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

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Seneca Cliff Explained: a Three Dimensional Collapse Overview Model

A Three Dimensional Collapse Overview Model

In this post, Geoffrey Chia illustrates one of the fundamental characteristics of the "Seneca Effect", also known as "collapse," the fact that it occurs in networked systems dominated by feedback interactions. This is a qualitative interpretation of collapse that complements the more quantitative models that I report in my book "The Seneca Effect." (U.B.)

A post by Geoffrey Chia

The Limits to Growth was published in 1972 by a group of world class scientists using the best mathematical computer modelling available at the time. It projected the future collapse of global industrial civilisation in the 21st century if humanity did not curb its population, consumption and pollution. It was pilloried by many “infinite growth on a finite planet” economists over the decades. 

However, updated data inputs and modern computer modelling in recent years (particularly by Dr Graham Turner of the CSIRO in 2008 and 2014) showed that we are in reality closely tracking the standard model of the LtG, with industrial collapse and mass die-off due sooner rather than later. The future is now.

The LtG looked only at 5 parameters, with global warming being a mere subset of pollution. Dramatic acceleration of ice melt and unprecedented, increasingly frequent, extreme weather events over the past two decades clearly demonstrate that global warming is progressing far faster and far worse than anyone could possibly have imagined back in the 70s. Global warming certainly deserves a separate category for consideration on its own, quite apart from the other manifestations of pollution.

The LtG did not include a specific category looking at the human dynamics of finance, economics and political manoeuvrings, which was fair enough, because it is impossible to mathematically model such capricious irrationality. Economists may beg to differ, however no economic mathematical model has ever been shown to accurately reflect the real world, nor ever consistently predict anything useful (unlike the LtG and other proven science based models), not least because of their hopelessly incomplete and deeply flawed ideological economic assumptions. Garbage in, garbage out. In 2013, the “Nobel-type” prize for economics (properly termed the Bank of Sweden prize) was jointly awarded to different economists who had mathematically modelled diametrically opposing ideas. That was akin to awarding the physics prize to different scientists who “showed” that the universe is both expanding and contracting at the same time.

Despite that, I do advocate that we should include finance, economics and politics in our subjective conceptual framework of collapse mechanics, because financial and economic troubles are triggers for political upheavals which can lead to conflict and the collapse of nation states. Syria is a prime example. This unquantifiable category, despite being subjective and unpredictable, will nevertheless significantly contribute to population die-off, just as any quantifiable category such as global warming or resource depletion or ecosystem destruction can and will cause human die-off. Economic collapse can lead to loss of healthcare, homelessness and starvation. Political madness can trigger global thermonuclear war at any time, causing our extinction.

All the categories contributing to collapse are deeply inter-related and intertwined. This is the basis of systems thinking, which is essential for making realistic judgements about our future and mitigating against the troubles ahead. How can we confer such complex ideas to the general public in a manner which is clear and understandable, yet does not significantly compromise accuracy or detail?

I first alluded to the idea of a 3D collapse overview model during my Griffith University Ecocentre presentation in March 2017

It is a refinement of my older, less complete, 2D model "the three horsemen and one big fat elephant of the apocalypse", originally conceived as a joke, a play on a hackneyed biblical phrase, albeit with serious intent.

When various pundits try to analyse matters relating to sustainability, their biggest deficiency is often blinkered or tunnel vision. They focus on only one issue while ignoring other issues. Most global warming "solutions" advocated by climate activists fit this description. They assume limitless energy availability to deliver huge renewable energy infrastructures and massive carbon sequestration fantasies to enable an approximation of business as usual to support 10 billion people by mid century. 

In reality we are poised to fall off the cliff of net energy availability very soon 1,2 and not even the most optimistic carbon sequestration fantasies (all of which will require colossal energy inputs and none of which are proven) will be able return us to a stable climate unless the total human footprint is also reduced drastically and immediately 3 (which will not happen short of global nuclear war – which in itself will exponentially release greenhouse gases, devastate remaining ecosystems and destroy industrial civilisation and thus our ability to technologically sequester GHGs).

Blinkered views produce flawed pseudo-solutions, which if attempted often exacerbate other problems, or at the very least are a complete waste of time and energy.

Here is a 10 second video-clip, my first attempt to make this 3D model in real life, "doom explained by confectionery abuse"

In my 3D model I have maintained the central position of the total human footprint as the "big fat elephant", to emphasise that if this is not addressed, then nothing is being addressed. Few commentators advocate voluntary energy descent, reduction of consumption or simplification of lifestyles, however those are essential strategies to reduce our footprint. Even fewer talk about population reduction. This 3D model is a far superior way to visualise the predicaments we face, compared with disparate and disconnected one dimensional views or compared with simple mnemonic headings. For example, the three "Es" of energy, economy and environment represent a simplistic and incomplete text list, with no graphical demonstration of the links between each "E".

