However, technology aside, it seems this stuff is old hat. The Tyee's Andrew Nikiforuk writes that this goes back at least as far as the Romans on what some claim is a 300-year cycle. Think of it as the bottom end of the circle of life. It could also be our final warning.
The corona pandemic, a pretty mild affair in the scheme of things, is telling us that we are now in the middle of a historic cycle where hyper-connectivity combined with hyper-complexity could rapidly lead to decline, if not collapse.
In fact, pandemics are not black swans, but predictable and natural events that often appear like clockwork in the evolution of human empires. They trigger other crises or partner up with them.
In the process of pruning human numbers, pandemics invariably play a significant role in the disintegration of civilizations. They reveal wealth inequalities and technical fragilities. In this regard pandemics announce both the ending and beginning of things.
Peter Turchin, a Russian historian, has long argued that civilizations expand and contract in distinct waves or what he calls “secular cycles” that last about 300 years.
The Roman stoic Seneca observed that things do not perish as slowly as they come into being. Instead, “the way to ruin is rapid.” And pandemics prove the point.
But waves of disease aren’t the only horseman that take empires over Seneca’s cliff.
Cycles of global expansion also tend to be humbled by incompetent leaders, climate change (always a factor in decline), food shortages and forced migrations of people, which in turn add more fuel to pandemic fires.
It can be easy in our fossil-fuelled civilization to imagine ourselves decoupled from such cycles, even history itself. We embrace the fruits of globalization while assuming we are protected by its risks because of our highly-evolved technologies.
In fact, technology can be the fuel to set pandemics alight. The Spanish flu of 1918 offers a cautionary example. It erupted during a period of unprecedented global movement of peoples. In Europe, troops from all parts of the world (and many ravaged by gas attacks) mingled with Chinese workers building trenches for warring empires. As soldiers fought and died in those trenches, the crowded Western front helped the flu virus become more virulent.The Plague Superhighway
Disease ecologists and other experts have repeatedly warned that unpredictable pathogens will explode from the new frontlines of globalization. As Dan Werb explained in the New York Times several months ago, the virus instantaneously exploited the rich pathways offered by global connectivity.
At the time of the SARS outbreak, China had about 233 international airline routes. But 16 years later it offered COVID-19 nearly 800 routes. During that same period the number of Chinese travellers jumped from three million to 53 million a year.
It is unlikely a computer could have designed a better network for rapid diffusion of a novel pathogen. Wuhan, where the pandemic began, is a major transportation hub for central China. Every year it facilitates the largest human migration on the planet as hundreds of millions of Chinese people celebrate Lunar New Year and crisscross the country in planes, trains and automobiles.
...The only way to stop a virus moving through highly-connected societies is to quickly reduce or shut down global pathways. If governments don’t act quickly and agilely, the pandemic will overwhelm them.
The intensification of global connectivity has consequences for the survival of the species if a highly-fatal pathogen were to emerge. “With increasing transportation we are close to a transition to conditions in which extinction becomes certain both because of rapid spread and because of the selective dominance of increasingly worse pathogens.”
Because of the increased connectedness of the world, a pandemic can’t be assessed like any other risk. “While there is a very high probability for humanity surviving a single such event, over time, there is eventually zero probability of surviving repeated exposures to such events.”The Lethal Curse of the Neoliberal Order.
“It will cost something to reduce mobility in the short term, but to fail to do so will eventually cost everything — if not from this event, then one in the future. Outbreaks are inevitable, but an appropriately precautionary response can mitigate systemic risk to the globe at large.”
No government took the note seriously because very few elites understand what an unsafe and unpredictable world they have built for ordinary people.
But this much is now plain. The intensification of globalized networks creates more instability, insecurity and unpredictability. Even civilizations with computers can cultivate too much complexity, peak and decline.
Unpredictability can arrive in the form of tyrannical technologies, the cascading effects of climate change or in the form of a globe-trotting pathogens.It's time to jettison Neoliberalism but it's time we can't afford to waste.
This modest pandemic, which will be followed by more pathogenic mischief, has reminded us that our society has entered a very dangerous phase in its historic cycle.
Can we build a simpler society that can survive random shocks? Can we re-localize the economy, tax the rich, support small farms, simplify our brutal technologies, power down and distribute authority more evenly among local communities?
Or do we return to “normalcy” by courting more catastrophe with accelerated globalization, sending ourselves galloping over the cliff?
This pandemic has given us a clear historic choice: change or collapse.