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 civilization collapse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label civilization collapse. 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.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Four Scenarios for a Catastrophic Future: Part III (final)

This is the third and final part of Rutilius Namatianus' (RN) reassessment of some scenarios for the future originally proposed by David Holmgren. RN takes a position that goes against the standard interpretation that sees our problems originating mainly by climate change. Instead, RN believes that climate change didn't do much damage to humankind, so far, and so it will remain a minor component of humankind's trajectory, at least for the coming years, perhaps a couple of decades. What we are seeing, instead, is the crunch created by the gradually reduced availability of natural resources, coupled with increasing population and consumption levels. As a result, the services and the goods previously granted to nearly all social layers are becoming impossible to maintain and that is eroding the basic pact that keeps society together. Consistently, the Elites are developing a totalitarian grip on all sectors of society in such a way to funnel all the remaining resources for themselves and leave nothing to the commoners. And that's where we stand now. Of course, there is much that is debatable in RN's theses, but there is no doubt that he is identifying some real elements of what's happening nowadays. (UB)

 By Rutilius Namatianus

2021 - Future Scenarios Revisited

In Part 1 and Part 2, I re-examined Holmgren's Future Scenarios ten years after they had been proposed, and where we had moved since then in the scenario state space. I also considered a new state-space that could be more pertinent to a question that must be high on many peoples' priorities these days: we observe two trends, racing against each other: the trend of centralized power structures (however we call it, we never did get a single really good name for the great steamroller!) to conquer every last thing, consolidate power over every last place, the trend toward ever-increasing power, the logical continuation of the 'stupid' strategies we might say- to refer to a recent post- against the counter-trend of depletion, environmental degradation, exhaustion of resources, diminishing returns on complexity, and generally the whole picture we sum up with the word 'collapse'... 

We know that physics always wins in the end, yes! But it certainly makes a difference to those alive whether the leviathan eats us all before it collapses, or if it collapses before it manages to burn everything else to the ground. Large organized entities look like they're trying to carry out a 'reset' or a controlled demolition of large parts of the existing economy to preserve the parts that keep them large and organized and in power. Anything deemed superfluous to this goal is marked for deletion. 

This is a survival reaction from large power structures, but it is of course imperiled by the very complexity and interdependence of the economy: It is not easy to demolish whole sectors while leaving others untouched. Much more likely, such an effort will backfire and accelerate the collapse. Will they manage to pull off their 'reset' before everything falls apart? Or can the plans be safely put on the back burner with all priority placed on digging and planting gardens and squirreling away books to preserve for the future to rediscover? 

In 2019, I had sketched out what looked like relative trajectories of several major blocs in the world, through the concentration-of-power versus resource-depletion axes. I observed that most of the world was in Holmgren's 'brown tech' scenario, or even in more extreme conditions. The world was slipping towards a bifurcation where one path led up and right into the 'lifeboat' scenario and another led down and right towards global war and 'mad max'. 

It seems that, so far, the forces of consolidation of power have pulled ahead in the race: While in 2019 that momentum seemed to be faltering, with disorders in China and Hong Kong, the gilets-jaunes in France, the 5-star and Lega coalition in Italy, with wider gaps opening between northern Europe and the south, with the US preoccupied with internal fantasies and identity-politics, with the third world drifting further into collapse and dysfunction. At that time, it looked like the decline was breaking into a chaotic state. 

Thus, on the consolidation of power (vertical) axis, in 2018-2019 we saw a slowdown in the US, EU, and third world in the downward movement. China seems to have also already gone further faster with their social credit and facial recognition rollouts, but those were news in 2017, not 2019. On the energy front, both China and the US managed to slow down their internal declines through a combination of being able to better afford imports, and subsidizing unprofitable domestic production. In the US, the unprofitable domestic production was the shale oil 'boom' of roughly 2012-2019. In China, it was largely coal production. 

In Europe, meanwhile, the North Sea, Europe's primary source of production, continued its decline at ever faster rates. While Europe still has access to imported energy, the majority of Europeans simply can't afford as much as they used to. Thus, Europe slips further to the right in the graph with the net results of further energy decline. Huge misallocations of capital in Europe on politically motivated 'green' projects do not help this picture at all and degrade the quality of energy available for use further- also a component in the shift further into decline. The Third World has been the primary loser in the energy competition. Where does the extra energy that the US and China can afford to keep importing come from? It is the energy the Third World can't afford anymore. 

That was in 2019. Now, in 2021, we see that the past year saw the large power structures rapidly tightening their grip. The US energy decline which had been held back by high-cost oil and gas from shale formations picked up speed since those fields, never profitable, are declining already. Resource depletion elsewhere accelerated. Chinese coal has been in crisis and they even suffered rolling blackouts rather than pay the demanded price for Australian coal imports. Large portions of the population in the developed world have found themselves under heavy restrictions on movement and economic activity for much of the year, with absolutely enormous quantities of fresh debt added to the money supply in almost all the economies- total debt increased by something on the order of 20-25% in a single year! 

