Sunday, September 30, 2018

Dealing With Collapse: The Seneca Strategy

The ruins of the Egyptian Pyramid of Meidum, perhaps the first large building to collapse in history (*). The collapse of large structures is part of a fascinating field of study that we may call "Collapsology." I already wrote a book on this subject, titled "The Seneca Effect" (Springer and Oekom 2017), available in English and in German. Now, I am writing a second book with Springer which expands and goes more in depth into the matter with the idea of being a "collapse manual" dedicated to how to understand, manage, and even profit from collapses. It should be titled "The Seneca Strategy" and it will be available in 2019. 

About 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote to his friend Licilius noting that "growth is slow, but ruin is rapid". It looks obvious, but it was one of those observations that turn out to be not obvious at all if you go in some depth into their meaning. Do you remember the story of Newton's apple? Everyone knows that apples fall from trees, isn't it obvious? Yes, but it was the start of a chain of thoughts that led Isaac Newton to devise something that was not at all obvious: the law of universal gravitation. It is the same thing for Seneca's observation that "ruin is rapid." Everyone knows that it is true, think of a house of cards. But why is it like this?

Seneca's observation - which I dubbed "The Seneca Effect" (or the "Seneca Cliff" or the "Seneca Collapse") is one of the key elements we need to understanding the developments of what we now call the "science of complexity." In the space of a few decades, starting since the 1960s, the development of digital computing has allowed us to tackle problems that, at the time of Newton (not to mention those of Seneca), could not be studied except in a very approximate way.

Using system dynamics, network science, agent-based modeling, and more, this new science has allowed us to penetrate a world that in a certain sense was familiar to us: the world of real things that are born, grow, and sometimes collapse in a ruinous way. The basic ideas in the behavior of complex systems are always the same, especially when dealing with collapses: complex systems are complex because they are dominated by the mechanism we call "feedback." Because of feedback effects, a large structure may collapse when just one of the elements that compose them fails. That may lead to the failure of the elements that surround it. These, in turn, cause the failure of other elements of the system, and so it goes. The result is what we call an "avalanche" and, as Seneca said, "ruin is rapid". 

One question I am often asked about system science is, "can we use it to predict the future?" Alas, there is a small problem with this question: we cannot have exact data on the future because the future doesn't exist (yet). But that doesn't mean that we can try to understand the future. After all, what is the future if not a fan of possibilities that we ourselves may decide to turn into reality? Seneca himself would probably have agreed with this concept: he was deeply involved in the Stoic philosophy. As a good Stoic, he knew that we must always be prepared for the future, knowing full well that ruin can come upon us at any moment. This is true for individuals as well as for an entire society. He himself experienced a "rapid ruin" when his former pupil, Emperor Nero, accused him of treason and ordered him to commit suicide. Seneca had no other choice but to comply. 

So, we can use mathematical models to describe the Seneca Effect, but they are mainly a quantification of ancient wisdom. It is not a question of predicting the future, it is a question of understanding it. And we can use the models to understand that the ecosystem in which we live is not a supermarket from which we can take what we need - and without even having to pay. It is a complex system, subject to the Seneca Collapse. And since we are also part of the ecosystem, when the ecosystem collapses, we collapse, too. Even a stoic like Seneca would have said that if we have a chance to avoid the climate collapse, we should try.

All these things, and many more, I put them together in the book published in 2017 that I titled "The Seneca Effect." Now I am writing another book that should be called "The Seneca Strategy" -- it should be published by Springer in 2019. This second book is more a "collapse manual" that can be used to manage collapses: that is, it explains how to avoid being destroyed by collapses, how to minimize damage, and even how to profit from collapses (hint: have your enemies collapse first!). What I said in my first book remains valid: collapse is not a bug, it is a feature of the universe!


