Catastrophism & Cycles

Catastrophe is the inversion of reality’s construction, the interaction of the symbolic and real registers as social reality faces its endogenous and exogenous effects and interventions. Rather than either the linear dynamics of an evolutionary history or the peaks and troughs of a symmetrical cyclicality of history, catastrophe is the outside looking in as transformative dynamics beyond control or understanding change the landscape of constructable possibilities. The meeting of the contingent with the possible, as the existing structuration of agencies and institutions are made untenable in the face of accelerating environments of constitutive change.

King sees catastrophe in the geological record as the rapid modification of the existing environment through significant tectonic activity which alters landscapes, radically changing topologies and ocean levels, thus changing the evolutionary potential and carrying capacities of the environmental background. The history of extinction events is evidence of this jagged dynamic, as external events (meteorite strikes or supernovae explosion) and internal developments (such as volcanism contributing to ocean acidity and global warming; variations in CO2, solar radiation or oxygen; and the extents of cooling and glaciation) create different evolutionary pathways, opening up new lifeways as for mammalian evolution in the early Paleogene and destroying others as in the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions. In contrast to the uniformitarian views that established themselves in the late 19th century, King’s catastrophism did not see evolutionary or geological dynamics as purely linear (increasing gains in negentropic developments) nor purely cyclical (characterised by periods of growth and degradation averaging to the mean).

“It is only through rapid movements of the crusts and sudden climatic changes, due either to terrestrial or cosmical causes, that environment can have seriously interfered with the evolution of life. These effects would, I conceive be, first, extermination; secondly, destruction of the biological equilibrium, thus violating natural selection; and thirdly, rapid morphological change on the part of plastic species”. “Plasticity, then, is that quality which, in suddenly enforced physical change, is the key to survival and prosperity. And the survival of the plastic, that is of the rapidly and healthily modifiable during periods when terrestrial revolution, offers to species the rigorous dilemma of prodigious change or certain death, is a widely different principle from the survival of the fittest in a general biological battle during terrestrial uniformity”[1].

Following Turchin’s secular cycles, one of the primary variables for the growth and decline of complex societies is their carrying capacity, the capacity of available land and population to maintain a productive surplus and the associated governing structures. Extending this further, the idea of a carrying capacity is the link between the real and the symbolic, as the capacity for land and populations to be adequately exploited is dependent upon institutionalisation and governing imposition i.e. the ability to integrate multiplicitous agents into these institutions and create symbolic structures. As these institutions grow due to their attempts to capture extant variables (more land, larger populations, greater military capacity, greater wealth, etc.), they begin to meet the limits of their carrying capacity, as increases in power and land mean both greater numbers of elites (which require greater patronage) and the auguring of conflict with rival governing institutions. Conflicts grow both internally and externally, due to the demands of a growing multiple of elites within one institutional configuration (meaning the surplus of populations is increasingly fragmented across a large governing strata each competing for loyalty and control) and attempts at externalisation through conquest and warfare which also calls upon greater surplus from the institutionalised population as well as greater influxes of outside populations and lands to feed this growth in institutional expansion. As these dynamics play out, institutions must adapt or die as the endogenous effects and relations that emerge require reform, usually by concentrating a new elite power centre that can more competently organise affairs and settle conflicts, or decentralisation as different elite structures form new polities emerge from the collapse of a larger institutional structure. The former could be seen in conflicts like the War of the Roses or the Hundred Years’ War, while the latter is seen in the fallout of the Roman Empire into a feudal multiplicity.

Carrying capacity as the extent to which institutions can understand, configure and control information (land, population, surpluses, wealth, etc.) follows King’s description of the uniformitarian model of evolution, that of a battle to maintain or reform terrestrial uniformity through slight adaptations. However in the catastrophist framework, terrestrial uniformity is a bad adaptation, with plasticity being the variable that can best increase survivability in rapidly changing environments. The response of centring or decentring in the dynamics of secular cycles and the growth of conflict due to institutional fragmentation is a rational response to environments where socially constructed logics have been damaged, but are still salvageable. Post-Roman polities still used elements of the legal, cadastral and linguistic knowledges of the Roman Empire, concentrating their use differentially depending on geographic context. The necessities of maintaining carrying capacities were not fundamentally altered.

