Sunday, January 31, 2016

A new blog dedicated to the Seneca Effect

The Seneca Trap is a repository of the posts dedicated to the "Seneca Effect" that appeared, and will appear, on "Cassandra's Legacy

The idea of collapse is bad enough for most people when it deals with the running out of mineral resources along the symmetrical "bell shaped" Hubbert curve. But there is an extra dimension to collapse: it is the "Seneca Effect" (or "Seneca Trap", or also "Seneca Cliff") that notes how, most often, when things start going bad, they go bad fast - even very fast.

So,  a few years ago I started mulling over this idea, also as the result of a question that Dmitry Orlov had posed to me. I also remembered something that the ancient Roman Philosopher Seneca had written and that a friend of mine (Luca Mercalli) had pointed out to me. The result was the "Seneca Collapse model," one of a series that I call "mind sized" simple models.

The basic idea of the Seneca Model, as I implemented it, is that a complex system, such as a whole civilization, does not collapse just because it runs out of resources, but also because of side effects related to the consumption of these resources, effects that we would call today "pollution". Trapped in between depletion and pollution, the system collapses even faster. This is why I call the effect also the "Seneca Trap".

After I had developed that first model, I discovered that the phenomenon may be more complex and that there are many real-world systems that can be considered as affected by the Seneca Trap. It can be applied, in particular, to fisheries. On the whole, it is a fascinating subject that I am still exploring.

The question that I am trying to answer now is what exactly causes the Seneca Effect. Eventually, everything that moves in the universe does so because of the dissipation of thermodynamic potentials. But there is nothing written in the laws of thermodynamics that says that ruin should be faster than fortune, as Seneca had said long ago (and he didn't know anything about thermodynamics). So, I believe that there is something here that has to do with complexity and how the system is networked internally. But how to quantify that..... well, it may take some work.

In any case, there is now a blog called "The Seneca Trap" that acts as a repository of the posts on this subject that have appeared (and will appear) on "Cassandra's Legacy." If you are interested, click on it and you'll find perhaps more on this subject than you really wanted to know!


  1. The Seneca Trap of complex societies is contingent upon the energy trap for very simple mathematical reasons. Endless energy would bring endless solutions. We have neither. Natural ecosystem state shifts also collapse faster than they build and are likely energy based as well.

    Carbon Capture & Storage a.k.a. CCS. Electricity grid generation is only 18% of Total World Energy Demand a.k.a. TWED. 82% of TWED goes to extraction of minerals to produce roads, cement, steel, glass and food. So even if we built 100% efficient CCS for every electrical power plant on earth, we would only eliminate 18% of our emissions on earth. This also applies to solar % wind power. If we got 50% of all electrical generation from solar & wind power it would only be 9% of TWED. But, we need 10 times as much solar & wind power to shut down just 1 fossil power plant simply because they don't produce energy all the time. So 100% solar & wind power would require 10 times as much energy as we use now to eliminate only 18% of emission sources. This is completely infeasible. Renewable energy is unsustainable without massive energy demand destruction. This means that we cannot have green energy and economic growth like we are repeatedly told.

    We will run out of soil and water faster than we can switch to 100% green energy. You can see it all here:

    1. Basically correct: we do what we can do according to the amount of energy we have. So, we will necessarily arrive to 100% renewable energy in a relatively near future. The problem is: 100% of what?

  2. There are only a limited number of paths to climb a hill, but unlimited ways to fall to the bottom, more entropy and shorter time.

  3. Applaud your efforts, but you'll never be able to quantify it. Nature is irrational - it's a continuum, an infinitude of factors, all bleeding into each other. We arbitrarily assign categories and fool ourselves into thinking they exist outside of our perception. For a good treatise on this subject, see The One-Straw Revolution.

  4. "The question that I am trying to answer now is what exactly causes the Seneca Effect.

    The best explanation I've heard about why the Twin Towers were not bombed from within, and why they were able to come down on their own accord, is due to the potential energy they contained. Furthermore, the floors were designed to hold up X amount of kilograms on top of one another. But once those top floors started to give way and added that little bit of extra "weight" to the floor(s) below them, which weren't designed for X+ kilograms, it was game over.

