Timing is Everything

John D. Rockefeller born 1839

John D. Rockefeller born 1839

Genghis Khan, born 1162 (estimate)

Genghis Khan, born 1162 (estimate)











Whether one is looking at individual success or the success (or failure) at an organization, nation or societal level, good (lucky, fortunate) timing is often the biggest determinate. It is not something people often discuss because there is one can do about this, other than actively understand context and where one stands in the flow of events past and present in a society and a company. You might have the best idea but sometimes if it is “before its time” all your best efforts might yield very little; if you or someone else tries again when the times change, it might be a roaring success.

This is certainly an aspect of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. In one section he describes how of the 75 wealthiest individuals in human history, 14 were Americans born within 9 years of each between 1831 and 1840. The reason, Gladwell hypothesizes, is that one of the greatest periods of economic transformation ever occurred in the U.S. between 1860 and 1870. People born between 1830 and 1840 would have been between the ages of 20 and 30 at the start of this period in 1860, just the right age to capitalize, literally, on an opportunity that might not occur again for a century. Putting ambition, cleverness, and hard work aside, these folks were, by random chance, born not only at the right time, but in the right place.

Click on image to view animated gif showing extent of the Mongol Empire.

Click on image to view animated gif showing extent of the Mongol Empire.

From an entirely different era, the 13th century, we see evidence of how climate change at that time in Mongolia might have helped Genghis Khan to conquer most of Eurasia.

In the second half of the 20th century, Mongolia warmed by 2°C—an increase few, if any, other countries can match. Recent change has brought droughts and zuds (winter storms) which complicate the lives of the country’s herders of sheep, cattle and goats as they adjust to a market economy after decades of communism. This year’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union, in San Francisco, however, heard of an earlier change in the Mongolian climate that may have been responsible for complicating the lives of rather more than just a few herdsmen. For if Amy Hessl of West Virginia University and Neil Pederson of Columbia University are correct, it was an alteration in the climate that allowed Genghis Khan and his horde to conquer half of Eurasia.

The great Khan rose to power in 1206, the year he united Mongolia’s tribes behind him, and died in 1227. Dr Hessl and Dr Pederson have tree-ring data which seem to show that from 1208 to 1231 Mongolia enjoyed a string of wetter-than-usual years which was longer than any other such period in the past millennium. Previous tree-ring studies show the same period was also unusually warm.

A clement climate lasting a generation would have provided richer grazing than normal. More fodder means more horses, and thus more of the wherewithal of empire—for if an army marches on its stomach, a horde surely gallops on its grazing. No one thinks that the Great Khan himself had nothing to do with it. But his strategic genius might have been for naught if the climate had provided him only with broken-down nags.

The next stage of the research, which also involves Nachin Baatarbileg of National University of Mongolia, will be to gather more samples. Tree-ring specialists like their trees old and stressed: old, because that gives insight into times for which no human records exist, and stressed because that exacerbates the climate’s effect on growth. The trees the team are studying, which scrape a living on a lava field north of Karakorum, Genghis’s capital, are both. The researchers also want to look at lake sediments. By counting spores from a fungus called Sporomiella, which grows in animal dung, they hope to find out whether there really was an animal-population boom at the time.

They are also broadening their team, by recruiting a historian and an ecosystem modeller. And they would like to extend their records back to the first millennium AD. The Khanate was not the only empire to rise from the grasses of Mongolia. The researchers want to know how climate influenced the Göktürk and Uyghur empires in the sixth to ninth centuries.

Historians and archaeologists have often argued that climate plays a role in the decline and fall of nations and empires, from the collapse of the eastern-Mediterranean bronze age, via the end of the Maya city-states of Central America, to the revolution that destroyed France’s ancien regime. To link it to the rise of an empire is more unusual, and raises fascinating questions about the degree to which history can be enriched by the study of things such as the supply of available energy. It is even possible that a better understanding of Mongolia’s past climate may help Genghis’s descendants as they try to cope with the striking changes of the present. (The Economist, December 8th 2012.)

The time was ripe...

The time was ripe…

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