When growth is measured for biological and technological systems, a distinct pattern emerges. It’s a universal truth, like the Golden Ratio. Rampancy describes the process where a population density goes from a small group to a large group in a very short time span. Human technology follows this pattern. We remained at a sub stone age level for 10’s of thousands of years. In the last 10 thousand years, we’ve progressed from that point to our current level. Bacterial growth follows this pattern, too. A population stays in a small, slow growth phase for an extended time. At one point, a critical mass is reached, and the population explodes. The hottest temperatures inside an average star are reached in the last minute of it’s 10 Billion year life.
What other processes could we apply this universal truth to? Stock markets and economies sometimes show signs of rampancy. They expand rapidly until they can’t sustain themselves anymore, then they collapse. The other side of the exponential growth formula is an exponential decline. As a population passes the point of sustainability, it still continues on a rampant growth curve. The wikipedia entry above has a nice story about water lillies covering a pond. If they double in number each day, the pond will be half covered after 28 days, but completely choked on the 29th, killing the lillies and everything else in the pond.
I think political systems also follow a rampant model. It’s harder to gauge what the important indicators are, though. How would you gauge the exponential growth of “momentum” that a candidate has up until the one thing that derailed the campaign? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Hart, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Dean. The exponential decline of these campaigns wasn’t caused by the single events that we remember. Other factors led to exponential growth in their popularity, which surpassed the normal “popularity capacity” of their campaigns. The scream and the houseboat affair were just triggers to collapses that had already occurred.
Nuclear explosions follow this pattern in two ways. The initiation of the blast is accomplished by creating a critical mass. The explosion also follows a rampant growth and decline curve. In the Little Boy bomb, two masses of Uranium were thrust together. Each mass was subcritical, it wasn’t large enough to create a runaway reaction. The energy of thrusting them together, along with the increased mass created the critical mass and a runaway fission reaction (atoms shed energy and break apart as they collide). The reaction expanded exponentially until it ran out of fuel and momentum, then it collapsed.
Human societies aren’t immune to this principle. We can see examples of societies that expanded exponentially until they collapsed throughout history. Easter Island is a famous example. The Roman Empire was also based on the idea of infinite growth and expansion. Once they reached the limit of their ability to support continued expansion, the empire declined rapidly. After centuries of expansion, the Western Empire declined in just a few generations.
Human populations will almost certainly follow this boom, bust cycle. We have the capacity, but not the will, to limit our growth in a way that avoids the exponential decline. The moral of the Water Lilly story is that the pond seems normal until the last few days, when growth overwhelms the system that supports it.
I first heard Rampancy coined in a video game called Marathon