Tuesday, June 16, 2020


Two world views reconciled through chaos, but where does climate change fit into all this?

“It is now 180 years since Thomas Carlyle, to some groans, advanced his “great man” theory of history. It is the exceptional human who determines the course of events, he said, and not the impersonal trends of economics, ideas and technology.” With these words, Janan Ganesh, in last week’s Financial Times[1], contrasted these two world views without coming down firmly on one side or the other. The question has revived because of the way we look at the great, or not so great, men or women in our history, not least in the role of commemorative statuary and how far we should re-interpret our own past.

There is, however, another way of looking at the great man theory. It is that human affairs are truly chaotic[2] in the mathematical sense of the term, which is in no sense the same as random or completely unpredictable, or without logic or direction. Chaotic means that small differences in the boundary conditions, such as a handful of votes in an election, or a particular individual, can, though only at certain junctures and with the right opportunities[3], massively alter the future, for better or for worse. But that in no way diminishes the importance of the "impersonal trends" or the realities of geography, economics, technology or the Marxist “class struggle”.[4]

The famous (and widely misinterpreted) butterfly effect is, of course, not confined to great men or women.[5] One plausible story ascribes the UK’s 2016 Brexit vote to a 2013 bar-room brawl in the House of Commons, leading through a convoluted route to a Falkirk bye-election, changes in Labour party rules, and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. The Corbyn leadership election was in itself a demonstration of accidental and unintended consequences, and there are plenty of credible arguments that his ambivalence contributed massively to the unfolding Brexit debacle. 

Ganesh cites Napoleon as an example and asks whether anyone else could or would have restored order in France after the chaos of the revolution. I have no doubt someone would eventually have succeeded. But the question is a good one. Suppose France had had a Lenin rather than a Napoleon, for example, or Russia had had a Napoleon after its own revolution. The outcomes might have been better or worse in either case, though we shall never know.

Ganesh also defends Mrs Thatcher as the saviour of the UK economy at the end of the 1970s. Personally I am more inclined to blame her for the de-industrialisation of Britain, the financial deregulation that led us eventually to the 2008 financial crisis, and the sell-off of social housing  that underpins a number of today’s most intractable social and welfare issues. More important to the “recovery” of the UK economy was North Sea oil, adding percentage points to GDP year on year, though that too now looks quite small in the grand scheme of things.

In terms of commemoration I'm more inclined to assign importance to the individuals in science who have totally transformed our world (quantum theory, electronics, DNA etc), although even there it has usually been true that others were already treading the same path (Darwin and Wallace for example) and we would have got there anyway. A statue or sculpture that could capture the reality of Schrodinger’s cat really would be worth keeping.

Of course, the biggest impersonal trend now confronting humanity is the rapidly approaching crisis of climate change. That has its own critical limits to particular parameters, or “tipping points”[6]. The combination of these, which have their own analogues in chaos theory, with the entrusting of the world’s largest energy economies to individual authoritarian leaders such as Trump, Bolsonaro or Xi Jinping, is potentially a fine example of chaos in human behaviour interacting with the inexorable consequences of the laws of physics.

We may or may not succeed in containing climate change, but if we hit the critical tipping points because a few leaders, in the next few years, refuse to confront the known challenges, then it will indeed be a frightening collision. The “great men or women” of today will carry huge individual responsibilities, as their actions collide with the massive impersonal trend in radiative forcing. Given that the UK is in 2021 hosting the critical COP 26 meeting[7], it would be nice to be able to assume that this was being approached with both commitment and sound judgement. The handling of the Covid-19 crisis by some of the above does not, unfortunately inspire confidence.

[1] FT, 12th June 2020
[2] An earlier explanation of chaos theory, and what it actually means can be found in an earlier posting: CHAOS AND CLIMATE. And a physical illustration at https://www.math24.net/double-pendulum/
[3] But for the Civil War Ulysses S Grant would have remained as an undistinguished ex-Army officer working in his father's leather goods business.
[4] AJP Taylor, in his history of the First World War, gets part way towards this point, arguing that we can distinguish between the general causes of war, eg national rivalries, and the specific provoking incident, an assassination. His analogy is that widespread use of motor cars
[6] The existence of these is sometimes disputed by sceptics who have failed to grasp the science. Climate science suggests there may be several, but the most intuitively obvious relate to the fact that ice melts at a particular temperature. One tipping point in consequence is the polar temperature at which polar ice starts to melt. This effect commits both to eventual sea level rise and the accelerant effect of reduced ice cover which reduces reflection of the sun’s rays at the pole.
[7] COP 26 is the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) to the UNFCCC


Anonymous said...

Two events in the distant past illustrate the fact that the great man effect is sometimes right and sometimes completely wrong. All cultural theories have limitations. Around 330 BCE Alexander the Great led an army from Macedonia in Greece to Egypt and then Persia where he conquered the Persian Empire and established several cities all called Alexandria. The Persian Empire was finished and Greek culture remained important in the region for hundreds of years. His city of Alexandria in Egypt was the leading intellectual centre in the Mediterranean for more than 500 years, even during the Roman Empire. At the other extreme the Old Kingdom in Egypt and the Ur III civilization in Mesopotamia both collapsed soon after 2200 BCE as a result of a major change in the climate, which has recently been named as the start of the Meghalayan Age by the International Union of Geological Sciences. No great men then!

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