Monday, October 21, 2019

The West Fades. The Center Quietly Returns: The New Silk Road

An image from the workshop on desalination and mineral extraction from seawater organized by Sharif University in Teheran this week. In the photo, you can see people from Oman (3), Iran (3), South Africa (1), India (1), and Bangladesh (1). It was not only a multi-ethnical group but also a Eurasia-centered one. It gave me some impression of the shifting balance of power in the world, from the West to the Center, and inspired this post. 

If you think about that, it is funny that we tend to define ourselves as "Westerners." Most civilizations and cultures in history have tended to see themselves as the center of the world, just think of China: it is supposed to be "the Middle Kingdom". This idea that we are on an edge is something that we've probably inherited from the ancient Greeks, when everything west of them was seen as a land of mystery, peopled with savages, monsters, and Gods. 

But the fact that we call ourselves Westerners doesn't mean we think we are a periphery of the world, not at all. Most Westerners seem to cherish the idea that we are the real center, the most advanced, enlightened, and powerful area of the world. The rest of is, well, it is mostly inhabited by turban-wearing barbarians, savage tribes, or, at best, ancient and decadent empires on their way to dissolution. These Non-Westerners need our guidance if they have to attain the nirvana as defined here: democracy and economic liberism.

But the world is vast and things change. Empires are born, reach their pinnacle of greatness and then collapse while still claiming that they will last forever. That may be the destiny of that great world empire, the "Western Empire," that started with the British and continues with the Americans. The center of the world may well be returning to what it used to be up to a few centuries ago, gravitating around that "geographical center" sometimes said to be in Egypt, sometimes in Turkey, sometimes in Syria. It doesn't matter where it is exactly: it is at the heart of the gigantic landmass of Eurasia, somewhere in the region we call the "Middle East."

Chess players know how important it is to dominate the center if they want to dominate the game. Not for nothing, indeed, the game of Chess was developed not far from the center of the world: somewhere in Persia. But to dominate the center, you need to be able to move in and out of it and in the real world that takes roads. In ancient times, the center of Eurasia was crossed by the Silk Road: a long and winding road that went through mountains and deserts, including also coastal sea lanes. It was the realm of commercial caravans with their camels slowly marching from one edge to the other of a Eurasian supercontinent and to Africa as well, carrying gold, silver, ivory, spices, silk, and much more.

The Silk Road lost importance and then disappeared with the arrival of the Westerners who monopolized commerce with their ships and power with their armies. The concept of national borders had never existed before but it was the death toll for the old caravans, now confined within states. Commerce was taken over by Westerners with their container ships, crossing the oceans in a gigantic network that created the empire we call sometimes "Globalization." Not just a commercial empire but a military one as well, dominated by the mighty armies of the West.

Empires are run by a combination of commerce and military power and it is the balance of costs and profits that keeps them together. The old Silk Road never turned into a continental empire because it was just too expensive to move armies along it on long distances. But the agile camel caravans provided the link that was needed for the road to remain open: a low-cost system that didn't need a military governance system and couldn't afford it anyway, Instead, the modern sea lanes of the current World Empire are kept together and controlled by the mighty carrier strike groups of the American Navy: nothing and nobody would even dream of challenging their power, so far. But the carrier group is a behemot that needs to be fed, and for how long will that be possible?

Things keep changing, as they have always been doing. The old Silk Road is being revamped with the name of the "Belt and Road" initiative. It is the revenge of the land over the sea: the lanes of the new silk road are nearly invulnerable to the naval power of the Westerners if nothing else just for the sheer vastity of the territory it connects. Think about that: the population of Eurasia and Africa, together, make almost 6 billion people. The rest of the world is a periphery. 

So, the Western domination may be fading and much of what we are reading in the news nowadays is a reflection of this decline. With the depletion of the resources that created the Western Empire, first coal, then oil, the center is returning where it used to be and the great road that links Eastern and Western Eurasia is going to be again the pulsating artery of the world. Maybe Eurasia will be crisscrossed by fast trains powered by solar energy, or maybe the old camels will return: solid, resilient, unstoppable.

And the Westerners? They will return to their ancient role of seafaring pirates: coming and going like storms, leaving little trace. Curiously, though, they'll be leaving a reverberation of their presence with the English language, initially carried into Eurasia by the American Legions, now the tool of choice by Eurasians to understand each other.

Perhaps English is the true reason for the use of the term "The West" since it did originate on the extreme Western edge of Eurasia. But that's just a quirk of history: once, at least four languages were spoken along the old silk road: Mongolian, Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, while Chinese and Greek were spoken at the two ends. English as the dominant language may make things simpler and continue being used during the 21st century, and even farther in the future. Or we may switch to some other language: perhaps "googlish" or some other pidgin language. Who knows? As always, life is a journey, not a destination.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Report from Tehran: What is the Effect of the Sanctions?

