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Dealing With Collapse: The Seneca Strategy

 



The ruins of the Egyptian Pyramid of Meidum, perhaps the first large building to collapse in history (*). The collapse of large structures is part of a fascinating field of study that we may call "Collapsology." I already wrote a book on this subject, titled "The Seneca Effect" (Springer and Oekom 2017), available in English and in German. Now, I am writing a second book with Springer which expands and goes more in depth into the matter with the idea of being a "collapse manual" dedicated to how to understand, manage, and even profit from collapses. It should be titled "The Seneca Strategy" and it will be available in 2019. 



About 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote to his friend Licilius noting that "growth is slow, but ruin is rapid". It looks obvious, but it was one of those observations that turn out to be not obvious at all if you go in some depth into their meaning. Do you remember the story of Newton's apple? Everyone knows that apples fall from trees, isn't it obvious? Yes, but it was the start of a chain of thoughts that led Isaac Newton to devise something that was not at all obvious: the law of universal gravitation. It is the same thing for Seneca's observation that "ruin is rapid." Everyone knows that it is true, think of a house of cards. But why is it like this?

Seneca's observation - which I dubbed "The Seneca Effect" (or the "Seneca Cliff" or the "Seneca Collapse") is one of the key elements we need to understanding the developments of what we now call the "science of complexity." In the space of a few decades, starting since the 1960s, the development of digital computing has allowed us to tackle problems that, at the time of Newton (not to mention those of Seneca), could not be studied except in a very approximate way.

Using system dynamics, network science, agent-based modeling, and more, this new science has allowed us to penetrate a world that in a certain sense was familiar to us: the world of real things that are born, grow, and sometimes collapse in a ruinous way. The basic ideas in the behavior of complex systems are always the same, especially when dealing with collapses: complex systems are complex because they are dominated by the mechanism we call "feedback." Because of feedback effects, a large structure may collapse when just one of the elements that compose them fails. That may lead to the failure of the elements that surround it. These, in turn, cause the failure of other elements of the system, and so it goes. The result is what we call an "avalanche" and, as Seneca said, "ruin is rapid". 

One question I am often asked about system science is, "can we use it to predict the future?" Alas, there is a small problem with this question: we cannot have exact data on the future because the future doesn't exist (yet). But that doesn't mean that we can try to understand the future. After all, what is the future if not a fan of possibilities that we ourselves may decide to turn into reality? Seneca himself would probably have agreed with this concept: he was deeply involved in the Stoic philosophy. As a good Stoic, he knew that we must always be prepared for the future, knowing full well that ruin can come upon us at any moment. This is true for individuals as well as for an entire society. He himself experienced a "rapid ruin" when his former pupil, Emperor Nero, accused him of treason and ordered him to commit suicide. Seneca had no other choice but to comply. 

So, we can use mathematical models to describe the Seneca Effect, but they are mainly a quantification of ancient wisdom. It is not a question of predicting the future, it is a question of understanding it. And we can use the models to understand that the ecosystem in which we live is not a supermarket from which we can take what we need - and without even having to pay. It is a complex system, subject to the Seneca Collapse. And since we are also part of the ecosystem, when the ecosystem collapses, we collapse, too. Even a stoic like Seneca would have said that if we have a chance to avoid the climate collapse, we should try.

All these things, and many more, I put them together in the book published in 2017 that I titled "The Seneca Effect." Now I am writing another book that should be called "The Seneca Strategy" -- it should be published by Springer in 2019. This second book is more a "collapse manual" that can be used to manage collapses: that is, it explains how to avoid being destroyed by collapses, how to minimize damage, and even how to profit from collapses (hint: have your enemies collapse first!). What I said in my first book remains valid: collapse is not a bug, it is a feature of the universe!


_____________________________




(*) Of course, the collapse of the Meidum Pyramid was an inside job. Look at how the building crumbled: would you believe that it collapsed vertically, all in a symmetric heap? No way. And the witnesses of the collapse say that it fell as rapidly as an apple falls from a tree - which is just impossible. So, it was an inside job devised by Pharaoh Sneferu who had his acolytes strategically placing explosive charges within the pyramid. The Pharaoh wanted the pyramid to crumble so that he could accuse the King of Nubya of having thrown it down by having a charioteer throw his horses against the building at full speed. A classic false flag operation.


The Seneca Effect: What It Is and Why It Is Important For Us

 


About 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote to his friend Licilius noting that "growth is slow, but ruin is rapid". It was an apparently obvious observation, but one of those observations that turns out to be not obvious at all if you just think a little about it.

For example, do you remember Newton's apple? Everyone knows that apples fall from the trees, but it took Newton to get out of this well-known thing something that was not at all obvious: the law of universal gravitation. It is the same thing for Seneca's observation that "ruin is rapid." Everyone knows that it is true, think of a house of cards. But why is it like this?

