Wednesday, April 25, 2018

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



by Ugo Bardi

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 book, "The Seneca Effect" is available in English and in German

 





Thursday, March 1, 2018

The "Seneca Effect" Published




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.
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!

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Here is a description of the book that you can find on the Springer site


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 civilizations, 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.



















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