Cycles in U.S. History

Remembering the Future




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The lessons of the past are the only tools we have for understanding what our future might have in store for us.
Anticipation of the future might be the only way we can improve our chances for survival.


Strauss & Howe offer a great analogy for viewing cycles of history. They suggest that the cycles should be viewed as a spiral rather than a never ending, repetitive wave. As social behavior travels along the spiral, patterns repeating each time around, the thrust of History moves ever onward. In other words, history does not actually repeat, only the human reactions to events repeat as generational alignments recur.

In this space I am going to use Strauss and Howe's ideas about cycles to ponder the possibilities for the near future and beyond [A lot of what is projected for the rest of the present cycle can be gotten from their book The Fourth Turning.] There is no magic here. It is just an exercise in projecting a particular view of the past onto the future. That's why I say I am not predicting the future I am remembering it.

It is difficult to know if particular turns are occurring while they are happening, but we are now approximately at the end of an inner-driven or the beginning of a crisis era (the Fourth Turning of Strauss and Howe's theory). Personally, I believe the turn into the Crisis era began with the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Therefore we now find ourselves a few years into the Crisis period of the present historical cycle. For comparison, this would put us roughly in the year 1677 in the Colonial Cycle, nearing the beginning of the Glorious Revolution. The time would be approximately 1770 in the Revolutionary Cycle, an era following war (post-French and Indian) approaching the start of the American Revolution. We would be living around 1846 in the Civil War Cycle (this is hard to judge due to the difficulty with generational alignment during the Civil War), an era of struggle with the expansion of slavery and loss of national unity at the beginning of the Civil War. And finally we find ourselves at 1928 in the World War Cycle, nearing the beginning of the Great Depression and WWII. Clearly a time of concern is upon us.

In recent years I have come to imagine that the approaching Crisis period will be related to energy depletion and a power-down of the industrialized world so I am going to tentatively describe the coming era as the Power Down Era and I am even starting to think of the Present Cycle as the Industrial Power Cycle.

In the following paragraphs we will investigate several social themes with reference to these points in time to try and understand the similarity in each cycle. Then we will see what the Present Cycle and future cycles might have in store for us.

Before I begin I would like to take a minute to play a little mind game. The reason for this exercise is that I think it is important to keep all of the events we are reviewing and imagining in perspective. The following timeline is an attempt to fold all of human history, as I see it, into one day - 24 hours. In keeping with my belief that we, as a species, are now facing a major inflection point regarding energy and population, the timeline is skewed towards the importance of hydrocarbons to modern society. After you have read it you will see that the period that we are addressing with the TimePage timelines is really quite limited.

