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Published on Monday, July 11, 2022

Peering over the edge of Seneca’s cliff

Sunday July 10, 2022


Do you ever get the feeling that the world is heading for hell on a handcart? And that the handcart is rolling down a steeper and steeper hill?

            The U.S. has already had more than 300 mass shootings in 2022, barely past its halfway point. One recent figure states that 22,618 Americans have died by gun violence this year. 

            Climate change keeps accelerating, even as governments sign pacts to stop it without actually doing anything about it.

            Instead of reducing violence, black movements seem to exacerbate it. Retaliation for rattling the presumptions of white supremacy, perhaps.

            If those news stories disturb you, you’re not alone. That sense of things going wrong, faster and faster, has been around for a long time. 

            A reader introduced me to the Seneca Effect, also known as Seneca’s cliff. 

            Seneca was a Roman philosopher and educator who died in 65 CE. He was a contemporary of Jesus, in other words. 

            Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius, “Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years… is scattered and dispersed by a single day… An instant of time suffices for the overthrow of empires! It would be some consolation … if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”

            Things don’t wind down, in other words. They crash.

            Hence the notion of “Seneca’s cliff.” 

            Seneca might have been writing about the decline and fall of the Roman empire, although he was 400 years to soon. Analyzing that crash had to wait 17 centuries for Edward Gibbons.

            The Roman empire lasted 500 years -- the longest peace the western world has known. It provided free trade, freedom of movement, all around the Mediterranean.

            Granted the Pax Romana was maintained by ruthless force. It didn’t tolerate dissent or insurrection.

            But that mighty empire took just a few decades to collapse.


Rise and crash

            Professor Ugo Bardi turned Seneca’s insight into mathematics. His field is resource development. Most resource graphs show a smooth bell curve – rising to a peak and then falling away symmetrically. Bardi contends that a more accurate analysis shows the decline being not gradual but precipitous.

            Think about blowing up a balloon. It takes time and effort to inflate. But if you stick a pin into that balloon, decline takes only a fraction of a second.

            Although Bardi focusses on resource development, I think his principle can apply to other issues.

            For instance, despite abundant evidence of the maltreatment of indigenous children in residential schools, Canadians as a whole remained in denial. The discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops residential school toppled the edifice of denial in a few weeks.

            For centuries, society maintained the lie that women were incompetent creatures who needed their men to make important decisions. Rosie the Riveter knocked that prejudice into a hard hat during World War II. Other women have kept the brew bubbling ever since.

            The industrial revolution started with a single steam engine. Fossil fuels enabled industry to grow exponentially for two centuries, and created unimagined prosperity. The realization that it could also destroy human life has taken only decades.


Democracy’s balloon

            “So what?” you may scoff. The Seneca Effect is just a theory. It doesn’t change anything.

            Don’t underestimate the power of an idea.

            Democracy was just an idea. It flourished briefly in Greece, long before the Roman empire existed. The idea lay dormant for centuries, until the Magna Carta in England took some powers away from the king. 

            Democracy didn’t really gather momentum until the American and French revolutions, in the 1700s. 

            By the 20th century roughly half the world embraced some form of democracy.

            Granted, some earlier nations did elect their leaders: King Saul in the Bible. But it wasn’t democracy, because they couldn’t un-elect those leaders. 

            Just as Italy and Germany couldn’t un-elect Mussolini and Hitler.

            The democracy balloon may be in danger of popping. 

            Half the U.S. population refuses to accept that a president they voted into power could also be voted out of power.

            In Canada, February’s so-called Freedom Convoy demanded that the Governor-General replace an elected government with an appointed one.

            Seneca’s cliff looms uncomfortably close. 

            Bardi’s studies suggest only one hopeful outcome. A gradual decline, he says, lets people cling to outdated convictions. A massive collapse clears the air and opens the space for new solutions to emerge.

            I might almost call it resurrection. 


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Sorry, folks, there’s something wrong with the mailing list for these columns. My “sent” box says that I sent out Soft Edges for June 30, and Sharp Edges for July 3, but apparently they didn’t go anywhere, because I got no mail about either of them. 

            I can’t blame both of those on the Roger’s outage. 

            Of course, if this doesn’t go through either, I don't know who I'm sending this note to. 






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            Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.

            I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also runs beautiful pictures. Her Thanksgiving presentation on the old hymn, For the Beauty of the Earth, Is, well, beautiful -- https://www.traditionaliconoclast.com/2019/10/13/for/

            Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



            The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns




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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Sharp Edges

Tags: Seneca, Baldi, collapse



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