Seneca’s Gamble

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on February 2, 2015

Why people can so easily destroy the resources that provide their livelihood? Fishermen, for instance, have destroyed fisheries over and over, and every time they refused to take even the most elementary precautions to avoid disaster. Eventually, I came to think that it is related to a basic miswiring of the human mind: the “gambler’s fallacy“. Fishermen, it seems, see fishing as it were a lottery and they redouble their efforts thinking that, eventually, they will get lucky and strike it rich. Alas, it doesn’t work in this way and all what they obtain is to destroy the fish stocks and create a spectacular collapse of the fishing yields. This way of creating one’s own ruin could be termed “Seneca’s gamble”, from the words of the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca who stated that “the road to ruin is rapid”.

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Seneca’s gamble: why the road to ruin is rapid

The “Martingale” is a strategy to be played with games which have a 50% chance of winning. It consists in doubling one’s bet after every loss, believing that, eventually, a win will pay for the previous losses and provide a gain.

The Martingale is an example of the “gambler’s fallacy“. Typically, gamblers tend to think that some events – such as the numbers coming out of the wheel in the roulette game – are related to each other. So, they believe that, if the red comes up several times in a row, it is more probable that the black will come out the next spin. That’s not true, of course, and the Martingale is a surefire way to ruin oneself, and to do that very rapidly. Nevertheless, many people find the idea fascinating enough that they try to put it into practice. It is the effect of a bad miswiring of the human mind..

The gambler’s fallacy may explain some aspects of the human behavior that would be otherwise impossible to understand. For instance, in a previous post I was showing this figure, describing the yields of the UK fishing industry (from Thurstan et al.).

Compare the upper and the lower box, and you’ll see that the fishing industry was ramping up at an incredible speed their “fishing power,” just when fishing yields had started to decline. Note also how they still had a lot of fishing power when the fisheries had all but collapsed. How could it be that they kept fishing so much even when there was little or nothing left to fish?Thinking about this matter, we can only come to the conclusion that fishermen reasoned like gamblers at a betting table. In other words, they were playing a sort of “fishing Martingale”, doubling their efforts after every failure.

Gamblers know – or should know – that casino gambling is a negative sum game. Yet, the gambler’s fallacy makes them think that a streak of bad results will somehow increase the probability that the next bet will be the good one. So, they keep trying until they ruin themselves.

Now, consider fishermen: they or should know  that, at some point, the overall yield of the fishery has become negative. But, like gamblers playing roulette, they believe that a streak of bad luck will somehow increase the probability that the next fishing trip will be the good one. So, they keep trying until they ruin themselves.

The mental miswiring that gives rise to the behavior of gamblers and fishermen can create even larger disasters. With mineral resources, we are seeing something similar: operators redoubling their efforts in the face of diminishing returns of extraction; the story of “shale gas” and “shale oil” is a typical example. Maybe it is done hoping that – somehow – the destruction of one stock will increase the probability to find a new one (or to create one by some technological miracle). So, instead of trying to make mineral stocks last as long as possible, we are rushing to destroy them at the highest possible rate. But, unlike fish stocks that can replenish themselves, minerals do not reproduce. Once we’ll have destroyed the rich ores that created our civilization, there will be nothing left behind. We will have ruined ourselves forever.

In the end, the gambler’s fallacy is one of the factors that lead people, companies, and entire civilization to a rapid collapse. It is what I have called the “Seneca Cliff” from the words of the ancient Roman philosopher who first noted how “the way to ruin is rapid”. In the case described here, we might call it the “Seneca gamble” but, in all cases, it is a ruin that we create with our own hands.

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