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

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Seneca Cliff as an Effect of Bureaucracy

The idea of the "Seneca Cliff" is that a certain entity, from a company to an empire, tends to fall rapidly when it is subjected to a dearth of resources and, at the same time, affected by pollution. More than once I noted that there are many forms of pollution; in the model, the term indicated any kind of phenomenon that tends to grow at the expenses of the capital stock of a society. Bureaucracy clearly satisfies the definition and an excess of it may be a major cause of collapse. Here, Miguel Martinez discusses the concept on the basis of his experience in Italy, a country that seems to be especially plagued by overbureaucracy. Martinez notes several interesting phenomena, including the fact that the decline in economic resources reinforces also the problems created by excessive bureaucracy generating a near complete standstill in everything that can be overcome only by acting illegally, which creates other problems as well. So, it seems that the only cure for over bureaucracy is the Seneca Collapse!

Bureaucracy and the Seneca Cliff

by Miguel Martinez

Ugo Bardi's blog is always a great mental stimulant. His Seneca Curve made me think of another parallel curve. Imagine two lines: the first has to do directly with resources. The other has to do with the rules which govern the resources and how they are used.Rules, laws, regulations, contracts, terms, provisions, standards, obligations, whatever...

Whoever issues them, the ultimate enforcement comes from some entity related to the state; and enforcement can be quite painful, implying the end of a career, severe financial damage, heavy expenses for lawyers, gaol or at least the stress of years of worrying about all of this, whatever the outcome.

Let's start with the line of resources. Basically meaning the relationship among available resources, extraction costs and waste.

Not being a mathematician, I tend to seek practical examples nearby, so the first thing that comes to mind is what they call the Piana, an open marshy area, hosting many species of migrant birds, a few miles to the northwest of the centre of Florence, where no tourist has ever set foot.

But Florence has to put the waste produced by 370.000 Florentines and at least 10 million tourists every year somewhere.

Then the airport isn't big enough to fit yet more tourists.

And the main highway in Italy needs to be expanded, to fit more cars.

So they are now going to put a huge incinerator, an enormous new airport and new lanes for the highway in the Piana.

After that, the city will only have itself to eat up.

But I am no expert on environmental issues. I just want to speak here of the resources available to state institutions.

At least in Italy, the state has definitely gone beyond the peak, and is starting to climb down the dark side of the Seneca curve.

Critics of neoliberalism rightly point out the enormous amount of waste and corruption, and how much is spent to nourish private interests of various kinds. Very well, but still, all that money is no longer there.

When resources diminish, cuts start bottom up.

First, a regularly paid employee in some minor museum retires, and is replaced by somebody who only works there three days a week. Then an unpaid student comes there once a week to “get practice”, and finally the museum is closed.

This bottom up aspect resembles what is happening with climate change, where bottom means places on the ecological borderline, such as Darfur some years ago, and Syria recently (see this prophetic 2010 article in Le Monde Diplomatique.

These are the first places where we feel the symptoms of a changing world. Each one so small, yet they are everywhere.

Since resources continue to be poured in at higher levels - big events, big airports, big missiles, big football stadiums - business often seems to be going on as usual.

Thomas Homer-Dixon devoted a fascinating chapter of The Upside of Down to what archaeologists discovered about Roman aqueducts in Provence. A little more lime gathers year after year, because there is a little less cleaning. Then a farmer somewhere takes advantage of the fact that there are a little less controls, and drills a small hole into the aqueduct. And finally, decades later, the whole systems collapses.

Probably most people who deal with these issues come from fields like biology or meteorology. So perhaps they don't think so much about the impact of institutions and rules on these matters.

Rules were designed for times of increasing resources. And now they clash with new problems arising from diminishing resources. And turn what could have been an elegant glide downward into a painful bum crash.

I claim a limited but very intense expertise.

I live in the Oltrarno district of Florence, where the last living human community of the old city has to deal every day with gentrification, pollution, traffic, high prices and invasion by millions of tourists.

Bringing together traditional residents and craftsmen and new immigrants from countries as different as Senegal and the UK, we have turned the last garden area still available to children and families into a community managed Commons.

Commons are one possible solution to diminishing resources – another is when institutions sell off their assets to private investors. A third solution, of course, is always to sit and complain about selloffs without attempting self-management.

A local community managing its own resources for free of course means that things work better and also cost less for the institutions. We recently saved the Municipality many thousands of euros, by tracking down and closing off a leak in the water system they would never have discovered without us.

