Valuable new insights about the culture of war… a preview

Western writers about military and political theory sees war as a largely rational activity, at least on a state to state level.  Clausewitz sees it as an extension of politics, a tools of policy to advance the State’s goals.  Marx looks at its economic basis.  Much of the game theory that drives military simulations resembles chess more than anything done by Paraguay during the War of the Triple Alliance, or Japan in early 1945. 

Today many prominent American advocate long wars against what are, in our eyes, irrational foes.  Neo-conservatives like William Kristol urge wars to defend rationally-based western societies against irrational, expansionist Islamic fanatics — “Islamofascists.”  Visionaries like Thomas Barnett call for neocolonial wars against “gap” peoples, those who have not yet seen the light of civilization.  Presidential candidate McCain believes we should fight in Iraq for a hundred years if necessary, against enemies he sees in the shadows but does not clearly describe (Here is the text and video, also here).

Do we understand these foes?  Do we understand what drives us to wage yet another long war, just after the conclusion of the Cold War, to spend more on defense than the by the rest of the world combined?  While folks like Kristol and Barnett give cool lectures in comfortable conference rooms, where calm reason is in the very air, massive wars are waged in the third world which barely register on the American consciousness and lie beyond our understanding.  Nigeria (1967-69).  Ethiopia – Eritrea (see here).  Hutu vs. Tutsis (Rwanda, 1994).  Congo (1998 – , see here and here).  Sudan (see here).  Senseless blood-thirsty war, without rules, without any logic other than that of the knife.

There is a large literature about the irrational roots of war.  Perhaps best known is John Keegan‘s A History of Warfare.  While not the refutation of Clausewitz that he intended (The opening line is “War is not the continuation of policy by other means.”), it proves several interesting case studies of why societies have waged war.  Keegan says…

Soldiers are not as other men — that is the lesson I have learned from a life cast among warriors.  The lesson has taught me to view with extreme suspicion all theories and representations of war that equate it with any other activity in human affairs. … All civilizations owe their origins to the warrior; their cultures nurture the warrior who defend them … Ultimately, however, there is only one warrior culture.  its evolution and transformation over time and place, from man’s beginnings to his arrival in the contemporary world, is the history of warfare.

A new book by Martin van Creveld will hopefully take up where Keegan left off about this vital subject.  Professor van Creveld has written about almost every significant aspect of war — technology, logistics, air power and maneuver warfare, the training of officers, the role of women in combat, military history (several books), nuclear proliferation, and strategy (several books).  He has written about the future of war —  The Transformation of War (which I consider the best work to date about modern war) and The Changing Face of War.  Then there is his magnum opus, The Rise and Decline of the State — the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century.

Now comes Culture and War, hopefully explaining the 4GW hellfire infecting so much of the world — while the rest of us enjoy peace and a rate of economic growth not seen since the invention of agriculture.  And what their passion for war might mean for us.  From the publisher about this book:

Contrary to what Clausewitz and so many “realists” believe, war is not simply a means to an end. It is that, but it also exercises a powerful fascination in its own right; out of this fascination grew, and continues to grow, an entire culture.  That culture ranges from the shapes and decoration of the armor of ancient Spartan warriors to today’s high tech “tiger suits;” from war games played by the ancient Egyptians to today’s violent video games; and from the Biblical commandments as to how one should treat one’s enemies all the way to the numbered paragraphs of today’s international law.  It also includes countless great works of art, books (both fiction and history), films, and much more.

Renowned author and war historian Martin van Creveld argues that, in spite of cultural, technological, and tactical changes, the culture of war, far from being obsolete, is more alive today as it has ever been.  Conversely, a society which, for one reason or another, loses touch with this culture will be helpless in front of one that has retained it and relishes in it.

Your can place order at Amazon or Random House.  Available 30 September 2008.

For links to the online works by Marin van Creveld see the The Essential 4GW reading list: chapter One, Martin van Creveld.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

31 thoughts on “Valuable new insights about the culture of war… a preview”

  1. I fear this may be the real reason…

    THE DARK SIDE OF MAN: Tracing the Origins of Male Violence, by Michael P. Ghiglieri; Perseus, 1999;

    “Chimp social structure would be unique were it not for humans acting similarly. This is no coincidence. By most taxonomic criteria, chimps and humans are sibling species. Overall, chimp society is not only extremely sexist — with all adult males dominant over females — but also xenophobic to the extent of killing all alien males, many infants, and some old females who enter their territory. To some readers, my use of the word war may seem too strong to describe what male kin groups do. But systematic, protracted, deliberate, and cooperative brutal killings of every male in a neighboring community, plus genocidal and frequent cannibalistic murder of many of their offspring, followed by usurpation of the males’ mates and annexation of part or all of the losers’ territory, matches or exceeds the worst that humans do when they wage war.

