The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The End of the Megamachine: A Seneca Cliff, by any Other Name, Would Still be so Steep.


Our civilization seems to be acutely aware of an impending decline that nowadays is rapidly taking the shape of a collapse. It is still officially denied, but the idea is there and it appears in those corners of the memesphere where it makes an long term imprint even though it doesn't acquire the flashy and vacuous impression of the mainstream media. 

An recent entry in this section of the memesphere is "The End of the Megamachine." A book written originally in German by Fabian Scheidler, now translated into English. Not a small feat: Scheidler attempts to retrace the whole history of our civilization under the umbrella concept of the "megamachine." A giant creature that's in several ways equivalent to what another denizen of the collapse sphere, Nate Hagens, calls the "Superorganism." Perhaps these are all new generation of a species which had as ancestor the "Leviathan" imagined by Thomas Hobbes and explicitly mentioned several times in Scheidler's book. 

We may call these creatures "technological holobionts." They are complex systems formed of colonies of subsystems, holobionts in their turn, too. They are evolutionary creatures that grow by optimizing their capability of consuming food and transforming it into waste. It takes time for these entities to stabilize and, at the beginning of their evolutionary history, they may oscillate wildly, grow rapidly, and collapse rapidly. As Lucius Annaeus Seneca said long ago, "the road to ruin is rapid" and it is a good description of the fate of young holobionts.

The book can be seen as a description of the life cycle of one of these giant creatures, leviathan, superorganism, or megamachine -- as you like to call it. We see it growing from a tentative start, in the late Middle Ages, then finding an unexpected source of nutritious food in the form of fossil fuels that made it not just grow, but become fat, obnoxious, and cruel. Extremely cruel.

The megamachine is just one of the biggest systems that ever appeared in the history of Earth's ecosphere. As such it has follow the trajectory that's described in the concept of the "Seneca Effect."  At the beginning, it grows slowly, but the more it grows, the faster it can grow. Now, the resources that make it grow start dwindling and the giant brute starts stumbling around in search for more. In doing that, it exhausts itself and prepares for the final fall: the steep descent called the "Seneca Cliff"

That is where we stand right now: on the edge of the cliff and, probably, we have already started sliding down. Scheidler's description of how we arrived here is both impressive and breathtaking. It was a run toward the cliff that we ran convinced that we would have been climbing up forever but, alas, that couldn't be the case and it wasn't. 

Is there life on the other side of the cliff? Of course, yes! The universe moves in cycles and it never stands still. That's also the message of "The End of the Megamachine" that concludes with a look at a possible transition. The human civilization will never be as it was before, it will be based more on collaboration than on competition and with a more constructive relation with the ecosphere. And that's not a choice, it is a requirement for the survival of humankind.

On the bed of the Moldau, the stones are churning,
The days of our rulers are ending fast.
The great don't stay great, the order is turning,
The night has twelve hours, but day comes at last.

Bertolt Brecht 


  1. I always bristle at the implication that it just had to be that way and there was no option. I understand that it is what it is but that does not define all of humanity.

    WWI did not have to happen but vested interests won out. Much the same for WWII, there were many who put forth alternatives, key individuals went to great lengths to avoid all out war, but vested interests saw an opportunity to come out on top. JFK laid out and began to build an equitable world without war and empires but vested interests saw that it would greatly restrict their ability to prosper and ended him.

    Vested interests consists of a tiny .001% of the population but wield enormous power and influence. They learned early on the power of propaganda to control the 99%. That the 99% were successfully manipulated does not make them part of all that is wrong with the world nor does it mean that it was inevitable.

    I am 100% certain that if people were not lied to and manipulated, in fact we were taught the truth, the realities of live on this one in a trillion jewel of a planet, taught that WE were the vested interests in maintaining a live, healthy, environment to live in, the world would be a better place, and if any one threatens that position we shoot them in the face BAM!

    It is curious to me why and how utopia has always been defined as something that could surely never happen so don't even talk about it. Oh Well!


  2. 'We' have ten years?

    “ . . . our best estimate is that the net energy
    33:33 per barrel available for the global
    33:36 economy was about eight percent
    33:38 and that in over the next few years it
    33:42 will go down to zero percent
    33:44 uh best estimate at the moment is that
    33:46 actually the
    33:47 per average barrel of sweet crude
    33:51 uh we had the zero percent around 2022
    33:56 but there are ways and means of
    33:58 extending that so to be on the safe side
    34:00 here on our diagram
    34:02 we say that zero percent is definitely
    34:05 around 2030 . . .
    34:43 need net energy from oil and [if] it goes
    34:46 down to zero
    34:48 uh well we have collapsed not just
    34:50 collapse of the oil industry
    34:52 we have collapsed globally of the global
    34:54 industrial civilization this is what we
    34:56 are looking at at the moment . . . “

  3. The suspension of the sense of scarcity in humans by our civilisation, with the advent of the steam engine and mass lease-agreement hydrocarbons extraction since the 1600s - has played havoc with the future.

    The exercise is the harshest lesson humans have given to themselves - Life comes in a package of inseparable senses.

    Suspending one sense wrecks how humans function, causing them behaving more stupid than the most primitives of the whole animal kingdom.

    Our Western Civilisation has likely been the first ever which worked to burn all its intellectual energy just to convince its citizens worldwide how secondary finite energy reserves are - for no more than keeping a never-lasting illusive Control!

    Humanity lost the last 300 years for confusion in everything, Science, Technology, Knowledge, etc - and with it almost all irreplaceable fossil fuels reserves, too.

    Humans remain humans.


  4. I am sad that no one remembers Lewis Mumford's massive analysis of what the called "the megamachine" in his two books, "The Myth of the Machine" (1967) and "The Pentagon of Power" (1970). Mumford is one of the less appreciated writers whose wrote about many of the problems we are confronting today in more than two dozen books from 1922 to the 1980s. Mumford wrote of the Egyptians asssembling the first "megamachine" that allowed them to undertake and complete the pyramids. If you've never read Mumford, you're in for a treat.

    1. Interesting comment. I found that many of Mumford's books were translated into Italian and are still available. I must confess that I had never heard of him, though. But maybe I can remedy this hole in my knowledge network!