Monday, August 13, 2012


I have noted Peter Turchin and his cyclical, or more accurately, wave-pattern view of history.  I have probably sited Jack Goldstone even more often.

Without exactly calling it that, they are looking at wave-like patterns of decline and fall in organized societies.  While at times I think they over-use the tools they have, particularly Turchin, one huge advantage their work has over the popular, in collapse-circles anyway, Joseph Tainter, is that they have specific mechanisms by which you can see where you are in the collapse.  Too many advanced degrees required for previously unexceptional positions? Check,  Too many young adults with difficulties finding employment? Check.  Inflation in food (and now fuel) while other product's pricing stagnates? Check.  Wage pressures? Check.  They are all there in various portions of their writings.  It has all been seen before.  Goldstone's best work is on the pre-industrial societies of Europe.

So when I saw that they were featured in Nature Magazine, I thought I would make a point in mentioning it.

Human Cycles: History as science
Laura Spinney, Nature, 1 August 2012 (hat tip: NC)

Sometimes, history really does seem to repeat itself. After the US Civil War, for example, a wave of urban violence fuelled by ethnic and class resentment swept across the country, peaking in about 1870. Internal strife spiked again in around 1920, when race riots, workers' strikes and a surge of anti-Communist feeling led many people to think that revolution was imminent. And in around 1970, unrest crested once more, with violent student demonstrations, political assassinations, riots and terrorism (see 'Cycles of violence').
To Peter Turchin, who studies population dynamics at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the appearance of three peaks of political instability at roughly 50-year intervals is not a coincidence. For the past 15 years, Turchin has been taking the mathematical techniques that once allowed him to track predator–prey cycles in forest ecosystems, and applying them to human history. He has analysed historical records on economic activity, demographic trends and outbursts of violence in the United States, and has come to the conclusion that a new wave of internal strife is already on its way1. The peak should occur in about 2020, he says, and will probably be at least as high as the one in around 1970. “I hope it won't be as bad as 1870,” he adds.
Turchin's approach — which he calls cliodynamics after Clio, the ancient Greek muse of history — is part of a groundswell of efforts to apply scientific methods to history by identifying and modelling the broad social forces that Turchin and his colleagues say shape all human societies. It is an attempt to show that “history is not 'just one damn thing after another'”, says Turchin, paraphrasing a saying often attributed to the late British historian Arnold Toynbee.

This is only the introduction.

What is interesting is that at the very end of the article, Herbert Gintis, notes that the revolutions of the 1960s  that-

secure civil rights for women and black people. Elites have been known to give power back to the majority, he says, but only under duress, to help restore order after a period of turmoil. “I'm not afraid of uprisings,” he says. “That's why we are where we are.”

It is just this type of thinking that causes societies to collapse.  Elite groups (including wealthy retirees) think the world will be a better place without the current social order.  They pull start pulling out pieces, and the whole structure collapses.  Often bring complete ruin on everyone.

Note that the key successes in the Arab Spring where initially in countries (Tunisia and Egypt) where the Army, previously part of the ruling elite, had had to undergo cutbacks as the governments were finding it hard to keep all the inner circle groups happy.  No longer identifying with the regimes in power, the officers were willing to stand by.  How the dust will settle is not yet entirely clear.

The revolutions of the 1960s, that Mr. Ginits notes,  to my mind were mistimed youth bulges.  An accident of history, caused an enormously oversized teenage cohort throughout the world, but the rioting preceded the population-resource problems by a few years.  In fact, to some degree, the resource issues of the 1970s, highlighted by the Arab Oil Embargo and accompanied by accelerated debt accumulation, are what finally bookended the period.  The hippies went to work and turned into yuppies. 

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