Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Hiroshima bombing: a distant mirror?



The 71st anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima is the occasion for a reflection on what's going on in the world today. 


There has to be a reason why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by nuclear bombs in 1945, just as there has to be a reason why, today, we are seeing the world again on the brink of war. What is this reason? What had led the nations of the world, some 80 years ago, to jump at each other in a collective frenzy of destruction? And what is leading the world, today, to move in the same direction?

A gigantic event such a planetary war may escape all rational discourse, however, even such a thing may not be beyond all conjecture. And a good start for a conjecture is to think that all wars are resource wars. A good starting point, yes, but also a subtle one: wars are expensive and, from a rational viewpoint, it makes no sense to go to war in order, say, "to get the oil." Modern wars are never profitable for the countries waging them, no matter who wins and who loses.

At the same time, preparing for war is always good business. One could even argue that government spending for the military is a good thing, as it stimulates the economy, creates capital, industries, jobs, and technological progress. That's what happened for the decade that preceded the second world war, when several countries started major re-armament programs, among them Germany, and Britain. The data on the rearming are scattered in the various texts, but I think we can see the results of this worldwide military effort in this graph (data courtesy of the Shift Project):


Note how energy production remained basically static, especially for coal, from the end of the first world war, all the way to the early 1930s. Note the dip corresponding to the financial crisis of 1929. The years up to that date were known as the "crazy years" for a good reason: the world GDP kept growing without being backed up by a corresponding increase in energy production. Eventually, the virtual world had to come to terms with the real one and it did that with the crisis. It may well be that the arms race that started afterward was an attempt by governments to mobilize capital that the financial collapse had made unavailable. We can't say whether rearming in the 1930s was consciously chosen as a policy to stimulate the economy, but it worked in this way. That was the case, for instance, of Germany, that returned to the status of a major power. In practice, war preparations were able to mobilize the production of resources that a market economy was not able to produce. That's the major link between war and resources.

Now, in our times we are still reeling from the major financial crisis of 2008, while the collapse of commodity prices of 2014 is the continuation of a critical situation. It is a major problem since we badly need to eliminate fossil fuels from the energy mix, and do it fast, otherwise we'll suffer the disastrous consequences of runaway climate change and, at the same time, of resource depletion. But the market, by itself, is not providing the necessary capital. The current low prices of energy are preventing investments in all sectors and the whole system is stuck where it is: it needs to change, but it can't do it. In this situation, would someone come to the conclusion that a major rearmament program would provide the capital necessary to avoid the decline in the supply of energy and of other mineral commodities? So far, it doesn't seem to be the case: the defense spending in the US is growing, but not showing a robust upward trend. But things could change in the future.

A big difference between our time and the 1930s is that, today, mineral resources have become scarce and expensive to extract. So, a major rearmament program could fail to rebuild a country's economy, hastening its collapse instead, as it happened to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. But the major problem with arms races is that they tend to make wars not only possible but even unavoidable. And that's very bad for a planet with several countries equipped with nuclear warheads.  So, what are we facing? As usual, the future is dark. In 1935, nobody could have imagined that the ongoing rearmament programs would have led to entire cities being vaporized. In the same way, today we can't imagine what a possible rearmament program could lead us to in a decade from now. But let's not forget that history doesn't really repeat itself, even though it rhymes. A new arms race is a possibility, not a necessity. So far, at least.








33 comments:

  1. Ugo,
    Let me ask a simple question, do you think it's a good sign if the Paris Agreement is ratified this year?

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    1. Of course it is a good sign. Too little, too late, but something

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    2. Ugo, enough to keep warming contained to 3C?

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    3. That's why it is too little and too late. Or so it seems to me

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    4. Ugo, I'm not sure what you mean by "too little, too late". Are you talking about unavoiSable impacts or collapse of civilization when you say that?

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    5. Bryant, I am not sure about your point, either. What do YOU think about the Paris agreement?