    “Wild chimps reveal the natural contexts of territoriality, war, male cooperation, solidarity and sharing, nepotism, sexism, xenophobia, infanticide, murder, cannibalism, polygyny, and mating competition between kin groups of males — behaviors that have evolved through sexual selection. Also significant is the fact that none of these apes learned these violent behaviors by watching TV or by being victims of socioeconomic handicaps — poor schools, broken homes, bad fathers, illegal drugs, easy weapons, or any other sociological condition. Nor were these apes spurred to war by any political, religious, or economic ideology or by the rhetoric of an insane demagogue. They also were not seeking an ‘identity’ or buckling under peer pressure. Instead, they were obeying instincts, coded in the male psyche, dictating that they must win against other males.” [p. 176]

    “The central ‘truth’ of sociologists is that nature, especially that of humankind, is nice and that people are designed to do things that, all in all, favor the survival of their species. Hence people could never be equipped by nature with instincts to kill other people. This idea comes from the Bambi school of biology, a Disneyesque vision of nature as a collection of moralistic and altruistic creatures. It admires nature for its harmony and beauty of form and for its apparent ‘balance’ or even cooperativeness. It admires the deer for its beauty and fleetness, and it grudgingly admires the lion for its power and nobility of form. If anything is really wrong with us, it explains, it is a sociocultural problem that we can fix by resocializing people. It is not a biological problem.

    “Nature, however, is actually a dynamic state of recurring strife of relentless competition, dedicated predators and parasites, and selfish defense. The deer owes its beauty and fleetness to predators such as mountain lions, which kill the clumsiest and slowest deer first; to competitors for food; and to competition between males to mate. Without predators, deer would not only lack fleetness; they would lack legs altogether. They would be slugs oozing from one plant to another. Yet even if these deer-slugs were the only animals out there, natural selection would favor the evolution of faster and more aggressive deer-slugs and would favor any other trait that made them superior competitors against each other. This would include the killing of one deer-slug by another in situations where it boiled down to kill or die.

    “Moreover, the power and noble visage of the lion (or of the family cat or dog, for that matter) rest entirely on natural selection having shaped not only a fleet predator and efficient killing machine but also a very violent competitor against its own kind in situations where the options were narrowed to exclude or kill, or else kill to survive or reproduce.” [p. 179]

  2. I don’t have the history background to support it, but I believe there has never been a successful “us” for more than a generation without a corresponding “them” to fight against. That’s why it’s imperative to support space exploration. There will never be peace on Earth until we can all agree on the need to kill those ungrateful Martian and Lunar colonists.

  3. As the saying goes, we theorize about a condition called “peace”, extrapolating from the brief pauses between wars. But the spread of global prosperity — and the spread of nukes — offers the potential for a peaceful world on the state-to-state level. If can learn either to prevent or win 4GWs, then conflict might be kept at historically low level.

    That would be a great accomplishment, on the historic scale of abolishing slavery. Like slavery, that does not mean a level of zero. Both would continue to exist in the darker corners of the world.

  4. Not only can war be irrational, but peace as well.

    For example, much of the reason why the Treaty of Versailles failed resulted from the need to stigmatize Germany for its “war guilt” rather than to fashion a rational framework to bring it back into the community of nations.

    The result: the unworkable framework that Keynes described so well in The Economic Consequences of the Peace – a recipe for economic collapse and future war.

  5. All this talk about the inherent savagery of man as a permanent evolutionary legacy prmopts me to blow my own horn by referring to Azar Gat’s magisterial “War In Human Civilization,” which I reviewed last year for the Journal of Military History. Yes, the iron logic of evolution made us the ruthless competitors for food and sex that we are, determining the shape of civilization in the process, but the good news is that evolution doesn’t stand still. The tide of war seems to be steadily receding, possibly because life (i.e., survival) is no longer the relentless zero-sum game it used to be.

    Shifting gears, Fabius, has someone already or will someone soon comment on “La Guerre Probable,” the new book by French General Vincent Desportes?

  6. Peace is only better than war if peace is not hell too. War being hell makes sense.”  Walker Percy, The Second Coming (1980).

  7. For you Yankees, Walker Percy is a noted author of “Southern Literature”. Since you will not read this stuff, here’s the penny summary of “The Second Coming” …

    “Does the title of this novel refer to the psychological rebirth of the main characters (Will and Allie), or to the apocalyptic visions of the Catholic faith? The book’s conclusion suggests that it is better to think about practical matters than it is to worry about the possibility of the world coming to an end.” Source here.