    Perhaps I'm just repeating the obvious here, but likewise, there's a lot of "potential energy" built into a large civilization, and it took extra energy to concentrate all that energy so that the civilization could get bigger and bigger. Without the extra energy as an input, nothing could have been concentrated into "potential energy."

    On the other hand (or the other end of Hubbert's curve), to disassemble -- or perhaps "de-concentrate" -- all that potential energy requires an energy input if it is to be done gracefully. However, it doesn't necessarily require energy to disassemble (or perhaps requires just a bit as in the case of the Twin Towers), and if that extra energy isn't there to control things, the collapse can easily occur much more rapidly than the build up.

    If things do collapse quicker on the downside, then that's how I see it. I do bounce between Seneca collapse and Catabolic collapse myself, but perhaps it's more like somewhere in the middle, somewhat of a Catabolic Seneca Cliff Collapse (as you kind of put it).

    1. Good point: the collapse of the Twin Towers may be seen as a good example of a self-reinforcing process subjected to the Seneca Effect. In fact, one of the best examples can be found in the mechanical behavior of solids under stress. Fracture is a non linear phenomenon that follows a clear seneca cliff. And it is exactly what I am trying to do, right now, to adapt the theory of fracture to the collapse of civilizations. There are many similarities; even though they are not the same thing.

      Incidentally, it is interesting to see how so many people are so utterly convinced that the Twin Towers fell because of explosive charges placed inside the buildings. This is a good example of how most people can't think dynamically. On the contrary, even engineers, who are linear thinkers by trade, understand that some phenomena - such as the collapse of buildings, are governed by non-linear phenomena

  5. To develop a good mathematical model, I think you have to look no further than a House of Cards.

    Building the house takes a long time, and each support has to be balanced individually with only a few states where that support will stay upright. Then the next layer goes on, depending on the layer below for its stability. The layer below then also becomes dependent on the layer above remaining stable.

    A disruption anywhere in the system, whether from the top, bottom or somewhere in the middle brings down the whole house of cards, and very rapidly.

    It's basically an effect of the interdependencies that develop as any complex system evolves. It happens in ecosystems all the time when they get disrupted. A small climate change and the pond loses the bugs, then the frogs disappear, etc.


    1. Yep. See my note, above. House of cards or the Twin Towers. The same phenomenon

  6. Good initiative Ugo :-) Is there by any chance a 'public library' where you keep your vensim models used in all these articles available for download?

    1. Well, maybe I should; but too many things to keep track of. They are very simple models, anyway. And they can be reproduced using free software

  7. Love your blog Ugo, and my first comment here.
    Perhaps the Seneca Cliff has more to do with human behaviour and our inability to rapidly switch from a soon-to-be depleted resource. Eg, when fish catches begin to plateau then decline, our first reaction is to pour more resources (capital, labour) into tools (eg, fishing fleets, fracking wells) to more rapidly deplete what is left of the dwindling resource. Although the units of input per output decline, we over-invest efforts, leading ro the rapid collapse.
    Are there any examples of Seneca Cliffs that don't involve human (or similar species) exploitation of a finite resource?

  8. Charles Hugh-Smith taken to Zero Hedge on the Seneca Cliff

  9. Thank you for the new blog theme on the Seneca Cliff model Mr. Bardi. I expect to learn much from it as I have through your other writing.

  10. You may be interested in reading the posts at discussing the whys and wherefores of civilizational collapse. Interesting analysis imho.

  11. Hello,

    I believe that the Seneca Trap is one of the main problems of the anti growth organisations. We live in a very complex world, and reducing complexity to adapt it to the availability of the ressources is very difficult. Small is beautifull, but only in a complex world in which simplicity is a strong advantage, and is possible because complex society provide the needed norms, data, technologies and rules to allow simple systems to live.
    When availability of ressources decreases, instead of sharing what's left (why should 35 hours week in France stop with so much unemployment ?), people tend to concentrate what's left on things that seems most important, and suddenly you realize that things you saw at worthless are also very important, but not available anymore or much more expensive.