My wife, Grazia, in a supermarket in Tehran, today. No effect of the economic sanctions is visible. The shelves are full of goods from everywhere. You can find even Coca Cola cans

For this Monday post on Cassandra's Legacy, I can offer you just a very brief report from Tehran, Iran, where I am for a meeting. I arrived here thinking that the economic sanctions were bankrupting the country. Maybe, but if they do, it seems to be taking a very long time. The streets are full of traffic, all shops are full of goods, Tehran is alive and well and the Iranians I met seem to be in good spirits, not at all dismayed by the situation, engaged in the celebrations for this year's Ashura. My colleagues tell me that the only effect of the sanctions is the difficulty they have to buy electronic equipment when they need it -- it has to come from China and it is now more expensive than before the embargo.

That's surprising, considering that the Iranian oil production has dropped from nearly 4 million barrels/day to about 1 million barrels/day after the embargo. The oil revenues for Iran must have collapsed this year -- but it may very well be that more oil is produced and exported than it is reported in the official statistics.

I am here for a meeting on the desalination of seawater and I'll report some preliminary results of a study we are performing on the extraction of lithium from the sea -- the perspectives seem to be reasonably good. If our civilization collapses, it will not be because of the lack of lithium.

That's all for this Monday. Greetings from Tehran!

Friday, October 11, 2019

Bimillenary of the death of Germanicus: The Defeat of the Roman Deep State

2,000 years ago, on Oct 10, 19 CE, Germanicus Julius Caesar died in Antioch, Asia Minor, perhaps poisoned by his uncle, Tiberius, then the ruling emperor. If we see Hillary Clinton in the role of Germanicus and Donald Trump in the role of Tiberius, you have an equivalent ongoing conflict.
Most likely, the concept of "Deep State" existed in Roman times, just as in ours.

Germanicus had not gained his "agnomen" (victory name) because he was a friend of the Germans, but because he had managed to kill many of them in a series of military campaigns from 14 to 16 CE. Tacitus tells us many details of how the Romans engaged in what we would call today a Strafexpedition ("Punitive expedition") to avenge the defeat they had suffered against the Germans in Teutoburg ten years before. 

The Romans attacked Germany with eight legions and plenty of auxiliary troops in what was probably the largest military expedition in history, up to that time. In military terms, it was a success: the Germans were defeated and forced to retreat, but the cost of the campaign was simply staggering. Reading Tacitus we can get a feeling of the enormous effort in which the Romans had to engage in order to keep their legions supplied of food, equipment (and money for the troops). Eight legions were about a third of the whole military strength of the Empire: imagine fielding them in a region having no roads and no supporting infrastructure!

By 16 CE, it must have been clear that the effort was bankrupting the Roman state. That led to an undeclared conflict between the ruling emperor of the time, Tiberius, and his nephew, Germanicus. It was good that Germanicus could defeat the Germans (or, at least, claim victory over them). But that made Germanicus too popular and hence a dangerous competitor for the ruling emperor. Then Germanicus wanted to continue attacking the Germans and this was a bad idea on all counts. First, it was too expensive, then the Empire couldn't afford another defeat like the one suffered in Teutoburg -- continuing the campaign was simply too risky.

We don't have documents from those ancient times telling us much about the Roman "war party" that surely existed. War was then, as now, good business for those waging it, but it was very bad business for those who had to foot the bill of the campaigns. So, it made a lot of sense for Tiberius, a ruthless leader by all accounts, to quietly get rid of Germanicus and, with him, of all the risks involved with more wars on the Germans. Germanicus' death was a considerable defeat for the Roman war party (or deep state). It didn't stop the attempts of the Roman Empire to expand, but it made the Romans much more cautious and, specifically, it made it clear that expanding into Germany was a no-no in military terms. 

Today, the situation is similar: the current empire, the American one, is facing gigantic costs just to maintain its huge and largely obsolete military structure. It cannot afford military adventures, not even victorious ones if they end with no economic gains -- the campaign against Iraq is a case in point. And it goes without saying that the ailing American Empire cannot risk a major military defeat. 

Yet, there exists a strong war party, often called the "deep state," in the US pushing for new campaigns. So far, President Trump has played the role of Tiberius, avoiding to engage the US in new wars. Hillary Clinton, instead, has been playing the role of Germanicus as secretary of state, including taking credit for some recent US victories (we all remember her ghastly bout of laughter when she described the death of Lybian leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, in 2011). 

So far, the conflict between the president and the secretary of state hasn't led to anyone being eliminated by poisoning. But the similarities between the current empire and the old Roman one are deep and we may well see more events that we may interpret as being mirrors of much older events. As we all know, history doesn't exactly repeat itself, but it does rhyme.


Belw, a post that appeared on "Cassandra's Legacy" in 2015

A distant mirror: bimillenary of Germanicus' campaigns in Germania

(Image: a battle scene showing Roman troops fighting Barbarians. This relief is much later than the times discussed in this post, but it gives some idea of how these battles were seen in Roman times: "Grande Ludovisi Altemps Inv8574" by Unknown - Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons)

Julius Caesar Germanicus, the grandson of Emperor Augustus, was called "Germanicus" not because he liked the Germanic peoples; rather, he was engaged in a ruthless, scorched earth campaign against them. Nevertheless, he managed to accomplish very little; mainly to show that the Roman Empire, despite all its might, could not possibly conquer Germania. 

