“Ashen Truths” — Global Net Assessment syllabus

Posted in Global Net Assessment


Global Net Assessment: Tracking and Bounding World Crisis

Professor Michael Vlahos

Class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays, 5:45-8:00

1717 Massachusetts Avenue, NW

Contact me: No formal office hours, but feel free to email or call me anytime, mevlahos1@aol.com 703-465-5172

This is a new course, an original course. I know of no course like it. Why? Because it takes on the unmovable existential postulate of the global establishment: That what is, is. But history is eloquent in its own tragic enunciation, and it is here that history tells us that what change really means. And change here comes not as polite suggestion, but rather as unstoppable terror. Change does not unfold before us, as in Robert Frost sweet words, “on little cat feet.”

This course is focused on the periodic upheaval and overturning of human life, which we can chronicle in ancient times past, but from which we are not in any way immune. It is the way of humanity that it seeks to pull all humans together, creating something we call today a global system. We all want to be connected. Yet history (and the terrors before history) tell us that there await us moments when all we have made, and all this grand human enterprise promises us, just comes apart. Four times in 3000 years, the world systems we made have come apart.

But how did such elaborate and wonderful networks fail? Why did the world systems of antiquity and modernity stumble and come close to collapse? Could such a terrible and unimaginable thing ever happen to us? We live in an assured world, right?  Globalization just goes on forever, right?

Our course is not about elaborating voodoo prophesies of doom, but rather something more modest and rational. If our world system is at all susceptible to crisis, and the subsidence that follows, how can we analyze this? Humans are notorious in believing that the world today will glide on forever.

Our course is about thinking about what happens if this does not happen. In some ways it is the hardest charge: How do we think dispassionately about the very thing we wish devoutly to avoid?


1-Introduction You’re Such a Pessimist! Why Worst Case Models Lead to the Best Assessments


Steve Mithen, After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000 -5,000 BC, Harvard, 2006.


Barry Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans: 9000BC-1000AD, Yale, 2011.


Robert Drews, End of the Bronze Age, Princeton, 1995.


Eric Cline, 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Princeton, 2014.



2-The Fall of Antiquity 430-650 Ancient World Crisis


Peter Wells, Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered, WW Norton, 2009.


Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, WW Norton, 1989.


Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, AD 300-900, Cambridge, 2002.


Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Oxford, 2005




3-A Distant Mirror — 1320-1360 Medieval World Crisis


Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Random House, 2006.


Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System, 1250-1350 AD, Oxford, 1991.


William McNeil, Plagues and Peoples, Anchor, 1977.


William Rosen, The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, Viking, 2014.


Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Yale, 2014.



4-I Love Big Brother! — 1931-1951 Modern World Crisis


George Orwell, 1984, 1948.


[The next several speculations address our charter-search for credible frameworks for global net assessment]:


Jay Wright Forrester, World Dynamics, Wright-Allen, 1971.


Donella H. Meadows, The Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update, Chelsea Green, 2012.


Nafeez Mossdeq Ahmed, A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization, Pluto, 2010.


David Keys, Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization, Ballantine, 2000.


Brian Fagen, The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, Bloomsbury, 2009.


Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside-Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, Island, 2008.


Dmitry Orlov, The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivor’s Toolkit, New Society, 2013.



5-Factor 1 — Exogenous Inputs: Resources, Climate Change, Pandemic Nature


6-Factor 2 — Human Inputs: War, Resistance, Revolution, Hysteria Man


7-Factor 3 — System Dynamics: Network Resilience, Adaptation Under Stress System


8-Stress Build-up — When does normal stress become a negative dynamic? Why Crisis?


9-Crisis Onset — How does a negative dynamic become a sink-or-swim situation? How Does Crisis Come?


10-Tipping — How and when do “swim” choices lead to “sink” outcomes? How and Why Does Crisis Kick-in?


11-Subsidence — What does subsidence look like? How far does it go before leveling off — and why does leveling off happen? Why Does Crisis Stop?


