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

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Way Nature Works: How Common is the Seneca Curve? Ugo Bardi's Speech at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence

Ugo Bardi at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome in Florence, September 2017. 

My talk at the Summer Academy of the Club of Rome was mainly a presentation of my latest book, "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017). In practice, of course, a book contains many more things than you can say in a 40 minute speech. So, I tried to concentrate on the idea that the behavior I call "the Seneca Curve" is very common, even universal. Below, you can see the Seneca Curve: things go up slowly but collapse rapidly, as the Roman philosopher Seneca said first some two thousand years ago. You may see the same curve also on the t-shirt I was wearing at the Academy.

You may have heard the old Latin motto, "Natura non facit saltus" (Nature doesn't make jumps) meaning that things change gradually, not abruptly. It may be true in many circumstances but, in practice, it is wholly normal that Nature accumulates energy potentials (as when you inflate a balloon) and then releases them all of a sudden (as when you puncture a balloon). This is the theme of the cover of the German version of my book.

There are reasons why Nature behaves in this way, but the point I made at the school was not so much about why the curve is so common but how human beings are not normally aware of it. In fact, our thought is often shaped by the idea that things will continue evolving the way they have been evolving up to a certain point. Just think about economic growth, and you'll notice how economists expect it to continue forever. It goes without saying that the economy is one of those complex systems which are most vulnerable to the Seneca collapse.

So, I tried to stress that the understanding that the Seneca Curve exists and it is common is a recent discovery. Even though Seneca had understood it by intuition already almost 2000 years ago, in its modern form it is less than a century old. It was proposed for the first time by Jay Forrester in the 1960s and it was enshrined in "The Limits to Growth" study of 1972, even though the term "Seneca Effect" was not used.

During my talk, I showed this image to evidence how our ideas on the path that complex systems follow evolved over time.

You see how modern the idea of "overshoot" (and the subsequent collapse) is. Malthus just didn't have it. Despite being often accused of catastrophism, he couldn't envisage societal collapse; he lacked the necessary intellectual tools. He was an optimist! Today, we have this concept. We know that complex systems tend not just to decline, they tend to collapse. But this perception is totally missing in the general debate.

When you mention societal collapse, there are two possible reactions. The most common one is that such a thing will never happen. Then, if you manage to convince people that it is possible, they endeavor to do everything they can to keep the system going; whatever it takes. They don't realize that when you exceed the carrying capacity of the system, you have to come back, one way or another. And the more you try to stay above the limit, the faster and the harsher the return will be. What you have to do is to ease the collapse, follow it, not try to stop it. Otherwise, it will be worse.

So, we seem to have a cultural stumbling block, here. Maybe we'll never overcome it, or perhaps yes, who knows? In older times, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a stoic philosopher just like Seneca, had this concept rather clear. He knew that everything in the world is impermanent; including the Roman Empire.  Being a virtuous man, he did everything in his power to do his duty as Emperor. But he recognized his limits and that's what he said in his "Meditations."

We should recognize our limits, too. Follow change, don't try to stop it. Nature is changing all things we see and out of their substance it will make new things in order that the world will be ever new. This is the way Nature works.


  1. "Malthus just didn't have it. Despite being often accused of catastrophism, he couldn't envisage societal collapse; he lacked the necessary intellectual tools. He was an optimist! "
    Crybaby realism is my intention. Given the intellectual tools now existent, when is the next population local minimum (or extinction) most likely due in your mappings of our path , Ugo? When I consider this I end up at 2070.

    1. Critical phenomena such as the Seneca Effect are always difficult to predict. Anything can happen. The only thing certain is that "something" will happen.

    2. I read your subsequent post prior to reading this reply. I was thinking as I read it "perhaps I will get a quantitative answer".

  2. Excellent talk -did they actually get it?

    Regarding Malthus, it's important to read his Journal from his tour of Norway at the end of the 18th century -some of the material went into his great book, but it's instructive to see him moving about and asking questions.

    Principally, he was a humane man who was appalled when he saw the consequences of communities growing up around the exploitation of a single resource which then became exhausted or uneconomic, leading to terrible poverty and semi-starvation among families which had expanded in confidence that prosperity would continue.

    He also valued - correctly - the Norwegian policies limiting population humanely by delaying marriage to a late age, which were just being over-turned at the time of his tour. The Norwegians were delighted by the change in the law, but he could foresee where it might lead.

    But you are certainly correct in saying that he couldn't really envisage the collapse of an entire society - only such small collapses - he did see, however, how rapid they could be, as among the Norwegian artisans and miners: well-paid and healthy one minute, destitute the next.

    In addition to Seneca's observations, and those of the great Marcus Aurelius, I would put forward the pithy statement of Ibn Khaldun, who studied societal change in the 14th century:

    'The candle burns brightest just before it gutters and goes out'

    Maximum exploitation and energy consumption, just on the cusp of extinction.

    So, really, this is all ancient knowledge, which hardly anyone knows or acts upon: the wise man and the fool alike go down to the grave...... Apart from personal satisfaction in understanding, one ,might ask what is the value of such knowledge if we don't or can't act upon it?

    1. Did they actually get the talk? Well, someone told me that a girl was crying while listening - but I haven't really seen that happening. If it did, I would be very sorry about that. More in general, during the discussion session with other speakers, I was asked only one question by the participants. I think they were afraid of what my answers could have been! But this is life, it is all right.

  3. >Malthus and societal collapse

    Maybe because Malthus could see people starving and dying of many sorts of diseases, many emigrating to the new colonies, it was a time when local population could self-regulated somehow.

    1. Yes, I think you are right. The complexity of our society and economies hides so much from our sight.

      In his day, when people ran out of work or the crops failed, or were crippled, they could starve, in the street.

      He records the Norwegians as eating some starvation food -tree bark - even when prosperous so as to be ready when the next famine came.

  4. Concerning Marcus Aurelius, average life span of species on our planet is about 2 million years. Our ancestor Homo habilis lived over 2 million years ago. With "business as usual" scenario our days are numbered.

  5. Ahhh... Bliss... :)

    Found a "glitch"
    on your article.

    That's something that
    doesn't happen, every
    decade, on this blog... :)

    1. Just duplicated that message
      on your facebook account, for a
      private explanation, if you wish. :)

  6. Fascinating, really fascinating. Can you possibly direct me to the source for the 'Seneca curve' - the passage where Seneca comments upon this phenomenon or the original quote?

  7. Don't worry, found the original quote: "Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed by a single day. Nay, he who has said "a day" has granted too long a postponement to swift-coming misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires! It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works, if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid. 7. Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl. Amid the greatest calm terror arises, and though no external agencies stir up commotion, yet evils burst forth from sources whence they were least expected. Thrones which have stood the shock of civil and foreign wars crash to the ground though no one sets them tottering. How few the states which have carried their good fortune through to the end!"

    Letter XCI. On the Lesson to be Drawn from the Burning of Lyons

    A really powerful passage.

    1. Yes, and in my book there is the Latin version



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)