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America Enters the Crisis Period

Is it the "Fourth Turning" Yet?

UPDATED July 21, 2007 -- see end of article

In their widely-read book The Fourth Turning William Strauss and Neil Howe argue that American history is marked by cycles and periodic crises. Each cycle lasts about 80 to 100 years or so, and the crisis period can last as long as 20 - 25 years. As long ago as 1991, they predicted that there would be another crisis period about the year 2005.

Well, is it true?  Has it already happened?

A lot of people have seen in Strauss and Howe verification of their own particular ideas. Part of the problem is that it is hard to quantify their theory. When exactly have we entered a period of social crisis? Who says? Is there some sort of quantifiable criteria we can use? Wars, rumors of wars, famine, pestilence, whatever?

It is of some interest to determine if, in fact, we are entering a period of social crisis -- not just because we’d like to know if their theory is true or not, but because entering a period of crisis is news in and of itself.  If we were to apply their criteria strictly, it wouldn't be "number of wars" or "percentage of the population downwardly mobile" which defines a social crisis: it would be a psychological test.

According to Strauss and Howe, a social crisis is not defined by what happens to society, but how society reacts. Wars may (or may not) occur during periods of crisis, and periods of crisis may (or may not) have violence and war. The relevant criteria would appear to be psychological; if it "feels like" a major social crisis to most people experiencing it, then it is a major social crisis.

But we shouldn’t just throw up our hands at this definition -- when people think that it’s a crisis, they do things. Thus all kinds of social reforms, changes in society, and so forth, tend to occur during such periods. The three most recent crises were the Revolutionary War crisis (1773-1794), the Civil War crisis (1860-1865), and the Great Depression and Second World War (1929-1946). All of these resulted in long-lasting and far-reaching social reforms: independence from Great Britain, the abolition of slavery, Social Security and Keynesian economics, etc.

If you’re interested in the mechanisms by which (according to Strauss and Howe) these cycles operate, see my essay "A Model for Social Change." Basically, it has to do with the life cycles of different generations (e. g. the Boomers, Generation X, etc.). Each generation comes of age in a different turning (an approximately 20 year period), and there are four "turnings" per each cycle ("High," "Awakening," "Unraveling," and "Crisis"). We are currently in an "unraveling" period, the third turning. 

But let’s put aside their explanation for how this all happens, accept this definition of social crisis, and limit ourselves to this question: has the United States in fact entering a period of social crisis (a "fourth turning"), or might it do so, and how?

When and How?

A social crisis is not when things, even bad things, happen to us. It is a crisis because of our reaction. Consider a catalog of the most recent crises: Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Watergate, the Vietnam War, Iran-Contra, or even September 11. These are not the kind of crises we are looking for, because they didn’t fundamentally change everything in the way that the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and the Great Depression and Second World War did.

What objective problems do we face, that might require fundamental social changes? I do not mean to belittle the Iraq situation, but Iraq is not such a crisis. The really serious problems we face -- the ones that might require a fundamental restructuring of society -- are connected to the environment. Global warming, the peak and decline of oil supplies, the extinction of species, the mindless destruction of the environment, deforestation, declining food supplies, the rise of diseases such as AIDS and the "bird flu" -- now those are real problems, in comparison to which the latest hot air from the general direction of the White House pales by comparison.

The Iraq crisis in itself does not require us to change everything, or that we change anything. We withdrew from Vietnam and got rid of Richard Nixon in somewhat similar circumstances, without fundamentally changing American society. But by our reaction, Iraq might be the trigger for such a crisis. When people say, "impeach the bastard!" or suggest that the blue states secede, my response is -- O. K., maybe, but how will this affect our ability to deal with the real global crisis? The real problems underlying the various symptoms of decay are connected with the environment. If oil suddenly peaks and declines, our economy could be thrown into chaos -- inflation, recession, depression, or worse. The best way to deal with the environmental crisis is through a united America, not by dividing into "Blue" and "Red" States of America. We need to devote some thought to this.

What about September 11? 

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, some people argued that this was the beginning of a crisis period, a "fourth turning," and thus verifies Strauss and Howe already. Strauss and Howe themselves entertained this idea, and actually addressed this question in an article published shortly after the September 11 attacks. But cannily, they did not answer this question. Instead, they put forward these criteria by asking the questions below -- which, if answered affirmatively, indicate the beginning of a social crisis. They have brilliantly asked exactly the right questions about whether we are truly in a "crisis" period. Notice that their questions do not refer to events that happen to us, but how we react as a culture to events. I list these criteria together with my comments about September 11:

1. Are leaders describing the problem in larger rather than smaller terms, proposing grand solutions, and seeking to destroy (and not just contain) enemies?