However, as public recognition of commoning is something quite new in Italy, we find ourselves having to negotiate our place.

Every day, we have to do with administration, rules and regulations, on the lowest level. Which is exactly where the first and most significant changes take place, when we start down the wrong side of the Seneca cliff.

The countless small issues we come across are like a drop of water in which one can see the whole world, which is why our story may be of some interest to you.

Italians love to blame everything on bureaucrats and politicians, and they often wallow in self-denigration about Italian incompetence and corruption.

Of course, every place is unique, but the same laws hold in all of Italy; and I suspect they are not so different from those in most of Europe, or even in most of the world.

Lobbying, vested interests, corruption flourish in Florence as everywhere, but I do not have the feeling that they are decisive, at least on the low level we know.

I consider many Florentine officials to be personal friends, and in their way courageous, intelligent people, with the best intentions. Some are state employees, some elected politicians, some with the majority and some with the opposition (here this has little do with a left-right divide).

A few days ago, I read that a court investigation has been opened against seven employees of various levels of the Environmental Office of the Municipality of Florence. This very local story has a lot to tell us about our times.

There are 74.000 trees in Florence, planted in days when the Municipality could spend much more liberally.

In those days of plenty, rules were laid down demanding strict care for each tree, to prevent the trees from becoming sick and falling on the heads of passers-by.

Then the purse strings got tighter. What money there was had to go to matters considered to be more important than trees.

The Environmental Office received less funds.

Their vehicles and tools began to break down and were not replaced. Some people retired, new employees were not hired. The last expert gardeners retired, and their places were taken by cheap and untrained labour contracted to private companies exclusively on a price basis, in a kind of reverse auction: in 2014, one company won by cutting the starting price by 75%, another by 83%.

The inevitable result was less and less control on the condition of the trees.

One day in 2014, one branch of one of the thousands of trees in Florence's largest park fell, killing two people.

The Environmental Office employees risked criminal charges.

Rules designed to be smoothly applied in times of plenty, forced them to act under emergency conditions.

So they decided to check and fix every tree in Florence. No longer having the means to do so, they employed contracted labour without any experience to do the only thing possible: chop off branches more at less at random, topping countless trees into something resembling used toothpicks.

The officials were able to write on paper that they had followed the rules, so nobody landed in prison.

However, topping, especially if not performed by experts, can seriously damage trees. Instead of one branch, the whole tree can now fall.

Every piece hacked off was thrown into chipping machines which chop everything up and then spit the residue out.

The chipped wood included that from Florence's many plane trees (Platanus orientalis). Now, Florence is considered a hotbed of the so-called “coloured cancer of plane trees”, a deadly fungus invasion (Ceratocystis fimbriata) which is also highly contagious through contact. An early gift of globalization, by the way, since it came to Europe in infected wooden crates after the last war.

This is why there are very strict laws in Italy on how to dispose of plane cuttings, especially in hotbed areas. Chipping machines are certainly beyond the pale.

Three years went by, and last August, a large horse chestnut fell down, luckily without hurting anybody. So the rules forced the mayor to act again.

Something like 300 trees were immediately cut down.

This led to loud complaints by many citizens, and finally a magistrate opened an investigation, since the officials of the Environment Office were basically accused of:

1) not having undertaken all the checks and maintenance demanded by the rules

2) not having applied the rule that sets out that in the historic centre of Florence, under UNESCO protection, the Monuments and Fine Arts Department must approve the cutting of each individual tree

3) having also cut down trees which could have been saved with a much less radical treatment.

What is interesting is that nobody doubts the good intentions of the officials.

They are paid to save both the goats (the citizens) and the cabbages (the trees).

In the past, they had the resources to do so.

Now they don't.

So they end up on trial whatever, because they cannot save both. And they will end up on trial both for what they do and for what they fail to do.

So, when resources diminish and rules stay unchanged, an official can avoid prosecution in one way only.

He must write a text demanding compliance with a very strict list of rules, and then oblige somebody else to apply them.

He passes on the lit match, and if anything happens, the list of strict rules with his signature under them will save him.

What happens when the lit match ends up in the hands of the very last in line?

There are only two solutions in such case.

The first is to do one's activity illegally.

The second is to close down the activity itself.

In Florence, a great many things are done illegally all the time. This does not mean they are also immoral. For example, cutting down a tree which looks wobbly, without waiting for permission which would come too late if ever, may (or may not) be morally justified, but it is just as illegal as cutting down a healthy tree for one's private fireplace.

