Sunday, November 11, 2018

Should we Prepare for a New World War? Answers from the Patterns of Past

 I know that I have crammed together too many ideas here: Tolstoy, St. Francis, critical phenomena, thermodynamics, and more,  - it is contrary to the rules of blog posts. But the centennial of the end of the Great War gave me the occasion to write something about how, in 1914, the European states sleepwalked into the Great War just like we may be doing nowadays. If the Great War couldn't end all wars as it was said to be able to do, the greater one that may be coming could actually do that, but in a very different way. The new war could lead to the extinction of humankind. So, what hope do we have? I don't know, but the first step to solving a problem is to understand it. So far, humans haven't learned anything much from the mistakes of the past but, who knows? Maybe one day they will.

The centennial of the end of the Great War is a good occasion to rethink a little about wars: why, how, and when wars occur and if there is any hope to stop blindly walking along a path taking us to the possibility of the complete annihilation of humankind. It is a question that has been posed many times and never satisfactorily answered. Perhaps the first to try to answer it was Leon Tolstoy in his “War and Peace” novel, (1867), where he wondered how it could be possible that a single man named Napoleon could cause millions of men to move all together eastward with the purpose of killing other men whom they had never met and they had no reason to hate.

Tolstoy was not a scientist, he operated on the basis of experience and intuition. But, just like Darwin understood the laws of genetics by experience and intuition, Tolstoy understood the laws of social networks. In War and Peace, he wrote:

The combination of causes of phenomena is beyond the grasp of the human intellect. But the impulse to seek causes is innate in the soul of man. And the human intellect, with no inkling of the immense variety and complexity of circumstances conditioning a phenomenon, any one of which may be separately conceived of as the cause of it, snatches at the first and most easily understood approximation, and says here is the cause.”

“And so there was no single cause for war, but it happened simply because it had to happen”

Tolstoy had grasped the concept that war is not the result of mad dictators giving orders to their followers. It is not even a rational struggle for resources or for money, although that factor plays a role. It is just something that happens beyond the human capability of controlling it, or even of understanding it.

One century after Tolstoy, statistics had advanced to the point that a quantitative analysis of the war phenomenon became possible. The British meteorologist and physicists Lewis Fry Richardson (1881-1953) applied the concept to the frequency and the size of human wars and more in general to what he called “deadly quarrels.” Richardson found that wars are random phenomena, unpredictable and unrelated to almost anything else: they just happen.

More recent work confirmed the early analysis by Richardson, finding that wars follow "power laws." Some recent work we did with my coworkers Martelloni and Di Patti confirms this result over a time scale of some 600 years and worldwide (preliminary results, to be published soon). It is a subject that I already discussed in an earlier post.

Power laws are typical "emergent phenomena" that take place in complex systems. They are the result of the dissipation of accumulated energy that occurs not gradually but in bumps. The quintessential system that behaves in this way is the "sandpile" that Per Bak used as a representation of the condition that he called "self-organized criticality." Fascinating in a mathematical model, these bumps can be deadly in the real world. Earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and more phenomena involving natural disasters tend to occur following power laws.

These results confirm Tolstoy's intuition: wars are not the result of ideologies, religions, mad rulers, or the like. They emerge out of a social network as a result of the way the system is connected. That doesn't mean there are no causes for wars: they are the result of accumulated capital that needs to be dissipated in some way. Wherever there is an unbalance in the accumulation of capital, the excess will spill from the more endowed side to the less endowed one. In a sense, war is the offspring of capitalism, but capitalism is just another emergent phenomenon of complex societies. In short, wars are not caused by a lack of resources, they are caused by an excess of resources.

When a new world war will start can't be exactly predicted -- it is like for earthquakes. Nobody can say exactly where and when a major earthquake will take place, but we know that there is a certain probability for it to occur in seismic zones and, sooner or later, it will. The same seems to be valid for wars. So, the fact that the start of wars can't be exactly predicted doesn't mean we can't see that today we are running at full speed toward a new one. If the trend of the past 600 years continues to hold, there is a larger than zero probability that we'll see a new conflagration that could surpass of an order of magnitude -- or perhaps more than that -- the second world war in terms of destruction and number of victims.

Could we do something to avoid that outcome? We have to look at the basics: if wars are like earthquakes, they are a thermodynamic phenomenon that dissipates accumulated energy. In the case of earthquakes, there is nothing we can do to avoid the movement the Earth's tectonic plates and the accumulation of energy at the faults that separate them. In the case of wars, the accumulated energy to be dissipated is in the form of capital, in a general sense of money, riches, population, resources, etc. Can we avoid the accumulation of capital? Not so easy in a society that sees the accumulation of riches as a good thing to be encouraged in individuals as well as in entire societies.

