Collapsing Systems: What Empires And Avalanches Have In Common

The Italian chemistry professor Ugo Bardi has written a book about the Seneca effect. He refers to the abrupt collapse of systems: observed in avalanches and balloons, but also in financial market bubbles and powerful empires.
By Jantje Hannover

When a balloon bursts or an avalanche takes place, it is a network structure that suddenly reorganizes. (image stock & people / Michael Nolan and Oekom Verlag)

Net, nodes, and collapses

“It would be a consolation to our weak souls and our works, if all things would slowly pass away as they arise, but as it happens, growth is slow, while the road to ruin is fast.”

This is what the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca said about 2,000 years ago. And as if Seneca had wanted to prove this sentence, in the course of his life he too had become more and more wealthy and influential, even rising up to become advisor to Emperor Nero. Until he fell out of favor and was eventually suspected of being part of a plot against the Emperor. Then, Nero ordered him to commit suicide.

The author Ugo Bardi, Professor of Chemistry in Florence, is interested in rapid crashes after a successful ascent, a development, shown as an example by numerous physical processes. He baptizes this phenomenon the “Seneca effect”. In the diagrams and illustrations in Bardi’s book, mostly diagrams that show the development of different events, the “Seneca curve” is by far the most frequent: “All breakdowns have certain characteristics in common: they are always collective phenomena, that is, they appear only in so-called complex systems, that is, in network structures of ‘nodes’ that are interconnected by links, a collapse is the rapid restructuring of a large number of such links.

The easiest way to illustrate the idea of this network structure in complex systems using the Internet. Ugo Bardi cites the example of the Facebook predecessor, Friendster. Some users had logged out, others found that they had too few contacts and also logged out. The net imploded.

About rising and falling

Even if a balloon bursts, an avalanche emerges, or the tension of the continental plates discharges in an earthquake, these are ultimately links in a network structure that suddenly reorganize itself – with possibly catastrophic consequences for humans, a real “Seneca ruin”, as Ugo Bardi says. He shows that financial bubbles and the collapse of powerful empires have comparable properties. An example is the Roman Empire. According to Bardi’s analysis, it had to go down mainly because the minerals gold and silver, the most important elixir of the Roman financial system, were increasingly difficult to obtain: “Depletion is a tricky concept which has little or nothing to do with the fact that a mineral actually becomes scarce or even runs out. Rather, it is a question of costs and benefits. Mining costs increase over time as miners first exploit the easily accessible and highly concentrated ores. ”

At first, the Romans and their vassals did not need more than a sieve to wash the gold nuggets out of the river sand. Soon, they needed pickaxes and shovels, as well as digging mines and employing machinery and trolleys. In the end, mining devoured so much money that it was no longer worth it. And it is precisely on this point that today’s humanity is heading for at high speed, says Bardi. Even if today they can resort to incomparably more sophisticated technologies, we are currently in danger because of the low oil price: “Unfortunately, at present it does not look as if the governments of the world and the public are realizing the problem of mineral scarcity and that we are moving only very slowly towards a decline in consumption. But no matter what is done or not done today, the world’s current industrial system has to undergo major changes, so great that its continued existence is by no means assured.”

The future of the world

The collapse of the global economy due to the scarcity of raw materials was also predicted by the Club of Rome 45 years ago with its study “The Limits of Growth”. Bardi considers the scenarios computed by computer simulations to be up to date. For the parameters of resources, economic development, population growth or food supply, the scenario generated mainly Seneca curves, that is steep crashes. Today, the collapse could be imminent, but – like an earthquake – cannot be accurately predicted. The same applies to the flora and fauna of the planet Earth, also called Gaia, which flourish like the world economy in a complex network structure.

“According to the Gaia hypothesis, the earth’s ecosystem has some ability to create and sustain conditions that enable life, and our earth behaves, at least in part, even as a living thing. That is, Gaia holds homeostasis (balance), so that the ecosystem is able to avoid major disasters and recover from inevitable ones. ”

The author shows that the earth maintained an approximately constant temperature over the last 542 million years because more complex life forms have continued to exist all over this time. It seems that the earth has compensated for increasing intensity of the sun’s irradiation, which has been increasing, by regulating the carbon content of the air. As we know, humankind is currently and consistently turning the carbon thermostat in the wrong direction.

Fossil empire at the crossroadsUgo Bardi’s report is in places quite demanding for the non-naturalist, for example when it comes to discovering in the course of world events the action of the second principle of thermodynamics or the phenomenon of phase transition. But the author packs his broad knowledge in a humorous and understandable language, incorporating historical events, anecdotes, and even science fiction novels, and manages to keep the interest of the reader over and over again.

“Our present-day empire, which we can justifiably call the ‘fossil empire’, is at a crossroads, because fossil fuels have well exceeded their usefulness, even if we do not want to admit it, and they are putting us in danger. Today, the threat of this problem is not yet sufficiently penetrated into the consciousness of our imperial rulers. ”

And because that is so, Ugo Bardi has devoted some chapters to coping with the collapse. However, he considers these possibilities quite vague and relativizes them, given the egoism of the people and their tendency to refuse to give back what they once had. After all, the collapse also brings opportunities, because only in this way could something new arise. In any case, Bardi’s attempt to make the imminent danger to the inhabitants of planet earth a little more concrete by means of processes in complex systems remains absolutely worth reading.

Ugo Bardi: “The Seneca Effect Why Systems Collapse and How We Can Handle It”,
translated by Gabriele Gockel and Sonja Schumacher, Oekom Verlag, 312 pages, 25 euros.


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