Collapse is a feature, not a bug. This motto is almost like a mantra to physical chemist Ugo Bardi. He is interested in complex systems and how they collapse. Whether they be human-made structures, companies, societies, or ecosystems; he follows the thinking of Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BCE–65CE) who wrote, in Bardi’s words, that “growth is slow, but the way to ruin is rapid”. This led Bardi to write The Seneca Effect in 2017, which was reviewed here previously. Now he is back with Before the Collapse, a book aimed at a wider audience that promises to help readers understand and navigate collapses in their lives.
Bardi opens his book with a chapter on modelling. Before we even get to describing the growth and collapse of complex systems, he wants readers to understand how we do this describing. The thing about complex systems is that they are… well, complex. Whether it is the weather forecast or the depletion of fossil fuel reserves, scientists often turn to models, and this approach is often eyed suspiciously or even belittled by the general public. Something that he thinks is entirely unjustified.
So, before proceeding, Bardi wants readers to understand the difference between top-down and bottom-up approaches to building a model, and their advantages and limitations. He is especially interested in the failure of models to predict rapid, unexpected changes (so-called tipping points, though Bardi calls the catastrophic variants Seneca cliffs), and their inability to foresee statistical outliers: the unpredictable, potentially devastating, never-before-experienced events that have been popularised as black swans. He also highlights the psychological biases that lead us to disbelief models, whether through emotions, biases, gullibility, inappropriate rules of thumb, or a false sense of security that makes us overestimate the chances that model predictions will be wrong.
“[Bardi] is especially interested in the failure of models to predict tipping points, and their inability to foresee statistical outliers: the unpredictable, potentially devastating, never-before-experienced events popularised as black swans”
With the value of models sufficiently established, Bardi moves on to describe the anatomy of complex systems and the various growth modes by which they can develop. But the bulk of the book is a catalogue of catastrophes. As in The Seneca Effect, this includes human-engineered structures, financial and societal collapses, resource depletion, famines, and ecosystem collapse, but also some new categories such as natural disasters, warfare, epidemics, and depopulation. Some examples were already covered in his last book, including the peak oil concept and the Irish famine of 1845. Others, though, are new, such as the 2018 collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, the bankruptcy of video rental company Blockbuster, the great 1966 flood of Florence that Bardi experienced personally, and some of history’s most fatal wars. Bardi writes of them with his typical sense of often grim and ironic humour, and a bold, fearless attitude that sees him confront uncomfortable facts of life with almost Stoic calm.
The book’s preface promises that this is a completely new and different book, though I feel he only partially delivers on that promise. If you have not read The Seneca Effect this, of course, is not much of an issue. The blurb mentions that “this book will help you […] face failure and collapse at all scales […] and navigate the swirl of events that frequently threaten your balance and happiness“, and the preface expresses the hope that “you will find this book useful for your life and your career“. Based on this I was expecting if not a kind of self-help book, at least something in the way of applied lessons on a personal level. But it seems that once Bardi gets to his chapter on strategies to manage collapses, he has abandoned this plan and partially retreads his last book, though, admittedly, with some new examples.
“Given that we have depleted easily accessible fossil fuel and mineral resources during the past few centuries, could we reboot civilization after a crash?”
So, the option of technological progress against collapse is new. Here, Bardi focuses on new ways to meet our energy needs, covering the pipe dream of cold fusion research, futuristic concepts such as universal mining machines, and our likely saviour, renewable energy. The section on avoiding overexploitation is confusingly more a showcase of how not to avoid collapse, highlighting how politics and greed often come together to deplete the resources we depend on.
Not new is the section on the Iago strategy, previously covered as hostile collapses – this is the dark side of the Seneca cliff, the use of deception and betrayal to avoid ruin by destroying an opponent in, for example, warfare. Also not new is the discussion on different forms of governing resources, the tragedy of the commons, the question of whether democracy and privatisation can stave off collapse, or the example of Japan during the Edo period as a rare case of a zero-growth society with exceptional long-term stability.
“[…] unless you are in a position of power, you have little influence to change or avert collapses. For most people, the best strategy is to familiarise yourself with the concept of collapses so that you may both understand and recognize them”
And The Seneca Effect also already explored the possibility of rebound after collapse, though Bardi here asks the interesting question if this would be possible after the collapse of our current society. Given that we have depleted easily accessible fossil fuel and mineral resources during the past few centuries, could we reboot civilization after a crash? Keep in mind that geochemical processes will not replenish these reserves in our lifetimes, if ever. Still, he thinks recycling mineral resources to kick-start a renewable-energy–based infrastructure could be an option. I would add that we might also want to have at hand ample copies of Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge.
If I have to be critical, I have two gripes with this book. One is that I feel the book wanders a bit. I personally very much enjoy the subject matter and am happy to accompany Bardi as he muses his way through the book. But I do think it would have benefited from both proofreading to catch out grammatical errors, and especially from some critical editorial attention. A revision of the text might have resulted in something more coherent and novel that truly sets itself apart from his previous book, something it now only partially succeeds in doing.
Second, as mentioned above, based on the blurb and the preface I expected a slightly different book with more actionable advice (a six-point summary at the end of the book contains a few pointers). However, given the nature of complex systems it appears that, unless you are in a position of power, you have little influence to change or avert collapses. For most people, the best strategy is to familiarise yourself with the concept of collapses so that you may both understand them and recognize when they are imminent or already underway. And that is something this book does succeed in. I am convinced that readers will come away with plenty of ideas to mull over.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Before the Collapse hardback or ebook
Other recommended books mentioned in this review:
Thank you Leon for an exceptionally comprehensive review of Ugo Bardi’s book. I am quite a fan of Ugo and my only quibble with him is his hopeful optimism around renewables as the hope for the future. Certainly it is self evident that renewables will be the hope for the future as they have underpinned the past but I think they have zero chance of replacing the energy substrate of fossil energy as currently configured in our industrial machine.
Thanks! I admit I have soft spot for this Italian curmudgeon as well. His book Extracted (I will review this at some point…) was the first of his I read and I have been following him ever since.