  8. Here is the story about General Desportes’ new book “La Guerre Probable”, from Defense News (21 January 2008). The review makes it sound interesting. The review iteself is worth reading!

    Still, the message is unclear from this brief summary. Does he tell us how to win ” asymmetric wars” after committing forces “large enough to stay on the ground for years to restore peace.” (Is he a French Thomas Barnett?} Does he explain why we should try, and who will pay for it? Is the book published in English so we can read it?

  9. My personal opinion is that we’d all be quite farther along the road had our culture built on the solid foundation provided by Heraclitus… thanks to Jeff for that. Immediate feelings aside, I also opine that the way forward involves a solution to the Goedel paradox by temporarily adopting a tactical attitude of utter detachment in order to get all the facts dispassionately on the table, at which point reloading one’s biases (which are not necessarily bad things… simply to state that for example being in favor of our Constitution can at one and the same time be the optimal thing and also a preconception-plus-emotion) in order to process said facts strategically toward a desired end if possible would be indicated.

    Whatever our nature we do have some manifest capability of transcending it, albeit slowly and inefficiently. The current circumstances can be viewed as compelling greater speed and efficiency in doing so, but again, a dispassionate assembly of the facts insofar as they can be determined would be an essential prerequisite.

  10. ” by temporarily adopting a tactical attitude of utter detachment in order to get all the facts dispassionately on the table”

    Another disciple of Descartes! Methodological skepticism. The usual objection to this is that few or no people are capable of doing this. Even Descartes, who doubted everything, rethought everything from first principles, and ended pretty much with the beliefs he started with.

  11. ” by temporarily adopting a tactical attitude of utter detachment in order to get all the facts dispassionately on the table”

    I suggest you read Gadamer’s Truth and Method. He explains clearly why this is impossible. In the world there is an infinite number of happenings. To get “all the facts” on the table they must be limited in number. You must have a criterion to distinguish facts from non-facts. Moreover, that criterion cannot be logical, since you need facts before you can use logic on them. Therefore, you need an “emotional” criterion, or better a criterion based on practial reason. That criterion cannot be dispassionate, or better, cannot be objective, since it cannot be logical. That does not mean that the same criterion cannot be shared between different people. It can, but it is transferred not by logical reasoning, but by common experiences, shared history and the like. See Plato, Phaedrus and Seventh Epistle.

    This is also one of the most important results of complexity theory. The world is divided into different levels of complexity, and more complex things cannot be logically deducted from less complex, although they are determined by them. You must observe the reality and discern facts by practical reason.

    This is the reason why conflicts between civilisations seem so irrational. Each side is behaving completely rationally, but as it admits wholly different facts, it seem to be behaving randomly and arbitrarily to the other. Logical arguments cannot persuade anyone, since both sides start from different assumptions. Both live in very different mental worlds, and the intersection is an area of discontuity, which seems to either side to lie outside of reason.

    I can only add that the most rational thing of all is the survival instinct. Civilisations, as high order phenomena, possess it. Since accepting basic assumptions of another civilisation will destroy it, civilisations will fight among each other. This doesn’t mean that nations and people will fight – war of civilisations can be merely mental. But in case of Islam, they tend to use an argument of force. In fact, they don’t have very many other arguments.

    Speaking about Islamic aggression is a serious mistake. They are fighting a desperate battle for survival of their civilisation against much stronger foe. They would like to attack, but they lack any serious strength. All those phenomena which can seem an advance of Islam against the West are merely caused by INTERNAL development of the Western civilisation and will be settled, one way or another, by wholly internal factors.

  12. Trouble is Greg that the data doesn’t agree with you. Yes there are some useful similarities with Chimp behaviour but look at the reality of Homo Sapiens.

    There are 6+ billion people. A huge percentage live in massive very dense groups called cities, anything up to 20 million people jammed in together. Amazingly we all get along reasonably. Excepting car accidents the death rates through violence are astonishingly low.

    We bump into each other, get jammed into trains and tubes (ride the London underground in rush hour someday), stand shoulder to shoulder in pubs, queue in supermarkets, etc, etc.

    And somehow we get along so well that when there is an acception (e.g. a berserker going nuts) it is such astonishing news that it is broadcast around the world.

    We have a huge capacity to live together, amazingly reasonably peacefully. Our tolerance level is so high that when a person or group reacts against another person/group that, again, it become headline news, because it is so rare.

    Oh, Badiun, be careful about gross generalisations. 1.2 billion people of the Islamic religion cannot be catagorised any more than you can catagorise all Catholics or Protestants or Shintos or Budhists or …. you get the point.

