Want to use science to predict the future of human society? Welcome to cliodynamics.
This is a somewhat nebulous field of research that attempts to merge together cultural evolution, economics, large-scale sociology, and even the mathematical modeling of various historical epochs. The idea is that everything is quantifiable, and patterns can be discerned from the chaos of human activity over time.
Peter Turchin, a cliodynamicist at the University of Connecticut, has spent much of his career attempting to build predictive models of the real world. Writing a piece of correspondence to the journal Nature back in 2010, he claimed that a period of incredible instability is coming to both the US and Europe by no later than 2020.
“Quantitative historical analysis reveals that complex human societies are affected by recurrent – and predictable – waves of political instability,” Turchin noted. “In the United States, we have stagnating or declining real wages, a growing gap between rich and poor, overproduction of young graduates with advanced degrees, and exploding public debt.”
He points to data revealing that periods of instability, driven by such interconnected factors, happens in 50-year cycles within the US.
Giving examples, he cites the 1870s (featuring a financial crisis that caused a depression in North America and Europe), the 1920s (the end of the decade triggered the Great Depression), and the 1970s (featuring Watergate and the destabilizing effect of the Vietnam War on American society).
Winter is coming? Roman Mikhailiuk/Shutterstock
With the sudden rise in right-wing populism across both, peaking with Brexit and the election of Trump, Turchin has recently claimed that his theories have been validated.
“My model indicated that social instability and political violence would peak in the 2020,” Turchin writes, pointing to his 50-year cycle theory. “The presidential election which we have experienced, unfortunately, confirms this forecast.”
Not just content with this possible coincidence, he also points to factors leading to this point: wealth inequality, growing governmental dysfunction, and the fragmentation of political parties into moderates and more hardline populist factions, to name just a few.