Saturday, January 9, 2016

Global Intelligence Analysis Meets Dynamics of History

A benevolent friend recently pointed me to a kind of strategic "state of the world" or "state of the future piece" entitled  A Year of Fissiparous Tendencies By Jay Ogilvy, from Stratfor.
Because anyone can go to Stratfor's web site directly, and they offer enough open source access, I will not violate copyright law by reposting their analysis here.

My reply/review:

Thanks very much for including me in this very important discussion.

I still remember the moment more than 50 years ago when I sat in the big atrium of my old day school (Chestnut Hill Academy), reading Spengler's Decline of the West as I waited for the bus, and suddenly wondering: "If there is any truth at all to this stuff, what will I wind up witnessing MYSELF in the decades to come?" Sure enough... his theories were not perfect, and left a lot unexplained, but it has been scary to see just how much has gone by the numbers. 

In my freshman year at Harvard, in 1964, I was lucky to take a general course from Sam Beer, who asked us to dig deeply into six case studies in history, and try to use the data of history to confirm, disconfirm or modify a variety of theories of how history actually works in a systematic way, in a way which fits the scientific method more than most of what people write about history.  The decline of the Roman Empire was an important case history, and I am grateful to my wife Luda for pulling me on travel to places which helped me get a greater sense of reality about what we can really learn from that history. 

For example -- there are some historians who have become a bit revisionist about "liberty, equality, fraternity" as envisioned by people like George Washington, Lafayette and even Queen Elizabeth I. (People have been telling me I respect those folks too much lately, which scares me.) It is said that there is a prominent historian, aware of the cycles described by Spengler and Toynbee and such, who believes it is now time for the US to embrace its great destiny of Empire, and that there are families who accept the view from certain Saudis that it is time to aspire to the greatness of Trajan. Looking just at the map, some imagine that the time of Trajan, not the time of the Republic, was the time of greatest achievement by Rome.

Spengler knew better on this point, but I doubt those guys had the patience to extract the best one could from Spengler. (That wasn't easy!) Visiting southern Spain and Italy... the Trajan story is really much sadder than I appreciated until recently. It was an extension of what happened to the Roman middle class, the backbone of the Republic, as slave-owning and latifundia became more powerful... not unlike what some of the Washington-based "reformers" want to do to us, seeking stricter and more well-oiled control of all of life even if under control of corporations following the SEC rule that they only consider fiduciary responsibilities.  Measures like the amount of free time and voluntary associations at least of the well-educated population are extremely worrying, in my view. By promoting all that, and also expanding military adventures... Trajan put the very existence of the Roman law domain at very deep risk. Rome was "saved" by the gay emperor Hadrian, who chose a Wall rather than a military adventure, and returned to more truly free market mechanisms... but the damage done by Trajan's policy was too deep to erase in southern Spain especially (to this day excess feudalism and poverty, despite the funds which came in thanks to Columbus!).... and the benefits of free markets redounded more to the east, where the old Greeks kept more of a living culture...
no coincidence that civilization endured a thousand years longer in the East.
I also treasure the week, I had free in Istanbul/Byzantium learning more about the next chapter... but for us, I really hope we find a way to avoid the horrible traps which Trajan fell into which many in the US are also falling for now. Money in politics certainly was part of the problem for both republics. 

Of course, many outside the US view this as a natural course, and are already regrouping in a way less dependent on the US. But I have also been following discussions of the Lifeboat Foundation, on the issue of possible extinction of the human species. There are three threats -- the threat of future H2S emissions from the oceans due to climate changes which strangely don't make it to the press, the threat of nuclear weapons causing problems, and the threat of Terminator-like AI -- which really could eliminate all members of the species, where a lack of vigor in the US may be the crowning blow to our best hopes of coping with the threats. Conversely, new science also may have great potential to be spiritually enlightening... in a way similar to what folks like Washington and Quakers envisioned... but not if the folks eager for Empire get their way.

So: what could be done here? Any ideas?

Best regards,


His initial reply: 

Speaking of Spengler, Will Durant had some interesting thoughts.

Much like Oswald Spengler, Will Durant saw the decline of a civilization as a culmination of strife between religion and secular intellectualism, thus toppling the precarious institutions of convention and morality:
Hence a certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief which seems so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continually, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a "conflict between science and religion". Institutions which were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane. The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization.[12]
Durant's quote "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within"[13]

What I then sent:

Good morning, Ed!

In the calm light of early morning... I feel a bit guilty that we didn't respond in more depth yet to the many important issues you raised... but your summary of Durant raises two very powerful questions in my mind:

(1) If we find a principled and honest way to resolve the apparent contradictions between science and religion which the world faces now, is the "glacial pace" of religious systems such that we should think of this activity as part of preparing for the next civilization rather than preserving this one? and

(2) If the rate of decline or entropy in the current world civilization continues as it has (including for example culture wars with and within Islam), will the "unholy trinity" I referred to briefly as H2S/NUC/AI combined with a depletion of easily accessible resources limit the possibilities for any follow-on civilization?

The first question reminds me of a well published former colleague at NSF (still there) who believes in the end that we should pay a lot of attention to the concepts in Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, and think more about what we could do to benefit the next civilization. Actually, my most instant reaction in reading your email... was a typical egoic response, to think of my own efforts to logically reconcile science and religion, posted at, which has been published in an obscure journal in Russia (actualy Kazan). 

There is an interesting history connected with that paper. It was written at the special personal request of Deepak Chopra and Menos Kafatos for a special issue of the online journal Cosmology, with strong encouragement of some of the people involved. But the mainstream hermeneutic philosophers were horrified. Simplified but accurate version: "All that talk of people fooling others and themselves with certain kinds of transparent lies. How dare you insult us?" It reminded me of the old story about the policeman who shows up on the stage of a broadway musical, and says: "Sorry folks, we have to cancel this, and ask you to be careful leaving, because we have been told that there is a crazy axe-murderer here about to kill people" -- and then a guy gets up and says "How dare you insult me personally like that?" So I sent it to Russia instead. I got some strange calls out of the blue from a monastery in Greece saying that the people who invited me would burn in hell forever and were totally evil... but they weren't sure about me and wanted to talk. Specialist papers on PIECES of the picture are doing fine... but pulling the pieces together is important.  Durant and Spengler apparently agree that the unification of how we understand life and the world
is really essential....

But... breakfast time and family now..

Best regards,


Of course, there is a lot more to be said about all these topics. 

I am reminded of a little piece I saw in the popular science press (Scientific American or Science News) correctly stating where we are on "nature versus nurture" now: we have advanced past debating WHICH of the two drives behavior, and even past asking what PERCENT is due to nature versus nurture (the fuzzy logic approach), and have moved on to trying to understand how the two INTERACT to produce the outcome. Of course economic, cultural and demographic variables also interact, and one can even understand many of the key interactions mathematically. For example, in past talks, when I compared the oil industry to slavery, I did not intend that as some kind of personal insult towards people working in that industry (of whom I have had serious friends, and I regret I did not work harder at the time to make it clear. My concern is with the impact on political economy of the way in which funds naturally flow when SEC rates corporations on "proved reserves controlled" and there is incentive for building up systems more focused on control than on product, WITHIN the "nervous system" of energy corporations. 

But... I am sorry about important things I have yet to post, but must move on.

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