Friday, March 23, 2018

"The Seneca Effect" Will Be Presented in Berlin on March 26th

I will be in Berlin for a presentation of "The Seneca Effect" this Monday, March 26th. The presentation is organized by the Urania society and it will be in English, with symultaneous translation in German. There follows a good critical comment of the book by Alexander Behr on "Brennstoff." I used Google translate the text into English and then I refined it using my modest knowledge of German. I know it is not a great translation, but it seems to be readable to me. And I hope that it is also faithful enough to the original

Slow growth, rapid ruin - the "Seneca collapse" of our society

A Review by Alexander Behr
Who remembers the Club of Rome? It was a late 1960s coalition of scientists who warned against overexploitation of the planet's natural resources through exploitation and exploitation. The first report to the Club of Rome entitled "The Limits to Growth" in 1972 created a tremendous response. Today, the 42nd report to the Club of Rome was published. The author, the Italian chemist Ugo Bardi, attempts to explain why complex systems collapse and how we can handle them.

In the 1970s, the founders of the Club of Rome created a model to calculate the "limits of growth" generated by increasing resource use. Ugo Bardi, himself a longtime member of the Club of Rome, continues to develop the theses of that groundbreaking work and presents his new study on the subject with his book "The Seneca Effect - Why Systems Collapse and How We Can Handle It".

Bardi is particularly interested in the collapse of the ancient Roman Empire and the transferability of this historical event to the present day. The eponymous Roman philosopher Seneca is quoted by Bardi with the memorable phrase: "Growth is slow, while the road to ruin is fast." Seneca, born in 4 BC, was first an influential advisor to Emperor Nero and later fell out of favor. He foresaw the collapse of the Roman Empire well before its actual entry.

Considering that Rome was founded in the 8th century BCE and reached its apogee in the 2nd century AD, one can attest that the Roman Empire grew for about a thousand years, to decay in a mere two to three centuries - Ugo Bardi calls this phenomenon the "Seneca effect". But why do complex systems collapse? Bardi tries to test the "Seneca effect" on the basis of the current world order.

He explores the question of whether it would be conceivable that today's complex world system could experience a more or less abrupt collapse due to mutually reinforcing effects. According to Bardi, small causes can lead to big effects in complex systems. The problem is that modern industrial society, as soon as it goes into a crisis, usually tries to solve the problems it faces by expanding its governance structures - in other words, it is doing a fatal "more of the same" instead to initiate a change.

The silver runs out
So, inevitably, the so-called "tipping points" occur and that makes it extremely difficult for complex societies to respond to disorder with adaptation. One of the main reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire was that the mines in northern Spain were no longer able to supply the silver necessary for coin production in the usual quantities. The cost of controlling the controlled territories became too high. In addition, trading on the Silk Road devoured large quantities of the coveted precious metals.

The exhaustion of the gold and silver mines was followed by a cascade of feedback effects that was far more visible and spectacular than the influences that caused it. The Roman Empire experienced political unrest, internal conflicts and the collapse of its army. Ugo Bardi believes that this "Seneca collapse" can teach us a lot about the difficulties facing our current empire, the globalized world under Western hegemony. Due to the fact that the modern world has grown so fast, it could collapse with a bang, said Bardi.

In his book, Ugo Bardi takes us on a journey through materials science and physics: he explains material breaks in ships and airplanes. Repeated, especially cyclic, loads lead to the weakening of the structure, to the so-called material fatigue. Cracks appear, which are barely visible at first - the break is often treacherous and in one rapid swoop: it is the "Seneca ruin" of the material. Bardi argues that in complex systems the unexpected and sudden change from one state to another can always lead to surprises.

The earthquake equation

Bardi assumes that the "Seneca effect" can be observed within materials is the same effect, within certain limits occurring in social, economic and biological systems. All these systems would have to obey the general laws of thermodynamics, from which certain rules and tendencies could be deduced. But the findings from physics in many cases also tell us what we do not know. Thus, so far, there are no such things as an "avalanche equation " or an "earthquake equation" that would be able to determine exactly when and where an avalanche would go off or an earthquake would occur.