12-Assessing Our Assessments — How much of this prospective vector are we missing, or are we actually that good?


13- What We Made — Presentation of student models for assessment and preparation


Here are 10 big questions for our course:



Ten Net Assessment Questions


  1. How do we create credible worst-case negative scenarios and events? How do we limit such negatives while still letting them be as big and bad as we know reality can get? How “wild” do we go and still stay analytically “mild”?
  2. Can we meaningfully posit completely mono-causal, single vector takedowns to the world system? Doing will highlight the actual complexity of world crises, and help us better identify the inputs and interactions needed to create actual crisis conditions.
  3. What are the most common cascade interactions leading to system subsidence? If we can identify the most typical precipitators, then we can also isolate a set of highest-threat dynamics leading to world crisis, and then better understand how other negative dynamics can piggyback on and accelerate a crisis rooted in one or two core forces.
  4. What is the dynamic role of crisis response forces in enabling and accelerating the process of system subsidence? Even 5th century Rome had a crisis response force. Problem was that it was single mission, but worse, the very effort to maintain a defense actually accelerated the decomposition.
  5. How effective are crisis response mechanisms?  Is it a function of % system-GDP committed, or more a function of % system-GDP lost to crisis over time? Is crisis mobilization the essence of system-resilience? Or, in the face of full-blown crisis, are all responses too limited, too late? What kind of system crisis can in-place defenses address, and what crises simply overwhelm?
  6. For our crisis themes — war, pandemic, climate change, environmental collapse — the timeline from first strategic warning to full crisis response is critical. What is the consequences’ curve for crisis response failure in each?
  7. Can we measure system subsidence and its consequences? Can we capture the distance from pre-crisis normal (N) to the human existence baseline (B), expressed as a percentage of N? Can we show how close historical crises, or modeled scenarios, get to B? Can we identify how long it takes to recover to N? Can we identify how long it takes to recover to .8N (meaning, the reconstitution of the world system)? Can we posit an optimal low-point (B+x) for the most rapid recover to .8N? Is .8N a good working benchmark for system-reconstitution?
  8. Can we identify and bound “moral” factors in system subsidence, or system resilience? Remember, we are not analyzing individual societies, but rather a world system. How dependent is the system on collective loyalty and belief?
  9. Does the system — which is to say, its constituent societies — have a built-in mechanism that is predisposed at some point to kick in and “give up the fight”? Do societies decide simply at some point to “opt out” rather than go down fighting with the whole, and hence, is system subsidence linked often to the survival mechanisms of fatigue and acquiescence?
  10. How do we factor in such moral factors in net assessment? How do we know that a system is weaker in fact that it physically appears, like Rome at the beginning of the 5th century, or Europe at the end of the 1920s?


We have 21 big books to inform our thinking (yellow highlighted means should read). Most of them should now be available in physical form in our onsite library, while the rest can be ordered from Amazon and their used book vendors. Please do not order the expensive ones, but rather give yourself some time to review them onsite. The most important volume in this category is Forresster’s World Dynamics, which is a very short volume.

There are three formal deliverables in our class: 1-An historical presentation on a critical aspect of earlier world crisis. What I am looking for here is a highly-persuasive visual presentation plus a succinct ~1000 world summary abstract. This deliverable will come up right away in our class, because we will be meeting twice a week, so find a long ago or not-so-long-ago crisis you like and we can move ahead! , 2-A comparable contemporary research area topic for future world crisis — like polar/glacial melting, failed key states, etc., with the same format of presentation and essay, and finally, 3-A conceptual model for world crisis I&W (that is Intelligence Community argot for Strategic Indicators and Warning), that can describe the system tipping point. This will be the culminating achievement of the course, and I am hoping you will hall enjoin in trying to shape and create framing concepts for models of future world crisis. My thought is to make this a team effort (of no more than three teams), but we will discuss this on the occasion of our first class!


See you next Tuesday!