2020: Fuel, Spark, and Fire

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.

Fuel

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.

Spark

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.

Coronavirus and Seasonal Neglect

I saw an interesting video the other day that posited that America’s inability to respond appropriately to the Coronavirus is a result of decades of institutional decay and neglect. The presenter blames Republicans although I would posit that it was both Democrats AND Republicans. He goes on to say that we have spent decades slashing government programs and involvement, and right at the time we need a large-scale government intervention, we see the impotence of our system. This makes me think of the idea of the seasons. The season of spring isn’t just to enjoy the flowers, but to also plant for the coming fall so you can make it through the winter.

Success has a way of tricking us that it will always be so. For example, in the 1940’s and 50’s government intervention was large and pervasive in all facets of American life. It had to be. We had just come out of the Great Depression and were tasked with winning World War 2. A weak government would have spelled certain disaster. The plethora of government programs that we take for granted (GI Bill, Unemployment, Social Security, Medicaid, etc.) were made because we already made the mistake of pulling back too much in the decades before the Great Depression. The 1920’s looked a lot like 2020 in terms of income inequality and government dysfunction.

It takes wisdom and discernment to know that tomorrow’s difficulties should have been planned for yesterday. Our current unrest should have been wholly predictable. Indeed, many great thinkers like Peter Turchin and Neil Howe predicted a crisis around the year 2020 years before. If we could have seen the patterns of rising individualism and weakening government and community taking place beginning in the 1970’s and taking off in the Reagan era, we could have predicted our sad state with astonishing accuracy.

Human life has many parallels to the natural world. Anyone who knows about gardening knows that you have to have a long term time perspective. In order for me to harvest in the fall and survive the winter, I have to plant in the spring and tend in the summer. Winter is somewhat predictable. We never know the exact day, but we know the general time. Once the frost comes, it’s too late to sow and reap. You have to bear a bad winter and wait until the next year to start over. Coronavirus is a winter for America. It’s a winter for the whole world, but especially for places that have been seduced by individualism and community destruction (United States, Brazil, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom). Not to say that individualism is wholly negative, it certainly isn’t. But every period of social unrest has been preceded by growing individualism and community decay (read Bowling Alone).

I say all that to point out the obvious fact that the reason we can’t respond to our current crisis is because we spent decades tearing apart the exact institutions needed to respond to a crisis like this. But all hope is not lost. Although it has been, and probably will continue to be, a harsh winter for America, Spring will show up eventually. If we are wise, we will begin sowing the seeds of a new and better country, and preparing for the next inevitable Winter that comes along.

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