It turns out that Seneca's observation - which I dubbed "The Seneca Effect" (or the "Seneca Cliff" or the "Seneca Collapse") is one of the key elements we need to understanding the developments of what we now call the "science of complexity." In the space of a few decades, starting since the 60s of the twentieth century, the development of digital computing has allowed us to tackle problems that, at the time of Newton (not to mention those of Seneca) could not be studied except in a very approximate way.

This new science has allowed us to penetrate a world that in a certain sense was familiar to us: the world of real things that are born, grow, and sometimes collapse in a ruinous way. But it was also a world that once upon a time scientists, accustomed to describing everything with equations, found it difficult to understand and which - in practice - ignored. But there are no equations for certain natural phenomena such as earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, or even for seemingly simple things like the bursting of a balloon. Nor are there any equations for phenomena such as the collapse of the empires, the collapse of the stock market, the disappearance of political parties, and many other things.

All these things, and many more, I put them together in my book that I titled "The Seneca Effect" in honor of the ancient Roman philosopher. It is a story that I tell starting from an example that, in the book, I call "the mother of all collapses," that of the Roman Empire. But in the book I talk about many things: the breaking of objects, the collapse of buildings, the frequency of earthquakes, the war, the financial markets, mass extinctions and many other things. The basic thesis is that all these phenomena have a lot in common: the mechanism of the collapse happens when the system is dominated by the mechanism we call "feedback."


That is, systems may collapse when just one of the elements that compose them fails. That may lead to the failure of the elements that surround it. These, in turn, cause the failure of other elements of the system, and so it goes. The result is what we call an "avalanche" and, as Seneca said, "ruin is rapid". It is a feature of the systems we call "networks", which have undergone a very rapid development of studies in this regard. 

So, I wrote an entire book on the subject that you may find interesting. But one question I am often asked about this book is, "can we use it to predict the future?" The answer is, in the words of Mark Twain, that predictions are always difficult, especially when they have to do with the future. What is the future if not a bundle of possibilities that we ourselves decide whether to turn into reality or not? The future can not be predicted, one can only be prepared for the future. 

Seneca himself would probably have agreed with this concept: he was deeply involved in the Stoic philosophy. As a good Stoic, he knew that we must always be prepared for the future, knowing full well that ruin can come upon us at any moment. This is true for individuals as well as for an entire society. He himself experienced a "rapid ruin" when his former pupil, Emperor Nero, accused him of treason and ordered him to commit sucide. Seneca had no other choice but to comply. 

We can use mathematical models to describe the "Seneca Effect," but they are mainly a quantification of ancient wisdom. It is not a question of predicting the future, it is a question of understanding it. And we can use the models to understand that the ecosystem in which we live is not a supermarket from which we can take what we need - and without even having to pay. It is a complex system, subject to the Seneca Collapse. And since we are also part of the ecosystem, when the ecosystem collapses, we collapse, too. Even a stoic like Seneca would have said that if we can try to avoid climate collapse and other environmental disasters, we must try. 

The "Seneca Effect" Published

 


The Seneca EffectWhy Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid


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.

My new book, "The Seneca Effect" is now available, you can find it on the Springer site, or on Amazon and other on-line sellers. Excuse me if I define it as "monumental" but, really, it has been a lot of work and the book contains a lot of things, mainly explained on the basis of system dynamics. It goes from the crumbling of pyramids, the breakdown of everyday things, all the way to social and economic collapses, including famines wars and assorted catastrophes. Yet, it is not a catastrophistic book. It is just that catastrophes exist and we have to deal with them. And, if nothing old ever disappeared, nothing new could come.

One thing I have to explain about this book is the relatively high price. This is part of Springer's policies; they are not mainstream publishers and they have different pricing policies. And, as you probably know, authors have little to say on this subject, although I think I managed to convince Springer to price this book at relatively low levels for their standards. Don't think I hadn't tried mainstream publishers but, apparently, books about collapse are a no-no with publishers, right now. Nobody wants to mention the subject and maybe there are good reasons.....  (in ancient times, they said, "name the devil and the devil is here")

Also, I can send you a flyer for a 20% discount; just write me at ugo.bardi(thing-a-magig)unifi.it (valid until Oct 07, 2017). If it is still too expensive for you, if you follow the Cassandra blog or the Seneca blog, there are many things you can learn about system dynamics and collapses. It is truly a fascinating subject!

I give a limited amount of free gifts to all of you. I give a limited amount of free gifts to all of you. See link below.

Get The Seneca Effect Book for FREE

The Seneca Effect: how the concept evolved

 



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.


CO2 emissions facing a Seneca collapse?



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.

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.