Peter Turchin talks a lot about social dynamics and cycles societies go through over time. He predicted 2020 would be a year of turmoil for the United States (warning; his material is very dense). Today I wanted to touch upon his idea that the conditions that create unrest take decades to form, but once these conditions have built, a spark can create an “unexpected” fire.
If you have ever gardened, you know that the beginning stages of growth for a plant are slow (or seemingly slow). When the conditions are right (warm, loose soil, sun, and appropriate moisture), a plant will begin to make changes inside of the seed not visible to the human eye. By the time those changes are visible above ground, the plant bursts forth in quick growth.
What we see in America in 2020 is the visible part of the unrest and dissatisfaction. What most of us didn’t see were all of the small decisions we made as a society starting in about 1970 that led to an astonishingly divided country in 2020. Starting in around 1970, we switched our focus from the community to the individual. During and after the Great Depression and World War 2 (1930 – 1968), we began to come together to increase the quality of life for everyone. We passed generous social programs like the GI Bill and Social Security, and even made social progress in the form of Civil Rights. But then, for some reason, we stopped. My guess is that societies (like individuals) tire of discipline and “revolt” at some point.
These small gradual changes shifting from community to individualism are not in and of themselves bad, but when left unchecked for an extended period of time they can wreak havoc. These ideological shifts are the fuel that needs a spark. The spark could be anything. Namely, 2020 has brought us four sparks: a global pandemic, economic injustice (exacerbated by the pandemic), racial injustice, and an aspiring autocrat as President.
Now we have a fire on our hands. A fire in its natural state is cleansing. It burns up old dead leaves and shrubs. It creates fertile soil for new life. The duration and severity of our “America in 2020” fire depends entirely upon what we do next. If we remain obstinate and refuse to make systemic changes for the betterment of all people, the fire could rage and threaten to destroy our nation totally. We could make small cosmetic changes and put out a small fire, but be “surprised” when the next spark sets us up in flames. Or, we could be wise, notice the opportunity in our current fire, and burn up the old things that no longer serve us and use it as fuel to create a better country. I honestly have no idea what path we will choose, but all three options are equally available.