Is History Cyclical?

Put your optimism on hold, says John Gray. Times of progress can be deceptive because history is actually cyclical.

What’s the Big Idea?

John Gray, a British philosopher notable for being one of the only public intellectuals to anticipate the economic collapse of 2008, told Big Think that boom times are deceptive because history is cyclical, rather than progressive. “We’re not moving to a world in which [crises] will never happen or [will] happen less and less.  We are in a world in which they happen several times during a given human lifetime and I think that will continue to be the case in any future that we can realistically envisage.”

Political and economic upheavals, Gray argues, are not the exception but the rule. “The events which we’ve been taught are abnormal are in fact normal. Normal collapses, normal breakdowns, normal crises occur within most human lives.” He points to the fall of the Soviet Union as another instance in which an entity that seemed “too big to fail” disintegrated suddenly. “In the 1970’s and 80’s, I was unusual in thinking that the Soviet regime could and would collapse,” he says. “Most diplomats and political scientists said ‘Of course it won’t collapse, that’s fantastic, apocalyptic. It’s too strong: it’s been around since 1917.’ All that turned out to be complete nonsense. It vanished within the space of a couple of years.”

What’s the significance?

While we can’t predict the future, we can prepare for it. “Don’t listen to financial planners who tell you that you’re going to get six or seven percent or even two or three percent every year from investing in a certain way. They don’t know that. History has never been steadily cumulative or if it has, it has been for periods or 5 or 10 or 15 or at most 20 years, and then some kind of great punctuation occurs and a lot of the wealth you thought you had vanishes up in smoke before your eyes.”

The key to securing your financial future may lie in anticipating the safest place to stash your savings. “Over a whole lifetime, over several decades, over your active life there will be great punctuations and disruptions. You’ve got to think of strategies which can survive such punctuations. You’re trying to really pit your wits against history. But we’re all in that situation.”

Why a great education means engaging with controversy

Jonathan Zimmerman explains why teachers should invite, not censor, tough classroom debates.

Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • During times of war or national crisis in the U.S., school boards and officials are much more wary about allowing teachers and kids to say what they think.
  • If our teachers avoid controversial questions in the classroom, kids won't get the experience they need to know how to engage with difficult questions and with criticism.
  • Jonathan Zimmerman argues that controversial issues should be taught in schools as they naturally arise. Otherwise kids will learn from TV news what politics looks like – which is more often a rant than a healthy debate.
Keep reading Show less

Are these 100 people killing the planet?

Controversial map names CEOs of 100 companies producing 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

Image: Jordan Engel, reused via Decolonial Media License 0.1
Strange Maps
  • Just 100 companies produce 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gases.
  • This map lists their names and locations, and their CEOs.
  • The climate crisis may be too complex for these 100 people to solve, but naming and shaming them is a good start.
Keep reading Show less

SpaceX catches Falcon Heavy nosecone with net-outfitted boat

It marks another milestone in SpaceX's long-standing effort to make spaceflight cheaper.

Technology & Innovation
  • SpaceX launched Falcon Heavy into space early Tuesday morning.
  • A part of its nosecone – known as a fairing – descended back to Earth using special parachutes.
  • A net-outfitted boat in the Atlantic Ocean successfully caught the reusable fairing, likely saving the company millions of dollars.
Keep reading Show less