    I remember some other people that made broad generalisations about totally different people, from many different countries and different cultures but with a common religion. They roped them all in together and tarred them all with the same brush (rats scurrying I think, disease carrying, war making, agression, etc).

    Who were they? They were called the Nazi party.

  13. I’ve got upgraded to a Nazi? Thanks. In that same spirit, I can tell you that Jewish and Islamic civilisations are basically identical, or even that they share the same civilisation (Spengler called it Magian civilisation).

    But, you know, people are not bound forever to their civilisation. Israel is organized mostly according to Western ideas, although they do have an “unassimilated” Jewish minority, which engages into typical shaningans with sex separation, head covering for women etc.

    It is exactly

  14. It is exactly that possibility that people will cease to belong to the Islamic civilisation – even when retaining Islamic faith (this is by no means so rare as it would seem from newspapers) that is causing all that rage of purists in Arabic countries. Here is a good series of articles, with a common thema: communities can disappear, but they will usually fight for survival first.

    And, by the way, try to avoid politicaly correct self-contradicting sentences like “1.2 billion people of the Islamic religion cannot be catagorised any more than you can catagorise all Catholics or Protestants or Shintos or Budhists…” You categorized all of them in that very sentence. You must categorize, if you intend to speak at all. The only question is which categories are right for the given case. Incidentally, in that case the religious category is not QUITE right. Not all Muslims belong to the Islamic civilisation, although all Shintoist belong to the Japanese one.

  15. Baduin, shock tactics. Gross generalisations are simply are not helpful. Carried too far then they become simple unreasoning prejudices. Start believing them and then you start to make terminal mistakes like “Russians can’t fight”.

    Moslems are spread across the world and cover every ethnic, cultural and economic group. Is the senior businesswoman, or the teenager with all the body piercings (in a shopping mall no less), or the middle class couple going skiing (all I saw being interviwed in Tehran, from a program on Iran) interested in a clash of civilisations? No, of course not. They are interested in a good life for them and their kids. They want MP3 players, cars, internet access, good jobs, nice houses, etc, etc and, unfortunately, techno music (oh well).

    Are they ‘enemies’, nope, but they’d probably appreciate us not attacking them for a while and doing a bit of business.

    The tendency to lump everyone into these cartoonish caricature means that we run the risk of making more enemies by not taking the time and effort to understand them and the huge differences between all the miriad of countries, groups, sub-groups and individuals. And the terms ‘Islamic world/civilisation’ are meaningless. There are more cultural differences between my local Sudanese butcher, the Turk running a local small business, or the Indonesian running their (again local) restuarant, than there are between you and me.

    Afghanistan and Iraq are living examples of the bankruptcy of this attitude being played out in all its full tragedy right now. To try and extend these sweeping and simplistic generalisations across the world is, IMHO, an act of self defeating insanity.

  16. The reference to Spengler is interesting, but somewhat reverses his theme. He says that the Islamic “culture” (perhaps s/b plural) are family friendly. Our individualistic and more gender-neutral (poor expression, but you probably get the drift) society is not, hence almost all westnern nations have fertility rates below the replacment rate. Hence no matter how the war on Islamo-whatever goes, those who have children inherit the Earth.

    He does not go this far, but an extension of this theory is that feminism, at least in its current varient, is not a successful strategy from a sociobiological perspective. That is, it is a self-correction aberation in the stream of human history.

    As for the above discussion about sterotypes and generalizations… Discussions of geopolitical matters requires a high degree of abstraction. Hence the concept of general semantics is essential. Abstraction is a tool, in this case an essential and unavoidable one, but requires use with awareness of its limitations. Abstraction means loss of precision, of detail. The test of abstractions, the only one in my opinion, is operational utility.

    Other than that we need God-like wisdom, or verification of accuracy from God. Since neither seems available, we fall back to utility as the standard.

    General semanics, as in “the map is not the territory, the name is not the actual object, …”

  17. Fertility rates are largely a function of economics (with some cultural wrinkles). Every society’s fertility rates drops as it become richer. You can take a graph of average national income vs fertility rates and run a straight line through it. But this is modfied by the dispersion of wealth in a society and the direct and indirect costs born by the individuals in having and raising children. This is mainly a function of the marginal cost of children. In western societies, children cost a lot of money: housing, lost female income, education, health, etc, and in return they dump you in a nursing home. In poor, particularly rural, areas children are an income producing asset (at least the boys are) and/or their welfare system and retirement investment.

    That was the same in the west as well, not that too many years ago. The prime breeding grouping was originally the tribe/clan, then it was the extended family, then just the immmediate family.

