You would think I would like, or even find vindication in, a book that predicts an imminent ecological holocaust. After all, that’s what the hundreds of scientists who developed and urged passage of the Kyoto Accord did. And my articles in these pages on environment and overpopulation have done the same. So I was surprised at my reaction to The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, by William Strauss and Neil Howe.

And this book, written in 1997, during the dot com boom and before the Bush bust and 9/11, predicted this:

A global terrorist group blows up an aircraft and announces it possesses portable nuclear weapons. The US and its allies launch a pre-emptive strike. The terrorists threaten to retaliate against an American city. Congress declares war and authorizes unlimited house-to-house searches. Opponents charge that the president concocted the emergency for political purposes. A nationwide strike is declared. Foreign capital flees the US.

This is predicted to happen ‘around’ 2005, and to be the catalyst for The Fourth Turning, a twenty-year period of crisis that will transform Anglo-American society and perhaps the world, as happened in roughly 80-year intervals since the middle ages (the most recent fourth turnings being, going backwards in time, WW2/Great Depression, the Civil War, and the American Revolution.

It is human nature to look for patterns, and find them fascinating and sometimes useful. And the authors have done their homework thoroughly, and even offer a whole chapter on how to prepare for the coming apocalypse, though it appears perhaps it has started a few years early. I guess what bothers, even infuriates me about this book is not the lessons from history, which are intriguing, but the whole ‘prophecy’ flavour of it. While many people have warned that our selfishness and neglect of our fellow man would cause the have-nots to rise up against the haves, and others have warned that our neglect of the environment will cause cataclysmic climate change and disastrous biodiversity loss, these guys are saying that the apocalypse is written in the stars, foreordained no matter how well we had looked after our fellow man and our environment. There is something about that fatalism, that predestination, that rubs me the wrong way. It says, in short, it doesn’t matter what we do and when we do it. It is the great catholic cop-out: It is not in our control, what we do ultimately makes no real difference, so go ahead and do whatever the hell you want, but don’t forget to ask forgiveness for your sins, and that will make it all OK.

It’s worth reading, because it’s provocative, well-researched, and a good summary of Anglo-American history. But I have a mark on my wall caused by hurling it across the room when I reached the wringing-of-hands sections. So buy the soft-cover edition.

The intriguing graphic above is from a Rutgers University study asking whether 9/11 was indeed the catalyst for the Fourth Turning. The graphic is available in a legible wall-sized version on the site.

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  1. Jon Husband says:

    I agree with your comments re: the prophesizing, AND the book is damn-well-researched.And it did make you hurl ;-)

  2. Interesting stuff Dave – you know I’m into long standing patterns in my research too – just can’t resist them, it was ever thus etc – but I have to agree about the irresponsible fatalistic conclusions.Linked [with credits] also on my blog.

  3. Raging Bee says:

    Judging by your summary of the book, it seems, like most of the anti-nuclear movement’s hysterical hyperbole, to be based on the assumption that policy-makers are too stupid to do anything coherent in response to a crisis, despite having decades more policy experience than the authors.You have plenty of reasons to be sceptical about this book. Next time, aim for the dumpster.

  4. Hip Liz says:

    I’m a year and a half late with this comment so it will not likely be read. But I have to disagree that the authors are fatalistic, or that they discount the intelligence of leadership. Their point is that natural patterns exist in the greater societal zeitgeist that, like the ocean’s tides, cannot be halted and therefore must be worked with. Our greatest leaders didn’t defy these patterns – they were people whom history selected to best fit into the pattern. My phrase “whom history selected” may sound a little goofy and metaphysical, but conceptually a similar set of principles is at work as those driving biological evolution, and it’s in that sense that I mean “selected”.

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