Secular Cycles

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* Book: Secular Cycles. By Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov. Princeton University Press, 2009



1. Mark Koyama:

"The leading modern day cyclical theorist is undoubtedly Peter Turchin. For my money Turchin’s best book is Secular Cycles (co-authored with Sergey A. Nefedov). Their innovation (building on an argument made by my GMU colleague Jack Goldstone in his 1991 book Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World) is to take the Malthusian model of economic cycles and add to it a model of elite competition.

Tuchin and Nefedov show that periods of demographic expansion are often associated with the growth of elite incomes and inequality (as population growth causes rents to rise and wages to fall). More elites competing over the surplus, however, puts fiscal pressure on the surplus-extraction machine that we call the state. Elite overproduction thus brings about a political crisis. Secular Cycles applied this model to medieval and early modern England and France, Russia and ancient Rome. Turchin’s most recent book applies it to the United States." (

2. From the publisher:

"Many historical processes exhibit recurrent patterns of change. Century-long periods of population expansion come before long periods of stagnation and decline; the dynamics of prices mirror population oscillations; and states go through strong expansionist phases followed by periods of state failure, endemic sociopolitical instability, and territorial loss. Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov explore the dynamics and causal connections between such demographic, economic, and political variables in agrarian societies and offer detailed explanations for these long-term oscillations--what the authors call secular cycles.

Secular Cycles elaborates and expands upon the demographic-structural theory first advanced by Jack Goldstone, which provides an explanation of long-term oscillations. This book tests that theory's specific and quantitative predictions by tracing the dynamics of population numbers, prices and real wages, elite numbers and incomes, state finances, and sociopolitical instability. Turchin and Nefedov study societies in England, France, and Russia during the medieval and early modern periods, and look back at the Roman Republic and Empire. Incorporating theoretical and quantitative history, the authors examine a specific model of historical change and, more generally, investigate the utility of the dynamical systems approach in historical applications.

An indispensable and groundbreaking resource for a wide variety of social scientists, Secular Cycles will interest practitioners of economic history, historical sociology, complexity studies, and demography."


James Quilligan:

"The first chapter of Secular Cycles describes the general historical cycle of a civilization lifting itself out subsistence into greater social complexity and prosperity, then undergoing bitter class inequality, completely misunderstanding the need to manage economics and society by measuring resources according to population, and then undergoing a massive crisis when it is no longer able to support its complex support systems. In this cycle, society ascends through a long period where there appears to be endless resources in which population, growth and demand will increase forever; then descends through a long era when human demand crosses the sustainability threshold of its ecosystems, and energy and resource depletion drastically limit population growth. After the first chapter, the rest of the book provides historical case studies of civilizations tracing this rise and fall."

The book made me more aware of several things. No major civilization has EVER practiced carrying capacity as a basis for political and economic self-governance; carrying capacity has only succeeded in small communities. Of course, we know this from the modern Ostrom view of the commons; but Ostrom never put her finger on the pulse of carrying capacity as the *self-organizing principle between a species and its environment*. Nor has the commons movement recognized the importance of an *empirical way of measuring the metabolism of society* through the cooperative activities of people using resources to meet their biological needs. In other words, Ostrom and the commons movement have yet to define the dynamic equilibrium which they seek as the balance between two opposing forces - population and resources - which continually counteract each other. Instead, the commons movement is more focused on counteracting the Market and the State than on measuring the replenishment of renewable and non-renewable resources and managing them to sustain their yield. In short, the commons movement does not seem to be producing alternative indicators for the productive and provisioning which can be used to guide policy.

Secular Cycles made me realize that the commons, as Ostrom viewed it and as others are now envisioning it, is too informal and small-scale to work in a way that establishes empirical targets that will bring down exponential growth to arithmetic growth levels; and thus organizing society according to the dynamic equilibrium between population and the availability of food, water and energy. Instead, what we get in the commons movement is a general opposition to quantitative analysis because it reminds people too much of the metrics of unbridled capitalism. My point is that if we don't know how to develop evidence-based policy for a soft landing toward a reasonable level of subsistence -- and I've seen very little of this in the commons movement -- then I don't know how we expect to create a long-term system for meeting human needs through sustainable yields. I would hope that the commons movement begins to create the basis for a viable new society by actually focusing on the optimum rate at which a resource can be harvested or used without damaging its ability to replenish itself. That would be something." (