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Probability and Risk of a Second Civil War

[mark safranski / “zen“]

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Fascinating post by B.J. Campbell, a stormwater hydrologist who crunches numbers for risk probabilities of flooding, who applies his tools to a simple (very simple) historical data set (hat tip Scholar’s Stage ):

The Surprisingly Solid Mathematical Case of the Tin Foil Hat Gun Prepper

….While we don’t have any good sources of data on how often zombies take over the world, we definitely have good sources of data on when the group of people on the piece of dirt we currently call the USA attempt to overthrow the ruling government. It’s happened twice since colonization. The first one, the American Revolution, succeeded. The second one, the Civil War, failed. But they are both qualifying events. Now we can do math.


Stepping through this, the average year for colony establishment is 1678, which is 340 years ago. Two qualifying events in 340 years is a 0.5882% annual chance of nationwide violent revolution against the ruling government. Do the same math as we did above with the floodplains, in precisely the same way, and we see a 37% chance that any American of average life expectancy will experience at least one nationwide violent revolution.

This is a bigger chance than your floodplain-bound home flooding during your mortgage.

Note, by using the American Revolution and the Civil War, Campbell has adopted an extremely conservative data position. Other events that would meet the threshold would include Bacon’s rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion and John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry. Possibly meriting inclusion would be Aaron Burr’s Conspiracy, Nat Turner’s Revolt and the Nullification Crisis.

….In 2010, 8.5 million tourists visited Syria, accounting for 14% of their entire GDP. Eight years later, they have almost half a million dead citizens, and ten million more displaced into Europe. They didn’t see this coming, because if they did, they would have fled sooner. Nobody notices the signs of impending doom unless they’re looking carefully.Further, the elites of a nation rarely take it on the chin. They can hop on a plane. The poor, disenfranchised, and defenseless experience the preponderance of the suffering, violence, and death. They’re the ones that should be worried.
Pretend you’re someone with your eyes on the horizon. What would you be looking for, exactly? Increasing partisanship. Civil disorder. Coup rhetoric. A widening wealth gap. A further entrenching oligarchy. Dysfunctional governance. The rise of violent extremist ideologies such as Nazism and Communism. Violent street protests. People marching with masks and dressing like the Italian Blackshirts. Attempts at large scale political assassination. Any one of those might not necessarily be the canary in the coal mine, but all of them in aggregate might be alarming to someone with their eyes on the horizon. Someone with disproportionate faith in the state is naturally inclined to disregard these sorts of events as a cognitive bias, while someone with little faith in the state might take these signs to mean they should buy a few more boxes of ammunition.

Americans have been insulated from untoward events such as civil wars, famines, coups, epidemics and insurgencies for so long that they forget that such things are accepted as normal if distant risks by most people on Earth. Whether you wish to dispute Mr. Campbell’s odds or reasoning in his scenario the chances are and remain non-zero.

10 Responses to “Probability and Risk of a Second Civil War”

  1. Jim Gant Says:

    Zen,
    Great article. Much to contemplate here. It is always about the ‘tipping point’. Tipping points are always easy to see in retrospect, but identifying tippings in the future or as they are happening is…tricky business. I also have learned several sides of the same COIN…pun intended…everything has a second and third order effect. Some foreseen, others not. We have a wonderful country that is not perfect. We should all just respect one another a little more and many of the big problems on the horizon can be averted? Maybe that is too simplistic. Again, great post. All the best, Jim

  2. Michael J. Lotus Says:

    Other things to look for:
    * Violent and eliminationist rhetoric
    * Dehumanizing rhetoric directed at political opponents
    * Repudiation of lawful processes when they generate the “wrong” results
    * Masses of people blocked on “ordinary” life paths and seeking political solutions to personal and psychological problems.

    Even more “other events”:
    * Anarchist violence in late 19th C
    * Labor unrest in early 20th C
    * Riots and arson in 1960s
    * Domestic terrorism (Weathermen, Black Panthers) and government crackdown in response in 60s-early 70s

    Fact is, we have been living in weirdly peaceful times for a long time now.

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Jim,
    .
    Much thanks! Yes, I thought the author had a pretty intriguing take that should make us all reflect on what we take for granted. In the 50’s, Beirut was compared to Paris. In the 60’s, girls wore miniskirts in Kabul and hippies hitchhiked across Afghanistan. in the 1970’s, the USSR looked like it would be around forever. Things can change faster than most ppl anticipate.
    .
    Your comment on tipping points is well taken. Americans are straining the limits of our social resiliency and norms of a peaceful, open, democratic society and are pushing hard. Greater restraint in public life would be a virtue