Trying to further subdivide, refine or complicate this model is likely to be counter-productive. As it is, this 3D model, a six sided double pyramid with a proliferating tumour at its core, probably represents the limit of complexity which can easily be stored in the average mind as a visual snapshot. It is an easily remembered image which can be conjured up at the dinner table by scribbling on a napkin or by building the actual 3D model with meatballs and skewers, to both entertain and horrify your guests.

Compartmentalising the various intertwined global issues is obviously an artificial approach, but is necessary to help us understand the highly complex dynamics involved. It is necessary in the same way that compartmentalising the study of Medicine into specialties such as Cardiology, Gastroenterology, Neurology, Nephrology etc is an artificial but proven approach to understanding the highly complex mechanisms within the human body. Just as different bodily systems (heart, gut, brain, kidneys etc) directly interact with and influence each and every other system, each component of my 3D model also directly interacts with and influences each and every other component.


R affecting F: every major oil disruption eg 1973, 1979, has always resulted in economic recession. Another R affecting F example: diminishing per capita resources leads to economic hardships, shattered expectations and anger in the population, which leads to the rise of megalomaniacal fascist demagogues, multiplying the risk of global conflict.

R affecting F affecting R, affecting E and P: decline of conventional oil production since it peaked in 2005 has led to desperate harvesting of unconventional oils pushed through by means of political deceit, fraudulent market misrepresentations and financial/economic distortions. This Ponzi scheme will lead to an inevitable market crash dwarfing the sub-prime mortgage scam. It has also led to severe exacerbations of E and P.

R causing C: this is obvious

C affecting R affecting C: as heatwaves worsen, airconditioning use and hence fossil fuel consumption escalate, liberating more GHGs and worsening global warming

Unfortunately with today's advanced state of planetary malaise, most of the feedbacks between components are "positive" or bad self-reinforcing feedbacks. Few are "negative" or good semi-correcting feedbacks. The reader will no doubt be able to think of many other examples of bidirectional feedbacks between components, both positive and negative.

I advocate that each article discussing sustainability (or lack thereof) should be slotted into the part or parts of this 3D model where it belongs, in order to appreciate how comprehensive or incomplete that article may be, and to enable other related discourses to be slotted into adjacent positions, so as to build up a more holistic picture.

As visual animals I believe this is a useful tool to educate ourselves. It can even be used in primary schools as part of their science curriculum (but will no doubt be banned amongst global warming denialist groups or neoclassical/neoliberal economic madrases). Children can make these simple 3D models with toy construction kits or plasticine and sticks. They should probably be discouraged from playing with their food, unlike us adults, who are terrible hypocrites anyway.

Geoffrey Chia MBBS, MRCP, FRACP, November 2017

Geoffrey Chia is a Cardiologist in Brisbane, Australia, who has studied and written about issues regarding (un)sustainability for more than 15 years.


  1. Very good post! Personally I have had little luck trying to expand peoples vision beyond thier favorite micro thoughts. Usually it will be global warming, electric cars and the solar panels and windmills to magically recharge them.

  2. Excelent post, you have to translate it for "Effetto Cassandra".

  3. Very Good - Thank you Dr Chia, but I initially wished the text description of the 3-D model was a little more explicit, because I am a lazy reader. The fact that it isn't of course forces the limited numbers of readers to little bit of lookup, try and recall, think, and so on.

    I know too much about many details describing this monster 4-D elephant, to which we are species-blind to. (Time is the 4th dimension here, I'm a nostalgic Doctor Who Fan) by dint of a lot of reading, repetition and reinforcement over many years, which have always been my basic learning strategies, because I'm a slow learner, and make my mental ruts slowly. There is lots of literature stretching back to LtG and beyond.

    I think I can guess what the letters stand for. So many things are interlinked by feedbacks, they could stand for multiple things. I have too many patterns in my head to read into the text.

    C is for Climate Change, and also for Collapse.
    R is for Resource depletion, and I am still waiting for some people I know to admit that Climate change and Collapse result from the same processes.

    E is energy , P is population, and this of course brings back old memorys of Ehrlich & Holdens I-PAT : Impact (on Nature) = Population * Affluence * Technology.

    Denial is our most Renewable Resource. - Text from winning cartoon -
    Despoilation is our most dynamic strategy. - Bare and Scorched Earth Policy. Shortages? Profits from exploitation to supply demand? - Let's destroy more of nature, and faster, to slow down our civilization collapse. So we have to kill civilization in order to save it.

    Now the process is suddenly revealed to be two - ways! I'm sure must have been mentioned many times before. Its not an equation, it is an indication of many flows stolen in increments of Impact to feed PAT, from N being nature.

    I = -dN/dt ; Nature does not recover fully from cummulative Impacts.

