Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)