Success, sometimes, shows one's limits more than defeat. That's a lesson that the Romans had to learn the hard way when they tried to subdue the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine, between the first century BC and the first century AD. The attempt involved a long series of campaigns and, perhaps, the climax came exactly two thousand years ago, from 14 to 16 AD, when the Romans invaded Germania with no less than eight legions under the command of Tiberius Claudius Nero, known as Germanicus (at right), grandson of Augustus and the adopted son of Emperor Tiberius. The total number of the troops employed could have been at least 80 thousand men, perhaps close to a hundred thousand; about a third of the whole Roman army. Using a modern term, we could say that the Romans were trying to steamroll their enemies.

In this case, the concept of "steamrolling" can perhaps be intended in an almost literal sense. Tacitus makes it clear for us in his "Annals" that the Romans were going into Germania having in mind something much different than "bringing civilization" to those primitive peoples. No, no such silly idea; the Romans were there to teach those Barbarians a lesson. For this, they were burning villages, slaughtering everyone, or taking as slaves, as Tacitus says, even "the helpless from age or sex." Germanicus' name, evidently, didn't imply that he loved Germanic people. Again, using a modern term, we could say that the Romans were practicing a scorched earth campaign, if not an outright war of extermination.

And yet, all these efforts achieved little. Over three years of campaigns, Germanicus' troops won all the battles they fought; but they couldn't break the Germanic tribes. And the cost of keeping so many men in the field was becoming unbearable even for the mighty Roman Empire. In 16 AD, Emperor Tiberius recalled Germanicus to Rome. He also ordered the legions to abandon the territories they had conquered and to retire behind the fortifications along the Rhine, from where they had started their campaigns. Germanicus was given a big triumph in Rome, but, a few years later, in 19 AD, he died, possibly poisoned by Tiberius himself who feared the competition of a popular general. So, Germanicus' campaigns had shown the might of the Empire, but also its limits: there were some things that the legions just couldn't do. That was a lesson that Emperors understood well and, indeed, the Romans never tried again to attack the Germanic territory.

Two thousand years afterward, we see in these remote events a distant mirror of our age. The parallels with our current situation are many, and I am sure that the word "Iraq" is already coming to your mind. Yes, the Iraq campaign was a series of victories, just like Germanicus' campaigns. But, from a strategic viewpoint, modern Iraq, just like Germania two thousand years ago, turned out to be a conquest too expensive to keep.

But there is more to be seen in this distant mirror and so let's go a little more in-depth into history. First of all, Germanicus' campaigns were the consequence of an earlier, failed campaign: the defeat of Teutoburg in 9 AD, when three Roman legions were annihilated by a coalition of Germanic tribes. Not even their commander, Consul Publius Quinctilius Varus, escaped alive. Teutoburg was not only a disaster but a mystery as well. How could it be that the Roman legions, not exactly amateurs in practicing the art of war, blithely marched into a dense forest where a large number of Germanic warriors were waiting for them to hack them to pieces?

I wouldn't be too surprised if Varus himself were to appear to me one of these nights as a bluish ghost in my bedroom. Then, he could tell me the story of why exactly he was sent to Germania as the governor of a province that existed only on paper and supplied with insufficient troops to control a region that had never been really pacified. Lacking this apparition, we can only speculate on this story, but it takes little imagination to conclude that someone, probably in Rome, wanted Varus' head to roll. Whoever they were, anyway, they probably couldn't imagine that so many more Roman heads would roll together with Varus' one. We will never know for sure, but we know that the man who led Varus into the trap in the forest, Arminius, was a Roman citizen, albeit born in Germania. Varus was betrayed.

I know what you are thinking at this point. And, yes, we can find some kind of a parallel with modern history in the 9/11 attack to the twin towers in New York. Let me state that I am not discussing conspiracy theories, here; what I want to highlight is the similarity of the reaction of the ancient and the modern empires to events that both perceived as an existential threat. Just as the US citizens were deeply scared by the 9/11 attacks, the Romans were deeply scared by the disaster of Teutoburg and that had political consequences.

The main consequence of the defeat of Teutoburg was that it strongly reinforced the position of the Emperor as the military leader of the whole Empire. Don't forget that, in the early 1st century AD, the idea that there was to be an emperor at the head of the Empire was still something new and plenty of people would probably have liked the Republic to be re-established. That was what Brutus and Cassius had tried to do by killing Julius Caesar. But, after Teutoburg, reinstating the Republic became totally out of question. You probably have heard of Suetonius reporting that Emperor Augustus, on hearing of Varus' defeat, would walk aimlessly at night in his palace, murmuring, "Varus, Varus, give me back my legions!" That was a master propaganda stroke on the part of Augustus, a consummate politician. By showing himself so concerned, Augustus was positioning himself as the defender of the Empire against the barbarian menace.