This would indeed be a sign of a crisis. Actually, Bush clearly is doing this. He envisions the war on terror as more than just getting rid of terrorists: it is part of a larger struggle to spread democracy throughout the Middle East, a moderate expansion of the September 11 "problem." He has proposed one grand solution, namely to invade Iraq, and evidently the rest of the Middle East as necessary (though his plans to invade Iran, etc., have not been put forward publicly).

There is a serious problem, though: while Bush thinks it’s a crisis, his proposals have not mobilized all of our society, not even other Republicans. It is apparent that society is resisting being mobilized for this purpose -- the war is extremely unpopular, the draft is nowhere in sight, and people are sick of the so-called "sacrifices."

2. Is there a shift away from individualism (and civil liberties) toward community purpose (and national survival)?

Again, Bush is trying to do this, and getting into trouble because it just doesn’t match the national mood. Even Republicans are disturbed by his wiretapping efforts which clearly went outside of the law, much as he would like to claim in retrospect that his "war powers" enabled him to do this. We might be willing to temporarily sacrifice our liberties, but not for this.

3. Are the old "culture wars" arguments beginning to feel lame, ridiculous, even dangerous to national unity?

The culture wars are beginning to diminish a bit, and you sensed this in the recent debate over Supreme Court nominees. The initial candidate (Harriet Miers) was shot down by Republicans; a filibuster was tried on Alito, but failed, and talk of "the nuclear option" has faded somewhat. However, the culture wars of the year 2000 were largely duplicated in the 2004 campaign. So far, very few seem to be sufficiently threatened by terrorists so that they are willing to put aside their views on abortion, animal rights, homosexuality, etc., in the interest of national unity.

3. Is the celebrity culture feeling newly irrelevant? Is youth fare becoming less gross and less violent?

The celebrity culture is on the defensive but is still relevant. Martha Stewart is back on her feet, and Oprah recently exercised judicious "damage control" when one of her book club selections turned out not to quite be what it was stacked up as. Youth fare is becoming less gross and violent.

4. Is immigration reversing? Are mobility and openness declining? Is there more nativism in our culture and less "globalism" in our commerce?

There is tremendous concern about immigration, but so far it has confined itself to the traditional "culture wars" scenarios, with outraged conservatives largely pitted against bleeding-heart liberals, and nothing substantive has happened. And, we’re still running a record trade deficit, so there’s plenty of "globalism."

5. Is there a new willingness to pay a human price to achieve a national purpose? Will we harness technology only to reduce casualties and inconvenience, or also to achieve a total and lasting victory?

Emphatically not. The country is more divided today than it was on September 10. The costs of the Iraq war are a key factor in its unpopularity, and they do not even approach the level of "sacrifice" endured throughout the futile war in Vietnam.

6. Is each generation entering its new phase of life with a new attitude? Are aging boomers overcoming narcissism? Are Gen-Xers on the edge of midlife, circling their wagons around family? Are Millennials emerging as a special and celebrated crop of youth?

It's hard to establish objective criteria for "narcissism" among the Boomers; one person's idealism is another person's narcissism.  Perhaps the scattered suggestions that the Blue States should secede, which we saw half-jokingly, half-seriously after the 2004 elections, are symptomatic of such narcissism -- since it is an attempt to evade, rather than resolve, our national difficulties.  So far, the Millennials haven’t clearly emerged in public consciousness as special or different from Generation X.

In short, while there are some tentative steps in the direction of a "crisis mentality," it seems clear to me that we are not there yet. Bush may have even read The Fourth Turning and is trying to turn September 11 into a decisive crisis. But people aren’t buying it. September 11 produced an ephemeral national unity which lasted about a year, and then the social consensus with increasing rapidity has broken down and the same culture wars raging on September 10 have re-emerged again. Therefore: September 11 was not the beginning of a period of social crisis, and so far, we do not see any sort of grand crisis which would confirm Strauss and Howe’s ideas.

