Flattening the Curve: Learning the lessons of world history to mitigate societal crises

Daniel Hoyer, James S Bennett, Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter François, Kevin Feeney, Jill Levine, Jenny Reddish, Donagh Davis, Peter Turchin
SocArXiv Preprint July 19, 2022 Journal Link


The world is experiencing myriad crises, from global climate change to a major pandemic to runaway inequality, mass impoverishment, and rising sectarian violence. Such crises are not new, but have been recurrent features of past societies. Although these periods have typically led to massive loss of life, the failure of critical institutions, and even complete societal collapse, lessons can be learned from societies that managed to avoid the more devastating and destructive outcomes. Here, we present a preliminary analysis of outcomes from periods of crisis in 50 historical societies and examine closely four cases of averted crisis in world history, highlighting common features. A key observation is that the structural-demographic cycles that give rise to societal crises typically incorporate a ‘gilded age’ during which more future-minded governance could avert future crises. To accomplish more forward-thinking public policy, capable not just of ‘flattening the curve’, but of actually breaking the cycle that produces societal crises in the first place, we argue that systematic quantitative analysis of patterns in world history is a necessary first step.

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