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

Sunday, December 30, 2018

2019: Are you Ready for a New World War? A Statistical Analysis

Detail from Picasso's "Guernica" - 1937

With the end of 2018, also the centennial of the end of the Great War (or WWI) is over. It passed remarkably in silence: a few celebrations, but little or no discussion of the reasons and the consequences of that war, supposed to be the one that would "end all wars." Of course, it was too much to expect that wars would ever end, but maybe we could have at least learned something from rethinking to a conflict that caused some 40 million victims for no evident purpose. But that didn't happen (if you can read Italian, you may be interested in a reflection of mine on the subject).

So, the world situation, today, looks more and more similar to the military build-up that took place in Europe in the years preceding the Great War. The Great Powers are arranging their forces as if they were setting their pieces on a giant chessboard. At some moment, someone may well decide to make the first move. And, in this giant chess game, the kings can wipe out all the pieces on the chessboard in a single move with their nuclear warheads.

It would be nice to follow Steven Pinker's optimism about modern times, supposed to have become less violent. There may be such a trend for the past few decades, but it is always dangerous to extrapolate from a limited dataset. In this case, the optimism of Pinker seems to be simply wrong if measured over a time span of several centuries. This is the result of an analysis of the data for the conflicts of the past 600 years that myself and my coworkers Martelloni and Di Patti performed in 2018 -- it was thought, in part, as a way to celebrate the centennial of the Great War.

Our results are mostly a confirmation of a series of analyses that was started by Lewis Fry Richardson, pacifist and polymath, who was the first to study wars trying to understand their statistical patterns. It is a field that today has grown and arrived at a number of conclusions, mainly that war is a statistical phenomenon largely independent from religions, ideologies, money, and great leaders. It is an "emergent phenomenon" of the complex network of interactions among human societies worldwide. There is some evidence that wars are becoming less frequent, but they are also becoming more deadly. There follows there is a chance of a major conflict in a non-remote future that could dwarf all past conflicts in terms of the destruction it could cause. On this point, see a recent paper by Aaron Clauset.

Unfortunately, the results of these studies are practically unknown beyond the small group of practitioners engaged in it and with every new war we repeat the mistakes of the Great War, thinking that a war could be a way to end wars -- it is something that was repeated as recently as with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As usual, we are marching blindfolded into the future and the future may not be kind to those who don't understand it.

I have already reported some preliminary results of this study (also here, here, and here). Now you can read our complete paper on ArXiv, and here are some excerpts.


Pattern Analysis of World Conflicts over the past 600 years

(excerpts from the complete paper)

We analyze the largest database available for violent conflicts, the one prepared by Brecke (Brecke 2011), covering some 600 years of human history. After normalizing the data for the global human population, we find that the number of casualties tends to follow a power law over the whole data series for the period considered, with no evidence of periodicity. We also observe that the number of conflicts, again normalized for the human population, show a decreasing trend as a function of time. Our results tend to support the idea that war is a statistical phenomenon related to the network structure of the human society.

Our contribution in this field consists in validating the Brecke conflict database (Brecke 2011)⁠, among the longest and most complete ones available. This analysis confirms previous work, see e.g. (Clauset 2018)⁠ , (Clauset and Gleditsch 2018)⁠ for a general discussion. The data indicate that power laws are common in the distribution of violent conflicts in human history – in this case, the trend is clear when the number of casualties is normalized for the increasing world population. Note also that the normalized number of conflicts per year tend to decrease with time – this result indicates that in modern times war have tended to become less frequent, but more destructive. In practice, these results confirm that there is little evidence supporting the idea popularized by Pinker (Pinker 2011)⁠ that humankind is progressing toward a more peaceful world. A new major conflict might be possible in a non-remote future, as discussed among others by Clauset (Clauset 2018)⁠. These results seem to indicate that human conflicts are a critical phenomenon: we could say that humans worldwide tend to form societies existing in a self-organized critical condition, as defined by Bak et al. (Per Bak, Tang, and Wiesenfeld 1988)⁠. In these conditions, war is simply one of the methods that the system has to dissipate entropy at the fastest possible speed (Kleidon, Malhi, and Cox 2010)⁠,(Trinn 2018). In other words, war appears to be an unavoidable consequence of the behavior of human beings, and perhaps of other primate species (de Waal 2000)⁠.


  1. Ugo
    A very worthwhile exercise on your and colleagues' part, IMHO.

    A couple of questions: I am reminded of B Liddell Hart's thesis on guerrilla warfare and the long term historical effects perhaps visible in recurrent civil conflict. BLH used the Peninsular Wars in Spain as one of his examples. I wonder about Ireland. Can we think of including these 'hot-spots'in the model of emergent criticality, like margins of a tectonic plate?

    Secondly, I wonder about the generalised case for 'self-organised criticality'(Bak & Chen). Living organisms are a perpetuation of complex systems in themselves. Of course critical failure overtakes the individual eventually, but 'criticality' is postponed on a day to day basis. How is this done?

    Regarding the damage, marauding European mediaeval armies were capable of clearing the German plain of habitation, if I remember the history correctly?

    (while we peer at past and future ruins ... smile)

    1. A simple exercise. It doesn't pretend to go into the details, just a confirmation of previous work and of the "networked" structure of society. Leaders scream and stomp their feet, but there is little they can do to change that.

  2. Ugo,
    I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for your blog, your ideas, and your wonderfulness. Wonderfulness is a power law relationship of the impact of your incredible imagination on the world of ideas.

