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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The "Seneca Cliff", how the concept evolved

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 Forrester, in 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.


  1. That limits to growth and all restrictions for the well-being, are also well described in two books: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years 2052 and Limits To Growth (Jorgen Randers)...

  2. I recently read a book of environmental historian Sverker Sörlin where he discuss that until 1789 (just to set a date) people were looking backwards to understand things and assumed that the future would be more or less the same. After 1789 people looked towards the future and envisioned a better future. But today people look neither to history nor to the future anymore.

  3. Oh, the leaders know, certainly. In Spain the Ministry of Energy is full of articles about the resource crisis. And the leaders of Podemos, a leftist coalition in a meeting with people from the Spanish The Oil Crash were explained the concept and how things are.
    They answered back that they understood that perfectly well, but if they told the people that the future was one of no growth and diminutions, they would lose the elections.
    First because the people don't want to hear that, they want to hear that things can only get better.
    And second because the Popular Party -the corrupt conservative party in power-would say, --see, the communists want to take away your cars, your house and your air conditioning and your jobs, vote for us, you know, we steal a bit for us, yes, but we create jobs for you, you can count on us for that.
    And they would win by a landslide.

    Now that is in Spain, perhaps it is different in other parts of the world...

    1. Same issues her in the USA. The Politicians have been told by more than one group of people that the system is unsustainable, but to admit that would be political suicide. Our example is the past President Jimmy Carter, who told people that they needed to reign in their expectations, and turn down their thermostats in the winter. He was nearly laughed out of office. That was in the late 1970's. Ever since we have been lying about the economic situation by creating debt to substitute for real growth, and hoping for a miracle.

    2. I agree with Armando, polotical leaders mostly know, they have access to experts and information but the voters don't want to know. If a politician was honest, they'd lose their position at the next election.

      A great example was Jimmy Carter,installed solar panels on the roof of the Whitehouse, had a goal of 20% renewable energy for the US by 2000, was concered with pollution and unending growth etc and told the electorate... beaten by Reagan who then had the panels removed and doubled down on stupidity.

    3. This clip never fails to amuse me.

    4. Thanks for the link Karl. It certainly depicts the challenge of change.



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)