Balanced against this, there was some success in the controlled demolition - so far. World GDP might have contracted by about 10%. World energy consumption dropped somewhere around 7% for 2020 compared to 2019. With oil decline probably somewhere between 5 and 10 % now, a 7% reduction in consumption might buy about a year of time against the resource collapse.. But in early 2021 there are increasing concerns about increasing supply-chain problems, which are a sign of rising stress in an interdependent network, creeping closer toward dysfunction and failure.

Here we can add the 2020 experiences. Energy decline slowed down across the globe- a 7% contraction in energy consumption - although the true size of the decline will only really show up later in 2021 as the failure of the subsidized unprofitable extraction in China and the US is felt in production statistics. The real action has been in the 'developed' world, with the elites taking hold of the trend of consolidation of power and jamming a major consolidation into the picture. All three of the developed blocs show a major turn downward in 2020 as every manner of control and restriction was imposed and centralization of control and coordination of all sorts of mass-media reached almost unimaginable new extents. 

In early 2021, though, this is starting to indicate that they might have shot themselves in the foot. Resistance in many areas is growing and has gotten a better picture of what it is they are resisting against. The demolition of whole sectors of the economy through 2020 is only beginning to show up in disruptions in supply chains and lengthening delivery times for all sorts of specialty items. The recent slowdown in dozens of industries due to pressure on simple microcontroller chips almost monopolized by a handful of Taiwanese manufacturers is only one (very visible) example. They seem to still be following a 'shock doctrine' playbook for simply blowing up some part of the economy to goad the rest into moving in a direction they want. In one sense this is like watching people play some game like the once-popular Sim City, where everything is simple and one-dimensional and there's always a cheat code to get more free money, which always buys more stuff. 2021 will show a lot more of this.

It's still not clear which way the trend will break this year, but we have at least seen a major move that is accelerating the timeline. When we see many of the rulers of the major power structures proclaim repeatedly (often with enthusiastic relish) how they see a narrow "window of opportunity" to carry out their crash program of consolidation, they aren't joking. They might have bought a year or so, or they might have pushed it further down the Seneca cliff. 

While the plot is a freehand sketch just to give the general feel of the shape of the trajectories, it does seem that we are learning in the past year some important hints about how much energy and complexity are necessary to keep a modern technological empire intact- just how much can be cut before it begins to imperil the rest of the structure. There had been a lot of speculation in the past few years about this matter. Would the economy remain functional through a 5% decline? 10? 20? how far down the slope would it hold together? It seems that single-digit percentage shocks of only a few months duration are already almost fatal (and might yet be). 

To paraphrase Tainter's definition of collapse: a rapid and involuntary reduction in complexity. It could be that, in their attempt to push all the resource decline onto the weaker population, the powerful players have also even more rapidly accelerated the collapse of the only system that allows them to convert those resources into ongoing power. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Peak pyramids: the way to ruin is rapid

Originally published on Cassandra's Legacy on Friday, December 19, 2014

The graph above is a little exercise in cliodynamics, the attempt of quantitatively modeling historical data. Here, the size of the great Egyptian pyramids is plotted as a function of their approximate building date, taken as the last year of the reign of the Pharaoh associated to them. The data are fitted with a simple Gaussian, which approximates the cycle of the Hubbert model of resource depletion.

The great Egyptian pyramids built during the 3rd millennium BCE are the embodiment of the power and of the wealth of the Egyptian civilization of the time. But why did the Egyptians stop building them? Not lack of interest, apparently, since they kept building pyramids for a long time. But they never built again pyramids on such a giant scale.

Probably, we will never have sufficient data to understand the economics of the Egyptian pyramid building cycle of the 3rd and 4th Egyptian dynasties. But we can try at least to examine the quantitative data we have. So, I went toWikipedia and I found data for the size of pyramids and their approximate dates. The result is the graph above. Here, I show only the data for completed pyramids as a function of the last year of the reign of the Pharaoh associated for each one.

As you can see, it is possible to fit the data with a Gaussian curve, which approximates the Hubbert curve, known to describe the depletion of a limited, non renewable resource. This suggests that the Egyptians had run out of resources, possibly in the form of the fertile soil necessary to sustain the large workforce needed to build pyramids. Or, perhaps, in an age of increasing warring activity, they were forced to funnel more and more resources into the military sector, taking them away from pyramid building.

Another phenomenon we can note in the graph is the rapid collapse of the size of the pyramids at the end of the cycle. The last pyramid of this cycle, the one associated to Pharaoh Menkaure, is even smaller than the first one of the cycle, the "stepped pyramid" of Pharaoh Djoser. Perhaps, this rapid decline is a manifestation of the "Seneca Effect", a term that I coined to describe economic cycles in which decline is faster than growth. Unfortunately, however, the data are too scattered and uncertain to be sure on this point. But surely there was no "plateau" nor a slow decline after the construction of the largest pyramids andit is suggestive to think that even pyramid building may be described with Seneca's words "increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid."