A Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale (SSHWS) for World Crisis?

Posted in Global Net Assessment


Dear Class, We have used four historical case studies of world systems in crisis and a popular literary sub-genre. This translates to 1-The sudden end of the Bronze Age, 2-The slow fade of the Greco-Roman world in late antiquity, 3-The Black Death-Little Ice Age big bang of the 14th century, 4-The 20-year world war crisis from 1931-1951, and 5-The zombie apocalypse.

Why not put these together into a recognizable benchmark scale for world crisis? This way we could show how comparing world crises gives us an effective framework for gauging crisis intensity, global scale, and network/system impact.

The always-recognizable Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale (SSHWS) fits perfectly here as a template. The SSHWS is categorized simply by wind speed. We can embrace this spirit of simplicity, but not its simple anamometer approach. so we must try and peg our world crisis categories to how much the system is degraded. At least ranking by severity is pretty straightforward. For example:

Category 1—1931-1951: The world system subsides and then, briefly, comes apart, to be reconstituted within five years. War/disruptions kill ~5% of humanity (in 1930), but massive destruction creates equally massive postwar reinvestment, and sustained high economic and population growth in the 1950s.

Category 2—14th Century calamities: The world system subsides and comes apart for two centuries (1350-~1550). Humanity declines by ~18% (1350-1400). Population recovery takes a century (+), but improved social conditions and surging technology innovation lead to economic and cultural expansion.

Category 3—Greco-Roman world slide: The system subsides over a century (+), coming apart in the West in the 5th, and in the East in the 7th centuries. Plagues of the 6th century kill ~30%, and the Roman network of cities necks down to a few towns. Economic production and trade plummet, and literacy is limited to small elite networks. Recovery is protracted: ~200 years in the East, ~300 years in the West.

Category 4—Sudden death of the Bronze Age: The first world system topples in the course of a couple generations. Minoan, Mycenaean, Ugarit, and Hittite civilizations collapse, while Babylonia and Egypt are brought to the brink. Calderas, climate change, environmental collapse, and massive migrations. In the succeeding dark age, in the Greek world, even writing was lost for over 300 years.

Category 5—Apocalyptic breakdown: The Zombie apocalypse, like the nuclear holocaust before it, allows us to imagine a post-civilization world, where not only the world network, but developed society itself, has broken down everywhere. Here, the system itself is past recovery. If it is to be born again, it must be de novo — from scatch.

Admittedly, system “degradation” is a weighted and subjective formulation. But here the SSHWS also offers a set of eight effects-criteria that allows us to compare what we really want to when it comes to hurricaine severity, and that is severity of effects. They are: 1-People, livestock, animals, 2-Mobile homes, 3-Frame homes, 4-Apartments, shopping centers, and industrial centers, 5-High-rise windows and glass, 6-Sinage, fences, and canopies, 7-Trees, 8-Power and water.

We could come up with a comparable “severity of effects” criteria for world crises, and ultimately assign a number (%x of pre-crisis “normal”) for each category of system crisis. For example:

1-Population loss, 2-Economic loss (way of life decline), 3-Trade (especially system-wide) subsidence, 4-Urban subsidence, loss of cities, 5-Decline of interaction between civilizational centers, 6-Disposable wealth/cultural decline, 7-Military decline, 8-Knowledge/innovation index.

The first three are gross indicators for any system crisis. The city categories get at what makes a “world system” healthy and strong, which is the size, vitality, and creative interchange between civilizational centers. In this sense the world network has not changes since the Bronze Age: It is indissolubly a network of cities. Think of our world system, as Aristotle did, as a linked community of city states. Here the bigger system is critical to our evolution and vitality, preventing single city states from becoming isolated and ingrown. Competition is important, and has always been central to the life of city state worlds — today as much as 3000 years ago.Hence, expensive cultural achievements, like medieval cathedrals or modern “towers,” or the ritual demonstrations and displays we call “war” and “sports,” and the bragging rights (and authority) that come with discovery and new tools — are best nurtured in a city state world system.

A final, if somber note, would be the lengthening time to system recovery, historically, as you move up the scale from one to five.

SSHWS for world crisis could be a powerful way to get across exactly what we stand to lose in future crisis.