    Best regards,


    PS, I found a good chapter in the bible about Cassandra type of behavior. It is in the book of Jeremiah

    O Lord, you have been false to me, and I was tricked; you are stronger than I, and have overcome me: I have become a thing to be laughed at all the day, everyone makes sport of me.
    For every word I say is a cry for help; I say with a loud voice, Violent behaviour and wasting: because the word of the Lord is made a shame to me and a cause of laughing all the day.
    And if I say, I will not keep him in mind, I will not say another word in his name; then it is in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am tired of keeping myself in, I am not able to do it.

  12. Hi Ugo,

    It is too bad that all the comments piled up here rather than at your new Seneca Trap blog.

    I see that a number of others had the same ideas as I started to sketch out at Seneca Trap, namely Twin Towers collapse, entropy, energy concentrating cities, etc.

    Yes the final collapse scene is the exciting one where everything comes tumbling down with a Glacier Calving loud boom and high drama.

    Perhaps however, the seeds of collapse are planted long before, in the haphazard design of the bigger picture system. This is the boring stuff that no one looks at.

    A good analogy for a Seneca type rapid collapse might be a line up of dominoes that were slowly stood on end one at a time in a cascading pattern but on a table with one shaky leg and in a room where the door is left ajar so that the cat and dog can come running through to hit the table leg and initiate the pattern collapse. The focus here is on the unstable table and the open door, not on the eye captivating pattern of lined up dominoes.

    Where in our civilization do we have examples of shaky legs and open doors and where the fine china dishes are precariously placed on the table? How did that haphazard part of the system design come into being? Questions to ponder over.

  13. Hello,

    You have everywhere examples of collapses :
    - GM or Kodak
    - Syria, Afganhistan, Haïti, Greece, Ukraine, Soviet Union...
    - WW1, WW2
    - Ebola, Spanish flue...
    - Melting of glaciers, desertification...

    I don't believe in one single major collapse, but in multiple small collapses. Depending of the reason of the collapse, of the local ressources and of the solidarity of the other non collapsing systems, healing will come faster of slower, maybe in a totally unexpected way and it might take a very long time. If too many collapses come together, life might get very hard.

    Best regards,


  14. I'll definitely be tuning in!

    I'm thinking about a 'house of cards' in terms its structural state-space. It occurs to me that there are very few 'equilibrium states' - configurations which are not of themselves in transition to some other state. Clearly, the initial state (before starting) and the collapsed state are at equilibrium, with a relative few states at equilibrium in between.

    Building consists of imposing a careful transition from one equilibrium state to the next, following a very improbable sequence. The higher one builds, the less probable the sequence, and (presumably) fewer equilibrium states among the options.

    In comparison, there are a vast multitude of 'non-equilibrium states' - those which are of themselves in transition to another state. [Markov chain analysis might apply? Hmm...]

    It strikes me that, in a dis-equilibrium event (butter-fingers!) has a far greater chance of transitioning to another non-equilibrium state than one at equilibrium, which would tend to propogate the event.

    So a chain of self-propagating transitions would tend to relatively abrupt collapse.

    Might the ratio of standing states to collapsing ones be a good measure of how robust the house is? Perhaps modified by something like 'resistance to transition' (e.g., mortar in a brick house; or, a brick on one face would have a higher threshold than a card on edge)?

    Of course, a house of cards is only a system in the most rudimentary sense, but a place to start?

  15. How Entropy matters with regards to the Seneca Effect is a very interesting question to ponder!
    And, it even feels to me that, as often, asking the right question, like you did here, was the hardest part :
    considering that pollution is associated with high entropy states, making models that include entropy shouldn't be too hard, should it?
    (I wish I had time to dedicate to that question, but ironically, I must in the short term dedicate myself to study (other kinds of) Physics instead...)

    In other news, the weekly blogpost from John Michael Greer reminds us "Whatever happened to Peak Oil?" :
    (Along with reviewing predictions from circa 2007.)

    Specifically of note is a discussion in the comments (following the comment by Justin) about viewing the global financial/economic system and the oil industry in the light of control systems theory and how a poorly adapted control system would cause oscillations (of oil price!) and chaotic behavior...

