Saturday, February 23, 2013


       Cliodynamics is a new field which attempts to put the study of history on a sound scientific footing. And what do new fields need first? You guessed it. A Muse. Let me introduce you to Clio, the Muse of history. Like all good muses Clio comes to us from Greek Mythology. The "dynamics" part I assume refers to system dynamics which for some reason never chose a muse. This term was coined by Peter Turchin. a professor at the University of Connecticut who is a co author  along with Sergey Nefedov of a book I recently read entitled Secular Cycles.  
       It is a new slant on an old  theory , that of Social Cycles, the notion that history repeats itself in a repeating sequence of dark ages and golden ages, booms and busts. Turchin and Nefedov's achievement is applying a number's based analytical approach to history utilizing a set of variables which they saw as common to eight civilizations they studied from early Roman to late Tzarist Russia. They named this  approach Cliodynamics and dubbed their model a demographic/structural theory. The key variables they emphasized were population, income inequality between elites and commoners, wages and prices, and sociopolitical instability. They called their approach semi-Malthusian. They could just as easily have called it an ecological approach as a good part of their discussion related to carrying capacity of rising and declining populations in the face of disease, famines and wars. They they were looking for patterns in the population and instability oscillations experienced by these eight civilizations. They acknowledged standing on the shoulders of the thinkers and philosophers who preceded them from the 14th century Tunisian Ibn Khaldun, the17th century Neopolitan Giambattista Vico up to contemporaries like Oswald Spengler in the last century. They give particular praise to their associate Jack Goldstone at George Mason University, a sociologist and political scientist specializing in rebellions and revolutions. Goldstone has worked as a consultant to  the Federal Government on a variety of projects dealing with implications of rebellions and instability in relation to US foreign policy.
     Their model described four phases which the civilizations cycled through:Expansion, stagflation, crisis and depression . The time span for a full cycle varied but seems to have been around 300 years. The authors emphasize that their study was of agrarian civilizations but most reviewers and others who have commented on the book understandably jump to the applicability of the model to current civilizations. In their conclusion they address this issue with a variety of caveats including a willingness to modify the model to fit contemporary applications. One highly regarded energy and economic blogger, Gail Tverberg described the phases as follows:


  1. Expansion phase (growth) – Increasing population, relatively low taxes, political stability, low grain prices, and high real (inflation-adjusted) wages.
  2. Stagflation phase (compression) – Slowing population growth, much heavier taxes needed to support a growing elite class, low but increasing political instability, rising grain prices, declining real wages for most workers, increasing indebtedness, and increasing urbanization.
  3. Crisis phase (state breakdown) – Population declining from the peak (typically by disease or by deaths from warfare), high income inequality, political instability increasing to a peak, high but very variable grain prices, high urbanization, tax system in a state of crisis, peasant uprisings.
  4. Depression/inter cycle – Low population, attempts to restore state,  declining economic inequality, grain prices decreasing but variable.
 Clearly Dr Turchin is thinking about the fit of his model to our society. He posted a recent paper this month dealing with this very point. I found a posted graph very interesting which I reproduce here:
Income inequality was a key variable in Secular Cycles. I have corresponded with Dr Turchin on this graphic which by the way was not his. I felt it understated current income inequality which is a subject much in current news and opinion. Clearly US well being is negative and inequality is growing.
       If I were sitting down with Turchin and Nefedov right now I would be asking how their analysis would apply to the  industrial civilization that has blossomed  in the past 200 years. I have spent some time pondering just the fossil energy contribution to the trajectory of our civilization. Energy has been the catalyst that has driven exponential growth in some of Turchin and Nefedov's  fundamental variables such as population and carrying capacity and food availability.Elite overproduction has clearly been magnified by the enormous wealth conferred on oil consuming societies both directly and indirectly. It has certainly fueled sociopolitical instability. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred as a response to the US and Britain cutting off petroleum access to Japan. If my catalyst assumption  of energy's contribution holds, how might the variables respond in magnitude, amplification and direction.? Might fossil energy be its own independent variable? And let's not forget the elephant in the room: Globalization. We have an interlinked industrial civilization and if there were to be collapse of one nation, multiple collapses would almost certainly be likely.
        I have found negative comments about Cliodynamics from historians skeptical that there are universal laws underlying social behavior, Many historians consider historical processes non-linear and highly complex and equally skeptical that it can be put on as sound a footing as the empirical sciences
. They point to economics which has tried to emulate and ape the physical sciences by employing complex mathematical formulas and modeling techniques with generally dismal predictive results.  In economics the situation may be improving with the work of Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart looking at 800 years of financial missteps in their book: This time is different:Eight centuries of financial folly. History and economics are pretty closely wedded. Turchin's work is retrospective and correlation is not the same as causation , but some of the correlations seemed pretty stunning. His observation that elite overproduction preceded the crisis phase in all cases is notable. I think it is healthful that Turchin's background as an ecologist and statistician has wafted some beneficial cross pollination into the historical field. Whether it can be transformed into a science remains to be seen. Double blind testing, the gold standard of scientific inquiry, will be difficult.And as Niels Bohr said "Prediction is difficult, especially about the future."

