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The Seneca Effect: why decline is faster than growth

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The Seneca Trap is a repository of the posts dedicated to the “Seneca Effect” that appeared, and will appear, on “Cassandra’s Legacy

The idea of collapse is bad enough for most people when it deals with the running out of mineral resources along the symmetrical “bell shaped” Hubbert curve. But there is an extra dimension to collapse: it is the “Seneca Effect” (or “Seneca Trap”, or also “Seneca Cliff”) that notes how, most often, when things start going bad, they go bad fast – even very fast.

So,  a few years ago I started mulling over this idea, also as the result of a question that Dmitry Orlov had posed to me. I also remembered something that the ancient Roman Philosopher Seneca had written and that a friend of mine (Luca Mercalli) had pointed out to me. The result was the “Seneca Collapse model,” one of a series that I call “mind sized” simple models.

The basic idea of the Seneca Model, as I implemented it, is that a complex system, such as a whole civilization, does not collapse just because it runs out of resources, but also because of side effects related to the consumption of these resources, effects that we would call today “pollution”. Trapped in between depletion and pollution, the system collapses even faster. This is why I call the effect also the “Seneca Trap”.

After I had developed that first model, I discovered that the phenomenon may be more complex and that there are many real-world systems that can be considered as affected by the Seneca Trap. It can be applied, in particular, to fisheries. On the whole, it is a fascinating subject that I am still exploring.

The question that I am trying to answer now is what exactly causes the Seneca Effect. Eventually, everything that moves in the universe does so because of the dissipation of thermodynamic potentials. But there is nothing written in the laws of thermodynamics that says that ruin should be faster than fortune, as Seneca had said long ago (and he didn’t know anything about thermodynamics). So, I believe that there is something here that has to do with complexity and how the system is networked internally. But how to quantify that….. well, it may take some work.

In any case, there is now a blog called “The Seneca Trap” that acts as a repository of the posts on this subject that have appeared (and will appear) on “Cassandra’s Legacy.” If you are interested, click on it and you’ll find perhaps more on this subject than you really wanted to know!

Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi

29 Comments on "The Seneca Effect: why decline is faster than growth"

  1. paulo1 on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 1:23 pm 

    I just look at technological break throughs on the way up; building upon each success until the speed of change is mind boggling. Computing is an obvious example. When I first started using computers teaching CAD it required learning DOS commands and it was all I could to get kids and adults to comfortably use computers. Within 10 years (2005), it was second nature and now, just 20 years later, the use of computers in absolutely everything is totally pervasive to the point where many users are actually quite stupid. Think of a checkout counter in a corner store. How often do we see people unable to do mental math and make basic change unless a computer spits out the total? If this technology burps, commerce will come to a grinding halt. Automobiles self-diagnosing for the ‘techs’ to plug in and change components, the lack of map reading skills due to GPS systems, and even driverless cars on tap….what could possibly go wrong?

    If debt availability contracts; debt that presently allows replacement of all products as opposed to repairing them, we are screwed. Mechanics are now technicians in white smocks, and how many ‘new drivers’ even know how to put air in their tires or check fluid levels? Has anyone seen a shoe repair shop in the last 20 years? Schools, starved for funding, do not offer much in the way of practical skills training anymore. Mostly gone are construction and metalworking shops, mechanics, cooking, or sewing classes. Instead, we have credit financing and planned obsolesence of almost all products. Just replace the old with something new, built with slave labour in some third-world hell hole, purchased on credit with funds you don’t have. Many people no longer even have basic life skills such as cooking or mending. Most no longer have any idea about nutrition or how to grow any of their own food. The grocery stores have more isles devoted to fast pre-cooked/pre-prepared foods than they do to fresh and frozen products in their original form. Of course, even the whole foods are raised in factory mono-farms and bear little resemblence to what our parents ate.

    This whole modern system is becoming like a wobbly top children’s toy. If something breaks, it’s all going to fly apart, imho. I think we are holding on with the skin of our teeth. Cheap energy got the top spinning, and like a top it can stop even faster. If this latest energy price fluctuation takes down our debt-based economic system, well, I wouldn’t want to be living in a major city.

  2. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 2:00 pm 

    What he said.

  3. Cloud9 on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 2:09 pm 

    Build a house from the ground up and then walk in and set fire to the curtains. Several thousand hours of labor will be consumed in less than a half hour.

