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The Seneca Effect Why Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid

By: Ugo Bardi(Author)
209 pages, 21 colour & 36 b/w illustrations, 34 tables
Publisher: Springer Nature
The Seneca Effect is an interesting exercise that brings together many disparate forms of collapse in one framework.
The Seneca Effect
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  • The Seneca Effect ISBN: 9783319861036 Paperback Aug 2018 Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
  • The Seneca Effect ISBN: 9783319572062 Hardback Sep 2017 Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
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About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

The essence of this book can be found in a line written by the ancient Roman Stoic Philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca: "Fortune is of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid". This sentence summarizes the features of the phenomenon that we call "collapse", which is typically sudden and often unexpected, like the proverbial "house of cards". But why are such collapses so common, and what generates them?

Several books have been published on the subject, including the well-known Collapse by Jared Diamond (2005), The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter (1998) and The Tipping Point, by Malcom Gladwell (2000). Why The Seneca Effect? The Seneca Effect is an ambitious attempt to pull these various strands together by describing collapse from a multi-disciplinary viewpoint. The reader will discover how collapse is a collective phenomenon that occurs in what we call today "complex systems", with a special emphasis on system dynamics and the concept of "feedback". From this foundation, Bardi applies the theory to real-world systems, from the mechanics of fracture and the collapse of large structures to financial collapses, famines and population collapses, the fall of entire civilizations, and the most dreadful collapse we can imagine: that of the planetary ecosystem generated by overexploitation and climate change.

The final objective of the book is to describe a conclusion that the ancient stoic philosophers had already discovered long ago, but that modern system science has rediscovered today. If you want to avoid collapse you need to embrace change, not fight it. Neither a book about doom and gloom nor a cornucopianist's dream, The Seneca Effect goes to the heart of the challenges that we are facing today, helping us to manage our future rather than be managed by it.


- Introduction
- Seneca's times: The fall of the Roman Empire
- The Seneca collapse as a critical phenomenon: why do things break?
- Networks: the Seneca collapse of complex structures
- Fast and Furious Seneca: Financial collapses
- Destroying what keeps you alive: the tragedy of the commons
- The World as a Giant Bathtub: the Seneca Collapse of Complex Systems
- World models and the collapse of everything
- The dark heart of the fossil empires
- Malthus was an optimist: famines and population collapses
- The Seneca asteroid: climate change as the ultimate collapse
- Managing complex systems: how to pull the levers in the right direction
- Conclusion: How to euthanize an empire

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Interesting book looking at collapse in many forms
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 5 Sep 2018 Written for Hardback

    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.

    Each item on Bardi’s shopping list of disasters has been written about extensively elsewhere. Even so, he adds interesting observations and concise summaries. 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. 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.
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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. He is member of the scientific committee of ASPO (Association for the study of peak oil) and regular contributor of The Oil Drum and His blog in English is called Cassandra's Legacy. His most recent book in English is Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green, 2014). He is also the author of The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer 2011).

By: Ugo Bardi(Author)
209 pages, 21 colour & 36 b/w illustrations, 34 tables
Publisher: Springer Nature
The Seneca Effect is an interesting exercise that brings together many disparate forms of collapse in one framework.
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