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    6. To be honest with you, I think it's a good start, but considerably more needs to be done. Assuming Clinton wins here in the States, which she probably will, her continuation and expansion of Obama's policies will put pressure on the rest of the world to follow suit. China's progress looks very promising, as does India's increasing use of solar. That being said, the real core of this crisis is water and agriculture.
      What I mean by this is that civilization will rise or fall on this question. If we can get enough water to sustain the big crops like wheat, then we have a very good chance of being resilient in the face of a probable 3C rise by end of century. Obviously conservation helps, but there's one key thing that can ensure a lasting water supply and by extension, agriculture. That would be desalination.
      It's quite common in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel, and there have been technologies to make it more green and a bit less expensive. China and the US are taking more of an interest in it as well. Of course, the main obstacle to it is cost, which is a poor argument to me. Whether we like it or not, desalination is very necessary to keep agriculture running as time goes by. Politicians and civilians are going to have to bite down and accept the costs, and I think there is an increasing recognition of that fact.
      What do you think, Ugo?

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    7. I am a bit more pessimistic than you. All the things you mention are possible, but require energy, in particular desalination. And we are not moving fast enough toward the transition to renewable energy

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    8. Completely agree with you. That is why I think some form of solar radiation management is inevitable, to keep the temps at bay while the transition is happening. Have you heard of this technology before?

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    9. Yes, of course. But the unknowns are many. As a truly desperate, emergency action, maybe....

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    10. Definitely, I'm just glad you're open-minded to it. Dismissing it out of hand isn't a wise idea. There needs to be open-minded discussion on such ideas.

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    11. it is a totally desperate solution. It strikes me that usually solar light dimming is only considered for the effect it has on temperature but the reduction in photosyntesis efficiency and thus slowing down of co2 absorption is never discussed. Nor the many unknowns of changes in atmospheric and biosphere dynamics.
      We are going to act like a monkey in the control room of a nuclear reactor pushing buttons and pulling levers at random

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    12. The amount of sunlight reflextend would be minimal, so effect on photosynthesis is negligible.

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  2. A war would make a sustainable world. But we want something better than a pile of rubble.

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    1. We may want that, but we have precious little to say about what we're actually going to get.

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  3. The case of nuclear weapons is the best evidence for pessimism over any kind of adequate response to climate change. If we couldn't even deal with something that has no use (except preventing their use by others), how can we deal with all the economic and political roadblocks to climate change mitigation?

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    1. Joe, if Modi in India, the Chinese government, and Obama/Clinton in the US are committed to climate mitigation, which it seems like they are, there is some hope.

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    2. Hope might be possible when we see the Keeling Curve roll over. I might even allow a smidgen of hope if ever the slope stops increasing. Until then, we shouldn't believe that any government, no matter how "committed", has made a difference.

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    3. Fair point, sir. The emissions numbers at the end of this year should tell us something.

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  4. HarryflashmanhigsonAugust 6, 2016 at 7:41 PM

    I think that the next major war will be somewhat down to simple population pressures. I mean, how bad is it gonna get in Africa? But water is the main candidate for the next big one. We just have to hope that they don't use nuclear weapons, but I think it's unavoidable!

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    1. Apropos population pressure. The biggest weapon of mass killing was the machete, not the A-bomb, in the Rwandan suigenocide...

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  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WskfKHQtRbY
    "Tests are being carried underway to equipe the B61-12 bombs with bunker buster capabilities. The B61-12 explodes below ground to destroy subterranean control centers.Therefore this weapon is suitable for the "first strike", a surprise nuclear attack".

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  6. The First World War made barely a squiggle in the energy chart. Does this mean if we have a sustainable low energy economy that is almost totally reliant on railroads for transport and travel that we could have an occasional war? Maybe the real lesson is to fight the wars in a far away place (like Italy and France) and that energy is only of a secondary consideration.

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  7. Ugo, I'm reminded of a quote by Gavin Schmidt about climate change this century. He said it certainly wouldn't cause human extinction, but that whether civilization survived is an open question. Would you say that's a fair statement?

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  8. I live in the United States. We have recently seen the ease with which the powers that be can drum up universal hatred for Vladimir Putin. When I hear the man talk, he seems to me to be both knowledgable and reasonable. But I cannot connect what I hear him say, and the actions he has taken, with the characterizations of most US politicians and media. So, as a first approximation, war arises due to the needs of politicians and their servants, the media.

    Which, of course, just moves the goal posts. WHY do the politicians feel the need to conjure up a 'foreign devil' against which the country must unite and the citizen be prepared to sacrifice? (I'll conveniently leave out the case of insane politicians.)