  16. The beginning is a small growing organism eating massive amounts of resources and then towards the end there is a massive organism eating smaller amounts of resources. This does not work. The organism rapidly slips down the cliff. Order and good behavior is energy dependent and things fall apart quickly.

  17. Hello,

    I haven't been working with entropy for 20 years now, so I don't know if what I'll say now makes any sense.
    Since entropy is related to the state in which energy is, on how easily it can be used, lets start with that aspect. It's the peak oil story, you first use the easy oil, than you loose EROI, so you need more investment for the same amount of Joules. Without growth, this might be ok for a long time because increased energy efficiency might compensate loss of EROI, but since we are living in an ever growing system, there is no way out and there is a risk like in a "house of cards" type of construction.
    The same logic works for mineral ore, excepted that it can be recycled, but maybe we could compare recycling of ore with the renewable energy.
    I am not sure that entropy is enough to explain a fast collapse. The best examples of collapse come from the finance world and are related to investments that are not sustainable because they can not be supported by real economy. It can be an onion bubble in 1637, an internet bubble in 2000, housing bubbles... I feel that an economical bubble is a problem of a huge debt that is higher than the value of the asset. Our living standard can be higher that what can be supported because first resources are easy to get.
    But social sciences also need to be used. Maybe we could talk of a social entropy, but this is a difficult concept because I feel that complex system tend to work with only a few players (Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon...Boeing and Airbus...) which is the opposite of entropy, but which is a risk of collapse because you create "too big to fail" type of companies.
    In the book "23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism", Ha-Joon Chang develops the idea that elites are responsible for the state of the country they live in. This is also true in the context of peak oil, climate change... it is not the taxi driver who defined the type of energy his cars uses, the energy efficiency of his car, the level of pollution that his car creates...

    Best regards,


  18. Etienne at 11:42 PM

    Yes, "social entropy" is a clever insight indeed.

    How far above the frays of reality are our social elite?
    At the top floors of an Ivory Tower made of paper instruments every issue seems so simple!

    Make it so Joe, make it a moonshot against cancer and cure it once and for all (a paraphrase from President Obama's 2016 State of the American Union Address with him delegating the task to his Vice President, Joe Biden). Oh the hubris and disconnect from scientific reality.

    That is one example. Another is found in the recent American movie, "The Big Short" which shows how financial systems built one on top of the next (a true example of a skyscraper made of Ponzi scheme cards) start to teeter and then swiftly collapse once someone realizes the foundation (actual mortgage payments) has decayed away while no one was watching. Once the deep below foundation is gone, the whole edifice on top rapidly topples over.

    It starts with the creation of a tall office building having one management team stacked above the next. That indeed is an invocation of social entropy (the pull toward return to lower energy state and disorder).

  19. I remember a demonstration of a slow-rise, fast-collapse phenomenon.

    In the basement of the west wing of the West Engineering Building of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in the 1950’s & 1960’s was the Fluid Mechanics Lab. One popular demonstration consisted of a long stretch of horizontal pipe (¾" ID or so) which drained water from an elevated tank and discharged it into the air several feet above a catch tank. A pump recirculated the water from the lower tank to the elevated tank.

    Glassy-smooth water emerged from the pipe and fell parabolically into the lower tank. While one watched, the water would emerge faster and faster and landed farther and farther from the end of the pipe. Eventually (in a very few minutes) there would be a shuddersome BANG, the water would suddenly turn burbly-rough, and in barely a few seconds only the veriest trickle would emerge. Then the cycle would repeat itself. It was fascinating.

    Of course, the transition from laminar to turbulent flow, at a Reynolds Number of about 2000, involved a major increase in flow resistance. I would nominate this simple demonstration to be an example of the Seneca Effect.

    I am unaware of any equivalently simple example of an Inverse Seneca Effect, in which growth is rapid and the collapse is sluggish. Indeed, the only example I can think of is Spain, which in the 15th Century grew into a superpower and then went into a protracted decline which lasted well into the 20th Century.

  20. Apologies! Golden Age Spain rose in the 16th Century, the 1500's. Its apogee is generally felt to have been the sailing of the Invincible Armada in 1588. But for sure, the decline was very much flat-tailed.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)