    Note that immigrants, from poorer places, quickly revert to the average rates of their host country, within 1-3 generations (same thing happens with lifestyle diseases as well). Which is why the hyperbole about higher immigrant fertility rates being blown up by some people is a furphy.

    Where we have not thought through our economic systems carefully enough is the disincentives to have children. Some of the decisions made in the last 30 years in particular have had a strong negative affect on fertility as marginal costs for average people have increased markedly. E.g. We are quite happy to have house price booms (now unravelling of course) without thinking about the impact on young, child bearing couples. Have a huge mortgage and that child you may want becomes unaffordable because you need the income to pay the mortgage.

    Downward pressure on working and middle class male incomes (particularly the last 20 years, with the loss of higher paying male jobs) has meant that more women have had to (repeat had to) go into the workplace to maintain household income. Another disincentive for children again. Increasing cost of education, not unconnected to insufficient public education spending (thus pressurising families into having to spend money on private education) simply adds to the burden. Health costs as well. The list is endless.

    The last 30 years quite a few western Govt’s pushed social costs and risks onto individuals, while holding down (or even eliminating) their incomes. This definitely has not helped. Look at fertility rates in US/UK/Australia since the early 80’s.

    Want higher fertility? Then the society as a whole has to spend the money, directly or indirectly. Grants, paid maternity leave, very importantly – higher working and middle class wages (particularly males), free good quality education, etc, etc, in various mixes depending on the society. It is an investment by society as a whole. Some countries have started to address this and have shown some success, though quite a lot of it tends to be too little compared to the other negative incentives that our economic system is producing.

    The again, thinking big picture, lowered populations is not too bad an idea. In the coming resource poor (energy, minerals, water, etc) world we are facing, we can have a lot of poor people or a smaller number of resonably well off people. I look at Australia, it cannot support its people at its current standard of living now without borrowing huge amounts of money. In 50 years, when its running out of minerals to export and agriculture collapses, we could have 30 million very poor people or alternatively 10 million quite well off people.

  18. OldSkeptic might be right, but most of this is theory based on a small number of datapoints.

    1. Is the driver high income or western-type societies? We have few examples of societies that have high incomes without adopting many western elements in their societies. And those few are, of course, considered special cases and hence ignored. Consider Saudi Arabia:
    very high fertility AND income.

    2. There is little data suggesting that high middle class incomes boost fertility, let alone high “male” incomes (not sure what that would mean in practice). Note Japan: fertility collapsed among all elements, prosperous or not.

    3. There is very little evidence that the govt programs (e.g., long maternity & paternity leaves) in the EU have boosted fertility. Some nations have reported tiny upticks in fertility. But since they do not report fertility by ethnic group or national origin, this might mean only that their immigrant populations are large enough to affect the national averages.

    4. There is a debate over the decline in fertility of immigrants’ descendents. Some believe that the low level of integration in the EU combined with the increasing development of a seperate/distinct culture will result in continued high fertility. If so, the math suggests that Spengler (at Asia Times) might be right about German becoming a dead language in a few centures.

    5. I suggst visiting some feminists and explaining how women “had to go to work”. Note that two-income couples are very common even in very affluent households, often due to associative mating (e.g., doctors marrying doctors) — where the wife does not “have to” work by any reasonable econoomic standards. So maintaining family income is not always (or even often?) the only factor.

    6. The “resource poor” world is in my opinion a scenario, but not the most likely one. Water is scarce in specific places most often due to either poor management (e.g., pollution in China) or mis-pricing (e.g., California). Any good that is priced too low will be scarce.

    There is no substantial evidence of mineral scarcity other than some exotics (e.g., helium) and petroleum.

    Petroleum is the big one, of course. Much depends on how quickly we develop substitutes. We need those “Mr. Fusion” power units now! But I am confident that our descendents, eventually, will regard the idea of burning oil for fuel much as we regard burning dung for heat.

  19. 1. Re fertility rates, I should have amplified a little. Fertility goes down vs GDP in virtually a straight line, then levels off as this chart shows: See:

    This has happened to many countries and cultures including non-western ones: such as India, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Iran, Indonesia, etc, etc. See:

    Even the big ‘exceptions’: Saudia Arabia, Israel have dropped (e.g. SA from 6.3 births per woman in 2000 to 3.94 now). These high rates can be explained by economic distribution (SA may be rich but the majority of the population is pretty poor and females poorly educated, compared to the low rate for Iran which has a more equitable spread of wealth and very good education for females) or high immigration (Israel) from poorer countries (though Israel also provides tremendous incentives to have children, especially in its religious and settler communities).

