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The Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca was perhaps the first in history to identify and discuss collapse and to note that “the way to ruin is rapid.” From Seneca’s idea, Ugo Bardi coined the term “Seneca Effect” to describe all cases where things go bad fast and used the modern science of complex systems to understand why and how collapses occur. Above: the Egyptian pyramid of Meidum, perhaps the first large edifice in history to experience collapse. 

1. Collapse is rapid. Already some 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca noted that when things start going bad, they go bad fast. It takes a lot of time to put together a building, a company, a government, a whole society, a piece of machinery. And it takes very little time for the whole structure to unravel at the seam. Think of the collapse of a house of cards, or that of the twin towers after the 9/11 attacks, or even of apparently slow collapses such as that of the Roman Empire. Collapses are likely to take you by surprise.

2. Collapse is not a bug, it is a feature of the universe. Collapses occur all the time, in all fields, everywhere. Over your lifetime, you are likely to experience at least a few relatively large collapses: natural phenomena such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods – major financial collapses – such as the one that took place in 2008 – and you may also see wars and social violence. And you may well see small-scale personal disasters, such as losing your job or divorcing. Nobody at school taught you how to deal with collapses, but you’d better learn at least something of the “science of complex systems.”

3. No collapse is ever completely unexpected. The science of complex systems tells us that collapses can never be exactly predicted, but that’s not a justification for being caught by surprise. You may not know when an earthquake will strike but, if you live in a seismic zone, you have no justification for not take precautions against one – such as having emergency tools and provisions. The same holds for defending yourself and your family against thieves, robbers, and all sorts of bad people. And make plans for political unrest or financial troubles. You cannot avoid some collapses, but you can surely be prepared for them.

4. Resisting collapses is usually a bad idea. Collapse is the way the universe uses to get rid of the old to make space for the new. Resisting collapse means to strive to keep something old alive when it could be a better idea to let it rest in peace. And, if you succeed for a while, you are likely to create an even worse collapse – it is typical. The science of complex systems tells us that the main reason for the steep “Seneca Collapse” is the attempt to stave it off. So, let nature follow its course and know that there some problems may be unsolvable but can be surely worsened.

5. Collapse may not be a problem but an opportunity. Collapse is nothing but a “tipping point” from one condition to another. What looks to you like a disaster may be nothing but a passage to a new condition which could be better than the old. So, if you lose your job, that may give you the opportunity to seek a better one. And if your company goes belly up, you may start another one without making the same mistakes you did with the first. Even disasters such as earthquakes or floods may be an opportunity to understand what’s your role in life, as well as give you a chance to help your family and your neighbors. The Stoic philosophers (and Seneca was one) understood this point and told us how to maintain one’s balance and happiness even in the midst of difficulties.

To learn more about collapse, see Ugo Bardi’s main blog “Cassandra’s Legacy,” Ugo’s blog specifically dedicated to the Seneca Effect, and Ugo Bardi’s book “The Seneca Effect” (Springer 2017)

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)unifi.it

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