Plus Ca Change

I was fortunate in my 20s to have stumbled upon Will and Ariel Durant and their 11 volumes of the history of the world, in addition to their separate writings, such as The Lessons of History and The Story of Philosophy. The wisdom of those two people is simply astonishing.

I came away profoundly changed in the way I perceived the world, and they provided a wonderful basis for a lifetime of learning and of trying to understand.

(Another transformational book, which I read perhaps a decade ago, is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Take the opportunity to read anything he writes and to listen to anything he says.)

Several things I have learned over time:

  • The first, and most important rule in life is to choose your parents carefully. Which leads to ...

  • Luck is a pervasive, significant factor in human events. For example, there were multiple times a Roman emperor was about to change history when they died of disease, as did Alexander the Great while he was conquering the world. One of Napoleon's generals thought he knew better and did not follow orders at Waterloo. Perhaps the most important example was, the Mongol horde was sweeping west, destroying everything in its path. It was at the gates of Vienna when the leader of the Mongols died in Mongolia, and the attack was called off to attend his funeral and for the generals to confirm a new leader. In the UT - Alabama football game last week, UT was having its way early when its quarterback was injured; it could still have won at the end of the game when a defensive back whiffed on an open blitz. Beth and I briefly crossed paths on a Sunday morning and it was love at first sight.

  • Sex, money and a lust for power are among humanity's primary drivers. Humans also strive to do "good," and that is the yang to power's yin that drives history.

  • Emergence is a property of our complex, technology-driven society. New things are actually generated out of complexity, both for good and bad.

  • Unintended consequences are pervasive and at times, determinative.

  • Great men and women are incredibly important. Sometimes they impose themselves on their times; sometimes the times must be right to accommodate them. Peter the Great imposed himself on Russia; Lenin imposed himself on Russia; Abraham Lincoln rose to the occasion. Winston Churchill was the wrong man for the job until he became a world-historical figure as the times called him. Bill Clinton, perhaps apocryphally, was said to have regretted that there were no times during his presidency against which he could demonstrate greatness.

  • Humans will take all trends to their extremes. They will create great institutions and will create the conditions of the destruction of whatever institutions they have constructed.

  • Humans are extraordinarily creative, both for good and for ill. They will react to whatever is happening to both make it better and to destroy it. Whatever is happening now will change, both for better and for worse.

  • Life is cyclical, not linear. One result of this is that, by the time something becomes broadly known and part of the common narrative, it has already peaked and has begun to change - again, for better and for worse. Therefore, almost everything everyone "knows" is wrong, to one degree or another. (It is because of this that I am looking at why the narrative on Europe's freezing this winter is wrong. Whenever I write a strongly worded opinion piece like I did last week with Going Full Cassandra, it is an indication of peak narrative that I need to review seriously.)

  • Humans will disagree - about literally everything - all the time. This is not new, but today it is significantly magnified and distorted by social media.

  • The laws of the real world - the laws of physics and of economics, particularly thermodynamics - will and must prevail in the long term. 

  • Life itself is fragile and highly contingent. Almost all life on Earth has been wiped out five times over Earth's history. Super volcanos, asteroids and viruses exist. Our greatest enemy is ourselves. We are also nature's greatest enemy, destroying species at such a rate that some are calling, I think both overwraughtly and with more than a kernel of truth, current times as the Sixth Great Extinction.

So, how to think about today? Well ...

  • Inflation will ebb and flow. Over the longer term, there will be recessions, depressions and times of flourishing.

  • Russia will prevail and then Ukraine will prevail and then ...

  • Republicans will surge and then the Democrats will come back and then ...

Each trend has a limiting condition.

  • The economy will either heal through the pain of adjusting to economic reality or it will come apart. Nations have done this to themselves countless times over history. What we are doing to ourselves is both easily recognizable, easily forecasted and essentially inevitable. It is this realization that formed the basis of my prediction in the early 90s of events over the next 40 or so years. The US is inhabited by humans just like the humans of other countries. Our founding principles and our vast resources do not inoculate us against human folly and hubris. They arguably allow us to redefine and extend human folly and hubris, as well as greatness.

  • Russia and Ukraine have been at it for centuries. This is not an end game but an episode in a continuing saga.

  • The midterm elections will be held and the process will start anew. This has been going on for centuries and is not an end game but an episode in a continuing saga. Increasing social instability indicates that, in the medium term, future episodes will be increasingly volatile, perhaps extremely so. 

  • In the background, we are dismantling our energy supply. We ignore that at our own peril.

  • Everything out of whack wrt the laws of physics and economics, particularly including the laws of thermodynamics, will eventually have to come back into balance or be destroyed.