  4. sunweb on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 3:14 pm 

    well said as usual paulo1

  5. Nony on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 4:00 pm 

    I think in terms of depletion of hydrocarbons, the peak shape is more likely to be the REVERSE of the Seneca cliff. IOW, take the Hubbert curve and instead of skewing it to have a fast drop, skew it to have a slower than expected drop. This is what we see in practice and there are several rational physical explanations for it:

    -mathematics of summing decline curves favor this skew (after all an individual well starts at zero, goes to highes output a couple months after completion, then declines in an exponential all its life).

    -infrastructure for the peak flow becomes a sunk cost and justifies future infill drilling, EOR, etc.

    -infrastructure becomes a bottleneck at peak flows. Because this is needed only for a short part of the field’s life, the incentive is to somewhat undersize it compared to the absolute most flush rate. This will push “peak” barrels to the right in time of development.

    -new knowledge is developed (over time) of the geology that can extend the field’s life

    -completion and drilling technologies are improved over time (both in ultimate output and in cost effectiveness) which can extend the field’s life.

  6. Sissyfuss on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 4:06 pm 

    Paulo said “The use of computers in absolutley everything is totally pervasive.” Should read perversive.

  7. onlooker on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 4:12 pm 

    This is just another of the many problems inherent in the powerdown process. That so many machines and functions rely on computers now. Which makes the entire system vulnerable not just to power disruptions but hackers and sabotage.

  8. J-Gav on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 5:08 pm 

    Yes, Paulo, I have seen a shoe repair shop, and still do, right around the corner here near the the center of Paris.

    Nothing like what it used to be 40 years ago when I arrived, but there are also still a few other repair shops around – clothes, bikes, musical instruments etc. This is not the USA, granted, and I do agree with most of what you say.

    On to Seneca then. Bardi keeps hammering away at the Seneca Effect and I can’t say he’s wrong. He doesn’t give a lot of info about Seneca though, who was a first century A.D. Roman dramatist, essayist and Stoic philosopher. Wrote treatises like ‘De brevitate vitae’ (On the Shortness of Life)…

    He was a close advisor to Nero (Yes, That Nero, the fiddler)until he fell out of favor and was forced to commit suicide.

    Bardi always provides the same quote (and it’s a good one) so I’ll chip in with a couple others:

    “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting dopportunity.”

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

    Plus ça change …


  9. godq3 on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 5:21 pm 

    Nony on Sun – Good points, but only if we assume that world economy will be all right after the peak, which isn’t true. Once we start fall from peak energy consumption, it will destroy world economy, and without functioning world economy with long supply chains, we have no energy at all.
    Printing currency by central banks isn’t helping at bringing fossil fuels prices above levels needed to sustain production levels, becaus it’s the BTUs that matter, not currency supply. If CBs give free cash to people, and create inflation, FFs extraction costs will rise accordingly.

  10. twocats on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 5:39 pm 

    I think the idea that the global economy slowly collapsing is going to make global civilization collapse is a hard argument to prove. 2009 to present has been a near complete dismantling of traditional markers of the economic system that existed prior to it. The ruling elite, central banks, and politicians have shown a pretty strong willingness to throw any group or country under the bus that they need to in order to keep the game going. It’s ultimately an artificial construct and can be manipulated (though not seamlessly since there are multiple independent actors). Does that mean there’s a job for “you”, maybe. The suggestion that used to appear on TOD quite a bit was, “get thee to the non-discretionary side of the economy”.

    another possible maxim to develop: The global economy can stay solvent longer than you can afford the electric bill in order to rant about its collapse on the internet.

  11. Apneaman on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 5:51 pm 

    J-Gav, escapefromwisconsin, author of The Hipcrime Vocab blog is in the midst of a series of essays on civilizations and collapse works/studies. Not sure if you are familiar with him. Good writer – good stuff.

    Toynbee and the Ecological Hypothesis

    “Yet, for all the peace and stability of the Antonine years, there was much about life in the empire which was far from admirable. There was a rigid caste system, with a social pyramid which grew ever steeper despite changes at the top as more provincial people were given Roman citizenship. The gap between rich and poor was desperately wide, and growing wider. Slaves could still be treated with a ferocity almost incomprehensible to people of our day. Growing masses of the urban poor lived without work, in disgusting tenements, on welfare payments of grain and entertained by horrible murders of prisoners and beasts in the public arenas built in every city for this necessary purpose.

