Book review – The Seneca Effect: Why Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid

I am going to start this review on a tangent. The liner notes of the 1983 album Zeichnungen Des Patienten O.T. of the German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten contained the slogan “Destruction is not negative, you must destroy to build”. I don’t expect that Ugo Bardi shares my taste in music, but, judging from this book, I’m sure that if we were to sit him down with the band members over a pint, they would have plenty to talk about. Because, according to Bardi, collapse is a feature, not a bug.

The Seneca Effect

The Seneca Effect: Why Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid” written by Ugo Bardi, published by Springer in September 2017 (hardback, 209 pages)

Bardi, a professor in physical chemistry, has a strong interest in what I would like to informally dub “collapsology”. That is, he studies the science of collapse – what it is, what collapses on different scales have in common, how we can recognise that the collapse of a system is imminent, and what we can do to limit the fallout when they do finally happen. As he observes in this book, collapses are rapid events, often following extended periods of growth. He refers to this pattern as the Seneca effect, after the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BCE–65CE) who already observed this behaviour when he wrote that “fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid”.

The bulk of this book is a catalogue of collapses. Bardi starts small with structural failures, such as collapsing building, avalanches, or cracks in metal objects and how these grow. He then walks the reader through a selection of cheerful examples of past or imminent collapses on larger scales: financial crises, large-scale famine, the fall of the Roman empire, resource depletion (peak oil and  scarcity of ores), overfishing, mass extinctions, runaway climate change, and the breakdown of Earth’s ecosystems.

What all these events have in common, says Bardi, is that they are collective phenomena involving a network of interacting elements or agents that behave in a non-linear way, which often thwarts our initial naïve attempts at making predictions. A defining feature of networked structures is that they are prone to reinforcing feedback loops – hence Bardi calls collapses a feature rather than a bug. These can lead to so-called phase transitions (to borrow a term from thermodynamics), that is, rapid rearrangements into a new stable state. Or, in other words, collapse. Our knowledge of thermodynamics, network science and systems studies all offer tools (e.g. computer simulations) and ways of thinking about real-world collapses as diverse as above examples.

“the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca already wrote that “fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid””

Each item on Bardi’s shopping list of disasters has been written about extensively elsewhere, and many of these books have by now been reviewed this blog. Even so, he adds interesting observations and concise summaries. Allow me a short list of examples:

  • Financial collapses: these are a matter of wealth inequality and redistribution. Scheidel’s The Great Leveler showed these transitions have never happened peacefully. Bardi adds an interesting aside about the history and nature of money and a clear definition of the Gini coefficient, a measure of financial inequality.
  • Famine: The Irish potato famine was also described in Never Out of Season. Bardi convincingly argues Ireland’s geology and political situation exacerbated the crisis.
  • Civilisational collapse: See Harper’s excellent The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire, the subtitle of which is self-explanatory. Bardi instead points to the exhaustion of mines producing precious metals, leading to a destabilised economy, political unrest, warfare, etc. I find Harper more convincing.
  • Resource depletion: See Bardi’s thoroughly recommended Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet where he introduces the underappreciated concept of Energy Return On Energy Invested. Fossil fuels become functionally exhausted when extraction takes more energy than the fuel would generate. New technologies can change this ratio favourably, allowing renewed exploitation.
  • Overfishing: See All the Boats on the Ocean for a recent history, and the third part of Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization for a deeper history. Bardi notes the strong emotional denial people involved often show. Nineteenth-century whalers believed that whales “had become shy” (!), rather than concede overfishing.
  • Mass extinctions: discussed in Brannen’s thoroughly readable The Ends of the World. Bardi takes the extinction of the dinosaurs as a case study and favours the importance of volcanic eruptions (large igneous provinces) in addition to the meteorite impact hypothesis.
  • Climate change: The geochemical cycles involved are also detailed in The Oceans. Brave New Arctic highlights how tipping points and feedback loops such as rapidly melting glaciers, thawing permafrost and methane release from submarine sediments are all expected to first show up in the Arctic.
  • Ecosystem collapse: Bardi mentions the Gaia hypothesis (see On Gaia: : A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth for a good review, and The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? for an interesting counter-argument), the climate of Venus, and the interesting idea that Earth’s temperature has been kept constant over billions of years by the increase in the sun’s luminosity being offset by a long-term average decline in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (see The Life and Death of Planet Earth for our planet’s long-term outlook).

“People seem almost incapable of helping their own self-destructive tendencies. But, reading this book, I start to get the feeling that perhaps this, too, is a feature, not a bug.”

In a short final chapter, Bardi explores how we could manage future collapses better and limit the damage, covering concepts of avoidance (through persuasion, quotas, and privatisation), resilience, recovery afterwards, and creative collapsing (i.e. purposeful collapse of obsolete structures). Rather than Seneca ruins, can we see more graceful descents? Bardi is cautiously optimistic but simultaneously realistic: humans are emotional rather than rational and we are dreadful at long-term planning, especially collectively. The short-term cycles typical of democracies are completely self-defeating in that regard (I have a few things to say about that, but I’ll refer the reader to The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies and Against Democracy for now). In an ideal world, we would implement draconian measures right now to avoid some of the imminent collapses mentioned above. In reality, we are going through a period in which political and ideological discourse does not even scratch the surface, often seeking to deny the science and solely focus on economic growth and profit maximization at all costs. People seem almost incapable of helping their own self-destructive tendencies. But, reading this book, I start to get the feeling that perhaps this, too, is a feature, not a bug.

I have two issues with this book. One is editorial: this book is an official Report to the Club of Rome, an international think tank promoting the understanding of long-term challenges to humanity and proposing solutions. I had the impression that an author’s work becoming an official report is something quite auspicious, so I was surprised to find a text with frequent grammatical errors because of extraneous or missing words. Careful proofreading should have caught many of these. The other is more a gripe with the subject matter. Bardi seems so caught up in his systems studies that he barely mentions overpopulation. Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population is referenced shortly in the context of the Irish potato famine, and Bardi mentions population decline as a consequence of future collapses a few times. However, in my opinion, he fails to take the bull by the horns by not acknowledging overpopulation as the root cause of imminent collapses. To see no mention of the need to address overpopulation when discussing how to avoid collapses is surprising. It’s a difficult matter for sure, but one can make a start with Coole’s recent Should We Control World Population?

Aside from those two misgivings, Bardi’s book is an interesting and worthwhile exercise in bringing together many seemingly disparate topics into one framework that should get readers thinking.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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