Not only Teutoburg reinforced the role of Emperors; the campaigns by Germanicus reinforced the effect even more. If Teutoburg had shown that the Germanic tribes were an existential threat for the Empire, then, Germanicus' failure showed that they couldn't be destroyed. The result was that the Empire positioned itself for a long term war. That generated the equivalent of our present military-industrial complex: a standing army and a set of fortifications along the Imperial borders. That was good business for the military contractors of Roman times, but the long term consequence was that the Empire bled itself to death in order to maintain the colossal defense works it had built. Before Teutoburg, the Roman army had been producing wealth as a result of the conquest of foreign lands. After Teutoburg, the army became a destroyer of wealth, costing much more than it produced; as Germanicus' campaigns clearly demonstrated. As time went by, the Roman Empire became weaker and weaker, but it stubbornly refused to admit it and to accept the barbarians in roles that were not those of mercenaries or slaves.

Four centuries after the battle of Teutoburg and Germanicus' campaigns, an enlightened empress, Galla Placidia, broke the rules in a bold attempt to revitalize a dying empire. She married a Barbarian king and tried to start a new dynasty that would merge the Germanic and the Latin elements of the Empire. She didn't succeed; it was too late; it was too much for a single person. The Roman Empire had to go through its cycle, and the end of the cycle was its disappearance; a relic of history that had no reason to exist any longer.

This is the destiny of empires and civilizations that, as Toynbee says, die most often because they kill themselves. So it was for the Romans, our distant mirror. A dark mirror, but, most likely, our destiny will not be much different.


See also

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Public Interest in Climate Change Reaches and All-Time High. Greta Thunberg Conquers the Memesphere

Greta Thunberg is having a phenomenal success as
 climate messenger. Good targeting, flawless performance, the right person at the right moment.

A little more than one year ago, I wrote a post titled "Why, in a Few Years, Nobody Will be Talking About Climate Change Anymore." It turned out that I was completely wrong: Greta Thunberg changed everything. My mistake was the typical one we all make when we try to predict the future. As I tend to say, "the surest way to make wrong predictions is to extrapolate past trends." And I fell into the trap myself!

Look at what happened: the interest of the public in climate change had been fading for years and then, suddenly, it started rising. Now it is the highest level ever reached in the Google Trend record.

Isn't that fantastic? The Greta Thunberg meme, alone, changed the worldwide trend. There is no other explanation for the restarting interest in climate.

So, what's happening? Let's see if we can learn something from my wrong prediction. First of all, I based my prediction on the data from Google Trends that showed a constant and robust decline of the public's interest in climate change. It had been ongoing for more than a decade and it seemed logical to me that it would continue to do so. I noted also how the Trump government was practicing the propaganda technique known as "deception by omission." It seemed to be successful in generating a self-reinforcing feedback that led the public to forget about climate change, distracted by other issues.

Then, bang! Complex systems always take you by surprise and Greta Thunberg surely surprised everybody. What made her so successful in a task where the best scientists in the world had failed? The birth and the development of the Thunberg meme will be studied for years to come: it is truly a remarkable innovation in a memesphere where, so far, only negative memes seemed to have a chance to affect the public opinion (Climategate is an example). Surely, Ms. Thunberg was supported by a top-notch public relations agency. They did everything right from the beginning: the target, the delivery, the positioning. But it was the person, Greta Thunberg, who was absolutely perfect in her role: flawless on all occasions.

At the same time, the forces of darkness trying to stop Greta Thunberg managed only to propel her further forward. A large number of angry old men made fools of themselves by insulting her. Many so-called "experts" on climate could only show their ignorance. Most attacks against her backfired, also because the young lady turned out to be both smart and resilient.

But there is more, here, than a flawless P.R. operation. The time had come for a major memetic transition. Most of us were expecting it as the result of some climate disaster, hurricanes, sea-level rise, heat waves, this kind of things. But we were hit by every sort of climate disasters and the result was the opposite: in the wake of each terrible event, the public interest in climate change diminished!

Again, we should have expected that: the memesphere behaves very much like complex physical systems, it undergoes phase transitions. If you ever worked with this kind of systems, you surely noted how phase transitions occur, or do not occur, mostly when they please. If the conditions are not right, the chemical compound that took you months of work to synthesize will refuse to condense and precipitate. Or, it will do so when you don't expect that to happen. The memesphere does the same: when the conditions for the diffusion of a meme are right, it will diffuse. Otherwise, it won't.

So, Greta Thunberg was the right meme at the right moment. And, as all good memes, it diffused explosively. And now what?

Memes have a limited lifetime in the memesphere -- it is because they are akin to living creatures and they consume the resources that make them live. They flare up rapidly and then decline slowly. If nothing changes, this is the destiny of the Greta Thunberg's meme -- it might be hastened by ongoing demonization campaign: if there is something that modern Western propaganda can do is demonizing people. After decades of operation, they have learned to do it well.