Friday, February 22, 2013

Energy and Empire

       I have spent the past several weeks preparing and boning up on natural gas issues in preparation to be a panelist at a meeting of our local Chamber of Commerce. It went well, was well moderated and we all got our licks in and I hope the audience derived some benefit. I fielded some interesting and penetrating questions both during and afterward. The basic assumptions of the economic community  in our isolated high mountain valley  remain intact despite my best efforts to sound the alarm, Paul Revere style.I have pointed out in numerous articles how tenuous our energy extravagant lifestyle here is in Wyoming and particularly in Jackson Hole. I have pointed out that Frac Gas is a bubble, that Wyoming has the highest per capita energy consumption of the 50 states,  and that our economy has legs because of 500 million years of concentrated sunlight. We have burned through 50% of all the oil that has been drilled here in the US just since the late 80's.That was the high grade ore , so to speak, conventional light sweet crude, most of which looks like Wesson Oil. Now we are into the dirty stuff from tar pits and sand mines and  4 miles under the Ocean. It's there for the taking at much greater cost in declining net energy and environmental degradation. Ominously, Wall Street  is in the act slicing and dicing and hyping and spinning the meme of energy independence  in its latest bubble. The political dominated energy propaganda arms of the DOE, IEA and EIA along with the oil majors are keeping the American Dream alive with deceptive, unrealistic and unlikely predictions of future abundance. The fact that these predictions are from the mouths of the least reliable subset of hominids: ...ECONOMISTS, seems to have escaped everyone's notice. There are a few independent analysts I have cited in previous blogs as well as some percipient bloggers.
       But in some ways, the oil and gas story is not the big story. It is a  part of the big story which of course is The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. This is a subject I have covered repeatedly coming at it from different angles:ecological, economic, fiscal, sociopolitical and primarily from the foundation of the empire:Energy. I have studied other empires, why they rose and fell as far back as the Harappan and Indus Valley Empires to our present American Empire.It is an engrossing tale of discovery, of chance, of ambition and greed and invention, determination and cooperation of all the players.It happened because all the pieces were in place, the right place. At the right time. It took the energy of people, of animals and of slaves to build the foundation for this empire. But it was the Exajoules of a vast store of fossil energy that provided the afterburner that blew the United States past its European and Asian rivals.
       Absent this unexpected energy bonus enjoyed by America, there is every reason to believe that establishment of Empire was in our DNA. There were abundant resources, willing hands, and capital all converging on a new world, free for the taking.We were probably foreordained to become an empire but no empires last. Empire rise. Empires grow, and empires fall. It is the wherefore and the how , the anatomy and physiology of empires that I find fascinating. It is the physician in me that drives the desire to understand this civilization but unfortunately the study of empires, both healthy and ailing, has not been the sort of study that has yielded results with the same degree of certitude present in fields such as physics or biology. That is until now. But we may just have a new tool to study and dissect empires. Are there universal laws operating which explain the trajectory of empires?. There are qualitative assessments of empires rise and falls. But might there be quantitative factors that might explain the same? That will be the subject of the next blog on Cliodynamics.