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."
Showing posts with label catarata. Show all posts
Showing posts with label catarata. Show all posts

Friday, December 9, 2022

Before the Collapse: a Review


My book, "Before the Collapse," was recently translated into Spanish and published in Spain by Catarata. Here is a recently appeared review by Manuel Garcia Dominguez, Eleonora Arca, Guillermo Aragon Perez and Maria Teresa Lopez Franco that appeared on Nov 24, 2022 on "15-15-15." The English version is available from Springer. Translated from Spanish by Ugo Bardi. 

Why do societies, ecosystems, companies, and friendships collapse? How do we deal with a phenomenon, such as collapse, that is in itself sudden and unexpected? Can collapse be avoided? The recently published book by the chemist and professor at the University of Florence, Ugo Bardi (born in the same city in 1952), revolves around this concern: how to think about collapses and, above all, how to deal with them. The fundamental idea, which will function as the backbone of the book, will be what Seneca said about collapse in one of his letters to Lucilius: "It would be a consolation for our weakness if things could be restored as soon as they are destroyed; but the opposite happens: development is slow and ruin comes quickly" (we give the translation of Francisco Navarro, Epístolas morales de Séneca, Madrid 1884, p. 370).

First, Professor Bardi introduces a way that human beings have of knowing the world and avoiding the collapse of which Seneca speaks: the construction of models that allow us to hypothesize about future scenarios and act accordingly. These models can be relatively accurate, especially when tested empirically; but it is also quite easy for them to be misleading (as in the case of climate change denialism, for example). According to classical research, there are two ways of constructing these models: top-down and bottom-up. The first consists of observing the behavior of a system and building a model on it; while the second involves separating the system into subsystems to study their behavior and, subsequently, building a comprehensive model. Both strategies are fallible, which makes it advisable not to ask more of them than they can provide.

It is clear that models have limitations when it comes to suggesting explanations about the future, but this does not imply that they do not fulfill their function; in fact, we need models that are just good enough to provide us with a basis on which to act; there is no need to look for perfect models.

However, a crucial characteristic of complex systems pointed out by Professor Bardi is their passing through tipping points; in these, systems undergo rapid alterations that are not predictable by our knowledge of their past. Some of the most disturbing tipping points with which we are currently confronted concern climate change ("methane burp" due to thawing permafrost, for example). Public discourse has often ignored these issues, so we have no general clues as to how governments around the globe plan to deal with these phenomena. At play here are a number of cognitive errors and biases that arise when we humans are faced with the uncertainty that the future brings: (1) a representational bias that leads us to judge on the basis of stereotypes, (2) the availability of limited experience, and (3) the anchoring of our judgments to limited data regardless of their significance. In addition, groupthink plays an important role, and often makes people more fallible in their beliefs than they would be individually, by changing their behavior to conform to the group.

The result of this attitude toward climate change and other current problems is the propensity to be overly optimistic and to recklessly dismiss models that would be useful to us. The Florentine chemist develops the basic ideas of the science of complex systems, an approach that brings us closer to understanding their collapse, which will come sooner or later. Indeed, Bardi insists that "collapse is not an error, it is a characteristic feature" of complex systems in the Universe we inhabit (p. 40; the translations we will give from the English original are ours).

Complex systems are entities made up of subsystems that interact with each other in ways that cannot be captured through a single equation, but require more complex models. The essential feature of complex systems is that they are dominated by feedback relationships: in reaction to an external perturbation, complex systems tend to amplify their effects (positive feedback) or mitigate them by stabilizing the system (negative feedback). This phenomenon is inseparable from complex systems as it refers to the "tendency of the elements of a system to influence each other (...). Changes in one element generated by a perturbation will affect the other elements of the system" ( p. 35). This complexity implies the inability to predict the behavior of complex systems in the manner of classical physics, which predicts the motion of its objects with simple equations (think for example of Newtonian gravity). Complex systems "never stand still, they are constantly changing" (p. 33) "because they are alive, in the sense that they are brimming with energy" (p. 34).

Complex systems have attractor states: a particular set of their parameters to which they always tend, a tendency called homeostasis. However, as a result of external perturbations and feedback phenomena, a complex system may reach a tipping point and begin to "shift," and then stabilize in a different attractor. In some cases, this will correspond to a much lower complexity than the previous attractor, in which case we would be faced with a collapse. In fact, Bardi defines the phenomenon of collapse precisely as "a phase transition leading to a state of reduced complexity, typically rapid and abrupt" (p. 34).

This tendency to rapid and abrupt collapse is related to the principle of maximum entropy production (MEP): energy tends to dissipate very quickly, which leads to collapse. This is the result of the networked structure of systems: "in a collapse, each element that starts to move in a certain direction drags other elements with it, and the result is a cascade of effects all going in the same direction" (p. 39). In this way, there seems to be a collusion between the different elements of these systems to produce, in a precipitation of events, the collapse of the interconnected network that constitutes the system. Here we must insist on one of the fundamental ideas of Professor Bardi's book: collapse is not a failure but an intrinsic characteristic of complex systems. Interconnectedness can lead to the collapse of the entire network as a result of the impact of a disturbance on one or some of its nodes. Thus, the development of complex systems often responds to what Professor Bardi calls the Seneca mode (the author has been developing his ideas for years in a fascinating blog called The Seneca Effect): it is an asymmetric process, where growth is slow and decline is very accentuated.

