Predictive modelling of societal collapse

Ibn Khaldun, the Tunisian historian (died 1406) is widely credited as the first to apply a scientific model towards understanding history. Epitomised in his work Al-Muqaddimah (The Introduction), he considered that the rise and fall of societies follow patterns of behaviour akin to the natural laws.

Detailed below are some key points from the linked New Scientist article providing a statistical/modelling led analysis on the periodic nature of societal collapse which is termed today as cliodynamics. Some key points:

1. Peter Turchin, a population biologist, describes two cycles, a long cycle that last two or three centuries and a second shorter cycle lasting 50 years, consisting of two generations, one peaceful and one turbulent.

2. As the society becomes more unequal, the cycle enters a more destructive phase, in which the misery of the lowest strata and infighting between elites contribute to social turbulence and, eventually, collapse. According to a recent analysis, the world’s richest 1 per cent now owns half the wealth, and the gap between the super-rich and everyone else has been growing since the financial crisis of 2008.

3. Turchin predicts that the end of the next 50-year cycle, in around 2020, will also coincide with the turbulent part of the longer cycle.

4. This prediction echoes one made in 1997 by two amateur historians called William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their book, The Fourth Turning: An American prophecy. They claimed that in about 2008 the US would enter a period of crisis that would peak in the 2020s.

5. Cognitive scientists recognise two societal level modes of oscillating thought – an automatic mode, and an analytical one. Say a society has a transportation problem, a small group of individuals thinks analytically and invent the car. The problem is solved and there is a shift in the population towards automatic thinking. Climate change resulting from the excess use of fossil fuels without foresight may become a consequence of automatic thinking in the usage of the new transportation mechanism. Others include overuse of antibiotics leading to microbial resistance.

6. Jonathan Cohen, a psychologist at Princeton University, attempts at solving a long-standing puzzle regarding societies heading for ruin: why did they keep up their self-destructive behaviour even though the more analytical people must have seen the danger ahead? “The train had left the station,” says Cohen, and the forward-thinking folk were not steering it.

With the dawn of 2020 nearly upon us and the depressing signs of populism including Trump and Brexit firmly in sight, coupled with the impact of climate change, if these analyses are indeed accurate, then fasten your seatbelts, some turbulence are on the way in the next decade to come.

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