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):
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.