So, there is a definite chance that Greta Thunberg will fade away and disappear from the memesphere, as her enemies surely hope. But that's not necessarily her future. It is also possible that the meme will mutate, becoming more structured, more propositive, more engaging. It seems that it is what's happening: Greta Thunberg is updating her message and she is starting to propose actual solutions to climate change with a recent video in which she promotes reforestation. That video has some problems and so far it didn't have a big impact, but it is a step in the right direction.

And here we are: complex systems always surprise us, and surely we are in for more. But with Greta around, the future is not anymore so bleak as it seemed to be just a few months ago.

On Greta Thunberg as a climate meme, see also this previous post of mine

Thursday, October 3, 2019

The Art of War According to the Science of Complex Systems: The Seneca Cliff as a strategic weapon

Music has always been part of the war effort: a way to build up network connections in such a way to make the fighting system more resilient and more effective. Here, an especially effective version: "The Sacred War" sung by Elena Vaenga. I wouldn't say that the Soviets defeated the Germans in ww2 because they had better music, but it surely it must have helped.

On military matters described in terms of system science, see also the post on drone warfare published last week on "Cassandra's Legacy" and also our study on the statistical patterns of conflicts in history

The science of complex systems turns out to be especially interesting and fascinating when applied to one of the most complex activities in which human beings engage: warfare. Below, you'll find a revised and condensed excerpt from my book "The Seneca Effect" (2017). A more detailed and in-depth discussion of how the concept of Seneca Collapse may affect war is part of my new book "Before Collapse: A Guide to the Other Side of Growth" that should appear in print and on the web before the end of the year.

From "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)
by Ugo Bardi
(revised and condensed)

Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting. (Sun Tzu, the Art of War)

The idea that collapse can be a tool to be used in warfare may go back to the Chinese historian and military theorist Sun Tzu in his “The Art of War” (5th century BCE), where he emphasizes the idea of winning battles by exploiting the enemy’s weakness rather than by brute force.

It is a normal feature of warfare that conflict ends with the collapse of one of the two sides but, in some cases, the collapse takes place without extensive fighting or even none at all. An especially impressive example is that of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that followed several decades of "cold war" that never erupted into open conflict. As Sun Tzu had already noted, the capability of triggering the collapse of the enemy’s military or socio-economic structure is possibly the most effective conflict-resolving strategy of all. But how to attain this result? The modern science of complex systems can tell us many things about the factors involved in the collapse of complex systems, although it cannot provide recipes good for all situations.

Collapse is a characteristic of systems kept together by a network of relationships involving feedback: societies, economies, groups, companies, armies, and more, systems that we call “complex.” Feedback enhances or dampens the effect of perturbations on the various elements of the system and it may generate the kind of collapse called “Seneca Collapse” or “Seneca Cliff.” This collapse occurs when several elements of the system act together in such a way to enhance a perturbation that, eventually, brings down the whole system.

Warfare is, after all, mostly a question of feedback between fighting entities. Armies maneuver, clash against each other, retreat or advance, but the final result is always the same: the struggle ends when feedbacks accumulate in such a way that one of the sides collapses. Then, the battle is over.

We can see armies as networks of soldiers, each one connected to the nearby soldiers. In a military struggle, the loss of a single node, that is of a single soldier, in itself has little effect on the performance of the system. But it may be devastating if the deadly feedback mechanism kicks in. One soldier runs away, another soldier sees him running he does the same. Others follow. That may cause the whole army to melt away – a typical example of feedback-generated collapse and the nightmare of commanders all over history. Of course, things are not so simple in real armies but it is true that ancient armies often had a poorly defined chain of command. That made them susceptible to abrupt collapse. For instance, at the battle of Manzikert, in 1071 AD the Byzantines were defeated by the Turks because - among other factors – some sections of the army panicked and ran away.

Once we start seeing see warfare in terms of complex systems interacting with each other, we can understand how the natural selection on the battlefield led to the evolution of armies into structures that made them resistant to collapse. In the 1800s, the Prussians had developed an army where each soldier was supposed to keep reloading and shooting, oblivious to what was happening around him. Ideally, he would keep shooting even if he was the last one left standing. Basically, the Prussians had severed the horizontal connections of the army network, leaving only the "vertical" ones connecting soldiers to their officers. It was the concept, attributed to Frederick the Great, that common soldiers should fear their own officers more than the enemy. That made the network resilient toward collapse: losing one node would not lead to an avalanche of node losses generated by feedback

The Prussian idea was successful and it is still the way modern armies are organized. But if it made "bottom-up" collapse more difficult, it increased the chances of a top-down" collapse. A vertically structured army is vulnerable to a “decapitation strike,” a concept already well known to those who, long ago, invented the game of chess. A modern occurrence of this kind of collapse took place in Italy in September 1943. After the earlier removal of the charismatic Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, Italy's armed forces virtually disintegrated when the King of Italy fled the capital, Rome, leaving the army without command and without clear instructions. In this way, he brought to real-life the concept of “checkmate” of chess. Other examples of decapitation collapse exist in history, one was the collapse of the Albanian forces against the Italian invasion in 1939. It was a hopeless fight in any case, but the flight of the king of Albany, Zog, led to the total cessation of all resistance -- another case of a chessmate in real life.