    The other ‘exception’ quoted is the US. Trouble is when you break it down. Immigrants from poorer countries, poorer communities (due to huge income disparity and particularly in the South) and teenage births (predominately to poor, low educated teenagers) are mostly responsible for the difference. I don’t think Spengler has this quite in mind when he prattles on about religious values causing the US’s higher rate than the EU (bit more like Kornbluth’s Marching Morons).

    The US teenagers are particularly interesting, see:

    In Australia, where the majority of immigrants are of working/middle class or higher, their fertility is actually LOWER than the average population.

    4. ‘Regression to the Mean’. As immigrants become more like the majority population (health, income, etc) their fertility behaviour follows. The one exception this may be if certain immigrant groups remain economically marginalised, however their statistics will still move towards the mean of the rest of comparable income groups in that society. It may be higher than average, but similar to the other poorer (and poorer educated) sections of that society. See: for example.

    5. The key thing about female workforce participation is the main fertility years (16-35) and whether they can afford to take time off and/or have support to have and raise their children. If they have to work full time (to pay for the mortgage, etc) then the economic cost is horrendous. One child may be affordable but multiple ones are not, as taking several years off becomes impossible. Childcare may be affordable for a single child, but 3,4 or 5?

    The reality is that it shows how powerful genetic programming is, because for the vast majority of people, in most higher income countries, having a child is the most personally economically irresponsible thing a person can do. Various surveys have shown (at least in Australia which has a very high female workforce participation rate) that many women would like to drop out of the workforce (or at least drop to part time work) during their childbearing ages. The economic cost deters them.

    This brings us to (2). Higher male incomes means that a higher proportion of families will be able to opt out/take time off during child bearing years and still keep a roof over their heads. The destruction of high paying male jobs (and high unemployment rates in young and older males) particularly in the manufacturing sectors has been disastrous to the working classes (and increasingly the middle) classes in some countries (e.g Australia, US, UK). Outsourcing and very high immigration rates has only added to this sorry picture.

    As an aside I find it (almost) amusing that the Govt’s in these countries (of all political persuasions) have all ran high anti-immigrant rhetoric, while in reality flooding the countries with very large numbers of immigrants, which coincidently keeps wages down.

  20. I agree with you on most of these points. The attribution to income is, however, tenuous because incomes have risen in these countries along with absorption (more or less) of western culture. As you know, correlation is not causation. Hence some skepticism is needed with this kind of analysis (no need to tell OldSeptic that!).

    How this will all work out is difficult to say. An sociobiological perspective is that it work out as societies that cannot learn how to maintain sufficiently high fertility plus immigration levels die out.

    This goes to your point about high male incomes. I doubt that this proposition will fly if presented to a class of new med students, a majority of whom are women. Most will likely say that they want to be doctors, to the detriment of their fertility rates, no matter what their future husbands’ income.

  21. Re resources: The news is all bad. Peak oil has (or almost has) happened. But peak coal is not far off, peak silver, lead, platinum, gallium, uranium (shouldn’t waste it in weapons boys), etc, etc, etc, are coming or have happened. Including, particularly important, phosphates (which probably has already happened). This does not mean that it all runs out straight away, it means that further extraction is going to be harder and more costly, therefore production starts to decline, slowly at first and then faster and faster. Peak high quality coal has probably already happened, leaving us with poorer and harder to extract grades (with lower energy capacity, higher pollution, etc). The net energy equation deteriorates too (energy required to extract vs energy derived)

    Water ‘mining’* (from aquifers and ground sources), plus phosphates were the two main components of the ‘green revolution’ (along with clearing marginal land). Underground water tables across the world are dropping precipitiously (peak water). These combined with global warming, desertification (‘mining’ topsoil and reduced rainfall), salinification, etc, has now caused ‘peak’ food production. It will be unlikely that we will be able to maintain current levels of worldwide food production. More likely it will decline.

    Price is only part of the answer. As peak oil (and coal) shows, once you hit the limits then no matter what the price production does not increase and the decline still happens. Food prices are going up, production is not following. Price can improve efficiency, utilisation and re-cycling. But the investment and time-lags needed to change (say) current water usage are immense. Fine to stop watering gardens but this is a drop in the ocean (deliberate) compared to the main user agriculture, which is not so easily changed without production declining.

    Re-cycling is achievable (mining the rubbish tips) but this again requires massive investment and incurs huge labour, energy (and probably water) costs. The investment and time to set up re-cyling of (say) tantallium, lead, tin, silver, et al, will be immense. On the bright side, the western countries are now sitting on huge deposits of rare minerals in their rubbish tips.

    The crunch things are the coming energy and water shortages, with peak coal and oil really hitting hard in the next 20-40 years.

