Cultural Dominants (2 of 4)

Damien Broderick (
Sat, 14 Jun 1997 12:06:32 +0000

>From time to time, efforts have been made to identify broad series of human
behaviours and match them against climatic oscillations. Between the world
wars, two notable research efforts were undertaken by a geographer and a
historian whose names are now altogether forgotten (unlike Spengler's, say,
who is remembered even if nobody reads his books). These studies
emphasised the ethological impact of climatic variety on human groups
living at distinctly different times and places.

Ellsworth Huntington was an explorer, research associate at the Carnegie
Institution, and Yale professor whose books ranged from Civilization and
Climate (1915) to his magnum opus, Mainsprings of Civilization (1945),
published two years before his death. His thesis of strong climatic
determinism strikes us today as crankily ethnocentric at best, for he
sought to discover why `vigorous' peoples like wealthy Euro-Americans were
so much more successful than the `indolent', `feminised' races nearer the
equator or otherwise trapped and stultified by debilitating circumstances.
In the era of the Asian Tigers on the Pacific Rim, not to mention the
historic defeat of American military efforts by tropical Vietnamese, this
claim is now obviously not just racist but ludicrous. =20

We should not be entirely distracted, however, by our legitimate distaste
for colonial premises and rhetoric. A comprehensive current treatment of
the coevolution of climate and life by Stephen H. Schneider and Randi
Londer notes that `Huntington's views neglect the complex interactions
among environmental and social factors influencing history. They led to a
backlash of social criticism, which perhaps overreacted by totally denying
any significant component of climatic impact on human affairs. In reality,
though, most case studies reveal that climate and society are so
intertwined that it is difficult to separate the societal impact from the
climate factor.'

Difficult, but perhaps not out of the question. Huntington's comparative
ethnography, usefully categorised, remains a rich trove of data on
historical and environmental flows in the fortunes of nations. =20

Raymond H. Wheeler, a former psychology professor at the University of
Kansas, shared Huntington's interest in weather cycles, constructing his
own grand theory of cultural recurrence. Around the middle of the 20th
century, Wheeler orchestrated a massive research project, drawing on up to
two hundred co-workers, to reduce all of recorded history to coherent
summary form. As the data from 2500 years of records were tabulated, he
discerned a number of recurrent patterns world-wide. =20

The most notable was a roughly 100-year climatic cycle, varying between 70
and 120 years, which seemed to fall into four predictable phases. From
this periodicity, and drawing on then-prevalent doctrines of cultural and
ethnic character, he theorised a regular swing of mass psychological
emphasis between `classical' or `centralist' and `romantic' or
`individualist' styles of community and culture.

Obviously these climate-driven distinctions cannot be found literally
everywhere simultaneously, because a global shift like the El Ni=F1o
vacillation will bring unusually abundant rain to one region while filching
it from another. Still, events like the Maunder sunspot Minimum during the
17th century (coinciding with Europe's `Little Ice Age') suggest that at
least some secular climatic variations on the order of a century can be due
to changes in the sun's energy output. And since available sunlight fuels
all life on the planet, it also drives reproduction dynamics.

Wheeler and his team found their data was usefully schematised by a
four-fold sequence of roughly 25-year-long `seasons': Warm-Wet, Warm-Dry,
Cold-Wet, and Cold-Dry. Each contributed to a certain characteristic mode
of collective behaviour, so that, according to cycle enthusiasts Edward
Dewey and Og Mandino, `similar events have occurred throughout history
during the same phases of the 100-year climate cycle'.=20

As part of their project, Wheeler and his staff drew up comprehensive
weighted lists of International War Battles and Civil War Battles. These
clustered according to climatic indices. Drought and civil war recurred at
approximately 170-year intervals, with a notable shorter cycle of
approximately twenty-three years.=20

Clearly, what's needed is a theoretical perspective able to bind together
the empirical evidence for historical recurrences, and organise them into a
schema of some robustness. Although models of this kind have been
academically unpopular for at least the last quarter century, or perhaps
for the last fifty years, they are hardly new to historiography and social
theory. Aristotle's Politics posited six versions or perhaps phases of
constitution: Monarchy (rule by the virtuous chieftain), Tyranny (its
corrupt deviation), Aristocracy (the rule of `the best'), Oligarchy (its
deviation, with the rich in command), Polity (representative democracy of
the citizens), and Democracy (its deviation, mob rule). =20

Polybius, in the second century BC, employed an `internalist' explanation
for the decay of states: anacyclosis, the circular regime path from rule by
kings, to aristocrats, to the citizenry, and back to kings. Nearly two
thousand years later, Giambattista Vico proposed a `New Science', or
universal model for historical recurrence. It followed a loop from an
original bestial condition, through a rule of superstition (the age of the
gods), to clan leadership and aristocracy (the age of heroes), and plebeian
equality (the age of men) - perhaps culminating in a new regime of
bestiality founded in new technologies.

