Friday, March 23, 2018

"The Seneca Effect" Will Be Presented in Berlin on March 26th

I will be in Berlin for a presentation of "The Seneca Effect" this Monday, March 26th. The presentation is organized by the Urania society and it will be in English, with symultaneous translation in German. There follows a good critical comment of the book by Alexander Behr on "Brennstoff." I used Google translate the text into English and then I refined it using my modest knowledge of German. I know it is not a great translation, but it seems to be readable to me. And I hope that it is also faithful enough to the original

Slow growth, rapid ruin - the "Seneca collapse" of our society

A Review by Alexander Behr
Who remembers the Club of Rome? It was a late 1960s coalition of scientists who warned against overexploitation of the planet's natural resources through exploitation and exploitation. The first report to the Club of Rome entitled "The Limits to Growth" in 1972 created a tremendous response. Today, the 42nd report to the Club of Rome was published. The author, the Italian chemist Ugo Bardi, attempts to explain why complex systems collapse and how we can handle them.

In the 1970s, the founders of the Club of Rome created a model to calculate the "limits of growth" generated by increasing resource use. Ugo Bardi, himself a longtime member of the Club of Rome, continues to develop the theses of that groundbreaking work and presents his new study on the subject with his book "The Seneca Effect - Why Systems Collapse and How We Can Handle It".

Bardi is particularly interested in the collapse of the ancient Roman Empire and the transferability of this historical event to the present day. The eponymous Roman philosopher Seneca is quoted by Bardi with the memorable phrase: "Growth is slow, while the road to ruin is fast." Seneca, born in 4 BC, was first an influential advisor to Emperor Nero and later fell out of favor. He foresaw the collapse of the Roman Empire well before its actual entry.

Considering that Rome was founded in the 8th century BCE and reached its apogee in the 2nd century AD, one can attest that the Roman Empire grew for about a thousand years, to decay in a mere two to three centuries - Ugo Bardi calls this phenomenon the "Seneca effect". But why do complex systems collapse? Bardi tries to test the "Seneca effect" on the basis of the current world order.

He explores the question of whether it would be conceivable that today's complex world system could experience a more or less abrupt collapse due to mutually reinforcing effects. According to Bardi, small causes can lead to big effects in complex systems. The problem is that modern industrial society, as soon as it goes into a crisis, usually tries to solve the problems it faces by expanding its governance structures - in other words, it is doing a fatal "more of the same" instead to initiate a change.

The silver runs out
So, inevitably, the so-called "tipping points" occur and that makes it extremely difficult for complex societies to respond to disorder with adaptation. One of the main reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire was that the mines in northern Spain were no longer able to supply the silver necessary for coin production in the usual quantities. The cost of controlling the controlled territories became too high. In addition, trading on the Silk Road devoured large quantities of the coveted precious metals.

The exhaustion of the gold and silver mines was followed by a cascade of feedback effects that was far more visible and spectacular than the influences that caused it. The Roman Empire experienced political unrest, internal conflicts and the collapse of its army. Ugo Bardi believes that this "Seneca collapse" can teach us a lot about the difficulties facing our current empire, the globalized world under Western hegemony. Due to the fact that the modern world has grown so fast, it could collapse with a bang, said Bardi.

In his book, Ugo Bardi takes us on a journey through materials science and physics: he explains material breaks in ships and airplanes. Repeated, especially cyclic, loads lead to the weakening of the structure, to the so-called material fatigue. Cracks appear, which are barely visible at first - the break is often treacherous and in one rapid swoop: it is the "Seneca ruin" of the material. Bardi argues that in complex systems the unexpected and sudden change from one state to another can always lead to surprises.

The earthquake equation

Bardi assumes that the "Seneca effect" can be observed within materials is the same effect, within certain limits occurring in social, economic and biological systems. All these systems would have to obey the general laws of thermodynamics, from which certain rules and tendencies could be deduced. But the findings from physics in many cases also tell us what we do not know. Thus, so far, there are no such things as an "avalanche equation " or an "earthquake equation" that would be able to determine exactly when and where an avalanche would go off or an earthquake would occur.