(*) Of course, the collapse of the Meidum Pyramid was an inside job. Look at how the building crumbled: would you believe that it collapsed vertically, all in a symmetric heap? No way. And the witnesses of the collapse say that it fell as rapidly as an apple falls from a tree - which is just impossible. So, it was an inside job devised by Pharaoh Sneferu who had his acolytes strategically placing explosive charges within the pyramid. The Pharaoh wanted the pyramid to crumble so that he could accuse the King of Nubya of having thrown it down by having a charioteer throw his horses against the building at full speed. A classic false flag operation.



  1. What we are sorely missing is a positive and realistic outlook into the future. We need a plan that can provide hope.

    Reading comments in this blog, most of our friends in the collapse community seem to have a really grim outlook on the future. But there is a chance for a positive perspective.

    One thing I have mentioned quite often here is that GDP is no measure of our material prosperity, we are only supposed to think so.

    I would argue, that real prosperity is the number of things, the stuff, we have in our possesion to our benefit. The system we have now is one where the increased consumption and faster replacement of stuff is a systemic factor. The time things are in our posession has decreased and is indeed intentionally lowered by investing additional effort to for artificial obsolescence.

    Thus we seem to consume more and more but possess less. Capitalism has not kept its promise of increasing wealth for decades now, it only genereated GDP growth by increased wastefullness.

    But we can turn the wheel back. The simple measure of raising the life expectancy of our products can increase material prosperity and conserve ressources at the same time. Increasing the lifetime of our products by a factor of ten (a purely random but thinkable number) would lower ressource consumption in our industrial sectors by 90%. It would also decrease our workload by a factor not much lower.

    With less work and lower ressource consumption we could acchieve the same prosperity, which I find is a positive outlook. This understanding makes it obvious that we have to redefine our relationship with work. If the same wealth can be generated by less work, it becomes clear that the question of employment is just another factor of distribution. Full employment is a as much an irrational expection for our future as endless growth. If there is only one chicken to cook, even ten gifted cooks cant feed more people than one.

    Less ressources could therefore just translate in less work, it need not to imply less wealth.

    1. The market determines the lifetime of products. A tenfold increase in lifetime is easy to do, but will people pay for it?

      A car could be built of titanium, a roof can be sheathed in gold, and tools can be made to last for generations, but making products last longer costs more time, energy and resources up front. People don't want to wait and they don't want to pay more, so they accept shorter lifespans gladly.

      And why pay more for something that may become functionally obsolete before it becomes dysfunctional? Here's a simple example. My mother inherited a chest freezer from her mother when her mother died. Except for the move from her mother's house to her own, the freezer ran continuously and perfectly from 1955 to 2014, at which point a utility energy conservation program would pay her to have it turned off and discarded. Since she was using it so little, my mother took the money and the utility took the freezer. It was built well, but energy consumption standards changed. It just lasted too darn long for everyone concerned.

    2. While I appreciate the attempt to remain positive in light of the numerous complex challenges we face as a species, I would argue that such 'hope' is a two-edged sword. Such visions can help spur action but it can also lead to inaction or behaviours that run counter to the ultimate goal--especially if this hope is bound in the ideas that technology and/or government will save us from ourselves (which are both likely contributing to and exacerbating our plight).
      While none of us can ever hope to predict the future with any accuracy whatsoever, I am doubtful we can counter the system's momentum, let alone agree on what behavioural and psychological shifts are necessary to be successful and then ensure compliance by everyone.
      Pre/history is pretty clear that every complex society eventually reaches a peak of complexity and then declines/collapses to a state that is far less complex and energy-intensive. It is likely that this form of collapse is in our future as well.
      Does this imply that nothing should be done to counter the negative consequences and existential crises created by our infinite growth culture? Not necessarily. Detaching oneself and/or family/local community from Matrix and focusing on resiliency/self-sufficiency as best as one can may be the best response. Perhaps the beast will be starved into submission if enough people/groups pursue this. Perhaps not.

