A decade ago, this scientist predicted 2020 would bring 'peak' chaos to the U.S.

Can researchers use data science to accurately predict the future?

​Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

  • Cliodynamics is a relatively new area of research that aims to take a scientific approach to studying history.
  • In 2012, a scientist named Peter Turchin published a paper describing how political instability in the U.S. tends to repeat over short- and long-term cycles.
  • Turchin suggests that political instability in the U.S. is driven by underlying factors like falling wages, wealth inequality, and intra-elite competition.

If we don't understand the mistakes from our history, we may be doomed to repeat them. But what if we could use science to not only better understand our past, but also make predictions about our future?

One scientist's research suggests that may be possible.

In 2012, Peter Turchin published a study in the Journal of Peace Research that offered an ominous prediction: The U.S will suffer a "peak" of instability in 2020. Today, that prediction seems to have been spot on. The nation is suffering from a deadly pandemic, social unrest over police brutality, and the reliably chaotic state of Trump-era politics.

But how did Turchin get it right?

As a mathematician and evolutionary biologist, Turchin is a key figure in a young and controversial field called cliodynamics. (The name comes from "Clio," who was the muse of history in Greek mythology.) This multidisciplinary area of research examines history through a quantitative approach, essentially treating history as science.

Cliodynamics practitioners often take advantage of newly digitized historical information, creating and testing mathematical models that aim to explain big questions about the past, like why do empires rise and fall? In blunter terms, the goal is to show that "history is not 'just one damn thing after another," as Turchin told Nature. Here's how Turchin described cliodynamics in an article published in The Conversation:

"...the adherents of cliodynamics treat historical record just as, say, evolutionary biologists treat the palaeontological record. Theories are constructed and based on general principles and tested empirically with comprehensive databases. In short, we use the standard scientific method that worked so well in physics, biology, and many social sciences."

In his 2012 study, Turchin examined the history of sociopolitical instability in the U.S. from 1780 to 2010. To do this, he used data on about 1,600 violent political incidents from American history, such as lynchings, riots, and terrorism.

He combined that data with a model that factored in broader societal forces, such as falling wages, wealth inequality, changes in population, and increased competition for elite jobs.

The results revealed that American political violence tends to occur in regular cycles, with valleys of peace punctuated by peaks of violence and unrest.

US Political Violence Database chart showing spikes in 1870, 1920, and 1970.

Turchin

One is a short cycle that occurs about every 50 years, with peaks in 1870, 1920 and 1970. Turchin calls this oscillation the "father-son" cycle: the father perceives a social injustice and revolts, while the son's generation deals with the aftermath and abstains from revolution. Then, the third generation repeats the cycle.

The second cycle is much longer, peaking once every two to three centuries. The cycle begins with a society that's roughly egalitarian, but over time its population increases, labor supply outpaces demand, and wealth inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Eventually, societies tend to collapse or suffer widespread political instability.

Structural-demographic theory

Turchin's model is based on structural-demographic theory, which seeks to understand the broad underlying forces that cause societies to become unstable. The theory has revealed that regular cycles of political instability have occurred not only in the U.S., but also in the Roman Empire, Egypt, China, and Russia.

To better understand the theory, try thinking about the causes of revolutions as being similar to the tectonic processes that cause earthquakes, as Turchin and economic historian Andrey Korotayev wrote in a 2020 paper:

"In both revolutions and earthquakes it is useful to distinguish 'pressures' (structural conditions, which build up slowly) from 'triggers' (sudden releasing events, which immediately precede a social or geological eruption). Specific triggers of political upheavals are difficult, perhaps even impossible to predict.

On the other hand, structural pressures build up slowly and more predictably, and are amenable to analysis and forecasting. Furthermore, many triggering events themselves are ultimately caused by pent-up social pressures that seek an outlet—in other words, by the structural factors."