Therefore, according to Bardi, despite all our knowledge of earthquakes, we can only protect ourselves from them by constructing buildings to withstand them in the event of a fall. Similarly, it is in the case of financial crises: due to the complexity of the financial world, no one is able to know exactly when the next collapse of the banking system will arrive. Bardi interprets the mortgage crisis of 2008 as a classic example of a "Seneca collapse" as the property market crash was much faster than its previous growth.

In the transfer of complex physical systems to social and social processes there lies an innovative strength of the book, which contains numerous graphics. At the same time, however, it is also his enormous weakness. In order to transform physical phenomena into social phenomena, one needs a more or less rigid image of man. So Bardi assumes that "people tend to overuse resources." He misses the fact that the depletion of resources always has to do with power and governance structures that must be historically determined and are always changeable.

Missing social theory

Elsewhere, Bardi attempts to apply the "Boltzmann Gibbs distribution", which was developed to describe entropy in atomic systems, to the social distribution of monetary wealth. In the next paragraph, he relativizes his mind game. In some ways, one has the impression of listening to a professor who is chatting with himself. Ugo Bardi lacks a coherent social theory that could provide orientation in his quite interesting theses on the collapse of complex societies.

As an additional problem, Bardi attaches high importance to the highly problematic theses of the British economist Thomas Malthus. Malthus developed in the early 19th century, named after him Population theory, which was directed primarily against the "excessive proliferation" of poor sections of the population in England. Already Friedrich Engels argued as the main objection that "overpopulation" basically does not represent a technical, but a socio-economic problem. According to Engels, capitalism is repelling an industrial "reserve army" of labor, a "lumpenproletariat", who in the worst case will be denied any right to life.

Today, nearly one billion people worldwide belong to this lumpen proletariat - outcasts who do not even benefit from being exploited. Even today, all horror scenarios of the so-called danger of overpopulation are aimed at these people. But Bardi overlooks the fact that according to the World Food Report report, today's agriculture could feed twice as many people as currently living on the planet. Overpopulation cannot be the reason for the uncontrolled exploitation of resources.

It is the current economic system that, with its inherent compulsion to maximize profits and drive economic growth, has caused enormous damage for about 200 years. Profits are more important than the satisfaction of human needs. Hunger and environmental destruction could be ended, distributive justice enforced. Despite the fact that Bardi misses this knowledge, he clearly takes position on this point and advises to develop economies that are secure against the unpredictable shocks of the global financial system.

Likewise, Bardi advises that we "rid ourselves of the stubborn craving for fossil fuels that are ruining our planet." Because peak oil could have a similar effect to a "peak silver" of the Roman Empire. But even before this happens, several tipping points of the ecological earth system are threatened, which cause not only a "Seneca collapse" of our society but of the entire ecological system. Despite some daring scientific pirouettes, Bardi's new book provides important evidence that rethinking our view of the world is more than necessary.


  1. Herr Behr comments that "today's agriculture could feed twice as many people as currently living on the planet". He misses the point. Although there is problem of distribution, if there is too many people living on the planet only industrial agriculture can feed them and industrial agriculture itself is not sustainable in the long run because it needs liquid fossil fuel. Not too speak about pollution, etc...

    1. I was going to make the same point.

      food is the end product of an oil fuelled factory system. Remove the fuel and the production line stops.

      Pre-oil, the world supported 1 billion people. Which by my reckoning, means that 6.5bn people do not have a future if there is no oil to support them

      we are ultimately driven by genetic forces. These forces are not changeable.

      As individuals we can alter our personal destinies for good or ill, but collectively we are under the same unknown collective control as a murmuration of starlings.---wondrous to behold but completely unpredictable

      There can never be a coherent theory on the collapse of societies

    2. It's fascinating that even intelligent people, when confronted with harsh reality of finite planet, react with useless phrases. That's the nature of Herr Behr's comment.

