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.


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)