    Renewables and nuclear fission power can play a major part but uranium is also finate and, while some countries are fortunate in their renewable energy resources, others are not and it will be insufficient to maintain our industrialsed society overall. Even a crash program of fission reactors and renewables will only buy us 50-70 years or so.

    Fusion is the great hope, we crack that and industrialsed society’s future is certain. But in the true spirit of looking forward and investing in the future, the US has just cut its support of the international fusion reactor project.

    Just to show it is not just the US that is not thinking ahead, here in Victoria Australia the State Govt’s plans are: build more coal power stations (brown coal no less, the filthiest polluting stuff in the universe), build more freeways, build a desalination plant and build yet another power station to power it. And, in a time of rising sea levels, change the structure of our Bay that will raise tide levels.

    Right, back to my 10 laws again (previous post).

    On the other hand, lowered population is also a solution. A US population of (say) 150 million will still be able to live very well and have large food surpluses to export and easily support industry. A world population of (say) 2.5 billion would be a paradise, with a good environment and high living standards. So there is a great positive to low fertility.

    * Water and topsoil mining is simply using it faster than it is replenished. In the case of topsoil it is both using up all the nutrients and actual phyical loss. E.g. in the south western Australian wheatbelts the topsoil is totally denuded of minerals and require fertilisers (phosphates, etc) to grow anything. It is also declining in physical area due to topsoil loss (blown away) and rising salt levels (salinification).

  22. I am familiar with some of these issues, and they are theories of various levels of certainty.

    I see few studies suggesting peak uranium. In fact during the great nuke power collapse most of the world’s mines closed, as only the lowest cost could operate at a profit. The massive sale of the USSR’s uranium stockpiles delivered a second blow to the industry. There are many mines just now being opened, and little exploration has been done for 20+ years. Also note that if prices rise we can use breeder reactors.

    Aquifer depletion is a big deal! On the other hand, water is used inefficiently – like most “free” resources. Note the massive increase in energy efficiency resulting from the increased price of oil in the 1970’s. Water can be recycled very easily (potable to brown back to the river), instead of dumping soiled water back into the ecology. This will cost money, but increasingly prosperous 2nd world economies can afford it.

    Peak coal is conjecture. Until the work of Greg Vaux (one of the brighter lights at the US DOE), we thought that global coal reserves were sufficient for centuries. He showed that reserves were only guesses and their BTU content were not only wild guesses but also probably far lower than estimated. Much of America’s zillion tons of coal might have the BTU content of Kitty Litter. This has since replicated by other researchers. So Peak Coal is out there, but when is still unknown (even more so than Peak Oil).

    Neither peak oil nor peak coal have arrived, they cannot show us what happens “once you hit the limits.” How about the lessons from Peak Whale Oil and Peak Waterwheels?

    Since Fusion research has consumed hundreds of billions of dollars with little to show for it (it’s been a decade away for three decades), perhaps sending these scientists back to the drawing board is a good idea.

    How sea levels are rising is also controversial, as it is difficult to measure given so many distorting local factors. Note the battles of the Ross mean sea level mark at Tasmania. And the forecast rise of 1 mm/year seems unlikely to cause problems. Global warming, for example, might raise or lower sea levels (e.g., warm weather increases evaporation, which turns to snow over the South Pole and is sequestered in the ice cap).

  23. The ITER (international fusion project) is probably the greatest step forward in human history (yes, I’m being optimistic for once, really). Fusion reseach has come a long, long way. The fundemental problems have been solved and it is now firmly in the hands of the development engineers.

    Fusion power is the only way the human race can free itself from energy and resource constraints and ensure its long term future. The ITER is essentially a template for future commercial reactors, not basic research, but an engineering prototype. Call it a 500MW Alpha test. When the engineering bugs are sorted out the next one will be a Beta test, directly from which will come commercial reactors. How long this takes is now a just a function of the resources applied. Put a lot in and it will be quick, put less in and it will take longer.

    Fission power buys us time, but it has a limited lifespan and limited energy generation potential. Say we changed all coal fired power stations to fission (something I’m in favour of), less (say) 20% for renewables (a global average, some countries would be higher, some lower, depending on the luck of the country). The demand for uranium goes through the roof (great for Australia). Even with breeder reactors there will be limits. The raw uranium would run out in about 30-40 years, breeders buy us another 50 years (max). So maybe it buys us 50, maybe a 100 years.

    The fundemental limit is the energy of extraction vs energy obtained. Eventually you get to a point when it takes more energy to extract and process ore than you get from power generation (same applies to coal, etc). Even today the quality of ore used is far less than in the past.