In our garden, there is a building with a large amount of broken chairs and tables, lamps that don't work and a few twenty-year old computers. In the old “public” days they just piled up, but now the community wants to keep things tidy.

So we asked how we could throw away the stuff.

In Florence, private citizens can ask for the waste disposal company to come by and take bulky waste away for free. However, businesses and institutions have to pay, and the Municipality has no money for that: office after office is overflowing with useless things they don't have the funds to dispose of. Indeed, we were told that one office of the Municipality pays rent on warehouses to store the waste other offices don't have the money to pay for.

Maybe we could just call the waste disposal company and say it is the personal property of one of us? Not exactly. Walking off with a computer belonging to the state is theft, and rightly so.

So? So, I won't tell you how we solved the problem.

Mostly, one can get away with what I might call legitimate illegality. But of course when something goes wrong, the last person in the line will be stuck with a lit match in his hand. And everybody upstream will have a paper in their hands where they say that they passed the match on in the most proper manner.

Which is why the easiest answer in the end to most problems is to simply close whatever one is responsible for down.

One of the most widely used products in Florence is a flimsy white and red plastic tape, which anybody can break through, but which officials use to prove that they sealed the forbidden area off, and whatever happens, it is not their fault.


  1. Ineresting to see the shrinking of a system, right under our nose.

  2. Some decades back, while we still lived in Detroit, I visited the HQ bldg of Detroit Public Schools. Displays, posters, conspicuous bustle: all gave the impression of activity, things getting done,and "progress" (whatever that was). It was the «chiaro» contrasting with the «oscuro» of the Detroit schools, forming another part of the chiaroscuro of the Detroit of back then. Except the HQ's fictitious «chiaro» had nothing to do with the bleak reality in the Detroit schools «oscuro» reality. In the terminology of the essay, Detroit was onto the dark slope of its Seneca course as plotted on the map of History.

    This essay by Mr Martínez made me think of «El Buscón" by Francisco de Quevedo, and of "«El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid» by Francisco Goya, bookends to the dark slope of imperial Spain's Seneca curve, in counterpoint to "La rendición de Breda" (and so many other paintings) by Diego Velázquez, representing the apex of that curve. The transition from the bright slope to the dark is noisy, messy, with a lot of overlap. Apparent in retrospect, never in the actuality.

    There are many ways to view these transitions. The Seneca curve is one.

    I'd leave Italy's experience(s); I don't know it well enough. And my wife is Hispanic, not Italian.

  3. Sad. We could use some creative solutions in the face of resource depletion, and climate change. Some illegal solutions.

  4. That Italy's public services collapse abruptly is also due to the habit of trying to keep institutions alive long after they stopped working.

    Entrepreneurs in Italy will plow money for years into businesses that are not profitable anymore. The State will try to keep companies alive long after their due date (Alitalia, the railroads, FIAT), or will refuse to shut down unneeded agencies (the agency for WWII orphans still existed in 1990s, 50 years after the end of the war).

    That is something specifically Italian, although not unique to Italy of course.

    The Dutch are more pragmatic and shut down unsustainable activities much faster, ideally right away. This does not change the trajectory of the collapse, but makes it less abrupt.

    For example:

    - When it is not possible to keep some reclaimed area dry, it is simply given back to the sea.

    - Every year, the health system covers less treatments, at a higher cost (inflation-adjusted).

    - My son's school teacher recently admitted that she cannot care for all 29 pupils in the class. Parents have to do more at home. The school system is essentially telling parents that it cannot do what it was meant to do: educate children.

    - The Dutch state essentially gave up on elderly care, each year doing less and encouraging children and neighbors to do more.

    - The pension system immediately cuts payments and increases fees if it is undercapitalized.

    - As soon as the Dutch realised that their gas was running out, they started migrating to electricity.

    Collapse is happening here, too, but people are informed and there is a debate about it. The Netherlands are not collapsing along the Seneca cliff.

    Italy will continue building high-speed trains without passengers, houses without buyers, or, say, will stay in the Euro, until one day - poof! - it will have just become impossible.

    1. DiSC - I was very struck by what you said about the Netherlands...

      I agree that the process is different from Italy, but that is exactly the kind of symptoms of decline I was thinking of.

      By the way, I found what is happening at Groningen, with its subsidence-induced earthquakes, to be tremendously significant.

      Fifty years ago, if you asked a Dutchman, "do you want fifty years of cheap gas for cooking and heating or not? Oh, by the way, some very dubious researchers believe that there might be some slight earth tremors, decades ahead from now, but we have no clear evidence", what would the average Dutchman have answered?