    Time and time again, you express ideas that I have only seen in small leaps of intuition. I wonder what it would be like to possess your mind for one day. I suppose it would be similar to the scene that in the movie Matrix, when Agent Smith infects the Oracle. Suddenly, the room in transformed and we see a glimpse of the true power surrounding the Oracle, previously an old gentle lady who likes to make cookies.

    I reread your previous blog with the quote from Tolstoy. I was introduced as a teenager to Tolstoy when learning to play an old game called Squad Leader, which included the same section (Epilogue) in its rules book. Incredible writer and thinker.

    We, as a species in this timeline, are fortunate to have you. Thank you!

    Best wishes for next odd-numbered year!
    Michael Searson
    Chico, California, USA

    1. Thank you Michael. And, indeed, the Oracle scene in the first Matrix is fantastic. I'll have it in my mind forever. Then, we all try to do what we can, it is an interesting world the one surrounding us and -- at times - we can manage to understand a little bit of it.

  3. As a German Biologist my view is, it is always a biological phenomenon of opposing forces fighting for territory, physical , emotionally, intellectually.
    The rise of the Madman
    Yes we can...
    We cannot fail...
    Bismarck provoked the War against France - for the demonic purpose to create the German Kaiser and Reich..
    This single event changed History and created the world we live in today.
    It is a single Madman who provokes a confrontation.
    We love those Mad Men, give them all the Power they crave for...
    And we do not oppose them...
    Weakness creates the Demon...

    1. I think war is mostly a biological phenomenon. Our wars are not different from those ants wage. And we don't understand wars much better than ants do. Or so I think.

  4. Nice post, very cool pdf, you did a great job!.
    Well done guys!.

    .you start the war data, since 1400DC, that's correct for segmenting wars after gun power

    Your thesis is: War is a statistical phenomenon related to the network structure of the human society-
    I think it's storically correct, war is made by mankind, no doubt about that.

    To get history patterns, I suggest to:

    -remouving from the data serie the civil wars.
    -segmenting the data serieinto geographic areas (continents in the world)
    -segmenting data, to point out the locally and temporally reasons of wars.

    I suggest:

    tag interstate wars: as big wars between at least 2 states, or big wars with long duration or lots of deaths

    tag regional wars: as colonial wars, flashpoint between at least 2 states with battle far from europe, cold war limited wars, proxies wars in cold war era

    That's all, I think those criteria may be useful to point out hystoric patterns (if they are any).

    History repeat itself in infinite times and ways because of during the moment of peace time, it could exist war and peace in different places on earth during the same period of time. It means some places on earth for some time, they remain in peace orbit situation for locally conditions; meanwhile in other parts of the earth, other places in the same time, they are into a war orbit conditions because of locally war conditions happen.

    For example:
    Considering the XXI century, on one hand todays mankind is a MULTIPOLAR world (the context is quite similar to the era of the National States Wars) and this elements is sounding the sad war bell. On the other hand, in the XXI century there is a tactical nuclear proliferation in Asia (and the presence of many nuclear warheads, even they are tactics warheads, those stuff are partially similar to the Cold War phase with the rational actors avoiding escalation and direct wars).

    What are your predictions for XXI century?

    Mine are those:

    Hypothesis H0: Just as the national states era, the national states have fought themself, similarly in the MULTIPOLAR phase, all the MULTIPOLAR actors of the XXI century will collide in war, causing a reduction of the average time distance of the war events (chain detonation with an escalation of a direct MULTIPOLAR confrontation) and generating also a contextual reduction of the average duration of the conflicts.

    Hypothesis H1: As in the Cold War the contenders were rational avoiding direct confrontation, in the same way into the MULTIPOLAR phase, all the actors of the XXI century will be rational avoiding the direct confrontation, but they will cause, as in the Cold War phase into BIPOLAR world, many minor regional conflicts, without escalating into a direct war between multipolar players, but such wars will generate a reduction of the average time distance (mine field detonation effect) causing also a simultaneous reduction of the average duration of the conflicts in the XXI century.

    1. There is a lot of work in this area. Some of the things you are proposed have already been done -- it is a vast area of study. And, for the 21st century, it is always the same problem. We can calculate probabilities, but probabilities don't tell us when something will happen.

    2. I agree, that's right, even if you get a probability number crunching stuffs under the frequentist probability theory, once you get a number it doesn't add much more than a generic evalutation like "Probable" made by a PESTEL analisys with a subjective probability theory does.

      I still agree it could be impossibile to predict exactly the year of the next war detonation, too many alterable and variable are in game. But despite that, it is possibile to estimate a critical time, if we understand Why, Who, Where, How, will actors of next war fight.

      Scenario planning can be a powerfull tools.
      PESTEL analisys can be powerfull tools.

      I said in my comment an high risk of war from 2030s to 2050s because Science says in 2030s north pole will be ice free in summer/fall. Once mankind will pass this tipping point, the hell's doors will be open, much more tipping points will get closer becoming a reality and climate change will continue on its way even if mankind will reach negative emission gas serra profile after 2030s.

  5. Speaking of Stats...

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  7. One is never ready for new war but the war is great indicator of human characters. At the beginning of WW1 a small group of Italian Garibaldisti joined Serbian Army. They felt that some great injustice was done to Serbia by K+K monarchy and decided to help. Unfortunately they were killed in combat. A truly great sacrifice for the righteous cause. There are several streets in Serbian cities named after these brave Italians. They were ordinary working class people. They proved that virtue really exist in this cruel world. We remember them with respect.



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)