Catastrophe presents a different, non-cyclical dynamic that changes the institutional structure at a foundational level, forcing the confrontation with the real explicitly. Such catastrophic events include the developments of technicity, from the Pleistocene extinction events that altered the course of geographic evolutions for different human groups and early agricultural practices that displaced nomadic and pastoral lifeways, to the growth of autonomous forces of production and new agential powers (as represented through industrialism and capital) that changed the very nature of carrying capacities. This means situating technicity and the accelerating capacity of technological change as catastrophic variables in the sense that they radically altered the structures of governance, life and potentiality.

The mass extinction of megafauna in the Pleistocene and their concentration across the Eurasian and African landmasses limited the extent of early pastoralism and early animal domestication. The Black Death profoundly changed the socio-economic landscape of Europe, allowing for the growth of alternative economic practices due to the destruction of populations and the destitution of agglomerations. The growth of technology in early capitalist industry changed the nature of carrying capacities, as labour power was abstracted to autonomous forces of production that could extend productivity and surplus beyond traditional agricultural and production techniques. Division of labour, Taylorisation, the factory, the labour market and the joint-stock company are all evolutionary developments of the revolutionary dynamics brought about by huge elite and landscape changes, both affected by the Black Death as it altered the power dynamics of the Middle Ages and by the development of fungible, non-state exchange mechanisms. From here independent financial markets and monopoly trading corporations presented new agential dynamics of exchangeability and commodification, dynamics removed from the institutional understandings of feudalism.

Similar dynamics can be seen developing today, particularly those surrounding climate change. While industrialism restructured the limits of carrying capacities, allowing for greater exploitation through intensive production methods, biopolitical influence over reproductivity, an integrated separation of urban and rural, and expansion through globalisation, the current effects of climate change suggest new limits are being met. “The impact of population growth, combined with an imperfect distribution of resources, leads to massive food insecurity. By some estimates, 700–800 million people are starving and 1–2 billion are micronutrient-malnourished and unable to function fully, with prospects of many more food problems in the near future. Large populations and their continued growth are also drivers of soil degradation and biodiversity loss. More people means that more synthetic compounds and dangerous throw-away plastics are manufactured, many of which add to the growing toxification of the Earth. It also increases chances of pandemics that fuel ever-more desperate hunts for scarce resources. Population growth is also a factor in many social ills, from crowding and joblessness, to deteriorating infrastructure and bad governance”[2].

The so-called Anthropocene is presenting us with a sixth mass extinction, desertification, climate migration and uninhabitable zones as temperature increases and reduced ozone protection (particular around the equator) make solar radiation more dangerous, as well as ocean level increases reducing below-sea-level landmasses. The coronavirus pandemic is only one outgrowth of these catastrophic dynamics, already showing the fragility of a globalised institutional infrastructure (particularly those concentrated around logistics and travel). While technological solutions may well meet the requirements of these carrying capacity limitations, current developments are less than adequate if populations are to maintain their current consumption and production levels. Alternative, renewable energies are nowhere near being able to take on the capacity of current energy grids, with natural gas and coal reliance still a significant factor even in net-zero carbon emission targets. And innovations in areas like agriculture and travel infrastructure still map onto existing industrial structures, as with electric cars and non-meat products (with both fully integrable into a production system that is the major contributor to climate change).

The catastrophic potential of climate change can already be seen in the increasingly erratic weather patterns across the globe, from increased hurricane production and cold weather snaps to changes in ocean wind currents and seasonality. While much is spoken of the current economic stagnation the West finds itself in, as well as demographic displacements and cultural malaise, the potential effects of climate change augur a whole new logic of socio-economic institutionalisation, focused on de-complexification and even de-globalisation as the expansionary possibilities of air travel, logistics and global production chains meet their capacity in the ability for the environment to adequately maintain equilibrium. This goes beyond the stagnant condition of our current secular (or Perezian) cycle and into the dynamics of technicity itself, as questions must be asked over the use and necessities of current technological capacities. It is only the most plastic of species (or institutions or agencies) which survive catastrophes, as those stuck in their terrestrial uniformity face the reality behind their social constructions.


[1] Clarence King, Catastrophism and Evolution

[2] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419/full

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