Other cases of decapitation strikes failed. An example is the attempt of some German officers to kill Adolf Hitler in 1944. They failed, so we will never know what would have happened had Hitler died that day. Another example was the strike against Iraq in 2003, which aimed at killing most of the members of the Iraqi government. Alalso that attempt failed.
The problem with the idea of destroying a military structure by decapitation is two-fold: the first is that the enemy knows that its leadership is a good target and therefore it works at hardening it as much as possible. One is reminded here of the kagemusha the “shadow warriors” of Japanese military history, whose task was to impersonate a military leader, having the enemy wasting their efforts on them rather than on the right target. Then, it is also true that in modern times armies have developed a less rigid structure in which small units can continue fighting even if they lose contact with their command center. It is a way of fighting that was pioneered by Edwin Rommel during the First World War and extensively used by Heinz Guderian during the Second. Another recent example of resilience in an armed conflict is the 2006 confrontation between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Hezbollah’s fighting machine was far from being a traditional army: it was a highly resilient system based on small units weakly connected to each other. In the end, it was successful against a theoretically much more powerful adversary. Giving a certain degree of freedom to small units is risky, since the units may not behave the way the central control wants them to. But it seems to pay handsomely in modern times, also because of the development of modern propaganda techniques. Today, soldiers don’t normally fight for money, they are heavily conditioned by propaganda or by religious beliefs.

In the end, waging a war is mainly a question of command and control and there exist many possible interpretations of how to control an army in such a way to make it resilient against collapse. To this day, propaganda remains the main tool motivating soldiers to fight but, as I argued in a previous post, modern warfare seems to be more and more based on remote-controlled, or even autonomous, robotic weapons.

A concept related to the rise of military robots is that of “Network Centered Warfare” also called, sometimes, “Effect Based Operations.” The idea is to transform an army into a single weapon using sophisticated communication techniques. The question, then, is who controls that weapon? If there is a single central control system, the whole system becomes again vulnerable to a decapitation strike. An attack on its operational center that might leave it as useless as the chess pieces on the chessboard after that their king is checkmated.
But it is also perfectly possible to organize military robots in small, relatively independent units. It doesn't change the main question: who controls the military robots? It is a question that, so far, has found no simple answer. Obviously, the robots themselves are not sensitive to propaganda, but their controllers are still human beings. But propaganda is a tool developed to control infantrymen facing the enemy while stuck in a trench, now we need tools to control the robots' controllers who are specialized professionals operating from the safety of remote locations. Appropriate techniques have not been seveloped yet and we don't know what shape they could take and how they will affect the way warfare is conducted.

So, it is difficult to predict what the future of war will be but, clearly, nothing changes in its basic features: war is a struggle that can be fought in real space, in virtual space, or both. We'll probably see a remarkable shift to virtual war, but it is a tortuous path that we are following. As always, the future will be what it had to be.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Empty Sea: What Future for the Blue Economy? A New Book by Ugo Bardi and Ilaria Perissi

Proposed cover by Viola, Ilaria's daughter, 4 years old. 

For this Monday post, I can only put together a very short text. We (myself and Ilaria) have been very busy with the last retouched of the manuscript for our new book that we hope to be able to ship to the publisher ("Editori Riuniti") maybe tomorrow. It should be available for purchase before Christmas.

We spent a lot of time on this book, and I can tell you that we like it a lot. We hope that the readers will like it, too. I am sorry that this first version is only in Italian, but we are planning a version in English to appear as soon as possible. In the meantime, let me pass to you a text that should appear on the back cover, translated into English.

What you will learn from this book

  • How humans have been gradually discovering the sea and its resources from the time of our remote ancestors
  • What is the “fisherman’s curse,” why fishermen have always been poor, and they still are!
  • Why humans tend to destroy the resources that make them live: how overexploitation has destroyed many fish stocks and is still destroying them
  • How pollution is affecting the sea: from the great plastic gyre to the rising sea levels
  • Why aquaculture may not be the magic solution to feed the world and what we can expect from the future of fisheries.
  • Can we really extract minerals and energy from the sea? It may be much more difficult than the way it is sometimes described.
  • What are the limits to resources of the sea and what can we realistic expect for the future?

In addition, you will learn how the Neanderthals crossed the sea on their canoes, how it was possible that five men on a small boat could kill a giant whale, what kind of oil did the virgins of the Gospel put into their lamps, how a professor of mathematics, Vito Volterra, discovered the “equations of fishing,” of the return of sailing ships for transportation, and why it has become so easy to be stung by a jellyfish while swimming in the sea. And much, much more. You will also learn how to play the “Moby Dick game,” a simple boardgame that simulates the overexploitation of natural resources.


Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Return of the Condottieri? How Military Drones are Changing the World

A US  carrier strike group. It costs about 30 billion dollars to build and it may cost around 2-3 billion dollars per year to operate. These values may be optimistic and there are 10 US strike groups in operation today. And, by now, all this hardware may be worth little more than its weight as scrap metal.

Sometimes, the sect I belong to, that of the catastrophists, tends to dismiss technological progress as a minor factor in the trajectory of the world system, mainly determined by climate change and resource depletion. It is a reasonable position: no matter how much money is thrown at welfare queens in white coat in the hope that they'll save the world, they don't seem to be able to do much more than producing overhyped press releases about some wonderful new technology that, one day, maybe, possibly, will solve some kind of problem. But only if they can get more money for further research.

So, technological progress is often little more than a trick to pay the salary of scientists. But it is also true that, sometimes, it does change the world. It is just that it doesn't work the way people expect it to. Technological progress is not a supermarket where you can find everything you want: you pay for it and you bring it home. It is more like fishing in the sea: most of the time you find little, but sometimes you stumble into the big marlin and suddenly you are not an unlucky old man anymore.

Technology changes the world in ways that are usually rapid and destructive, but never completely unexpected. Think of what happened to Blockbuster when they were facing the competition of Netflix. At Blockbuster, they couldn't have missed that their technology was obsolete but they refused to believe that the change could be so rapid. And they were wiped out of the market.

In military matters, this kind of rapid revolutions are even more common and, in this case, being "wiped out" may take a quite literal meaning. Recently, we saw a hint of the things to come with the attacks carried out against the Saudi oil facilities by a swarm of drones launched from Yemen. There are different interpretations of an event that may hide much more than what has been made public. But one thing is clear: drones turned out to be impressively effective in terms of the ratio of damage to cost. They suddenly made conventional planes and carriers obsolete.

It was expected. The rise of military robots was in plain sight for everybody, even though the traditional military organization tried to look the other way -- as it is typical for large organization entrenched in their previous investments on old technologies. In this sense, the US Navy is not different from Blockbuster, just much bigger. So, a few years ago, in 2012, I wrote a short text for Jorgen Randers' book "2052" under the title of "The Future of War and the Rise of Robots." Of course, I was not the first to examine these matters but I think my text was original in trying to examine how lowering the cost of warfare could affect society. My prediction was that

"Future wars may be more frequent but probably also smaller in scale and less destructive. It is possible that robotic weapons will make the concept of a nation-state obsolete, to be replaced by structures akin to present-day corporations."

I am no prophet, but the first part of this paragraph describes very well what's happening. What's remarkable in the recent attacks against Saudi Arabia is that no human casualties are reported. It was hardware against hardware: machines destroying other machines. For the second part, outsourcing wars to private companies is not yet a clear trend, but it may be starting.

Rethinking to these matters today, I think we can, as usual, learn something from ancient history and modern drones may be starting a trajectory similar to that of firearms in Europe. Firearms have been around for several centuries, they appeared as early as in the 12th century. Initially, they were rather expensive tools that required specialists to operate. Nevertheless, firearms were more effective than the previous dominant technology, that of armored knights, who were wiped out of the battlefield.

During this initial phase, we saw the development of private military organizations, led by the "condottiere" (contractors) which integrated several different fighting methods but tended to be the most advanced in technological terms, especially in the use of firearms. In time, firearms became less and less expensive and could be used by an average conscript. At that point, winning a war became mainly a question of the number of soldiers fielded and nation-states were the only entities able to field and control large armies. So governments took over the war business and private contractors disappeared.

Are drones going through the same trajectory? It could be: for the time being, they are clearly making obsolete the modern equivalent of the old armored knights: the gigantic, expensive, and vulnerable carrier strike groups. But drones require specialized, technical knowledge and that may imply the rise of private companies controlling the drones, maybe selling their services to governments, warlords, religious group, or whoever can pay. That may result in a harsh blow on nation-states that might become as obsolete as medieval noblemen.

And then, what if killer drones become so cheap that everyone can afford them? It is a concept that goes under the name of "slaughterbots," minimalistic drones that have only one purpose: identifying a victim and killing him or her. Which is, after all, the same job that guns do (drones don't kill people, people kill people, using drones). So, will we see killer drones becoming as diffuse as guns among suburbanites in the US? Maybe an amendment to the US constitution involving the right to bear drones? Who knows? The only sure thing is that sometimes technology changes the world in ways that are unexpected to everyone.