    3. @Joe

      "A tenfold increase in lifetime is easy to do, but will people pay for it? "

      As I said, a matter of distribution. Many such questions will come up. Who will have precious copper when scarcity hits us really hard? The billionaire for having a shiny copper roof for his 10 car garage or the hospital that needs new electric wiring?

      Will we still decide it by the "who ever pays more" principle? The "market", unregulated, is the reason for our wastefullnes.

    4. alien observerSeptember 30, 2018 at 9:09 AM
      -What we are sorely missing is a positive and realistic outlook into the future. We need a plan that can provide hope-

      I suggest to tell those true stuffs to the people rather than a story of peace and prosperity.

      Survivable IPCC projections RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 are science fiction: reality is far worse!

      Il bug di sicurezza delle CPU Intel VS Geo-engineering debate on Climate Change

      Some questions are uprising, after I read your comment.

      1-Why are you looking for a positive and hopefully and realistic outlook into the future?

      2-Does your mind not accept the reality of the incoming collapse for the next decades? or

      3-Are you a politician looking for a story to tell to people at the incoming european elections?

  2. >The simple measure of raising the life expectancy of our products can increase material prosperity and conserve ressources at the same time.

    I was thinking something along these lines these days, after buying a nutcracker which broke within a few weeks.

    My father still uses my grand-grandfather's nutcracker, a present for his first marriage sometimes around 1910. It is a 100-year old and essentially indestructible.

    1. My mother, until her recent illness, used a wooden spoon for mixing which she inherited from her mother, who died in 1953. We worked out that it probably dated from the early 1930's: beautiful patina, well-made, well- cared for.

    2. And my Dutch PeDe coffee grinder, also from the 1930s. Beautiful, simple, ingenious, and bullet-proof. Sometimes I look at it in awe and wonder what it would take to produce more of those, with the same quality.

  3. , titled "The Seneca Effect" (Springer and Oekom 1917),
    TYPO I think you mean 2017 ? ^^

    1. Whoops.... thanks (BTW, I am writing a novel that takes place in part in 1917 -- there is a reason for everything!!)

  4. Good to hear about your new book but UGO...............Why Springer!!You need a publisher who prices books to be affordable to a mass market, not a tiny technical book outfit. Even self publishing would be better. Your books would fit in I would think under the umbrella of a publisher like New Society based in Canada. Springer is an outfit where good authors are sent to die.

    1. Well, yes, I tried several publishers. The main problem seems to be that most American publishers don't publish authors who are not Americans - the remote regions of the empire are considered as inhabited by hairy barbarians. At least, Springer is a devil I know.

      But maybe Canadians would be more open. I don't know: do you have direct experience with New Society?

    2. You might consider a small indie publisher: Tellectual Press. I’ve run it for several years now. Authors get 50% of net revenues from their books, which are carefully edited and typeset, reasonably priced, and published in both paperback and Kindle versions.

  5. Note: let me state once more that comments containing insults are not published.

  6. I would prefer that we all focus on becoming a more humane civilization on the whole. What we are about to go through can not be stopped but at least we could all work together to help one another through it. I believe that this is where true hope and optimism exists and I also believe that humans tend to want to be that way. It is only a small handful of people who stir things up and convince us to be suspicious, hateful, selfish, and violent.

    We have only two options, work together and help one another, or battle it out to the end. If we leave it up to tptb we will have war.

    I certainly hope you make this point in your new book Ugo, as there is no such thing as individual preparation or survival if we go to war.

  7. I heard that recently Italy, instead of adopting balanced budgets, want to spend itself to death in futile attempt to increase prosperity. And nobody would want to subsidize such big economy like Grecee after debt crisis starts from that...

  8. Superb posting. Thank you.

    We are inside of a crash. Think of a car crash lasting a second or two, our world in geological time is taking decades, maybe a century to crash. A crash that is too late to prevent, means we have no control, only a little bit of bracing and swerving and futile braking - we do anything to reduce the impact. The crash will conclude, we will check for injuries and count the dead and carry on. Or not. Depends on how violent is our crash.



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)