    Recession showed up as a chronic failure of tax revenue. Roman governors were always hard put to pay and equip their soldiers, and they had to meet even increasing expenses to keep the mass of the people in the city tenements from rebellion by giving them free food. In the last century they actually had to meet the expenses of a true police state, paying out a network of spies and informers…The emperors resorted to the Roman equivalent of printing money. They debased the coinage, mixing cheaper metal in gold and silver and declaring that the new coins had the same value as the old. Our modern governments push out paper and call it “wealth”; the Romans pushed out base metal and called it “wealth”; and the result was the same…Emperors tried wage and price controls, backing them up with brutal threats…but it did not work. They succeeded only in ruining the middle class. At the top of the social pyramid the depressed economy made government difficult. For the mass of people in the lower castes it made the chance for betterment hopeless. (pp. 156-158)”

  12. makati1 on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 5:57 pm 

    Paulo1, I would say that your description of conditions today mostly pertain to the US, not other countries. Especially not the 3rd world countries. The dumbing down of less than one billion of the earth’s inhabitants has happened, but not the other six plus billion.

  13. makati1 on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 6:35 pm 

    twocats, I would say the global economy is on it’s death bed. The BDI is the lowest in it’s history, telling us that global demand is contracting at super speed with no end in sight. All but a few countries are having massive debt problems in a contracting net energy world. How much longer can the lies and printing presses keep the whole mess functioning? No one can say, but I doubt it will be much longer.

  14. Apneaman on Sun, 31st Jan 2016 6:41 pm 

    Too poor to retire and too young to die

  15. JV153 on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 5:17 am 

    Need more and more energy (and materials) to service crumbling infrastructure let alone build out new infrastructure. Then those energy sources and materials are more spread out, requiring more energy to get them. That’s why growth already is slowing.
    When will China start digging into sub-bituminous coal reserves ?

    In the area where I live, there at least 100 buildings that are abandoned or in near collapse, from farm buildings and homes with roof deterioration to empty stores in a major urban centre to abandoned factories – and several road signs with some letters that have worn away due to the elements.

    New shopping centers are built, many apartment buildings, few houses – but there’s plenty of dilapidated buildings.

    Roads are slowly deteriorating.

  16. rockman on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 7:52 am 

    Sadly, once again, I’ll have to slide into Nony’s camp on this one. LOL. First, the “Seneca Trap” concept is just so much bullsh*t unless one applies that dynamic to a specific system. Obviously it will apply to many systems…just as it will be completely ass backwards to others. And with respect to oil production rates it becomes more difficult when one takes into account time/price variations. Consider just the US production curve. Until prices exploded it was following a very nice REVERSE Seneca curve: a slow decline after a relatively rapid buildup. But then we hit the shale plays and saw another rapid buildup. But unlike the relatively slow decline of all those old conventional oil fields we see a very rapid EARLY DECLINE of the shale wells which was not very obvious looking at total production thanks to an ever increasing number of wells being drilled.

    But now the addition of new wells has decreased substantially so we’ll lose those big INITIAL gains. Which taken separately might look a tad Senecaish. But the older shale wells have entered a phase with a much lower decline rate then they had initially. If plotted by themselves they would also appear to have a reverse Seneca curve. But remember underneath both the oil shale Senecaish and reverse Seneca curves we still have the reverser Seneca curve of the old conventional fields which are still declining very slowly plus the new slow decline rate phase of the older shale wells.

    Folks with a lot of spare time might try to make a grand model of the various Senecaish and reverser Seneca curves. The Rockman won’t. He’ll just watch the trend develop over the coming years because, as always, data trumps theory. LOL

  17. shortonoil on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 9:16 am 

    “The question that I am trying to answer now is what exactly causes the Seneca Effect.”

    The answer to Bardi’s question lies in the energy dynamics of the petroleum production process. It can not be explained, or projected from a volumetric analysis. The world’s economy needs a certain quantity of deliverable energy to grow and function. It is the quantity of energy delivered by petroleum that is the critical factor, not the quantity of petroleum. The two are not necessarily the same. We put this page up almost two years ago; it demonstrates a “Seneca like affect” that is occurring to the price of oil as a result of the energy delivery capabilities of petroleum:

    What has occurred is that when the energy function (that has controlled the price, and production of petroleum for the last century and a half) reached a specific point it hit a discontinuity in that function. A plot of the energy function can be seen here:

    The discontinuity occurred when a unit of petroleum could no longer contribute to the end user an amount of energy that was at least equal to the amount that was required to produce it. On an energy exchange bases the end user could no longer buy back all the petroleum that was being produced. Because the end user was now unable to buy all the oil that was produced this resulted in increases in crude and finished product inventories, and lower prices. Because the energy to produce petroleum and its products is an increasing function this situation can only grow worse with time.

