Living in Ugo Bardi’s Seneca Effect

Ugo Bardi is an Italian scientist who studied hydrogen energy technology while on a post-doctoral assignment at the University of California, Berkeley. After his research with the team at Berkeley revealed the seemingly intractable problems of converting hydrogen energy to electricity in any practical way, Bardi moved on to other topics of research back home at his university in Tuscany. The problems with developing a “hydrogen economy” have not gone away, despite recent surges of hype from promoters of the technology.

I first became aware of Bardi’s work when I bought his book, The Seneca Effect: Why Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid (2017). The book addressed how complex systems typically grow and subsequently decline and collapse. Other scholars such as Joseph Tainter (1988) and Jared Diamond (2005) have studied historical examples of societal collapse from the perspectives of archeology, anthropology, and economic geography. Each concluded that collapse came when elites failed in some way to respond to ecological changes, many of which came from their own practices.

After Hydrogen

Bardi looks at collapse from a systems-dynamics point of view, based on a non-linear paradigm. From my perspective, The Seneca Effect was one of the most important books of the waning industrial era. In examining a diverse range of situations, both physical and societal, Bardi came to the conclusion that a nearly universal pattern of growth and decay occurs in diverse kinds of complex systems in the world. The implications for modern industrial consumer societies are profound and grave.

Bardi’s work confirms the dire implications of the fundamental fact that the global industrial-consumer economy has already overshot the carrying capacity of the whole Earth System. The linear Newtonian model of economic development and growth allowed, for a time, the growth of the human population to reach far beyond the carrying capacity of the only viable habitat humanity will ever know–planet Earth. contrary to the linear paradigm of the techno-industrial model of economic growth, the world in which we live consists of networks of complex adaptive living systems, each in complex non-linear relations with the others and each with its own limits to growth and sustainability.

The Unavoidable Transformation

One unavoidable inference from the whole body of evidence on the human excessive use and waste of energy and materials emerges. The only path to a “sustainable” future is for networks of ecological communities to form in mutual aid to restore the ecosystems upon which they depend. By withdrawing from our participation in the global endless-growth economy, we will thereby resist the globalized corporate state in ways mass protests cannot.

That will help “shrink the technosphere,” (Orlov 2017) which so voraciously consumes energy and materials while producing destabilizing waste. In large part that must involve refining and applying old (often human and animal powered) technologies to production of human necessities (and very few luxuries).  Networked eco-activists can thereby achieve a practical level of resilience that is impossible if attempted within the illusory eco-modernist ideology.

Eco-modernists claim without a shred of evidence that they can “decouple” endless economic growth from the disintegration of living Earth systems from which it has until now drawn its power. We are on or about the point of inflexion on the Seneca curve of industrial civilization. We will either intervene in ways we have never before contemplated, or we will rapidly slide down the slope of ruin.

Every literate person on the planet should read The Seneca Effect.


Bardi, Ugo. 2017. The Seneca effect: Why Growth is Slow but Collapse is Rapid. A Report to the Club of Rome. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed New York: Penguin Books.

Orlov, Dmitri 2017. Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-sufficiency and Freedom. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Tainter, Joseph A. 1988. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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