So, is it our destiny to see the end of humankind in a series of clouds of radioactive smoke? Perhaps. But I would also like to add something more: the cycle of energy dissipation in the form of war is something that we can approximately measure only for a period of existence of humankind of a few centuries in the past. And this was a period of economic expansion, eventually propped up by the availability of fossil fuels. Once we cross over the peak of this great historical cycle, many things could change and capital might be more difficult to accumulate. That would change many things, perhaps also the probabilities of major wars to occur.

Of course, you don't need a lot of capital accumulating in order to have a war -- we know that tribal societies are far from being peaceful. But tribal wars, at least, don't take with them the whole Earth's ecosystem. It is, after all, something that St. Francis had already discovered long ago at the individual level: material poverty can make you a better person if you willingly accept it. It took a thousand years before someone (Aurelio Peccei among the first) that inequality among nations is the mother of all wars. Could the human society embrace "Lady Poverty" as Francis did? Would that avoid wars or, at least, the kind of apocalyptical wars that could be waged today? We cannot say, but perhaps a dim glimmer of hope remains even in this dark period.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Will we Ever be Able to End Wars? How the Wise are Confused

One hundred years after the end of the war that was to end all wars, the First World War, we still don't understand what wars are, why we fight wars, why we can't stop fighting them. We are surrounded, it seems, by things we don't understand: why do people fight wars? Why are wars so commmon? Why can't we find a way to stop them? Why people still fall for the most obvious propaganda tricks?

Below, you can find an excerpt from the 1980 book by David Wilkinson, "Deadly Quarrels" that starts with a list of the various theories put forward in modern times to explain how peace could be attained. Still perfectly valid today, the list highlights the confusion pervading the attempts to put an end to war. It reminds the 200+ theories that Demandt reports for the reasons of the fall of the Roman Empire. More than that, it reminds of Paul of Tarsus (Corinthians 1) when he says "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise." And this is war, a foolish thing that keep confounding us.

From "Deadly Quarrels" by David Wilkinson, 1980 (*)

The most common way of contributing to the debate over war causation and peace strategy has been to assert some definite theory, to show how it fits current circumstances, and to deduce immediate practical conclusions. If we follow this public debate, we may expect to be told that war is a consequence, for instance, of wickedness, lawlessness, alienation, aggressive regimes, imperialism, poverty, militarism, anarchy, or weakness. Seldom will any evidence be offered. Instead the writer is likely to present a peace strategy that matches his theory of war causation. We shall therefore learn that we can have:

  • Peace through morality. Peace (local and global) can be brought about by a moral appeal, through world public opinion, to leaders and peoples not to condone or practice violence, aggression, or war, but to shun and to denounce them.
  • Peace through law. Peace can be made by signing international treaties and creating international laws that will regulate conduct and by resorting to international courts to solve disputes.
  • Peace through negotiation. Peace can be maintained by frank discussion of differences, by open diplomacy, by international conferences and assemblies that will air grievances and, through candor and goodwill, arrive at a harmonious consensus.
  • Peace through political reform. Peace can be established by setting up regimes of a nonaggressive type throughout the world: republics rather than monarchies; democratic rather than oligarchic republics; constitutionally limited rather than arbitrary, autocratic regimes.
  • Peace through national liberation. Peace can be instituted only through the worldwide triumph of nationalism. Multinational empires must be dissolved into nation-states; every nation must have its own sovereign, independent government and all its own national territory, but no more.
  • Peace through prosperity. Peace requires the worldwide triumph of an economic order that will produce universal prosperity and thereby remove the incentive to fight. Some consider this order to be one of universal capitalism, or at least of worldwide free trade; others hold it to be some species of socialism, reformist or revolutionary, elitist or democratic.
  • Peace through disarmament. Peace can be established by reducing and eventually eliminating weapons, bases, and armies, by removing the means to make war.
  • Peace through international organization. Peace can be established by creating a world political organization, perhaps even a constitutional world government resembling national governments, to enforce order and promote progress throughout the world.
  • Peace through power. Peace can be maintained by the peaceable accumulation of forces, perhaps overwhelming, perhaps preponderant or balancing or adequate-sufficient to deter, defeat, or punish aggression.

Much current talk on war and peace amounts to no more than high-handed assertions that my chosen theory is right, and all others therefore are evidently wrong.

(*) Wilkinson's "Deadly Quarrels" is a discussion of the studies performed by Lewis Fry Richardson from the 1930s to his death in 1953. Richardson was one of the first researchers who tried to put forward a quantitative theory of war. With my coworkers Gianluca Martelloni and Francesca Di Patti, we are re-examining the statistical patterns of war. We are finding, unfortunately, that Richardosn was basically right: wars are a random phenomenon similar to earthquakes and avalanches -- very hard both to predict and to stop. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Epistemology of a Dying Empire: Can Growth Last Forever?

