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 leviathan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label leviathan. Show all posts

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