A Day in the Life of Humanity

  • 12AM Midnight (24 hrs ago) - the genealogical line of Great Apes that will become Homo Sapiens splits from the line that will become Chimpanzees.
  • 4PM (8 hrs ago) - 16 hrs later humankind has made much progress. They have mostly developed the upright stance, large brain and tool using specialties that will eventually be their trademark as true humans.
  • 8PM (4 hrs ago) - In another 4 hrs they will have mostly achieved their final status in preparation for life as Homo Sapiens. Their physical stature, brain capacity, tool making skills and probably the use of language and culture have been established. They are master of their domain which is most of the temperate eastern hemisphere. They are accomplished hunter-gatherers. There are still other hominid lines around at this time. They will not survive.
  • 11:57PM (3 mins. ago) - It is finally time for a major change in their lifestyle. For the last 23 hours and 57 minutes they have been living under nature's rules, moving from place to place and obtaining everything they need from their local environment or by trading with fellow travelers whose path they might cross. But now, a few humans decide that they are going to control the life cycles of some of the plant's and animals they need to sustain themselves. They are going to become farmers. This decision results in several compromises and leads to many complications. They will need to stay in one place to tend their domesticated plants and animals. They will have to cooperate with each other. They will have to bring the resources they need to their new fixed living place if they are not available locally. Hierarchal social organization, economic relationships, division of labor, technical innovation - many new concepts emerge from this new way of life. There are probably several million humans now.
  • 11:59PM (1 min. ago) - By now this new human lifestyle has become the norm. Great cities, sprawling nation-states and grand cultures and religions have grown around the fixed locations suited for growing plants and animals for food. Humans have spread to nearly all of the land masses of the earth. Resources are sometimes exhausted. Civilizations come and go and wars are fought to secure and obtain resources from neighboring human populations. Humans begin to use writing to record their activities. Great constructions begin to occur and monuments to rise. The human population could be as many as 25 million.
  • 11:59:25PM (35 secs. ago) To honor a central figure in one of the major religions of the world, many humans decide to celebrate his birth by beginning to count time from this date.
  • 11:59:55PM (5 secs. ago, 30 secs. AD) It is time for another major change in humanity's lifestyle. Until this point in time humans have been limited in their use of energy to that provided by the sun and the biological, wind and water cycles that it drives. But clever humans have found a new way to produce energy, by burning underground combustible wastes left over from ancient biological processes (coal). This activity bypasses some very serious constraints on human activity while postponing the negative feedback of its own use into the future. Increased use of these resources allow significant improvements in the quality of life for many more humans. Human labor can now be reduced or amplified at will. Tools can be manufactured that will allow more tools to be built that will, in turn, exponentially raise the ability of humans to consume (but not create!) resources. Population may now be as high as 800 million humans.
  • 11:59:58PM (2 secs. ago, 33 secs. AD) A new form of the stored energy is found. It is in a powerful, portable liquid form (oil) that can be moved easily to where it is needed, enabling great mobility. The world becomes a very much smaller place. All humans covet this new energy source. The new energy source enables great increases in resource conversion and food production. Many more humans arise to consume these newly produced goods. The world soon devotes itself, full time, to procuring, producing, consuming and protecting this new energy source. There are 1500 million humans on the earth now.
  • 11:59:59.95PM (.05 secs. ago, 34.95 secs. AD) At this time a few humans suddenly realize that, in the last two seconds, half of all this wondrous new energy source known to exist has already been used up. Oh, and by the way, in that same two seconds 5000 million additional humans became poised to use up the rest.
  • 12AM Midnight (35 secs. AD): You are here.

And so you see that the entire history of the United States, and in fact the whole history of industrial society, is really just a few seconds in the day of humanity. If you believe, as I do, that we are nearing the peak of the industrial age as our ability to provide supplies of hydrocarbon energy reaches its limits, then the entire cycle of industrial growth and decline will still only represent a blip on the human timeline. Let's try to keep that in mind as we contemplate our uncertain future.

Returning to the subject at hand. The following table is my attempt to construct a cyclic historical model of the recent past and near term history of the United States. The table includes three cycles leading up to the present cycle, the present cycle with a projection to its conclusion and then two cycles into the future. See this article to understand the logic implied in these energy and population projections. There are other constructs for sure. The Futurist, for example, while recognizing the difficulty humanity faces is much more optimistic in its view of the future. By definition it is a work in progress until such time it is proven right, wrong or irrelevant. In any case, I will not be here to judge so it will be up to you.