Therefore, according to Bardi, despite all our knowledge of earthquakes, we can only protect ourselves from them by constructing buildings to withstand them in the event of a fall. Similarly, it is in the case of financial crises: due to the complexity of the financial world, no one is able to know exactly when the next collapse of the banking system will arrive. Bardi interprets the mortgage crisis of 2008 as a classic example of a "Seneca collapse" as the property market crash was much faster than its previous growth.

In the transfer of complex physical systems to social and social processes there lies an innovative strength of the book, which contains numerous graphics. At the same time, however, it is also his enormous weakness. In order to transform physical phenomena into social phenomena, one needs a more or less rigid image of man. So Bardi assumes that "people tend to overuse resources." He misses the fact that the depletion of resources always has to do with power and governance structures that must be historically determined and are always changeable.

Missing social theory

Elsewhere, Bardi attempts to apply the "Boltzmann Gibbs distribution", which was developed to describe entropy in atomic systems, to the social distribution of monetary wealth. In the next paragraph, he relativizes his mind game. In some ways, one has the impression of listening to a professor who is chatting with himself. Ugo Bardi lacks a coherent social theory that could provide orientation in his quite interesting theses on the collapse of complex societies.

As an additional problem, Bardi attaches high importance to the highly problematic theses of the British economist Thomas Malthus. Malthus developed in the early 19th century, named after him Population theory, which was directed primarily against the "excessive proliferation" of poor sections of the population in England. Already Friedrich Engels argued as the main objection that "overpopulation" basically does not represent a technical, but a socio-economic problem. According to Engels, capitalism is repelling an industrial "reserve army" of labor, a "lumpenproletariat", who in the worst case will be denied any right to life.

Today, nearly one billion people worldwide belong to this lumpen proletariat - outcasts who do not even benefit from being exploited. Even today, all horror scenarios of the so-called danger of overpopulation are aimed at these people. But Bardi overlooks the fact that according to the World Food Report report, today's agriculture could feed twice as many people as currently living on the planet. Overpopulation cannot be the reason for the uncontrolled exploitation of resources.

It is the current economic system that, with its inherent compulsion to maximize profits and drive economic growth, has caused enormous damage for about 200 years. Profits are more important than the satisfaction of human needs. Hunger and environmental destruction could be ended, distributive justice enforced. Despite the fact that Bardi misses this knowledge, he clearly takes position on this point and advises to develop economies that are secure against the unpredictable shocks of the global financial system.

Likewise, Bardi advises that we "rid ourselves of the stubborn craving for fossil fuels that are ruining our planet." Because peak oil could have a similar effect to a "peak silver" of the Roman Empire. But even before this happens, several tipping points of the ecological earth system are threatened, which cause not only a "Seneca collapse" of our society but of the entire ecological system. Despite some daring scientific pirouettes, Bardi's new book provides important evidence that rethinking our view of the world is more than necessary.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The View from Les Houches: The Seneca Collapse

I gave a presentation focused on the Seneca Effect at the School of Physics in Les Houches this March. Here I show various concepts associated with overshoot and collapse with the help of "Amelie the Amoeba" (This picture was not taken in Les Houches, but in an earlier presentation in Florence).

Here are some commented slides from my presentation. First of all, the title:

And here is an image I often use in order to illustrate the plight of humankind, apparently engaged in the task of covering the whole planet Earth with a uniform layer of cement, transforming it into Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire of Asimov's series "Foundation"

I moved on to illustrate the "new paradigm" of resource exploitation: the idea that mineral resources never "run out", but simply become more and more expensive, until they become too expensive.

It is not a new idea, it goes back to Stanley Jevons in mid 19th century, but for some reason it is incredibly difficult to make it understandable to decision makers:

Then, I spoke about the Seneca effect, there is a lot to say about that, but let me just show to you one of the slides I showed during the talk: the Seneca Cliff does exist!