But what if a system actually collapses - is all hope lost? Collapse implies the passage to a state of lower complexity, but not necessarily the absolute destruction of the system in question. Thus, there may still be "life after the cliff": a new growth process after collapse, or what the author calls "the Seneca payback" reflected in the Lokta-Volterra model. This model was designed to explore the relationships between prey and predator populations, but, as Bardi tells us, it can be useful for thinking about the existence of successive cycles of growth and collapse in different types of systems. In fact, this mode of behavior tends to occur more in complex systems such as economic systems, but not so much in natural systems; one of the difficulties for a new growth is the fact that the collapse is often produced by the exhaustion of the resources that had allowed the original growth. What this mode teaches us is that collapse is not final: it may not be an end point.

The rudiments of complex systems science that Bardi develops can help us to think of the state and destiny of our civilization as that of one complex system among many others that may therefore collapse. Clearly, there is a state of affairs that points to this outcome, more serious and continuous in time than natural disasters: climate change and the crisis of energy resources. With regard to the energy crisis, as Bardi says, in the short term "the problem is how to find the necessary financial resources to keep energy production at least as stable (in energy terms) as in the past decade" (p. 128), due, on the one hand, to the lack of demand and, on the other, to the depletion of oil. This type of crisis presents the ideal conditions for wars and concomitant violence, as well as famine, epidemics and depopulation, triggering what Bardi calls a Seneca Crunch: the sum of negative factors that lead to the collapse of a system. This fact highlights the fragility of the playing field on which we move: the availability of resources or the effects of climate change can exert sufficient pressure on the complex systems that are our societies to precipitate us over a Seneca cliff.

ASCII infographic included in the first edition of 'The Limits to Growth' (Standard Scenario).

Is there any doubt that we are currently facing a Seneca-type collapse? According to Orlov, there are five stages of civilizational collapse: (1) financial collapse; (2) commercial collapse; (3) political collapse; (4) social collapse; and (5) cultural collapse. Today, phenomena typical of the financial and commercial collapse of 2008 are evident and we observe some symptoms of the political collapse, such as distrust in the political class or the polarization of society. Thus, with hope as an indispensable tool, the fundamental question we must ask ourselves may be: how do we manage the collapse?

A quick answer to this question is the instinctive solution of many politicians and businessmen to any eco-social problem: "we must fund more research" (p. 178), the paradigm of which is the possibility of generating virtually infinite cheap energy. Although at present such projects, such as nuclear fusion reactors, are still at a very early stage of research, the Florentine author allows himself a certain degree of speculation, considering the possibility of a universal mining machine or of sending pollution into space (with infinite energy no proposal seems too far-fetched). However, Bardi recalls that already in 1972 the classic study The Limits to Growth showed that, even with infinite energy available, the collapse of the world industrial system would eventually happen due to a combination of factors such as overpopulation, resource depletion, and pollution. In short: the problem is not energy, but the presence of unavoidable limits to human development.

To adequately manage collapses in a world with limits, it is necessary to develop a deep understanding of complex systems and also to have achieved a certain balance of power among the relevant actors that guarantees peace. We need, to put it in the words of Donella Meadows, to think systemically (we should congratulate ourselves on the recent publication in Spanish of Meadows' book Thinking in Systems, Captain Swing 2022): the fall off the nearest Seneca cliff and the subsequent impact, which seems to be that of the imminent ecosocial crisis, can only be mitigated by global thinking (and local action) that understands the position of individuals in the earth's ecosystem and allows us to draw up a collective action plan that ensures massive cooperation and puts us at risk.

In short, the homeostasis of the system should not be taken for granted, and only joint action, the fruit of systemic thinking, will serve to mitigate the threatening fall off the Seneca cliff. For Bardi, according to certain historical examples, this action has three requirements: (1) use only abundant resources, (2) use as little as possible, and (3) recycle compulsively (p. 204). Moreover, this strategy also favors the so-called "Seneca rebound," which implies an opportunity to imagine a different structure for the system such as, as Bardi proposes, a circular economy model that revitalizes sustainable agriculture and craftsmanship, rejecting military purposes.

In any case, if Bardi teaches us anything, it is that the future cannot be predicted and that, while we cannot avoid collapse, we can at least try to collapse better. Before the Collapse (a title that suggests a double meaning: before the collapse, yes, but also before the collapse) is a good guide for that journey, and the frequent touches of humor with which the author de-dramatizes his subject of study, in itself - it is not necessary to insist on it - very dramatic, are appreciated.