Putting the life back in science fiction

Through WW3 to Sustainability (?)
September 27, 2019, 11:54 pm
Filed under: climate change, futurism, nonviolence, Speculation, sustainability, The Internet | Tags: ,

I’ve been a bit busy with environmental stuff, including the climate strike on 9/20.  In honor of that, of the MCAS Miramar Air show that’s rattling my windows this weekend, and this little article from June about how the US military is one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet, I figured I’d add in one of my normally bleak predictions about the future.

Here’s a, perhaps the, fundamental problem as I see it:  20th century-style warfare, with its big ships, big tanks, big artillery, nasty planes, and moving troops around the globe, is fundamentally based on the use of oil.  Yes, the British Empire conquered a big part of the globe–temporarily!–with sail power, and gunpowder underlaid by saltpeter production from the Ganges Delta.  However, by the 20th Century, it was obvious that petroleum products were the way militaries had to be powered to be competitive.  No one powered planes on coal.   Indeed, British Petroleum was founded in part by a young MP named Winston Churchill back in the 1920s, as a way to guarantee a petroleum supply to the British Navy. His maneuvers to get oil out of what was then Persia helped set the stage for the modern feuds between Iran and the West, as well as that whole mess in the Middle East.

In my simplistic analysis, this sets us up in the twenty-first century with a “Mexican standoff” based on petroleum: we can’t run our planes, tanks, or artillery (or arguably our smaller ships) on anything other than petroleum products, and arguably we can’t build any of our military weapons without petroleum somewhere in the process.  However, if we don’t decarbonize, civilization will crash.  This means that the countries that decarbonize first will be vulnerable to those that retain petroleum to power their militaries.  And this impedes decarbonization, especially by the great powers, and most especially by the US with its enormous military.  The last country to decarbonize potentially rules the world, at least until it helps to cause civilization to crash and renders its continued existence impossible.

There is a way out of this mess, potentially: cyberwar and informational warfare.  As Russia apparently demonstrated in 2016, it’s possible to cause great damage to the US simply by electing a useful idiot to be President.  That’s the nonviolent equivalent of dropping a nuke on the US, and it seems to have worked on the US and perhaps even in the UK.  Worse for us civilians is the global trend in industrialized countries to wire all their infrastructural controls to the internet.  While this is good for making rapid and complex adjustments to supply chains, it does mean that hacking potentially will become the equivalent of air raids and firebombing.  If a country can shut down the electrical, water, sewer, and food distribution systems of an  enemy city for a week, they can cause as much damage as bombing it, at least in terms of loss of life.  And this can be done electronically and even untraceably.

This is may well be WW3, a web-wide war, not just a world war.  Now above I talked about attacks on the US, but it’s obvious that the US is engaged at least as much as Russia and China in hacking the world’s infrastructure, as well as in informational warfare.  Indeed, we’re the first to deploy a cyberweapon (Stuxnet) in anger.  We’re not the innocents in this.  Unfortunately, though, the US media suppresses news about how much damage the NSA is or can cause, although we read more about Chinese and Russian incursions.  The thing to remember is that every great power is gearing up to fight a war this way, as well as using more conventional weapons.

Still, this may be the brutal path to a sustainable future wherein civilization does not crash.  After all, the only thing to break up the Mexican standoff of petroleum-based war is a demonstration that petroleum-powered weapons can be rendered helpless by something else.  Currently, the two best candidates for that something else are nuclear weapons and cyberwar.  Since no sane  and/or cowardly leader wants to launch an all-out nuclear strike, that leaves cyberwar.  Cyberwar doesn’t rely on petroleum, so if WW3 leaves all the military-industrial complexes in the world in shambles and renders them obsolete, that could be a major step towards a more sustainable future.

This obviously won’t come without cost, as a majority of humans now live in cities whose infrastructure (often minimal) can further be degraded by cyberwar.  I don’t think WW3 will be a short, victorious war for whoever launches it.  Rather, it will dump billions of people into a miserable survival situation, and many of us probably won’t survive it.  That’s actually better than what would happen with nuclear war, but not for those caught up in it.

One other casualty of a global cyberwar likely will be the global internet itself.  After all, one very effective way to insure that someone on the other side of the globe isn’t hacking your critical infrastructure is to physically sever electronic communications with that hacker.  Since much of our traffic runs through undersea cables, I suspect that part of the response to WW3 will be militaries severing cables to isolate national grids from outsiders.  And that will be a pity.  I’m glad that I have online friends around the globe at the moment, and it will suck to lose contact with them.  However, watching the internet die might be part of the price we pay for both losing our petroleum-based military and, just possibly, rebuilding whatever survives of civilization to run on a more sustainable basis.

Obviously I’m leaving out a lot of stuff, like how the US military, mighty as it is, is stretched past the breaking point and probably unable to do another major operation (which is horribly destabilizing…).  And my analysis could well be wrong.  Still, I think this is one reason why it’s so very, very hard to get the US to take real steps to combat climate change, and I’m sadly afraid that the only fix for this is, as in WWI to have a different style of war that renders obsolete the problematic tactics and politics that lead into it.  Hopefully I’m overly pessimistic, but we’ll see.


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[…] Through WW3 to Sustainability (?) […]

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The situation is more complex when you take asymmetric warfare into account. This potentially allows high-tech state actors (? China ?) to even the odds against a high-carbon but functionally obsolete force (? US carrier battle groups? ). Of course that has yet to play out (and hopefully it won’t).

Comment by KineticLensman

We are seeing classic “imperial overstretch”. The cost of the US military is staggering and unsustainable. We already know that it is both ineffective (Vietnam, Afghanistan, S. China Sea) and vulnerable (IEDs, cheap drones, injuring troops).

I agree that cyberwar and psyops on populations is the future. Those expensive toys beloved of the military is like the WWI dreadnaughts. Obsolete.

Comment by Alex Tolley

A factor is missing from your analysis: The military implications of civilian advancement to a post-fossil fuel economy. In many cases it could potentially be more robust against conventional, electronic and asymmetric attacks (especially in terms of reducing supply lines through dangerous territory), but this ignores the probable vulnerabilities. More complicated, long distance electricity grids and control systems for balancing of variable renewable generation is likely to be collectively more vulnerable to attack, sabotage, disaster, and raw maintenance costs than the smaller and simpler grids of the present. The specific threats which cause damage will vary by region and situation, but pretty much everywhere will be affected by at least one of unpredictable weather, uncommon disasters, attacks, and refugee movements among other problems that make renewable grids economically and/or militarily vulnerable, or untenable. So, we’re in a race against time now to build enough renewable generation and electrical grids to avert problems that will make them non-viable as the situation degrades.

Comment by anonymous coward

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