of the attack, but it didn't go viral until 2005-2006. Today, it remains one of the weirdest and - in a certain sense - most fascinating legends among those that pullulate in the Web, where it nicely competes with equivalent ones, such as the "chemtrails" idea (and note how Randall Munroe masterfully mixed the two things together in the image, above).

The controlled demolition legend shows how difficult it is for us to understand collapse. In engineering, smart people have been making the same mistakes over and over, assuming that a structure was safe when it was not; unable to understand how easily things break. Even today, when we should know enough about the theory of fracture, things keep crashing and breaking all the time; taking us by surprise. It was, probably, this surprise that led some people who were watching the collapse of the towers on Sept 11, 2001 to think that it wasn't possible that the fall was "natural". Someone, they thought, must have been masterminding the whole event, pushing the buttons that detonated the explosives with the incredible precision necessary to cause the buildings to fall at exactly the speed that things reach when they fall freely.

But engineering is a good playground for learning about things that collapse all of a sudden, and the collapse of the twin towers was nothing exceptional. You may see it as one more case of a "Seneca Collapse" - a term that we can apply to engineering just as to the collapse of civilizations. We can understand it as part of the general rule that things are built slowly, but tend to collapse rapidly.

Despite being so patently absurd, the theory of the "controlled demolition" maintains an incredible traction as a meme residing in the Web. It is because it is not just about engineering; it is part of a general trend and it involves much more than a poor understanding of the engineering of fracture. There is one more collapse behind that of the twin towers: the collapse of trust in governments. I have discussed in a previous post of mine how this collapse of trust may have been generated by the brazen lies we were told about the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq in 2003, but it seems to be a necessary result of the trajectory of a collapsing civilization. Lies generate more lies until truth disappears, buried underneath. The "lie curve" can't be exactly measured and so I can't say if it has the typical shape of the "Seneca Curve". But we can say that, from the early years of the 21st century, it was a landslide: conspiracies started being seen everywhere and everything that had an even vaguely defined as an "official" truth generated a counter-interpretation based on the idea that the government was lying to us: chemtrails, peak oil, fake lunar landings, and all the rest.

The problem is that the fact that a theory is wrong doesn't make another theory right: after all, there is only one truth, but lies are many. And we cannot even say that all "conspiracy theories" are wrong by definition (conspiracies do exist!). So, where is the truth? It is somewhere, buried under a gigantic mass of lies as thick as the debris of the collapse of the Twin Towers. And we may never be able to dig it out.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The financial collapse as an example of a "Seneca Cliff"

The concept of "Seneca Collapse" has been discussed by "Zero Hedge" where Tyler Durden reproduced an article previous appeared on Charles Hugh Smith's site. Smith says:
I propose that the Global Recession of 2016 will trace the Seneca Cliff as described by Ugo Bardi.  ... I think a strong case can be made that the global financial/economic system is primed for a ride down the Seneca Cliff.

This makes a lot of sense. In the hierarchy of complex systems, the financial system is, indeed, one of those most easily prone to collapse. Many biological and social systems have built-in systems to manage emergencies and counter the external perturbations that may send the system off balance. In biological systems, we have, for instance, the immune system; in the social systems we have the army, the firemen, and others. But the financial system has none, at least none that is built in the system. Actually, it may be argued that the world's financial system is purposefully built in order to be unstable, even though external entities - governments - may try to stabilize it.

Of course, the application of the Seneca phenomenon to the financial system is somewhat different from the model I developed. A better model for financial collapse could be developed, probably, starting from the punctuated collapse model of complex networks developed by Bak et al. But, in the end, it is the same phenomenon: the rapid collapse of complex systems is a property of connected networks; where the breakdown of one or more links may generate a cascade of broken links that brings the system down to a lower complexity state. In my model, there are only three nodes in the network, but that's enough to generate a rapid collapse.

But what are these models for? The concept of the Seneca collapse applied to the financial system is not so much a tool for predicting something. We know that financial collapses have already happened in the past and we won't be surprised if they will happen again in the future. Models are, instead, a framework for understanding the reasons of collapse. The main message, in this case, is that most complex systems are fragile and tend to collapse, unless there exists something that operates in order to stabilize them. And a problem of conventional economics, as Smith notes, is that: 

Conventional economists are entirely blind to system fragility. There is no ready Keynesian Cargo Cult econometric formula that measures systemic fragility, so it simply doesn't exist within conventional economics.

Is it a problem? Maybe not so much, at least in the long run. Fragile systems collapse and disappear, resilient ones tend to survive and take over. It has always been like that, it is called natural selection. Eventually, by trial and error we'll learn how to manage complex systems. It won't be painless but, on the other hand, no one ever said life was fair. Just eventful.