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