    3. I suppose we could solve problems of food distribution by dreaming of utopias. As a serious question, can anyone find any society where there was no substancial gap between the theoretical and actual level of food production? First of all, how would one even establish a valid maximum theoretical food production level?

      In any case the two of you ( Ivan and Norman ) are pointing out the obvious missed connection between fossil fuel use and food production which underlies all of this.

  2. Interesting what Vaclav Smil thinks about the concept. Ge sees a slow energy transition but its not a follower for the Limits To Growth model. htt://

  3. "But Bardi overlooks the fact that according to the World Food Report report, today's agriculture could feed twice as many people as currently living on the planet. Overpopulation cannot be the reason for the uncontrolled exploitation of resources. "
    Ces deux phrases sont pitoyables. 1) Comment produire de la nourriture sans pétrole, avec des problèmes de sécheresse ou d'inondation, de l'eau impropre à la consommation, une météorologie qui devient folle, et sur des terres épuisées pour une population doublée?
    2) cette population aura aussi besoin de vêtements de moyens de transport de logement etc... le problème des ressources ce n'est pas juste de la nourriture.
    3) l'empire romain a été créé en 27 avant JC et non pas au 8ème siècle avant JC.
    4) notre problème actuel n'est pas tant un problème de gouvernance qu'un problème de délire technophile. Les deux étant liés pour notre grand malheur

    Jean-Luc Jourdain

    1. Oui, moi aussi j'accroche sure les mêmes phases. J'aime bien ton "délire technologique" ! Très vrai.

      Ça semble être très en vogue de pointer le mode gouvernance du doit. On semble oublier les désastres écologiques de l'URSS, par exemple ou les extinctions de gros mammifères terrestres causés par l'arrivée des homo sapiens en Amérique du nord.

  4. One of Cassandras of our times is still live and kicking:

  5. first, I love your blog.

    and I was convinced of the Seneca Effect by Nicole Foss,

    writing on energy & financial matters

    at the Automatic Earth.

    I thank you for carrying on.


  6. Amusing to see how the author of the review simply refuses to recognise the consequences of over-population.

    'It's not PC, so I won't see it'.

    Failure to see the obvious is one of the factors in our inevitable demise as a species.

  7. It is true, that high yield agriculture uses a lot of energy (as well as other finite resources, like phosphates and fossil water).
    But to say "No fossil fuels - no high yield agriculture." is a bit simple. Because, as has been written right here in this blog often enough, there will be no point in the near or middle future with "no" fossil fuels - but they will of course become more expensive. Also, the exergy production from renewable sources will increase heftily.
    How much exergy do we actually need for high yield agriculture? A human being burns on about 100 W. Energy production is about 2 kW per capita in the world mean, 4 kW /c. in Europe and 8 kW/c. in the US, Kanada, Australia and some Emirates (1).
    How big is the energy use for agriculture? In Germany, certainly a high agriculture yield country, energy use in agriculture is 200.000 TJ/y which boils down to about 80 W/c (2). Unfortunately, I don't know what exactly is contained in this number, so I give it a factor of 2, which leads to 160 W/c. This is less than 1/10 of the world per capita mean in energy production. It is safe to assume, that the world can, in the long run, get all the energy it produces now from renewable sources. Which implies a hefty decrease in energy usage at the top, and a moderate increase at the bottom.
    As a conclusion, I don't see, why it should be energetically impossible to run a high yield agriculture on the whole world on renewables, with still enough left for moderate transport, manufacture and even leisure.


  8. "Bardi overlooks the fact that according to the World Food Report report, today's agriculture could feed twice as many people as currently living on the planet."

    Of course, even if this were accepted as momentarily accurate, it does not take into account either the exponential growth of demand pressures (consumption) nor depletion of resources (water, topsoil, open acreage,fertility and salination losses).

    'Twice' of anything is one, scant doubling- or halving period.

    Dave Z



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). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)