  4. As we are part of nature, we all get impacted, and as resources deplete from our previous efforts to Impact Nature, there is less net - energy per capita supply from nature feeding us from I to PAT. There is much less Affluence * Technology per Person! We are all getting poorer, and the rich only look like they are getting richer in comparison. The falling tide strands all boats. Extreme weather threatens average global agriculture outputs. Governments withdraw social welfare benefits and increase harsh repression, and politicians in power become more secretive and useless. Institutions become hollowed out.

    Unexpected extremes will trigger collapse in HSD.

    I've just completed reading Nafeez Ahmed's book "Falling states, collapsing systems", a title which places us well on the way down the collapsing side of things.
    NA divides our interactions into Earth Systems Destabilisation (Net energy - resource depletion collapse, Climate change collapse, other Biosphere Boundaries), and Human Systems Destabilisation. ESD and HSD for short. NA says with currently evolving examples, that ESD and HSD have positive feedbacks. This will help civilization collapse faster.

    Its good to talk about them as complex adaptive systems.

    I watched Dr Chia's updated video. Our future species prospects look very dim. I wouldn't bet the planet with any external alien observers on our global warming prospects, given Dr Chia's examples of IPPC understatement in his video. As if I was going to live that long, or humans species survives to be modified by extreme selection pressures. Current denial and despoilation are not going to be winning strategy, when cooperation with Nature Systems is what is required.

    Positive Note: In NSW, Sydney, a government suggestion to spend billions of dollars upgrading sports stadiums as future adaptation strategies, is being soundly thrashed by a public online petition with rapid growth in signees. And a book by Richard Dennis called 'Curing Affluenza' suggests that its about time we became realistic materialists, instead of consumers, before affluenza cures us. A good thought for the Summer Solstice holiday time here in the record warm climate.

    1. Yes, in the video he talks about the correlation of CO2 and temp in the past, not encouraging. Our species per se, is unlikely to be threatened. I suspect accounts of our demise are much exagerated. It's just the overall numbers that are likely to drop, possibly drastically to levels we were at in the past.

  5. Thank you for tying the feedback paths together dr. Chia. very interesting.

    I set up a blog of speculative fiction for my floating city concept as a possible solution to the coming collapse. Check it out here ...

    sandy, Minister of Future

  6. Where the apocalyptic riders are near, the lamb is not far. we are in a situation, we - as I perceive it - cannot possibly solve. we cannot safe ourselves, as it seems. perhaps it is still possible in a bio-physical way, but to make the fundamental changes on a global level within very few years against massive interests and lack of momentum, without too much chaos - for me it seems to be impossible for humans.

    however, as a catholic, this means for me only that it is up to the grace of god. god always wants to make us holy, we just isolate ourselves from his grace. so, simple task: invite christ into your heart. doesn´t matter if you believe in god, or not, just do it. open yourself up to let the holy spirit transform you.

    i don´t see any other possible force, that could collapse cognitive dissonance and do away with the thick vails of denial and individualistic isolation (well, that´s the meaning of the word "apocalypse" after all).

    if you can´t do it, just ask christians to do it on behalf of you. maybe there is also a seneca effect with denial!

  7. I viewed your video presentation a few months ago. I thought it did as good a job as possible at describing planet Earth’s demise in the short amount of time available. Then, a few minutes ago, I saw your 3D model with the large tumor at its center. My first thought was: Finally, someone has the guts to say what was obvious to me 30 years ago, humans have become planet Earth’s cancer. The reaction I got back then when I said it out loud was about as extreme as the one I got recently when I said the soft-core version that the planet was grossly overpopulated. My most ecologically friends are still in total denial about it.

    I recently visited a Boston friend that I hadn’t seen in 20 years. Back then he talked about not hearing the croaking frogs like he did when he was growing up in the Boston area. He now denies that the dying bee population is true. I don’t know if becoming a religious fundamentalist changed his views. But if a guy who went to Yale and MIT doesn’t have the guts to look at reality, I have absolutely no hope that the rest of the billions of mass producing consumers out there will.

    At the same time, I thought that you were being optimistic. The few people that might survive will be the ones who learn how to do so in a resource poor region, since everywhere else will have been overrun and devoured. It will be like a documentary I saw about a farm in Australia in which the population of field mice exploded when the farmer seeded his land. There were so many that you couldn’t see the ground, much like a weekday in NYC. When the seeds were all consumed the mice started consuming themselves. When we have consumed all of the easily retrieved oil the +400 nuclear power plants will all melt down and, in combination with a nuclear war for more oil, this planet will become toast, for real.

    Have a nice day. :-)

  8. Thanks - couldn't find your latest video tho. So how do colleagues like Ian Lowe respond? - or is he burned out.. ? .. As Queen sings: " Don't stop me now.. I'm having such a great time.. Don't stop me now .. I never want to stop at all"
    Even trying to get the message across to my 20 something interns and volunteers - is fraught - they (seem to) get the message - and then go home - and flip straight back.



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)