Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The World is a Fountain

The world is complex, variegated, convoluted, multi-faceted, interconnected, complicated, circuitous, and more. And, yet, there is a logic in the way it works.

Look at the Trevi Fountain, in Rome, it is complex and variegated, but in the end there is a logic: water always goes down. It is physics: it is the gravitational potential that makes water move.

The same is true for the whole world. Lot's of things are going on, but there is a logic: energy goes down, it degrades, it is a chemical potential driven by the second law of thermodynamics.

So, no matter how complicated the Trevi Fountain is, water always goes down. No matter how complicated is the world, chemical potentials always "go down."

This is the idea at the basis of the paper that I published in "Sustainability", titled "Mind-Sized World Models." as part of a special issue dedicated to the 40th anniversary of "The Limits to Growth"

The term "mind-sized" comes from the ideas of Seymour Papert, who said that models should be simple enough to be understandable, if one has to act on them. On the basis of this idea, I tried to put together simple, "mind-sized", models which can still tell us something of the way the world works. World Models, in short.

So, I build these models as if they were multi-level fountains, one basin, two basins, three basins, and more.

Each basin represents a stock of energy, which is dissipated in steps, going from top to bottom (in energy terms). It is a concept that I already described in a post of mine titled "Entropy, Peak Oil, and Stoic Phylosophy" but that now I examined more in depth.

Now, imagine a multi-level fountain; imagine that it is dry at start. Then put some water in the top basin. It will go down, step by step, until it reach the bottom basin, and then disappear falling on the ground. It is, in the end, what we have been doing with fossil fuels; burning them until they disappear as they become atmospheric pollution.

Here is the model for the "three-level" fountain. It is the one that gives rise to the "Seneca Effect" (When things go wrong, they go wrong fast)

This is the model that originates the "Seneca Cliff" that we may also call "collapse" and that we may experience at some moment in the future.

My paper in "Sustainability" is "open access". Here is the link


Note: there is a tendency, recently, to say that all "free access" journals are hoaxes and that all you have to do to see your paper published in one of them is to pay some money. It may be for some journals, but surely not for all of them. About  "Sustainability", I can testify that submissions go through a very serious review and that it is not easy at all to publish in it. Try and see by yourself. 

Here are some thoughts of mine on "open access" science.



  1. Hey Ugo, thanks for your update! Seem that "Seneca cliff" works well for butterfly Monarchs, whose area (population as well?) declined to a record, my update in graph since observations begun is here and read also AP report.



  2. "The world is complex, variegated, convoluted, multi-faceted, interconnected, complicated, circuitous, and more. And, yet, there is a logic in the way it works"

    Yes and Yes.

    But because of the first sentence most folks get totally lost in the detail and the many intricacies (or if you will "the baroqueness") and never see the underlying beauty and the "logic" which in the end is what actually counts.

    Unfortunately it only really counts "in the end" so until we get there (to the end of the line) most people will continue to run amok among the details. (precisely what is happening now with climate change and other macro phenomena such as limits to growth)

    I think something similar is being said by the ancient Indian story of the Elephant and the blind men. (see the wikipedia link at the bottom)

    I "see" (perhaps blindly) a lot of parallels between the Trevi fountain and the Elephant !

    Even if the two stories are not the same. The Trevi fountain is in a way is easier to decipher because constructed by man. The Elephant was constructed by evolution over billions of years and is therefore perhaps even trickier to decode and decipher? And particularly if one is interested in figuring out how water flows inside of it, instead of just how its shape feels or what sort of an object it might be.

    As usual, a really great and interesting post so many thanks to Ugo Bardi.

  3. Dear Ugo,

    Many thanks for another interesting and thought-provoking article. And now, please permit a small disagreement.

    Your thermodynamoic analysis would be unchallengeable if the Earth were a closed system, but it is not: it is an open system. Fountains may age and die, but a river can run downhill forever, because it is fed by the rain, and the Sun's energy lifts the rainwater out of the ocean and back up to the clouds, forever. And the river can turn a millwheel, forever.

    Likewise, the prevailing wind will blow forever, and can turn a mediaeval windmill forever. And a noria in a river, powered by the flow, can lift water from the river to the head of the aqueduct, forever.

    Moreover, these machines generate no entopy, which is why they are examples of what I call "Zero Entropy Technology". Yes, entropy of course is generated, but no more so than if the river and the wind were left alone: their energy would dissipate in almost exactly the same manner, but would not perform useful work along the way. The machines do not increase the rate of production of entropy.

    And if we built these devices as they did in Antiquity, using only muscle power and existing zero-entropty machines, we could run a civilisation, likewise, forever. Yes, there would be far fewer of us, we would work harder, and enjoy hardly any neat gadgets - but with reasonable confidence that, unless somebody reinvented "progress", our great-grandchildren would live in a world no worse than our own.

    Indeed, they would inherit a better world, because we could spend our spare time on those things that are, indeed, capable of "infinite growth on a finite planet": poetry, music, dance, history, philosophy, and much, much more.

    The secret of how to live the good life was captured five hundred years ago by your fellow countryman, Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino: "essere umano".

    1. There is no disagreement, Robert. If you look at the model that I show in this post, there is a renewable input - it shows as the little "cloud" at the top. In the run, I set this input to zero and this is not a bad approximation considering the present situation. If we were willing to invest in increasing that input, we could indeed move more or less smoothly into a new civilization, all based on renewable energy. But we aren't, so we are going to see a collapse. At the bottom of the hill there is necessarily some zero net entropy flux, but we don't know which form it will take.

    2. Robert, the fact that the Earth is an open system can't save it (or us) from the ravages of entropy. The Zero-Entropy Machines you postulate are no such thing. First of all, they impede and disorder the flow of the wind or water in the course of harvesting its potential energy. Next, they concentrate that diffuse energy, and permit it to be used in human activities. Those activities have their own deleterious effects - i.e. produce their own entropy. Consider the use of that wind electricity in a electric blast furnace - the added smelting capacity calls forth pollution and disruption of the earth in the mining of the required ore, then the residue from the smelting becomes slag - a classic entropic product if there ever was one. Just because you're harvesting the energy of the wind or water slowly doesn't mean you have fooled Mother Nature.

  4. Just digged that out from latest Oil Drum discussion from Paul Chefurka. Our termodynamic populacion is +80 billions people and counting

    Now - that makes me REALLY optimistic!


    1. Yup.... I am discovering that I am a big optimist, too!

    2. Ugo, on the other place of infinite internet I read that there IS a solution after all, see this dramatic decline of costs of producing solar electricity. Electric cars next? :)




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)