Chaos on Crisis

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History happens, not as a matter of cause and effect, but because of the buildup of instability in a naturally self-organized chaotic system to the point of collapse. It is this collapse, which shows up as a sudden huge alteration from the status quo in response to a very minor incident, that appears to trigger major events in history. Wars, earthquakes, and forest fires all follow power laws of magnitude versus frequency because they are manifestations of the same fundamental mechanism — the self-organized system’s critical instability. If you haven’t read the book “Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen,” by Mark Buchanan (Three Rivers Press, 2001), we highly recommend that you do. The book lucidly (and, amazingly, without mathematics) shows why cataclysmic events take place and why there is not and never will be a way to predict them. Otherwise it will be very hard to understand why small, otherwise completely unimportant events suddenly take on a large meaning and can appear to mark the start of huge historical events. Take the murder of the archduke that occurred before the start of World War I. He was really of no importance. He just happened to be there at a time and a place when increasingly complex self-organized events had reached the point where a very small change could signal the collapse of a system on the edge. An interesting recent example of this is the way in which a nobody of a Florida pastor (with a congregation of 50!) created a worldwide uproar by intending to burn a Koran, with Obama, generals, and even Glenn Beck trying to head off this “world-threatening” event. Seeing that the instability in relations between Islam and the West has reached this ridiculous point, there is clearly no way to stabilize it, and a war cannot be far off. The Koran-burning “crisis,” following on the heels of the increasingly hostile arguments about the attempt to build a “peaceful” mosque at Ground Zero, is not going to end here. But, as in the case of predictions about earthquakes and forest fires (also explained in the book), there is no way to know for sure when it will happen. Most history is composed of just-so stories, no matter how factual. No historian who doesn’t understand the critical instability of self-organizing systems can understand the central issue of historical causation.

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