Feb 13 2012

Are Stratfor’s “Generational Shifts” like “Falling Grains of Sand”?

In their most interesting Annual Forecast for 2012, Stratfor.com has identified this year as a very special time that they call a “generational shift”:

There are periods when the international system undergoes radical shifts in a short time … We are in a similar cycle, one that began in 2008 and is still playing out.

In Les Miserables (1862), French novelist Victor Hugo asked, “How do we know that the creations of worlds are not determined by falling grains of sand?”

Another way to think of Stratfor’s description is as a “critical state” in the international economic system that has been self-organizing for decades. As we approach the critical state small triggers can have rapid, often unexpected — even system-wide – effects.

Over the last 200+ years, critical states are intimately associated with the emergence of Maslow Windows — transformative, 1960s-style decades always featuring huge engineering projects like the Panama Canal, a great exploration like the Apollo Moon program, and a Camelot-style zeitgeist.

In his remarkable book — How Nature Works (1996) — former Brookhaven professor of physics Per Bak (1948-2002) imagined that the real world was analogous to a sand pile, created by dropping one grain of sand at a time. Initially and for some time, as grains began to pile up nothing much happens. But eventually the sand pile slopes become large and unstable — i.e., it reaches a self-organized “critical state.” Then one more tiny grain of sand could rapidly trigger an “avalanche” that might be small or medium in size, or large enough to change the whole sand pile.

Based on Stratfor’s observations and my analysis, it appears that the world is approaching a critical state today, which will feature Bak-style “avalanches”. The question is: How big will they be?

According to Stratfor, the current generational shift since 2008 features the following:

The European Union has stopped functioning as it did five years ago and has yet to see its new form defined. China has moved into a difficult social and economic phase, with the global recession severely affecting its export-oriented economy and its products increasingly uncompetitive due to inflation. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq has created opportunities for an Iranian assertion of power that could change the balance of power in the region. The simultaneous shifts in Europe, China and the Middle East open the door to a new international framework …

During the world’s most recent critical state (in the 1960s), the Cuban Missile Crisis prsented an existential crisis for the U.S and U.S.S.R. that, fortunately, was rapidly resolved. In the language of self-organized criticality, a major nuclear exchange between the US and USSR in 1962 would have brutally terminated the 1960s critical state (i.e., leveled Bak’s sand pile) seven years before the first manned landing on the Moon actually occurred.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was not the first existential threat to the US during the approach to a critical state. Prior to 1803 when Jefferson finally secured the Louisiana Purchase, it was widely believed that Napoleon had his eye on a North American empire.

Stratfor observes that this generational shift is still associated with much uncertainty.

The 2012 forecast is unique in that it is not a forecast for one year in a succession of years, all basically framed by the same realities. Rather, it is a year in which the individual forecasts point to a new generational reality and a redefinition of how the world works.

Although potential conflicts involving countries like North Korea and Iran present very dangerous threats during the approaching critical state, the good news is that — over the last 200+ years — each critical state has triggered major economic booms and an ebullient population that have enabled monumental macro-engineering projects and great explorations like Apollo.

There’s every reason to expect this multi-century pattern will persist.

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