Cycle Generations Population Comments
The Revolutionary War Cycle Age of Enlightenment 1693-1733
Great Awakening 1734-1743
French and Indian War 1744-1773
American Revolution 1774-1787
600 million increasing to 800 million The beginning of the Industrial Revolution can be traced to this cycle of history. As the cycle began the population was expanding into the New World and the Old World was poised to move technology forward. Early in the cycle the first true steam power plants appeared and coal soon became the fuel of choice for these devices. This new power source, fed by the incoming wealth from the Colonies, enabled industry to grow and flourish. Even with the depopulation of native peoples in the New World, due to transmitted diseases from Europe and wars of subjugation, the population of the world began to move upward. Transportation didn't look substantially different than it had looked for millennia. Sail and human powered boats, horses and the vehicles they pulled, and walking were still the only options. Towards the end of the cycle the newfound power sources (Watt's steam engine appeared near the end of this cycle)were suggesting new modes of transportation to come. The cycle reached its climax with the Revolutionary War, the American colonies winning their independence from Britain and the formation of the United States of America.
The Civil War Cycle Era of Good Feeling 1788-1821
Transcendental Awakening 1822-1837
Pre-Civil War 1838-1859
Civil War 1860-1865
900 million increasing to 1.1 billion In this cycle of history things began to change fast and the Industrial Revolution took off in earnest. Lewis and Clark opened up the area west of the Mississippi River to runaway expansion (or contraction if you were a Native American already living there). The first internal combustion engine as well as the electric motor were demonstrated early in this cycle. As the cycle progressed the steam engine allowed both railroad and steamboat transportation to become the preferred way to move people and goods on land and water. Technological progress welled up from all corners of the industrialized world. In spite of the improvements in weaponry, population continued to surge upward as farmers took advantage of the new technologies available to them to improve the productivity of their fields while doctors exploited other technologies to improve the life expectancy of their patients. A new form of stored hydrocarbon energy, in liquid form, was discoverd near the end of this cycle. Oil would provide the impetus to drive the next stage of transportation and associated growth. The United States emerged during this cycle as a major player on the world scene. As the industrial age took hold in the United States a bitter conflict developed between the modern industrialists of the North and the traditional agrarian, slave dependent, economy of the South. This conflict, and this cycle of U. S. history, eventually came to a violent end with the horrific American Civil War.
The World War Cycle Gilded Age, Reconstruction 1866-1885
Missionary Awakening 1886-1909
World War I 1910-1929
World War II, Depression 1930-1944
1.2 billion increasing to 2.1 billion This cycle began in the second half of the 19th Century and in the wake of the Civil War. From this point on technology and industrial growth were the orders of the day. This growth was accompanied by the rapid expansion of the American West. By the turn of the century gasoline powered internal combustion engines (ICE) were starting to be used in personal and commercial transportation and horsedrawn wagons were about to start disappearing. Other energy methods, such as the electric motor and the steam engine, would soon succumb to the ICE as well. Sail powered commercial craft were also being replaced by hydrocarbon fired ships. As the cycle progressed the infrastructure of the United States began to align itself with the ICE powered automobile culture. Major highways were paved and city streets designed to support the automobile. As the cycle wound down a World War (WWI) erupted in Europe, drawing in the United States. After a period of hyperactivity in the financial markets following that war major worldwide economic recession occured. At the same time the agricultural community began to commit itself to hydrocarbon technology. ICE powered farm equipment allowed greatly increased yields from the land and hydrocarbon based fertilizers, insecticides and other chemicals were leveraged to further increase output from the farms. This in turn led to industrialization of agriculture and small farmers were driven out of the fields by large mechanized agribusinesses. The depression, as the recession was called, lasted until another major World War (WWII) again enveloped the world bringing the cycle to an end. In spite of the huge loss of human life resulting from the worldwide depression and the two wars, population doubled during this cycle owing primarily to increased harvests and better health care.
The PowerUp Cycle SuperPower America 1945-1965
Boom Awakening 1966-1980
Information Era 1981-2000
Peak Age/Resource Wars 2001-2020
2.3 billion increasing to 7 billion This cycle is ours to enjoy. I was born just before it began and, if I am very lucky, might live to see it end. Following WWII the shackles that had bound men to their earth were thrown off. The power of hydrocarbons were harnessed in as many ways as clever humanity could dream up. Plastics, pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals, transportation (in the form of cars, trucks and airplanes) and apparently unlimited power changed the very fabric of society. Nothing was impossible. Everything was tried and then, before it was even proved, improved. The world became very small for those with access to this great wealth of energy and affluence. In spite of a few minor wars and nagging social conflicts, we plowed ahead with nowhere to go but up. Partway into this cycle a few began to ask questions about the resources that we were using to fuel all of this enabling growth. But essentially nobody was listening. Then, about midway through the cycle, some started asking the unaskable. Are there limits to this growth we have come to depend on? Can we continue to extract and consume these resources (especially hydrocarbons) at the rate at which we have grown accustomed, forever? The official response was, in spite of its illogic, yes. Even though we have reached, pretty much, the maximum production rate for oil in the United States and will be producing less in the future, we can just go forth and get more oil, when we need it, from those that do have it. Apparently, everybody else can do that too. No problem. Even as evidence began to dribble in that the externalities of extreme energy expenditure were going to be hitting us hard in the form of global warming and climate change, we shuushed the critics and pooh-poohed the sceptics. Economic growth was simply too important to allow discussion of its limitations.
The PowerDown Cycle Great Readjustment 2021-2040
Post Industrial Awakening 2041-2060
Diminished Age 2061-2080
The End of Progress 2081-2100
8 billion decreasing to 1 billion
The NewReality Cycle New Beginning 2101-2120
Tribal Awakening 2121-2140
Age of Resettlement 2141-2160
Great Dissolution 2161-2180
1 billion decreasing to 500 million

There are many pages out there dealing with the future. I list a few of them here as a general reference to the kind of thinking that is going on in this field not as a corroborative data source for the ideas put forward on this page.

back Back to the Present Cycle


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"The Fourth Turning"

William Strauss and Neil Howe


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