Friday, April 6, 2018

The Seneca Ruin of the Dinosaurs - a Report from Berlin

The death of the dinosaurs as shown in the 1940 movie "Fantasia" by Walt Disney. An incredibly powerful and moving scene - a true Seneca ruin for the poor creatures walking in a hot and dry landscape. This scene is also reasonably realistic: at that time it was already clear that heat had caused the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs (although a branch of the group survived in the form of birds). The same threat that we face nowadays: global warming generated by an enhanced greehouse effect.

I was in Berlin on March 26th to present my book, "The Seneca Effect" to the Urania Scientific Society. It was not a presentation for scientists but for the general public and I decided to have some fun by presenting an assorted series of catastrophes. That included the demise of the dinosaurs, showing a scene from Disney's "Fantasia" movie, and the nearly obligatory scene of the collapse of the towers of the world trade center.

Of course, my talk was not just a list of collapses, one after the other. I tried to highlight the physical reasons behind the catastrophes, how the collapse of complex systems tends to follow some laws, although it cannot be described in terms of simple mathematical equations. The basic theme of the book is that there is a common core in all these cases and that the collapse of social systems, such as the Roman Empire, can be described in terms similar to those of the blowing up of a balloon.

Not everybody agrees with me on this point, some people say that humans are different, they are masters of their destiny, and that human ingenuity can overcome the laws of physics - at least in some cases. I agree that it is a controversial point, but I noted that my talk was well received by an audience of nearly 100 persons - not bad for a Monday evening (and they had to pay a ticket, too!). Germany is one of the few countries in the world where you can still discuss matters such as mineral depletion and the concept of resource overexploitation. With the exception of France, in the rest of the Western world it seems to me that these matters are by now taboo. Not really forbidden, but actively marginalized and ignored.

There was also a lively discussion after my talk. It is always a pleasure to note how Germany has maintained at least something of the inheritance of a great man as Alexander Von Humboldt, today nearly forgotten everywhere else in the world. But Humboldt had caught not only the infinite variety but also the beauty of complex, natural systems.

Berlin is also a lively city and I found the time for a rapid visit to the aquarium. I've always loved aquariums, but I went there also for professional reasons. As you know, we have been studying the overexploitation of fisheries as examples of the collapse of economic systems and it was curious to note how the ongoing destruction of the fisheries is having consequences also on what's being shown in aquariums. Here is a picture of me looking at a tank of jellyfish.

I was amazed: it was the first time I saw live jellyfish in a tank. I don't think they were shown in aquariums until recent times, but now their population has exploded as the result of the destruction of their predators, fish. So, they seem to be appearing also in aquariums. From the viewpoint of jellyfish, humans must look like benevolent deities, even though that doesn't save us from being stung when we swim in the sea.

Jellyfish are eerie, beautiful creatures, but also the prototypical image of the "alien". They are not yet big enough that they can attack submarines but, if things keep going the way they have been going, who knows? The world seems to be changing faster and faster, and this may not be a good thing.

To conclude, a little satori on my part, when I saw this sign on the door of the bathroom of my hotel room, in Berlin. After seeing this n-th invitation (all hotels have it) to save the world by having my towels washed a little less often, I concluded that we'll never make it. Humboldt, Jellyfish, Seneca, dinosaurs, or whatever, it is always greenwashing that wins.


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)