Out Of The Box History

If indeed history should serve as our guide in the current day, we should also recognize that while events may appear static in hindsight; historical interpretations are not. 

What if the fall of the Roman Empire actually occurred over just a 50 year period; the collapse of the French Monarchy in just 30 years, The Ming Dynasty in just 8?

Historian Niall Ferguson, in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, argues that the historian’s penchant to look long into the past to identify the components of historic events is a flawed addiction.  He argues that critical historical events are not cyclical and are not the result of slow moving dynamics.  He argues that criticality is arrhythmic, and nearly stationary for extended periods of time, but capable of rapid acceleration.  What if economic and societal collapse does not arrive as the result of the passage of centuries but arrives suddenly like “a thief in the night”.

He draws on research in the natural sciences, specifically, the theory of complex systems and argues that social, political and economic systems do, in fact, follow the dynamics of complex natural phenomena and that the point of criticality is always just around the corner.  He contends that historians are trained to explain events in terms of long-term causes but in actuality they understate the impact of proximate events and ignore their behaviors as complex systems.

Complex natural systems can often be impacted by relatively small amounts of input where that small input is enough to motivate dramatic changes in the environment and functionality of that system.  Some theorists argue, according to Ferguson, that it is impossible to make predictions about the future behavior of complex systems based on existing data.  For instance natural scientists describe forests in advance of the potential of a forest fire as “self-organized criticality”. Ferguson argues that complex systems in nature share many features of complex human systems and applies this logic to economic, political and social systems.

Ferguson’s point: that to remain confident in our ability to “eventually” solve today’s problems ignores the dynamics of complex systems and that we do, in fact, live in and are a part of any variety of complex systems.  He argues that delay in and of itself enhances the jeopardy of “self-organized criticality”.  He argues that the failure to consider the future in designing difficult current day solutions is endemic in our economic and political structures and that the equivalent of a “live for today” (or the next election) mentality will simply accelerate points of catastrophic criticality.  Ferguson contends that “when things go wrong in a complex system the scale of disruption is nearly impossible to anticipate.”     

As we look at today’s political and economic landscape we can see evidence of growing criticality.  Massive debt, unfunded liabilities, deficits for as far as the eye can see, and points social displacement.  Is the refusal to take on difficult generational solutions a guarantee of catastrophic criticality?

Political parties, once divided by how to achieve interests both parties once saw as points of commonality are now divided by deep ideological divisions and the inability to find points of commonality.  Does this dynamic represent criticality, and how far into the future do we go before encountering catastrophic consequence?

The current scope of issues that may be applied to Ferguson’s analysis is long and broad.  We may not have the time we think!