    Bardi’s Seneca cliff hypothesis is well confirmed by the Etp Model. Convincing the rest of the world of its inevitably is going to be the most difficult part of the process. It is news that they just don’t to hear!

  18. Nony on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 9:36 am 

    Here is Ugo Bardi, predicting US natural gas as peaked in 2013:

    Note that he has peak at 2.5 TCF/month and shows a curve that extended would put us at ~2.3 TCF/mo now.

    What actually happened? We have averaged 2.75 TCF/mo for 2015. (click the link for data below the Ugo Bardi graph). That’s about 20% higher than he predicted.

  19. shortonoil on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 10:38 am 

    “Here is Ugo Bardi, predicting US natural gas as peaked in 2013:”

    It could not have been any worse than your prediction, because you did not make one. As they say ” the man who has never made a mistake has never done anything”. We all know that you have never made a mistake.

  20. marmico on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 10:56 am 

    We all know about your 2012 model quart shy of oil. You failed your own empirical test in your own words.

    Do I need to pull your non-modelled 2005 prediction?

    Nony has consistently made the prediction that the Marcellus is Mighty and the Utica maybe Mightier.

  21. GregT on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 11:57 am 


    From your link:

    “Are we already seeing the end of the “shale gas revolution”? It is too early to say..” -Ugo Bardi

    You’re full of shit Nony, as per usual.

  22. shortonoil on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 12:12 pm 

    “We all know about your 2012 model quart shy of oil. You failed your own empirical test in your own words.”

    While you’re at it pull that one by Columbus about getting to the Far East by sailing West. Now that is a real piece of bait for a troglodyte moron like you.

  23. Nony on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 12:14 pm 

    Greg: agreed that he made the caveat.

    But read the whole article. He fitted a Gaussian (assumes a peak, circular logic). He also says, “surely, these data agree with the viewpoint of those who had been seeing the whole story as a short lived financial bubble”. He also ignored price.

    Anyhow, what happened? Shale gas KICKED ASS the last 3 years. Did he post a followup post and answer the question, ‘was shale gas over’ with a big fat no? No, he didn’t. Bias, bias, bias.

  24. shortonoil on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 1:30 pm 

    “Anyhow, what happened? Shale gas KICKED ASS the last 3 years. Did he post a followup post and answer the question, ‘was shale gas over’ with a big fat no? No, he didn’t. Bias, bias, bias.”

    Are you trying to tell us that Bardi didn’t predict that the FED was going to go to the banks and tell them to do anything possible to keep these Zombies alive. Don’t mark their losses to market, don’t force liquidations, and etc. Yup, you’re right. Now shut up while you’re still ahead!

  25. godq3 on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 4:08 pm 

    The fact that we’ve deleyed the peak by central banks interventions, means that the downslope will be even faster. What we’re experiencing now proves it – oil price is half what is needed to sustain production levels.

  26. GregT on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 6:14 pm 


    Bardi understands limits to growth and is questioning the timeline. You, on the other hand, are cheerleading for fossil fuels. Which sadly, are going to leave dire consequences for all of us in the not so distant future.

  27. Marty on Mon, 1st Feb 2016 6:30 pm 

    JV153, you didn’t mention where you live. It’s helpful to know to imagine the local collapse you describe.

  28. Davy on Tue, 2nd Feb 2016 1:45 am 

    “Hong Kong Housing Bubble Suffers Spectacular Collapse: Sales Plunge Most On Record, Prices Crash”

    “January Hong Kong home prices tumbled the most since July 2013, and after a 12 year upcycle, prices are now down a whopping 10% from the recent peak just four short months ago. Some analysts expect prices to fall more than 30 per cent by 2017 according to SCMP….In other words, the bubble has clearly burst.”

    “Hong Kong property transactions in January were on track to register the worst month since 1991, when it started compiling monthly figures. In other words, the biggest drop in recorded history!”

    “if the situation on the margin is this bad in one of the world’s wealthiest enclaves, one can only imagine what is happening in mainland China.”

  29. GregT on Tue, 2nd Feb 2016 1:54 am 

    “if the situation on the margin is this bad in one of the world’s wealthiest enclaves, one can only imagine what is happening in mainland China.”

    And one can only imagine the repercussions that will be felt in places like Vancouver BC. When a 50 year old shack on a 33 ft wide city lot sells for 1.2 million dollars, it should be very clear that the market is in a bubble of epic proportions. This is not going to end well for a lot of people.

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