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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."