This isn’t very Christmasy, but . . .

I just finished reading the last volume of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which in 1966 won a Hugo Award for greatest science fiction series ever, beating, among others, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

In Asimov’s saga, the preternaturally gifted sociologist Hari Seldon, foreseeing the imminent fall of galactic civilization, devotes his life to developing psychohistory, “the science of human behavior reduced to mathematical equations.” The math tells Seldon not only that civilization will soon collapse, but that it will take thirty thousand years for the next civilization to reach equivalent sophistication. Horrified by the suffering those intervening millennia will impose, Seldon implements a plan to shorten the interregnum to a thousand years.

According to Wikipedia (so it’s probably true), the Foundation trilogy has inspired the astronomer Carl Sagan, the science-of-happiness researcher Martin Seligman, the economist Paul Krugman, and billionaire brat Elon Musk. (Oh, and Newt Gingrich, proving that once a writer sends an idea into the world there’s no telling who will take the wrong message from it.)

Another enthusiast is Peter Turchin, a biology-turned-history professor at the University of Connecticut. Turchin has pulled together civilizational data from the last ten thousand years to develop a psychohistory-inspired discipline called cliodynamics, “the search for general principles explaining the functioning and dynamics of historical societies.”

And he brings bad tidings.

According to Turchin’s research, civilizations collapse due to three factors:

  1. The elite (however defined) grows too numerous for the number of positions available, thus creating one or more counter-elites.
  2. Living standards for most people decline.
  3. Public debt becomes excessive.

Nobel winner Krugman thinks we’re okay on Factor 3, in part because interest rates are so low on the trillions the federal government is borrowing to fight the pandemic’s economic devastation. But that’s just a small piece of our debt; in time, the cumulative public debt may overwhelm us.

When it comes to Factors 1 and 2, however — especially Factor 1, which Turchin considers most important — we’re clearly in trouble. Even our political parties are splitting into elites and counter-elites: the Republicans into a Trumpist elite and libertarian and Never-Trump counter-elites; the Democrats into a moderate elite and a progressive counter-elite.

A decade ago, Turchin predicted the 2020s would bring intense political turmoil and social instability. Anybody want to argue that the evidence to date proves him wrong?

There is a way out. Turchin’s recommendations include heavily taxing the economic elite; restricting immigration; increasing wages for the middle and working classes; and reducing the number of people granted college degrees. An interesting mix of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and perhaps the basis of a grand bargain between the two Americas.

But will we go there in time to avert civilizational meltdown? In Asimov’s trilogy, Hari Seldon’s bicameral Foundation successfully expedites the transition to a new, more durable galactic empire. Though sometimes at odds with itself, the Foundation is analytically and emotionally intelligent, lean, and active.

Our bicameral ruling body is Congress.

Isaac Asimov, 1920–1992. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Arnold Newman.)

P.S. For more on Turchin, this Atlantic Monthly article is a good introduction, this Time article a faster read. Samples of his own work may be found here, here, and his blog here.