Crisis Scenarios

However, I think that such a crisis mentality will arrive sometime in the next decade, perhaps very soon. There are several ways in which this "crisis consciousness" could spread to our society. One way in which it might happen would be through the peaking of oil supplies, which has long been anticipated by some petroleum geologists. Most of the "peak oil" theorists think that Ken Deffeyes -- who has now famously declared that world oil production peaked on December 16, 2005 -- is considerably ahead of the game (they foresee a peak around 2010 or 2015).

But even if Ken Deffeyes is right, we will probably not realize it until years afterwards. Remember the scenario with the peak of U. S. oil production: oil production did decline after 1970, but then with the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay, it actually began to rise again. It never quite exceeded the peak reached in 1970, but people thought that it might, and it was not until about a decade later that oil analysts finally conceded that yes, U. S. oil production was in an inevitable decline. The same thing may very well happen with the world peak of oil production.

This is not to say that once the crisis mentality does hit, that we might not put dealing with peak oil on our agenda and describe it as a crisis. But it is hard to see how "peak oil" could itself trigger such a crisis, unless the crisis is still at least about five years in the future. It is within the realm of possibility, though. Suppose Deffeyes is right, and for three or four years nothing else really startling happens (Iraq staggers along somehow, etc.). Then if it becomes evident that oil production world-wide has peaked, you might have a crisis mentality.

Another alternative would be for Saudi Arabia to hold a press conference in a few weeks and say, "Guess what, everyone! We were wrong. Actually we don’t have very much oil left after all. Ghawar (the biggest Saudi oil field) is now in a state of decline. If you’re expecting increases in oil supply, you’ll have to go elsewhere. Matt Simmons was right. Sorry." Or, there might be some other socio-political disruption of oil supplies -- for example, a radical Islamic regime takes over Saudi Arabia.

Another possibility is the spread of the avian flu to humans. Right now, while humans can catch the avian flu, it’s not contagious from human to human. But suppose the flu were to mutate into a contagious variety, as happened in 1918? You might see the deaths of millions of people, a humanitarian crisis of untold proportions, and this might trigger a crisis mentality.

The most likely trigger, though, is an Iraqi disintegration into civil war, regional war, or worse. I’m not an expert on Iraq, but from where I’m sitting and reading the news reports from people like Juan Cole, it seems that this would be the most likely major crisis in the next few years. No one knows whether Iraq will disintegrate into chaos and civil war; but it might, and no one is arguing convincingly that it won't happen. The reason that people have been slow to recognize the seriousness of an Iraqi disintegration, is that everyone is committing exactly the generational fallacy that Strauss and Howe warn against: assuming that this period of history is going to be like the last or the one before that.

Iraq and Vietnam

Iraqi disintegration could trigger a major social crisis. This may seem to contradict my previous statement that in itself, Iraq is not a fundamental problem. But it is not the Iraq situation itself that bothers me, although it's sad to see so much perfectly avoidable human suffering.  Rather, what is really disturbing is our reaction to the crisis. In its domestic political implications, the objective conditions brought about by Iraq (unpopular war drags on and on) are not that much different from Vietnam. But our reaction will change that, for better or worse.

Everyone has been thinking, "Politically, this is just like the war in Vietnam." There is even a popular anti-war bumper sticker, "Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam." The idea in our heads (and in the heads of many Democratic leaders, I suspect) has been something like this: "Bush is leading us deeper and deeper into a quagmire. The war will drag on and on, indecisively. Protests will mount. The ‘enemy’ will become more and more entrenched. In the end, we’ll admit that our military prowess cannot win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people, and we’ll give up and withdraw, declaring victory and coming home and leaving Iraq to its own fate." And then, we assume, everything will go back to the way it was before, with "culture wars" debates over abortion, evolution in schools (shades of the Scopes trial!), and government wiretapping.

It’s not going to happen. Iraq is not like Vietnam. For one thing, even though people are deeply unhappy about the war, there’s been relatively little protest. We do not see young people poised to go into the streets, burning their draft registration documents or whatever, "fragging" their officers when drafted (there’s no draft), and insisting that the war must end now, while an older generation digs in its heels and defends the status quo. There are no "Weathermen," no SDS, and the campuses are rather quiet.

Why is this? That’s because the generation which is most likely to protest is not protesting. That’s the "idealist" generation, namely the Boomers. And why are they not protesting? Because they’re not the leaders on the campuses, they’re in Congress! The people who are on campuses are the upcoming "millennial" generation which has, amazingly enough, actually responded to all the wringing of hands about the breakdown of social order. They are rather well behaved. They actually have more in common with our (the Boomers’) parents than with us.