Perhaps the nearest non-Marxist contemporary scholarship comes to such
templates is the `long cycle' advanced a decade ago by George Modelski and
William R. Thompson, specialists in international relations. This
discipline is the theorised offspring of a somewhat exhausted older style,
diplomatic history, formerly given over to an obsessional empiricism of
daily events co-ordinated by doctrines such as Balance of Power. Modelski,
by refreshing contrast, merges the benefits of rich empirical research with
a sociological account of group action, proposing a grand theory of
political recurrences. Its outcome proves to be not altogether unlike
Wheeler's `externalist' climatic model, except that this schema is driven
by `internal' motors: the fourfold systems-theory requirements of
adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latent pattern-maintenance. =

Perhaps surprisingly, it yields a familiar portrait, only now on a global
scale. If Modelski is correct, since 1494 the world system has passed
through five `long cycles', each with four generational phases. The cycles
run a little more than a century each, and climax in devastating contests
for world leadership. These global conflicts last between 23 and 31 years,
with the same average as the cycle generation, 27 years. We are now living
through the exhausted stage of an American century, and, if no better and
more humane means is devised for adjudicating leadership, the world is
probably doomed to a new global war in perhaps 2030 (but not until then).

Modelski's complex, tightly-argued claim for this parsing of the last
half-millennium into repetitive centuries is by no means timid, and
deserves to be cited at some length:

The long cycle of global politics is the major rhythm of the modern world;
its mechanism is the regulatory process or negative feedback. Other
systems and sub-systems might have their own distinctive regularities and
repetitions but the long cycle's is assuredly most visible, with its
product, the succession of world powers, a glittering, if perhaps
vainglorious, pageant.

As a rhythm the long cycle is not a merely mechanical process of
regulation and control. It is in fact more akin to a heartbeat, suggestive
of the pulsations of a living, growing system, one capable of renewal, even
self-correction, one that goes beyond the dimension of biological time into
that of social time, the spacing of the social processes by the rites of
passage of the world system. The major event clusters of the cycle... make
up the rituals of world politics. They are the key markers of world time.
(Long Cycles in World Politics) =20

Modelski's narrative deals only with the global political system.
Discursive regimes might well follow a more protracted pulse than the long
cycle, but consistent with its punctuations.

The regulation of world order, for Modelski, is a double feedback process
blending stability and development. While his version of grand theory
inevitably stresses homeostasis - the systemic mechanism for keeping things
on an even keel - it also makes learning a central theme. Long cycles
might track a common schema, but they do not return to the same place.
Development and radical change are inevitable, especially technological
change - the sheer accumulated amount of information and augmented human
capacity to affect our world.

The four phases of each long cycle switch between order and disorder. In
cycle phase 1, preference for order in the global system is high, but its
availability is low; this generation wages global war. In phase 2,
preference for order remains high, and, due to the decisive close of the
previous phase, available order is now high as well, leading to a regime of
world order. In phase 3, preference for order has fallen to low, despite
its prevalent and perhaps oppressively high availability, so a regime of
delegitimation sets in for a generation. Finally, both preference for
order and its availability are low, so deconcentration brings new hegemonic
challenge to the boil -- preparing the way for a return to the start of the
long cycle. It is arresting to compare this schema with Wheeler's fourfold
categorisation, where WARM/DRY matches Modelski's global war phase, and the
remainder march in close agreement.

Of course, the diplomatic long cycle schema was not developed to explain
biological or even economic pacemakers such as climate. It emerges from
study of the historical narrative, today usually regarded as radically
contingent. Yet while its roster of players is determined by sensitive
dependence upon initial conditions - and hence to some considerable degree
remains unpredictable - the general orbit envelope of the attractor (to
borrow the terminology of chaos theory) is quite predictable. =20

The major wars of these five great sequences are given as the Portuguese
cycle, with its ceaseless Italian and Indian Ocean wars of 1494-1516; the
Dutch cycle, with the Spanish-Dutch war of 1580-1609; the first British
cycle, with the wars of Louis XIV, 1688-1713; the second British cycle,
with the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, 1792-1815; and the
American cycle, or wars with Germany, 1914-45. =20

Interestingly, Modelski's late '80s attempt to forecast this pattern into
the next millennium immediately went awry (along with almost everyone
else's) by assuming that the principal challenger to American suzerainty in
1973-2030 would be the Soviet Union. Presumably the slot would be filled
now by Japan, or perhaps Unified Europe, or the Asia-Pacific Tigers. =20

Perhaps the most striking feature of this century-long process is the role
played by massive conflict, or more exactly its successful conclusion, as a
definitive time-marker. Whether or not the long cycle is calibrated to
more primitive pulses (physiologic, ecological, even solar), one can set
its clock by the celebrations that mark global armistice. =20

Arnold Toynbee famously found in this unhappy recurrence a key to
alternations between war and peace: `the survivors of a generation that has
been of military age during a bout of war will be shy, for the rest of
their lives, of bringing a repetition of this tragic experience either upon
themselves or their children' (A Study of History, Vol. IX). Perhaps the
uniformity of experience shared by those children (in our own recent
history, the `baby boomers') is at least as salient as that of their
warrior parents.=20

[go to part 3]

[I ask that none of this essay be quoted or reproduced beyond the extropian
list, as it is still awaiting publication in an Australian magazine.]