Graphic showing the main logical components of the structural-demographic theory

SocArVix/Turchin and Korotayev

Turchin's model found that violent political outbursts in the U.S. tend to peak when these types of structural factors are stressed in specific ways. Turchin noted three key drivers of instability that, like deadwood waiting for a forest fire, have been building up over the past several decades: wealth inequality, increased competition for elite jobs, and rising national debt.

Turchin noted:

"...each [of these factors] did not develop in isolation; they are actually interconnected at a fundamental level. Moreover, our historical research shows that this combination of trends is typical of historical societies that are in the pre-crisis phase."

So, while the U.S. is going through a tense period, it may only be just the beginning of a larger crisis. Turchin even told Time that it's possible that tensions "may escalate all the way to a civil war."

But collapse isn't inevitable. As researchers continue to develop a deeper understanding of the underlying forces that drive political instability, society is in a unique position to pull back from the brink, as Turchin wrote in an article for Aeon:

"Ours is the first society that can perceive how those forces operate, even if dimly. This means that we can avoid the worst — perhaps by switching to a less harrowing track, perhaps by redesigning the rollercoaster altogether."

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Volcanoes to power bitcoin mining in El Salvador

The first nation to make bitcoin legal tender will use geothermal energy to mine it.

Credit: Aaron Thomas via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

In June 2021, El Salvador became the first nation in the world to make bitcoin legal tender. Soon after, President Nayib Bukele instructed a state-owned power company to provide bitcoin mining facilities with cheap, clean energy — harnessed from the country's volcanoes.

The challenge: Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a digital form of money and a payment system. Crypto has several advantages over physical dollars and cents — it's incredibly difficult to counterfeit, and transactions are more secure — but it also has a major downside.

Crypto transactions are recorded and new coins are added into circulation through a process called mining.

Crypto mining involves computers solving incredibly difficult mathematical puzzles. It is also incredibly energy-intensive — Cambridge University researchers estimate that bitcoin mining alone consumes more electricity every year than Argentina.

Most of that electricity is generated by carbon-emitting fossil fuels. As it stands, bitcoin mining produces an estimated 36.95 megatons of CO2 annually.

A world first: On June 9, El Salvador became the first nation to make bitcoin legal tender, meaning businesses have to accept it as payment and citizens can use it to pay taxes.

Less than a day later, Bukele tweeted that he'd instructed a state-owned geothermal electric company to put together a plan to provide bitcoin mining facilities with "very cheap, 100% clean, 100% renewable, 0 emissions energy."

Geothermal electricity is produced by capturing heat from the Earth itself. In El Salvador, that heat comes from volcanoes, and an estimated two-thirds of their energy potential is currently untapped.

Why it matters: El Salvador's decision to make bitcoin legal tender could be a win for both the crypto and the nation itself.

"(W)hat it does for bitcoin is further legitimizes its status as a potential reserve asset for sovereign and super sovereign entities," Greg King, CEO of crypto asset management firm Osprey Funds, told CBS News of the legislation.

Meanwhile, El Salvador is one of the poorest nations in North America, and bitcoin miners — the people who own and operate the computers doing the mining — receive bitcoins as a reward for their efforts.

"This is going to evolve fast!"
NAYIB BUKELE

If El Salvador begins operating bitcoin mining facilities powered by clean, cheap geothermal energy, it could become a global hub for mining — and receive a much-needed economic boost in the process.

The next steps: It remains to be seen whether Salvadorans will fully embrace bitcoin — which is notoriously volatile — or continue business-as-usual with the nation's other legal tender, the U.S. dollar.

Only time will tell if Bukele's plan for volcano-powered bitcoin mining facilities comes to fruition, too — but based on the speed of things so far, we won't have to wait long to find out.

Less than three hours after tweeting about the idea, Bukele followed up with another tweet claiming that the nation's geothermal energy company had already dug a new well and was designing a "mining hub" around it.

"This is going to evolve fast!" the president promised.

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