Predicting The Next Revolution: The Boiling Point Paradox
Dominic D. P. Johnson & Daniel T. Blumstein
As the chain of popular uprisings spreads around the Mediterranean, we face a bigger question that has puzzled society for generations: Why are revolutions so hard to predict? This is a pressing question because in the face of persistent authoritarian regimes around the world, history has to “wait” for revolutions to happen despite intense efforts to promote democracy.
The unpredictable nature of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and now elsewhere in the Middle East is especially puzzling because many of their leaders have been in power for decades. Why now? Why not ten years ago, or next year? This puzzle is not limited to the current political climate but is common throughout history. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, or the rise of Al Qaeda from small networks of Afghan veterans to a global transnational organization, are examples of other momentous but totally unpredicted events, taking by surprise even experts who worked on these cases every day. Amidst the noise of thousands of waxing and waning political movements across the globe, we are rarely able to pick out the ones that are going to blow up. In retrospect, one can identify potential contributing factors, but these do nothing to improve our future predictions.
One way to understand this unpredictability comes from the principle of “phase transitions”. These rapid transitions between stable states are common across a wide range of phenomena in mathematics, biology, ecology, chemistry and physics. Perhaps the best known example helped to make your coffee this morning—as pure water is heated, it gets hotter and hotter but stays in the same liquid state. But then, at exactly 100 degrees Celsius, water suddenly goes through a dramatic transition in which molecules separate violently and turn into gas. Retrospectively, we can understand this process in the physics of water molecules. We can even make it more or less likely to happen by changing the surroundings (e.g. air pressure) or altering the mix (e.g. adding salt). But when we experience it for the first time, or when dealing with a novel liquid, we can’t predict what will happen—each degree of increase in temperature does nothing to tell us what is about to happen.
In the same way, historians will be able to look back retrospectively and identify events that contributed to a boiling point in Egypt. They may be able to identify some instabilities or external factors that precipitated the uprising, but they cannot tell us where or when the next revolution is going to blow up. Every liquid has a different boiling point, just as every country and time period has different propensities for social upheaval.
This is not just a metaphor. Where rapid change occurs without obvious precipitant factors, we can use these fundamental principles to study the phenomenon. And if social dynamics are examples of phase transitions, then there are at least two important lessons for politics and society.
First, leaders that are interested in maintaining their grip on power, or international third parties and organizations that are interested in Obama’s wish for an “orderly” (and slower) transition to democracy, must recognize the fundamental problem that they cannot predict when or where the next revolution will occur. Once this problem is recognized, however, the solution becomes obvious: we must prepare flexible, adaptable, and resilient response mechanisms so that when a rapid change occurs—wherever and whenever that may be—the infrastructure is in place to absorb, deflect, or minimize the damage.
Second, for aspiring revolutionaries, the fact that we can never predict when or where they will be successful does nothing to dampen hope. There is a fundamental paradox here because, although some events are totally unpredictable, unpredictable events can nevertheless be made more likely to happen. How is this contradictory statement possible? Every day, marketing professionals design strategies to propel a new product or idea beyond a “tipping point”, to make it “go viral” and become the talk of the town. No one knows which product will take off, but many people know the secrets of how to increase the probability that it will.
Future revolutions remain likely in a variety of major countries around the globe, from Iran and Pakistan, to Saudi Arabia and perhaps even China. Where and when they may occur is fundamentally unpredictable, like phase transitions in so many other domains of life. But this realization suggests both strategies to prepare for them and ways to influence their likelihood.
Dominic D.P. Johnson is Reader in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, UK.
Daniel T. Blumstein is Professor and Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles.