Commentary: Peter Turchin’s Cliodynamics and Dire Predictions

Author: Emily Otte, KU School of Law

The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse, by Graeme Wood for The Atlantic

In The Atlantic in November 2020, Graeme Wood interviewed Peter Turchin, a scientist who has used thousands of years’ worth of data to build a model that uses history’s general rules to predict the future. As Wood describes, Turchin’s work has taken particular relevance in a tumultuous 2020 because “[Turchin] has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an ‘age of discord,’ civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced.” In particular, Turchin says that a bloated elite class, declining living standards for the general population, and government overspending are fundamental problems and, in 2010, Turchin predicted that these problems would lead to serious unrest around—you guessed it—2020.

Turchin takes a cyclical view of history, looking for general rules. He seeks to “mathematize” history, applying “the same methods physicists and biologists use[] to study natural systems” to historical societies. For example, Turchin’s data has shown, in what Wood refers to as “one of Turchin’s most unwelcome conclusions”, that complex societies arise through war, as Darwinian natural selection selects complex societies that kill off simpler societies. Turchin’s approach is, predictably, criticized by historians, who see the study of history as “irreducibly complex”.

The Global Restoration Projects sees Turchin’s data-driven approach as interesting and powerful, filling a void left by social scientists unwilling to engage with the scientific method. The Global Restoration Project is inspired by Turchin’s transdisciplinary approach; as a natural scientist turning to the social sciences, Turchin’s “cliodynamics” presents a different way to view the world. Similarly, the Global Restoration Project integrates biology, climatology, agriculture, and the law. Importantly, Turchin’s approach shows the need to apply scientific method and rigor at every opportunity and the Global Restoration Project will heed this advice.

On Turchin’s prediction of a disastrous decade: the Global Restoration Project seeks an agricultural revolution that might be aided by the social upheaval unless, of course, America is destroyed by an all-out civil war. The Global Restoration Project has an international scope beyond Turchin’s America-specific prediction, but we anticipate Turchin’s predictions apply equally to societies with a burgeoning elite and many Western countries would be swept up into Turchin’s analysis.
However, Turchin is particularly sour on democracy, because the problems with American society are, as Wood describes, “deep and structural—not the type that the tedious process of democratic change can fix in time to forestall mayhem.” The Global Restoration Project, in contrast, envisions very democratic territorial integrated operational networks, or eco-states. Nonetheless, the Global Restoration Project acknowledges that democracy can be “tedious” and seeks to alleviate this tediousness by outlining a clear vision for eco-states and the corresponding governing bodies, and that vision is ready to execute. Though Turchin’s prediction is dire and dark enough that our sweeping changes may seem ill-advised, our proposals are not too ill-advised to prevent us from doing something.