Fisheries are an especially good example of overexploitation (or perhaps a bad example, there is nothing good about destroying all the fish in the sea. And this leads to a rather sad observation:

I also showed how the Seneca Effect can be used for good purposes, that is to get rid of things we need to get rid of. This is an image from a paper that we (Sgouris Sgouridis, Denes Csala, and myself) published in 2016.

You see the Seneca cliff for the fossils, the violet part of the curve. It is what we want to happen and it would be possible to make it happen if we were willing to invest more, much more, in renewable energy. But, apparently, there is no such idea on the table, so the future doesn't look so good.

But never mind. We keep going and, eventually, we'll arrive somewhere. In the meantime:

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The View From Les Houches: What is the origin of Collapse?

At the physics school of Les Houches, in March 2018, Gregoire Chambaz of the University of Lausanne gave a talk on the phenomenon of "collapse caused by diminishing returns of complexity." (The image above is not from Les Houches but from a meeting in Lausanne last year).

In itself, it is already interesting that a meeting of physicists gives space to the idea of societal collapse, but the school of Les Houches was one of the rare cases of a truly interdisciplinary meeting. The result was a wide variety of approaches, including the talk by Gregoire Chambaz who approached the problem examining the concept of "diminishing returns of complexity" proposed by Joseph Tainter already in 1988. You can find a summary (in French) of Chambaz's work at this link.

If you are a reader of this blog, you probably know Tainter's graphic to explain his concept. Here it is.

The idea is that, as societies become larger, they must develop more and more complex control systems in order to manage the whole system. These control systems may be in the form of bureaucracy, an imperial court, the army, the church, the legal system, and more. And, as these systems become larger, they become unwieldy, rigid, and unmanageable. The effort needed to increase their size is not matched by the benefit they provide. According to Tainter, this is the ultimate reason for the collapse of large societies.

As a model, Tainter's one has proved to be hugely popular and surely it is a "mind sized model," easy to understand and providing an immediate grasp of the evolution of the system. The problem is that Tainter's model has no evident basis in physics. There is no precise explanation of what would cause the behavior that Tainter proposes, not it is possible to measure concepts such as "the benefits of complexity." It is only a qualitative model.

Can we model this kind of collapse using physics? Perhaps. In principle, there could be two reasons why the system stops improving its performance as it grows in size. One could be an effect of entropy. If you work in a large organization, you understand how, over time, it becomes a tangle of contradictory rules and of people and offices which seem to exist only to prevent any work being done (OK, I have in mind the University of Florence, but I am sure it is not the only case in the world). But how to quantify this effect?

Then, the reason for this behavior could be another one. Maybe it is not an intrinsic property of a large system to lose efficiency as it grows, but an effect of the slow decline of the net energy that it uses. That would explain many things and I put together a tentative dynamic model a few years ago which seemed to work. We are working on improving it taking into account the dynamics of the Seneca Effect. It is a work we are doing together with my coworkers Sara and Ilaria, but it will take a little time before we publish it.

Overall, the impression I have is that we are starting to develop an extremely rich field of studies, that of critical phenomena in complex networks. Tainter gave us a first indication of the way to go, but there is much, much more to do before we can say we have a solid theory explaining the periodical collapse of civilizations we observe in history.  But we keep going.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The View From Les Houches: The Return of Space Mining?

Robert Ayres, well known for his work on biophysical economics, gave a talk dedicated to space mining at the School of Physics in Les Houches this March. Ayres just touched the subject that gave the title to his talk, spending most of the time to describe the plight of the mining industry, faced with the shortage of rare minerals. Yet, the fact that he used that title is an indication of the increasing popularity of the meme of mining space. It is still a marginal subject of investigation, but you can see the trend in Scopus, here, for the search term "space mining":

In a previous post of mine, I was not optimistic about space mining. I said that there was nothing interesting to mine in space and that the whole idea was proposed by people who knew little or nothing about geology. Asteroids and other small space bodies contain no ores because they never went through the processes of deposit creation that took place on the Earth. No ores- no mining. Basically, the growth of interest in the subject may be more a symptom of growing desperation rather than something that could be plausibly done.