Recently, Michael Liebreich published an article titled "The Secret of Eternal Growth." I have been mulling over in my head if it is appropriate to spend time discussing one more mishmash of legends, including the one that's by now a classic, the "errors" that the Club of Rome is said to have made with the 1972 report, "The Limits to Growth." Eventually, I decided that it was worth a post, not so much because the post by Liebreich is especially wrongheaded or silly, but because it illustrates one basic point of our civilization: who, and how, takes decisions? On which basis?

In the end, I think we have a problem of epistemology, the question of the nature of knowledge. In order to make decisions, you have to know what you are doing -- at least in principle. In other words, you need some kind of "model" of reality in order to be able to act on it. It was Jay Forrester, the father of system dynamics and the originator of the "Limits to Growth" report who pointed out that, (World Dynamics, 1971, p. 14)

Everyone uses models all the time. Every person in his private life and in his community life uses models for decision making. The mental image of the world around one, carried in each individual’s head, is a model. One does not have a family, a business, a city, a government, or a country in his head. He has only selected concepts and relationships that he uses to represent the real system.

And the big question is where these "selected concepts" come from. My impression is that the mind of our leaders is a jumble of ideas and concepts grafted from haphazard messages that come from the media. Our leaders use no quantitative model to take their decision, only whim and feelings. This is how an idea such as MAGA came about.

The point is that there seems to exist a certain convergence of ideas and concepts in the mediasphere. Somehow, a consensus tends to appear and it is reinforced by repetition. This is how the world's leadership tends to assume the existence of some self-evident truths, such as that economic growth is always good.

The article by Liebrich is a good example of this process. We have an article written by someone who is influential: he is senior contributor at Bloomberg, and also an engineer. What is most disheartening about it is how it is based on half-baked ideas, superficial interpretations, half-truths, and legends. Just as an example, we read in the article that:

. . . a group of concerned environmentalists calling themselves the Club of Rome invited one of the doyens of the new field of computer modelling, Jay Forrester, to create a simulation of the world economy and its interaction with the environment. In 1972 his marvellous black box produced another best-seller, Limits to Growth (iv), which purported to prove that almost every combination of economic parameters ended up not just with growth slowing, but with an overshoot and collapse. This finding, so congenial to the model’s commissioners, stemmed entirely from errors in its structure, as pointed out by a then fresh-faced young economics professor at Yale, William Nordhaus.

Note how Liebrich provides a reference to the "Limits to Growth" book, but none for the supposed "pointing out of the errors in its structure" by the "fresh-faced" William Nordhaus. The reality is that Nordhaus wrote a paper criticizing Forrester in 1973 and Forrester responded to it with another paper, defending his approach. It is perfectly legitimate to think that Nordhaus was right and Forrester wrong, but you can't say that that the purported "errors" in the model are an established fact. I discussed this story in my book, "The Limits to Growth Revisited" and in a recent post on "Cassandra's legacy." Basically, Liebrich reported a legend without bothering too much about verifying it.

There is much more in Liebrich paper that can be criticized in terms of mistakes, personal attacks, misinterpretations, and more (see also another critical assessment by Tim Jackson). But the point is how ideas are thrown into the mediasphere and there they float, to be picked up by human minds as flu viruses flow in the air. Here, Liebreich's thesis is likely to have a certain influence because it is so cleverly presented: basically it tells us that you can eat the pie and still have it. It tells people that humankind can keep growing while reducing its impact on the ecosystem. It is like telling a heroin addict that heroine is good for health and it is OK to continue using it because technological progress will make it possible to get the same kick - or even more kick - from a lower dose. That is what a heroin addict likes to hear, but it won't work in the real world.

The same is true for our leaders and for all of us. We tend to make choices on the basis of what we like, not on how things stand. The sickness of the Empire, in the end, is just bad epistemology.

(h/t Anders Wijkman and Nora Bateson)

Sunday, November 4, 2018

One Hundred Years Ago: the end of the war that should have ended all wars.

The front cover of the book I published this year dedicated to the memory of a forgotten hero of the Great War, Armando Vacca. He fought for peace as much as he could, to the point that he had to give his life for a cause he had fought against. He died as a martyr for his Christian faith on the Carso mountains on July 21st, 1915.

One Hundred years ago, on Nov 4th, 1918, the Great War, also known as the First World War, ended for Italy with Austria-Hungary surrendering. The war would last a few more days on the Western front. I think it is appropriate to celebrate this day with some words of a beautiful song by Eric Bogle, "The Green Fields of France."

Ah, young Willie McBride, I can't help wonder why
Do those that lie here know why did they die
And did they believe when they answered the call
Did they really believe that this war would end war?

For the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain
The killing, and the dying was all done in vain...
For, young Willie McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

Eric Bogle –The Green Fields of France


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)