(about wars, see also our statistical study on their trends and frequency)

"The Future of War and the Rise of Robots" by Ugo Bardi (2016 revised version)

It is an easy prediction that, forty years from now, human beings will have no place on the battlefield. They will be replaced largely by robotic weapons—a trend already in motion with the rising use of remote-controlled military drones or “UCAVs” (unmanned combat aerial vehicles). We can expect the term “unmanned weapon” to become as odd as the term “horseless carriage” is today. However, it is more difficult to predict how robotic weapons will affect warfare and the structure of society. Future wars may be more frequent but probably also smaller in scale and less destructive. It is possible that robotic weapons will make the concept of a nation-state obsolete, to be replaced by structures akin to present-day corporations. These developments will occur first in rich countries with low levels of corruption and high manpower costs. To examine the future of warfare, we can use the simulation methods used in The Limits to Growth study in 1972—methods that predict behavior within a given system and, specifically, that describe how the world’s economic system transforms natural resources into waste or pollution.

The military sector is part of the industrial system. Typically, during the past few centuries, the military sector has been drawing around 5%–10% of the GDP of most strong states, while in wartime this fraction may rise up to 30%–40% and even more. In wartime, military activities generate an enormous amount of pollution in the form of infrastructure destruction. With the development of more and more destructive weapons, and especially of nuclear ones, the cost of war in terms of pollution may reach values several times larger than the pollution arising from the GDP of any state. So, while the military sector is expected to follow the size of the global economy, wars may accelerate global decline because of the large amount of pollution they generate. A nuclear war might make the most pessimistic Limits to Growth scenarios unfold almost instantly. Unfortunately, starting a war costs much less than cleaning up afterward.
Robotization may negate these trends by reducing the pollution cost of war. Robotic weapons are inherently precision weapons. They can be controlled to reduce collateral damage and, hence, pollution. In this respect, twenty-first-century robots are enormously better than the iconic weapon of the twentieth century: the nuclear warhead. There are other potential advantages as well. Present-day command-and-control systems are based on models developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to convince human beings to perform activities that are not natural for them: obey orders, march under enemy fire, and stand still while shelled, to name a few. The methods that accomplish these results are called “drilling.” But drilling is not only a slow and expensive process; it is also very difficult to undo. So, once fighting has started, it is very hard to convince people to stop. Because of this inertia, wars often tend to continue all the way to the near-complete destruction of the weaker side. On the contrary, robots don’t need propaganda. They can be easily reprogrammed, and therefore the decision to engage or disengage in a conflict can be very quick. If wars can be easily stopped as soon as it is clear who is winning, the result can be a great reduction in damage and, hence, pollution.
Overall, wars will become less costly with the use of robots, but that doesn’t mean a reduction in their frequency. New major wars— even nuclear ones—cannot be excluded for the future. Future wars may become more frequent even in the face of a progressive decline of the world’s industrial system caused by resource depletion. We may see war becoming endemic, and dispersed in a large number of small conflicts. Also, the low cost of war may make the distinction between “peacetime” and “wartime” disappear. Future wars may often be classified as police actions against groups defined as “rogue.” These are, clearly, already ongoing trends.
We can expect, therefore, drastic changes in the way wars will be managed and conducted. National armies may be replaced by private contractors deemed more suitable for managing high-tech robotic weapons in the kind of small-scale conflict that may become common in the future. These contractors need not be limited to serve a specific national government and may well sell their services to the highest bidder, as is already happening. Nation-states, then, may also decline and perhaps disappear, as there will be no need for propaganda to convince people to sacrifice themselves in battle. In addition, nation-states have evolved specifically with the purpose of “defending the borders” when the main source of wealth was agriculture, and hence territory. In recent times, however, the focus of war has been more on the control of mineral resources, with several recent wars described, correctly, as oil wars. It may be possible that the structure considered best adapted to managing war and resources, in these conditions will be not the nation-state but something akin to modern corporations— more effective, perhaps, than states in employing high-tech military contractors for small-scale conflicts.
The reduction of the destructive power of war is an improvement on the present situation. When human fighters become hopelessly outmatched by robots, most humans will simply cease to be interesting targets, while robots will be used mainly to fight other robots. Certainly, that doesn’t mean that war will not involve human victims any longer; military and political leaders will remain at risk, and the decision of targeting civilian infrastructure might still be considered an option. Terrorism, that is, military actions purposefully aimed against civilians, may turn out to be an especially suitable task for drones, which might easily be programmed for the extermination of specific ethnic, religious, or political groups. On the other hand, the fact that the actions of robots are recorded and traceable could create a barrier over their indiscriminate use against civilians—a plus when considering the violence, torture, rape, and other typical excesses of human troops. So even if war may become more frequent, it need not become more violent. Indeed, the trend of avoiding as much as possible collateral damage to civilians is already ongoing. It is a positive development after the emphasis on carpet bombing in the twentieth century.
War is so deeply embedded in the global economic system that we can expect it to exist as long as there are natural resources to compete for. Robots won’t change that, as long as they are controlled and programmed by humans. In a more distant future, however, the battlefield experience is likely to give robots increased capabilities to act autonomously and a chance to become something much different from what the term “drone” implies. That doesn’t mean that robots would take over their human masters. But it does mean that humans would not be needed as fighters. How such a society could develop is impossible to say at present. The only certainty is that wars are among the most unpredictable of human activities and that the future is, as always, full of surprises.


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). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)