I remain more or less of this idea: going to space to bring minerals back to Earth makes little sense, But, recently, I have been re-examining the concept and I discovered that there may be a logic in it if we just we change the target market from the Earth to space.

Space is a growing business with plenty of interesting applications: communication, exploration, astronomy, earth monitoring and more. Elon Musk is no fool and if he developed a heavy rocket launcher, it is because he saw the need of it. So far, every gram of the devices and the structures sent to space came from the Earth's crust. And sending things to space is awfully expensive. So, it could make sense to examine the possibility of assembling space structures using materials mined in space.

It would still be difficult, perhaps impossible, to mine rare minerals in space, but asteroids are rich of elements such  such as iron, nickel, aluminum, titanium, silicon and even carbon and water in the form of ice. These minerals are not there in the form of ores, but they form a sufficiently large fraction of some asteroids that extracting and purifying them could make sense. Take also into account that space is rich in solar energy that can be transformed into electric power by PV panels and that in space you have little to worry about pollution and greenhouse gases.

Of course, putting together a mining industry in space is a task which was never attempted so far and the unknowns are enormous. It was discussed back in the 1970s when the concept of "space colonies" became popular. But, over the years, it became clear that humans are not made for space; too expensive and too dangerous. Instead, space is a good place for robots which can do the same things human can do in a better and cheaper way. And these robots could be made, at least in part, from materials obtained from asteroids.

Is it possible? It depends on the trajectory of the world's economic system. If we manage to collapse as badly as some models predict, then space robots will soon become something made of the stuff dreams are made of - just like the angels which once were thought to be pushing planets along their orbits. But if humankind manages to keep a functioning industrial economy, then why not? Our robot-children could explore space and maybe build a new silicon based ecosystem, out there. The future is beautiful because it is always full of possibilities.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The View from Les Houches: Of Rare Metals and Cute Kittens

Les Houches, March 2018. José Halloy of the Université Paris Diderot discusses mineral depletion in his presentation. Note how he utilizes Hubbert curves to estimate the trajectory of mineral extraction. He predicted that the dearth of very rare elements will negatively affect the electronics industry, perhaps killing it completely.

José Halloy's presentation at the Les Houches school of physics was focused on the availability of rare minerals for electronics. This is a problem that's rarely discussed outside the specialized world of the "catastrophists", that is of those who think that mineral supply may be strongly restricted by depletion in a non-remote future. In this field, Halloy seemed to side with the "hard" catastrophists, that is expressing the option that depletion will make certain things, perhaps even the whole electronics industry, impossible.

The problem, indeed, is there: modern electronics is based on the unrestricted use of very rare minerals - the term "very rare" indicates those elements which are present only in traces in the earth's crust and which, normally, do not form exploitable deposits of their own. If you pick up your smartphone, you probably know that it contains several of these very rare elements gallium (for the transistors), indium (for the screen), tantalum (for the condensers), gold (for the electric contacts) and more.

Most of these elements are "hitch-hikers" in the sense that they are produced as impurities extracted from the production of other elements: for instance, gallium is a byproduct of aluminum production. Whether we can continue to supply these elements to the electronic industry in the future depends on a host of factors, including whether we can continue to extract aluminum from its ores. In this sense, recycling is not a good thing since recycled aluminum, of course, does not contain gallium, because it has already been extracted during the refining phase. Note also that recycling tiny amount of very rare elements from electronic devices is extremely difficult and very costly. So, in the future, the supply of these elements is going to become problematic, to say the least.

