Today’s topic echoes Peter Turchin’s 2016 book, Ages of Discord, which I have often referenced in blog posts.
I’ll also discuss two other books I’ve often referenced,Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century by Geoffrey Parker and The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History by David Hackett Fischer.
Turchin proposes repeating cycles of history of social integration (people finding reasons to cooperate) and disintegration (people finding reasons to not cooperate).
Clearly, we’re in a disintegrative stage.
Fischer proposed a repeating cycle of history in which humans expand their numbers and economy to consume all available resources.
Once all the low-hanging fruit has been consumed, scarcities arise, pushing prices above what commoners can afford, and the result is economic stagnation and social/political revolution.
Either humans exploit a new energy source at scale to provide for the larger population and higher consumption per person, or the population and consumption decline to fit available resources.
Parker covers the mutually reinforcing climate, political, social and economic crises of the 17th century. A long cycle of cold, wet summers reduced crop yields, leading to hunger and strife.
Parker also identifies another cause of the tumultuous, war-plagued 1600s: political leaders had consolidated too much power, enabling them to pursue disastrous wars without any restraint from competing domestic social-political interests.
Clearly, we’re in Fischer’s stage of overshoot and resource scarcity and Parker’s extremes of centralized power free to pursue catastrophic wars of choice.
In the 1600s, those launching wars reckoned a clean, decisive victory was within easy reach. In every case, the wars dragged on inconclusively or generated even wider conflicts.
In the end, all the wars were settled diplomatically, not by military victory. The military gains were nil while the destruction was widespread and devastating.
Fischer details how poorly humans respond to scarcity and higher prices, also known as inflation or more. accurately, as the decline in purchasing power of money and labor. As scarcities and higher prices take their toll, society unravels: crime and social disorder accelerate.
What we’re seeing in real time is a “circle the wagons” mentality of weeding out everyone but the True Believers in every movement. Litmus tests are handy for this test: answer wrong on any question and you’re cast out: heretic!
It’s not enough to tick one “progressive” or “conservative” box; you have to tick them all or you’re a heretic who cannot be trusted. If you leave one box unticked, you might untick a few more in the days ahead.
This puts pressure on everyone to declare their loyalty to the “party” even if the loyalty is just for show. This dishonesty pleases those demanding every box be ticked but this forced loyalty creates an illusion of solidarity that unravels under pressure.
Exacerbating this is social media, which rewards those promoting the most extreme and divisive positions and deranges the populace by substituting recognition online, which encourages disintegration, for real-world engagement, which encourages moderation and cooperation.
Online, it’s easy to be all-or-nothing: there should be no restrictions on social media, or we should just pull the plug and shut the whole mess down.
In the real world, these are knotty, nuanced problems. The Founding Fathers would not have tolerated sedition under the guise of free speech. The social order can only be maintained if every participant adheres to standards of civility and the common good.
When put under stress, humans harden their positions as a defensive measure. They become more argumentative and less tolerant, more strident in insisting that the One True Thing is the answer to our problems.
This leads to magical thinking, for example, that we can replace hydrocarbons with fusion or wind and solar. When the physical and cost limits of minerals are presented as impassable obstacles, people respond with denial: there must be a way to keep everything the same.
Humans have an easy time expanding their population and consumption per person and a hard time consuming less.
It’s very difficult to find common ground that supports cooperation in the disintegrative stage of scarcities, rising prices, catastrophically centralized power and social discord.
This requires accepting that we can cooperate with people on one issue even though all the other boxes of our group/party/movement are left unticked.
History suggests the disintegrative stage will run its course and consumption will realign with available resources one way or another, and the best we can do is preserve our own sanity, community and willingness to nurture small patches of common ground that support productive cooperation.