    And the answer that pops up is that the populace and/or the oligarchs are dissatisfied with the way things are. Right now, in the US, the main dissatisfied constituents are the core supporters of Donald Trump. 'Nobody hears us!'. The oligarchs are quite pleased with Clinton, as are certain social groups such as many women. The oligarchs are understandably enthusiastic about a lot of war preparation. I think they are too smart to actually favor war, but once the wheels are in motion, everyone loses control. Most of the women I talk to deny that Hillary has said and done the warlike things that she had said and done. So...the people who will elect Hillary will put the wheels of war in motion, knowingly or unknowingly. The people who doubt the wisdom of war will be pushed to the side with the failed Trump campaign.

    My theory for why Obama went to the Pentagon to explain why some cooperation with Russia in Syria is necessary is this: late in his administration, with few shreds of achievement, he now perceives that Hillary will start WWIII in Syria and that the election of Donald Trump would provoke a military putsch. So he sees that he MUST get Syria on some definite track toward settlement in the next few months. He can't do that without Russia. So he will accept what Russia has been promoting for years--a negotiated settlement among the Syrians--and leave office with no good excuse for WWIII.

    Don Stewart

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    1. I don't suppose you have any proof to back that up?

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    2. Bryant
      Prove what, exactly? My theory is the most logical explanation I can come up with, looking at Obama's history, Hillary's penchant for war, the comments of military leaders about Trump, Obama's visit to the Pentagon, and the horror with which mid-level bureaucrats in both State and Defense view a Russian/ Syrian/ Iraqi/ Iranian/ Hezbollah 'victory' over ISIS and Al-Nusra.

      I don't ask you to believe my theory has any validity. Take it or leave it.
      Don Stewart

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    3. The future is always obscure, until it becomes present. But, in my personal crystal ball, I see Hillary elected and serious war starting, somewhere. If Trump is elected, less likely but not impossible, I see a military coup soon removing him. Or whatever it is going to happen.....

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    4. With all due respect, the only serious that's going to occur is fighting ISIS. There isn't to be any WWIII. There was a concept called mutually assured destruction that you would do well to remember, Don.

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    5. Bryant
      The US has abandoned the idea of MAD. The idea now is a first strike on Russia. That leads to things like Putin's recent statements about 'we know what and we know when' in terms of the deployment of the first strike capability. The clear message is that Russia will not permit itself to be put at the tender mercies of the US. Russia has developed the idea of 'unacceptable damage' inflicted on the US.

      When an eastern European country signs up for the first strike capability deployment, the Russian ambassador tells them 'now you are in the cross hairs'.

      What the US deployment plans do is put everything back on a hair trigger. The missiles are so close to each other that no moment of reflection is possible. Someone recently published a list of incidents where the radar or orders told a commander to fire the missiles...but the commander did not fire the missiles. In all the cases, it was a false alarm. But as the distances get down to a US ship or plane in the Baltic Sea and St. Petersburg, there is no longer any tolerance in the system. This 'hair trigger' issue was what led to the negotiated pull-backs in the 1980s...it was to try to make sure that no nuclear war started by accident. While Russia is still concerned about that, the US and, apparently, western Europe no longer care.

      The US knows all this. But it is continuing with its plan. We'll see how it all turns out.

      Don Stewart

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    6. Because that makes a whole lot of sense. Come on, man. You know better than this.

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  9. "Preparing for war is good business." - for whom? For nobody but a relatively small number of people earning from it, who happen to get a bigger piece from a smaller cake.

    "There has to be a reason, why Hiroshima ... were obliterated..." - what exactly do you mean by "reason"?

    Nations have always had a habit to jump at one another, only that this time, the means of destruction were developed to a hitherto unknown level, with scientific thoroughness. And not to forget, we had a kind of collective madness in Germany. I cannot locate any such thing in the world today. (Democracies used to attack only weak countries far away, not strong neighbour countries.)

    The mechanics of political action are overlaid by atavistic reflexes from tribal times.

    I do not see the world "at the brink of war". Precisely who is "the world"? When e.g. Egypt and Somalia go to war over the water of the nile, it's certainly not 'the world', as deplorable it may be.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)