Does it mean the end of electronics? José Halloy seemed to be very pessimistic in this sense, but I think the question was not posed in the correct way. If you ask whether current electronic devices can survive the future dearth or rare mineral, the answer is obvious: they can't. But the correct question is a different one: what kind of electronic devices can we build without these elements?

Here, I think we face a scarcely explored area. So far, the industry has been produced all kind of devices focusing solely on performance on the basis of the assumption that there aren't - and there won't ever be - mineral supply problems. Can we make a smartphone without gallium, indium and all the rest? That is, limiting the elements used to the basic ones, silicon, aluminum, and other common materials? It is a difficult question to answer because, really, it has never been addressed, so far.

Yet, I think there are excellent possibilities to develop a new generation of electronic devices which are both using very little (and perhaps zero) rare elements and which are designed for complete (or nearly complete) recycling. The basic element of all electronic circuits, transistors, can be made using silicon and, in general, there are alternatives to rare metals for most devices, even though in most cases not with the same performance. For instance, light emitting diodes (LEDs) are currently based on gallium nitride (GaN) and there seem to be no comparable substitutes. Without LED, we would have to go back to the old cathode ray tubes (CRTs) which we consider primitive today. But, after all,  CRTs performed well enough for us up to not many years ago. So, it would be an inconvenience, but not the end of the world.

So, it is clear that we'll have to settle on reduced performance if we want an electronics without rare elements, perhaps on a strongly reduced performance. But maybe we don't need the kind of performance we have been used to in order to keep going. Think about your smartphone: it is an incredibly complex and powerful device used mostly for trivial tasks such as looking at clips of cute kittens and sending likes and thumbs-up to other machines. Does "civilization" really need these devices? It is all to be seen.

For a fascinating discussion of an industrialized world running without rare metals, see the excellent book by Pierre Bihouix "L'age Des Low Tech" (in French - alas!)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The View From Les Houches: What Are Models For?

Sandra Bouneau, researcher and lecturer at the university of Paris-Sud, shows her model at the School of Physics in Les Houches, France, in March 2018. As you can see from the image, her model is complex and detailed. It is one of the several models presented at the school which attempt to describe the trajectory of the transition.

Overall, all the models based on physics (including Bouneau's one, as far as I understood it) arrived to similar conclusions, confirming the calculations that myself, Denes Csala, and Sgouris Sgouridis published in 2016. In practice, the transition is possible, but it won't happen all by itself. The economic system needs to be pushed in the right direction, in such a way that it will be able to provide the necessary investments.

The problem is that the system is not being pushed hard enough. Some parts of it, including the US governments, are pushing in the wrong direction, dreaming of an impossible "energy dominance" (and even if it were possible, what good would it be for America?).

At the bottom of the whole problem, it is the fact that policy-makers don't believe in models, although they may declare the opposite. There have been many models developed during the past century or so which would have created a different world if the powers that be had acted on the advice provided - first and foremost "The Limits to Growth" of 1972. But that model was not only disbelieved but positively demonized.

In the end, All models are made to search for trajectories which avoid collapse, so ignoring models ensures collapse. And that's what we are doing!

Monday, March 12, 2018

The View from Les Houches: Thermodynamics vs. Economics

School of Physics in Les Houches, France, March 2018. Juergen Miknes shows some of the concepts that he has developed in his parallel analysis of thermodynamics and economics. It is a remarkable synthesis that you can find described in detail here. In the slide above, he suggests to replace the Cobb-Douglas function, commonly used in economics, with a function based on the concept of Shannon's entropy.

I am not sure of a number of things in Miknes' work, in particular the idea of equating (in some ways at least) the growth of entropy with the growth of production. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating work.

Something that surprised me (but probably I shouldn't have been surprised) was how strongly Miknes was challenged by an economist in the audience. Apparently, economists don't like their field invaded by those pesky physicists. So far, economists have been able to keep physics away from their secluded garden and continue keeping the field open only to people with the right credentials (according to them). For how long, it is all to be seen.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)