"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.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Seneca Effect: how the concept evolved

Reposted from "Cassandra's Legacy"


An image taken at a recent meeting in Barcelona. You can see the evolution of the concept of "collapse", from Malthus to Forrester. The latter can be seen as the true originator of the concept that I call the "Seneca Cliff" or the "Seneca Effect



Malthus (1766 - 1834) is supposed to be the catastrophist in chief, the prophet of doom whose prophecies never came to pass. And yet, if you read what he wrote (not everyone does), you see that he never mentioned the concept, familiar to us, of "civilization collapse". Malthus was perfectly able to imagine pestilences, wars, and famines; all common occurrences at his time. But he wasn't aware of the idea that population could grow well above the "Malthusian limit" and then crash.

The idea of a cyclical pattern of growth and decline came much after Malthus, you find its origins in biological studies, with Lotka and Volterra being perhaps the first to propose it in the form of a mathematical model in the 1920s and 1930s. Later on, in the 1950s, Marion King Hubbert proposed his "bell-shaped" curve for the cycle of production of crude oil in a specific region. For us, it is a relatively well known story even though most people seem to remain convinced that - somehow - growth can go on forever.

Finally, the idea that the bell shaped curve is asymmetric was explicitly expressed in terms of a mathematical model by Jay Forresterin the 1960s, Even though Lucius Annaeus Seneca had already proposed it in qualitative terms long before, Forrester can be seen as the true originator of the concept of "Seneca Cliff."

Over more than a century of work, humankind has developed tools that make us able to face the future. We only have a little problem: we are not using them; our current leaders don't even know that such tools exist. And so, our destiny is to slide down, blindfolded, along the Seneca Cliff.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Those whom the Gods want to destroy, they drive toward the Seneca Cliff



Talking of madness, this piece from the Guardian reaches a nearly sublime level. It is about the Maldives, one of the places of the world most seriously threatened by sea level rise. Really, read it, it is worth savoring every word.

So, what does the Maldivian govenrment decide in order to face the climate threat? That their real goal is "development," in terms of "Riviera-style super-resort with sea sports, six star hotels, high-end housing and several new airports," and "Plans to increase tourism from 1.3 million people a year to more than seven million within 10 years".

And the sea level rise? A threat that, according to IPCC, "could mean 75% of the Maldives being under water by 2100"? Well, according to a government official, it is not going to happen next year. We have immediate needs. Development must go on, jobs are needed."

Not next year, maybe, but take a look at the capital of the archipelago, Malé, and imagine what's going to happen, sooner or later.




Is this an epidemics of brain disease? Or do the Gods really drive crazy those whom they want to destroy?

Maybe. But there is also a perfectly rational explanation for what's happening. Imagine that you are part of the elite of the Maldives. And imagine that you are smart enough to understand what's going on with the Earth's climate. As things stand today, it is clear that it is too late to stop a burst of global warming that will push temperatures so high that nothing will save the Maldives islands. Maybe not next year but in a few decades, it is nearly certain.

So, given the situation, what is the rational thing for you to do? Of course, it is to sell what you can sell as long as you can find a sucker who will buy. Then you can say good riddance to those who remain.

What we are seeing, therefore, is a game in which someone will be left holding the short end of the dynamite stick. When the elites of the Maldives will have left for higher grounds, the poor will be stuck there. For them, the Seneca Cliff ends underwater.



















Monday, June 5, 2017

Are they just scamming us, or are they experimenting with us?




Sometimes I have the impression that they are not just fooling us. They are experimenting with us to see how we react. Do you remember the experiments that Konrad Lorenz would do with geese? Fooling them to follow a puppet as if it were their mother? Something like that.

Sometimes, the sheer amount of idiocy involved in certain messages makes you wonder. See the example above. A "little burp" from Mt. Etna, supposed to have bee spewing "10,000 times" more CO2 into the atmosphere than the whole amount emitted by humankind.

Now, the picture of the volcano seems to be a scam in itself. It comes from a Facebook site defined as "Fantastic World Collection" and the title doesn't seem to promise strict guidelines for presenting only real photos. This one looks heavily retouched, if not completely fake. But that's a minor problem. Consider the text, come on, "10,000 times"? And won't anyone feel the need for a minimal fact check of this number before diffusing this image on Facebook as the obvious proof that human caused climate change is a hoax? And yet, people do that. This photo arrived to my Facebook account with exactly this kind of accompanying message.

That minimal fact check would lead anyone to discover that volcanic eruptions emit, at best, about 1% of the CO2 emitted by humans. This comes from the very first hit on Google on this matter.


So, the claim in the figure with Mount Etna is wrong of about a factor one million. But what's such a little discrepancy among friends? As I noted in another post, the fact that these claims are so blatantly absurd is not a bug, it is a feature. They are not aimed at normal people; they are studied for identifying and selecting suckers. And suckers are very useful for many things, in politics as well as in commerce.

I go a little farther than that and I tend to think some of these absurdities don't even have specific commercial or political purposes. They are experiments, tests to probe the level of human gullibility; designed to collect data that then could be used for more important and darker purposes.

Maybe I am wrong, of course. But, in any case, we seem to have lost control of how reality is connected to our perception of reality. And if you lose your perception of reality, you are heading straight for a steep Seneca Cliff.






Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The essence of the coming global Seneca Cliff



"The economy is collapsing because it was based on cheap oil, which is no longer cheap to pull out of the ground — despite what you might pay for it at the pump these days. The public is understandably confounded by this. But their mystification does nothing to allay the disappearance of jobs, incomes, prospects, or purpose. They retreat from the pain of loss into a fog of manufactured melodrama featuring superheros and supervillains and supernatural doings."
- James Howard Kunstler


(h/t David Casey)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Simulating peak oil





Not exactly a Seneca cliff, but in the same category. Here, one of my students shows the results of her simulation of resource depletion compared with the classic ASPO projections of peak oil. 

They say that the universe is all a simulation. Here you see the simulation of a simulation

Monday, February 27, 2017

Another Seneca Cliff: The "Mouse Utopia"




Image courtesy of Hans Pelleboer. This is a screenshot from Dr. Calhoun's `Mouse Utopia' experiment from the 1960s Abscissa; time in days, Ordinate: Log N population.

In Calhoun experiment, rats were confined in a finite physical space, but they were always provided with sufficient food. The result was a growing population density that eventually led to disaster. Here is how Calhoun describes his results (Calhoun, John B. (1962). "Population density and social pathology". Scientific American. 206 (3): 139–148.)


Many [female rats] were unable to carry pregnancy to full term or to survive delivery of their litters if they did. An even greater number, after successfully giving birth, fell short in their maternal functions. Among the males the behavior disturbances ranged from sexual deviation to cannibalism and from frenetic overactivity to a pathological withdrawal from which individuals would emerge to eat, drink and move about only when other members of the community were asleep. The social organization of the animals showed equal disruption. [...]

The common source of these disturbances became most dramatically apparent in the populations of our first series of three experiments, in which we observed the development of what we called a behavioral sink. The animals would crowd together in greatest number in one of the four interconnecting pens in which the colony was maintained. As many as 60 of the 80 rats in each experimental population would assemble in one pen during periods of feeding. Individual rats would rarely eat except in the company of other rats. As a result extreme population densities developed in the pen adopted for eating, leaving the others with sparse populations.

[...] In the experiments in which the behavioral sink developed, infant mortality ran as high as 96 percent among the most disoriented groups in the population.


Who