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Zen, Jim, Michael:
    .
    Greaat think oiece — and thanks also to Jim and Michael, for their comments.
    .
    I have a coupe of comments. One is, I’m always suspicious when a timeline starts with, or narrowly avoids, a spike, or finishes with one. Terrorism derived deaths, 2001-2018 are very different from (than?) terrorism dervive, Zened deths, 2002-2018, because the latter avoids, and the former includes, 2001, ire 9/11, a spike if ever I saw one. So I’m inclined to ask, what would eht e timeline look like if it was 1995-2018, and whiat reasons would anyone have to prefer 2001 or 1995 or 2012 or 2005 — or, I suppose, 1 BCE for a starting point. ALthough I hope you’ll note, 1 BCE avoids another spike of world-changing significance..
    .
    Anyway, why does our Foil Hat Gun Prepper choose to begin his timeline with the spike of the American Revolution, and what might happen if he began instead with, say, the Discovery of the New World by the New People?
    .
    Not being any good with math these days, I can’t tell if that would improve or degrade the chances of New Worlders surviving to age y8.7, which would in any case only lreave me about four years to reach my own finish line before the average rest of you are done..
    .
    Then again, the various signs of impending doom you guys and your stormwater hydrologist have chosen seem suspiciously likely to hav e been chosen because you finnd them in current events, whereas true tinfoil hatters, whom I study professionally (retd), chose a completely different set, including such things as plural trumpets, one last blast on one single trumpet, the moon splitting in half or going black, a huge trove of god appearing in the Euphrates, and the arrival of the Second Incredibly Great Spike, or Second Coming of the First.
    .
    All this stuff about Ranters and Levellers, Loyalists and Royalists, Monarchists and Anarchists — oh, did I meantion that my own Civil War was a little after our first Elizabeth, and we have yet to complete our second, God Bless Her, Long May She Reign (she already has)?
    .
    But I’m having too much fun.
    .
    I really agree that riots in the streets are necessary precursors of a Second Civil War and there’s no need of trumpets, except for Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s B Minor Mass, and a whole lot of John Philip Sousa..
    .
    I don’t, in short, bbelieve the sky is destined to fall in the nexxt ten years, but the roof around here, the big tent, might.
    ,
    Again, in all seriousness, a better mathematics might be the first order catastrope, Rene Thom style — after all, how better to work the mathematica of catastrophe (civil disturbancee, nay erupton) if not in terms of Catastrophy Theory (mathematics)?
    .
    Let’ see if I can get the requisite image in here..

    firstb order catastrophe
    .
    Imagine we’re somewhere on the upper side — we can reach a point in our descent where there’s a catastrophe, its virulence determined by the size of the disparity between upper and lower states, or we can make a smooth atranstion, arriving at the same second state without violkent distruption.
    .
    Then the question of interest becomes: how does noe steer away from catastrophe and towards a safe continuity? And the answer is, the required motion is orthogonal to the direction of the fall.
    .
    What it takes to be orthogonal to ciuvil disorder I don’t know. It might be music, it might be comedy — I don’t know, but those would be my first two guesses. And I’m pretty sure it would be neigher increasd policing not increased protesting. It would be something apolitical, and I’m guessing it might have to do with lifting spirits.
    .
    How does that sound?

  5. Grurray Says:

    I was thinking he should go back even further. Pre-Columbian North America saw the spectacular collapse of the Anasazi in the Southwest. They were around for a thousand years, and, assuming 4 or 5 people per household, there was a huge population that quickly experienced the total downfall and depopulation of their society.
    http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/cultural/anasazi_long_house_valley_population.jpg
    About the same time the Mound People in the Midwest lived in the largest city in North America near St. Louis. They built a burial mound with a base bigger than the Pyramids in Egypt, but they were also gone by the mid-1300s.
    And there is evidence of a big massacre in South Dakota in the early to mid 1300s that may have been part of a regional war.
    We’re not sure what exactly was going on at that time, but something terrible was occurring all over the interior of the continent.

  6. zen Says:

    Hi Charles,
    .
    “Anyway, why does our Foil Hat Gun Prepper choose to begin his timeline with the spike of the American Revolution, and what might happen if he began instead with, say, the Discovery of the New World by the New People?”
    .
    Well, I think any intrastate or intracultural violence in the aftermath of Colombian discovery would be vastly overshadowed by the death toll from epidemics as diseases to which the natives had no immunity swept across the Americas. The population reduction may have been anywhere from a third to 90% of the pre-Colombian population occurring among tribes that would not see any Europeans firsthand for a century or more. This would be a model starting with a Black Swan event and then trending to resemble old World disease patterns.

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    Zen:
    .
    Really what I’m trying to get at is that the choices we make of beginnings and endings of timelines can make a considerable difference. I appreciate all the history I learn around here, though, so I guess your professional life is constantly overflowing into our conversations, very much to my benefit. As of the Rene Thom bit, I think the idea that the requisite change might be orthogonal to the catastrophe fold, ie have little or nothing to do with violence, whether protest-erupted or state-represed.
    .
    I’m also glad of this whole discussion, b’coz the threat / risk / signs of the times / impending presence of possible major civil unrest is a topic of very great importance, and I think it’s good to treat iyt with a little levity..

  8. David Ronfeldt Says:

    I’m reminded of sage statement that Rand economist Charles Wolf made in 1988 about this kind of forecast for America: “The rhetoric of decline is wrong because it portrays a past that wasn’t, a present that isn’t, and a future that probably won’t be.”

  9. J.ScottShipman Says:

    David, We’re in agreement, as most political argument these days is awash in pure nonsense–on both sides.

  10. David Ronfeldt Says:

    Maybe I should clarify: Much as I like Charlie’s statement, and much as I agree about “awash in pure nonsense,” I’m unusually worried these days.
    .
    And speaking of tipping points, I’m also learning(?) to be worried about the future of the “global commons” from both civilian and military perspectives, to wit:
    .
    “Throughout, their analyses (notably, Nakicenovic et al., 2016, pp. 16-17) urge viewing the global commons and “the large-scale subsystems of the Earth system — ocean circulations, permafrost, ice sheets, Arctic sea ice, the rainforests and atmospheric circulations” — as a complex system characterized not only by stable equilibria but also by “regime shifts, tipping points, tipping elements, nonlinearities and thresholds” that may experience “bifurcation points” and then “a new equilibrium state” or a sudden collapse. The threat is that “If one system collapses to a new state, it may set up positive feedback loops amplifying the change and triggering changes in other subsystems. This might be termed a “cascading collapse” of key components of the Earth system.” Which, as discussed later, overlaps with how the military has come to view the domains comprising their global commons as a complex interactive system.”

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