      Well now, the gas is over (and all the good food and warmth we or our parents enjoyed) and we're just left with the earthquakes.

    2. Miguel, we are not only left with the earthquakes: 50 years ago, people knew how to live without the welfare state and without abundant energy.

      We are left with the earthquakes, plus we have no idea of how to take over the tasks now (still) done by the state nor how to restrain our energy consumption.

      But since the government and the major institutions of the land are pretty transparent about the situation, maybe we will still have the time to adapt.

      For Italians, the change will be more abrupt. But then again, Italians still know some of their agrarian ways, and the welfare state never worked that well to start with.

    3. Its informative to observe a live test of bureaucracy that is playing out before our eyes. Cuba and Puerto Rico were both hit by unprecedented hurricanes of similar ferocity within weeks of each other.

      Of the two, Cuba renowned for its level of bureaucracy, sometimes known as a society held together by carbon paper. Its urban housing has for years been so starved for repair funds that often even a coat of paint is beyond reach. Rural housing is like the homes of poor people everywhere--- pieced together from whatever materials are available. Food distribution is through a state bureaucracy, supplemented by thousands of small private farms reluctantly accepted by the government. The principal source of foreign currency is from tourism. And the level of personal income is only a fraction of that in it's capitalist neighbor, Puerto Rico.

      Yet in spite of (or could it be because of?) these characteristics Cuba has what is recognized as the best hurricane preparedness and response in the world. In the US there is a nearly total news black out on all things Cuban, but from what is reported by the rest of the world it appears that the civil defense bureaucracy functioned as intended during the storm and that roads were being repaired and services starting to be restored the day after the hurricane passed.

      In contrast, in the decades since I lived there Puerto Rico has been "developed" along the capitalist/suburban sprawl model. Freeways,long commutes, a car for every house, paving over agricultural land,importation of almost all food, an elite wealthy class, and a poorly paid industrial working class employed in factories lured in by tax-free investment scams.

      Puerto Rico's response to the hurricane is nothing short of total collapse. No electricity--- for as long as 6 months in the most remote areas. Little potable water and no electricity to boil it for purity. Failed sanitation systems with Cholera and disease on the immediate horizon. Little or no food. A mother country with little interest in aiding its citizens who happen to have brown skins and a president who would rather build a wall than rebuild the island.

      The only solution for Puerto Ricans is to immigrate to the mainland because their capitalist society made no preparation for emergency and only followed the law of profit and greed.

      Sometimes an organized bureaucratic society does have advantages over a "free enterprise" one.

  5. Let's Talk About FOOD !

  6. A moving and greatly saddening Florentine history.

    A similar tragedy is unfolding in England, where trees are being butchered in order to save the expense of proper care. But then, local officials have nearly always been idiots when it comes to trees - far too untidy!

    But let's add the relentless advance of disease among trees in Europe, which is condoned as to do otherwise would limit the sacred 'freedom of the market' which always delivers the best results (according to the British PM May)......

    I'm not so sure that the Dutch are so wholly rational: all those immigrants to do low-value menial work that can only fall in value as the Dutch nation itself shrinks and the numbers of the unskilled swell? And the property bubble? Oh dear.....

    1. Anonymous, I take your points about excessive immigration. And the property bubble is just sheer madness. I am still surprised by how hard-working, penny-pinching Calvinists can utterly and completely lose grasp of reality when it comes to their mortgages.

      Having said that, I must concede that Dutch politicians have less of a habit of promising everything to everybody, and leaving the tab for someone else to pick up.

      When the money is up, they just admit it.

  7. When the first digits on a property valuation start to go up, it's hard to stay rational - anywhere!

    The evasion of reality is even more pronounced in Britain - one only has to think about the loss of North Sea production as well as property valuations.

    Most people would say that life would be impossible to bear without full-house gas central heating.

    And turning it down would be a certain basis for a quick divorce in most households.

    Yet this is a habit only established since the 1980's.

  8. Anonymous and DiSc,

    At some point the complexity of the system becomes so high, so overwhelming, that even the hard-working Calvinists lose motivation to think rationally. Too much complexity kills rationality. Only simple things are durable and dependable.

  9. I couldn't agree more Ivan.

    'Take this marsh, work hard, -and every year that follows - or you will lose it!' is the best discipline for the simple creatures, prone to fantasy, that we are.

    'Speculate on this, and you can get 'rich' with no effort at all!' is the worst drug.



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)