Where’s the outrage? This time, it has to come from the elder generation, not the younger one. The center stage for this crisis is in Congress. And it could come soon in an impeachment showdown. If Iraq is disintegrating into civil war and chaos, and Bush is intransigent, it is entirely possible that even the Republicans will want Bush gone.

Of course, none of this may happen. Iraq may not be under water in September 2006 or even September 2008. The Shiites and Sunnis might actually come up with a workable plan to get Iraq on its feet. The Republicans might hang on to both houses of Congress. Bush might relent, or get lucky, and a plausible Iraq exit strategy could be formulated. We may also manage to avoid the other spectacularly bad things that could happen in the Middle East -- a fundamentalist Islamic coup in Saudi Arabia, terrorists shutting down oil facilities, or a regional conflagration in the Middle East. We might manage to get all the way to the November 2008 elections with an intransigent White House which compares itself to Abraham Lincoln without an obvious catastrophe. But I wouldn’t count on it. While each individual catastrophe is, in itself, unlikely, the odds are much different that at least one of them would come to pass.

Then look at the criteria proposed by Strauss and Howe to evaluate September 11. Suddenly, leaders would describe the situation in larger rather than smaller terms, a new sense of purpose which transcends political ideology will unfold, the culture wars will look rather "quaint," and we will be talking national survival. Let’s get the heck out of Iraq, let’s dump this idiot President and Vice-President, and let’s do it now

We might have a constructive, rational response to this trigger. The Republicans and Democrats might get together and defuse the whole thing: they might dictate an Iraqi solution to Bush, or remove him from office. Or it might not: we might have civil disorder in the United States, a religious-military state, dictatorship by a left-wing or right-wing demagogue, and the United States might disintegrate into the kind of chaos we normally reserve for countries in the Middle East.

Either way, that would be the beginning of the "Fourth Turning," a period of social crisis the likes of which America has not seen since 1929. Suddenly the floodgates would be opened. All kinds of ideas which have been continually debated during the past decades would come to the front burner, not with the idea of rehashing the culture wars, but with the idea that we really could do this. Most significantly, the environmental crisis could come to the fore, which even Bush has now acknowledged with his statement "America is addicted to oil."

We haven't entered the crisis period just yet, but it is likely that it will happen relatively soon.  This is not a crisis which we should strive to bring about; it's coming soon enough, all on its own. It would be nice to have three or five extra years before "peak oil" (or avian flu, or whatever) hits. How much more advanced the debate would be by that time, how much more informed and ready the public would be! But whether in Iraq, or with the "bird flu," or with "peak oil," or with a global warming catastrophe, eventually the spark will be set. We need to think carefully about how we will react, keep in mind the real objective problems we have, and act calmly, deliberately, and with determination. It is our reaction which will determine the nature of this crisis. Remember: the real issues aren’t the tired old culture wars debating points or the "terrorists."  It’s "peak oil," global warming, and the environment.

Keith Akers
March 12, 2006

UPDATE July 21, 2007

On January 31, 2007, Matt Simmons appeared on "The Bloomberg Report" and said that peak oil is here.  That's scary to me.  I knew that Ken Deffeyes had said that peak oil arrived in 2005 (and I don't think he's unequivocally been proven wrong yet, depending on how you define "oil"), and Ali Samsan Bhaktiari thinks peak oil is here as well.

But at that point I was thinking -- there are always going to be some people who want to jump in front of the pack.  When I heard Simmons, I thought to myself: uh-oh.  We won't have another five years.  It's here now.  So far as I personally am concerned, the Fourth Turning arrived on January 31, 2007. 

Of course the public consciousness may not have reached a crisis stage yet, and how we define things in retrospect may be based on future events not known to us.  In 1930, the stock market staged one of the strongest rallies in its history, before sinking back down again.  So even as late as 1930, it might not have been obvious that a crisis had unequivocally arrived in the U. S. A. 

Bush may not decide to invade Iran, get impeached, or do something else which forces us to redefine the concept of "really, really stupid."  Oil may not go to $100 a barrel this fall in an orgy of fear about oil supplies.  In fact, oil may not even peak before 2011, as ASPO-USA says.  But we can't count on any of this, and the fact that we can't says that my vote, at least right now, would be for 2007 to be the beginning of the fabled "Fourth Turning." 

Keith Akers