    KEY POINT: Long before it runs out it becomes impossible to create new reactors, as everything is needed for existing ones, creating an energy ‘cap’ – because you run out of feedstock for the breeders.

    One thing about the ‘peak’ theories is that (and this is pretty irrefutable) the ‘best’ stuff gets used first. The highest quality, the easiest to extract, etc. After that point it becomes harder and harder and, in the case of energy reserves, the energy equation start to deteriorate. This is what causes the production bottleneck. Like a ‘red queens race’, you have to run harder and harder to achieve the same effect. Eventually, no matter what you do production start to decline (just look at North Sea oil and gas, with the highest technology available production is declining).

    Re other resources (taking water as an example) yes far, far greater efficiency can be achieved but it takes money and time. To switch irregation methods, change crops, develope and apply new farming methods requires a massive investment in infrastructure, science, education and training. Like a super tanker, turn the wheel and it takes a long time to start turning. Our current agricultural systems have taken decades to develope, they will take decades to re-develope.

    My argument about all this, is that (at least the majority) of these issues can be dealt with without returning us all into 1800’s poverty, but we need to start now. If you have 20+ year lead times for change and some issues are staring us in the face now, then we have real problems.

    As an aside, a key bottleneck in fission and fusion reactors is going to be shortages of nuclear physicists and engineers. The existing ones are all getting old and there are not enough coming through the education system to replace them. The UK has responded with all the vision and forward thinking that we have come to expect from them. They have just cut the physics budget massively, making hundreds unemployed and leading to the shutting down of some physics depts in universities. I think their national saying should be “forward, to the past”. It’s up to the US whether it wants to go the same way.

  24. You might be right, but so far as I can tell this is all conjecture (as in the above posts). Making the list of unsupported stories longer does not make it stronger. There is an absurdly small basis of actual research to support all these theories (note they are seldom told as theories).

    The “peaking” meme has run wild, in my opinion — in most cases an expression emotional fears or cultural alienation rather than actual quantitative forecasts. Peaking is a serious concern for petroleum, but that is a unique case: organic origin, requiring rare geological conditions to be produced, concentrated, and stored. These constraints do not apply to most minerals, and this reasoning does not extend easily to them.

    As for the energy return on investment (EROI) story, it is true but the timing is uncertain. Decades? Generations? Who knows? This is not known for coal, as clearly stated in the four major studies done so far — an absurdly small number of low-budget studies on which to draw big conclusions.

    I have seen *no* equivalent EROI studies for uranium, but what little I’ve seen suggests that widespread use of breeder reactors would allow greatly expanded use of nukes for generations.

    Ditto, I have seen little suggesting that trained talent is a constraint on fusion research (unlike money) or exploitation of fission. Note my article about the pseudo-shortage of petroleum engineers, which shows how easily these stories get taken as fact and circulated.

    Ditto for water. Lots of scary stories, little data suggesting that it is a global problem – although it is a serious problem in some regions. Note the large number of stories about water as a limiting factor on Phoenix’s growth. Totally absurd considering the quantity of water used to grow *cotton* in Arizona.

    I have some high level contacts in the fusion world, and opinion is divided on its medium-term potential. The long history of failed promises is not encouraging.

  25. Yeh, we, in the driest continent in the world also grow huge amounts of cotton (sigh). But farming is the most conservative industry in the world, changing it will take decades, especially given its political clout.

    I agree with you about ‘generations’ in your fission comment (I give it 50-100 years or 2-3 generations), but if we do it right, as the uranium starts to run out the fusion reactors will come on line.

    DEMO is the planned ‘Beta’ fusion plant, starting after and running concurrent with ITER:
    Conceptual design is to be complete by 2017
    Engineering design is to be complete by 2024
    The first ‘Construction Phase’ is to last from 2024 to 2033
    The first phase of operation is to last from 2033 to 2038
    The plant is then to be expanded/updated
    The second phase of operation is to last from 2040 onwards

    This ties in nicely with uranium supplies getting tight (assuming large scale fission plant building worldwide). But taking 10 years off those dates, with a few dozen or so more billions spent would create a much better comfort zone for unforeseen issues (heck, Oz could do an embargo on uranium exports because the English beat us at cricket, “US you must bomb the MCC or you won’t get any of our uranium”, you never know, Australian cricket terrorists could be the next great existential threat).

    I’m being selfish about the ‘talent’ issue. Worldwide the gap will be filled, but who do we want fusion reactors to be built by, us or the Japanese and Chinese? Will they lend us the money to buy them or let us rot into 3rd world nations as they power into the 22nd century?

    The fission debate is so clouded by propaganda (on all sides) that it is hard to get good, reliable figures. Best way is to look at an actual case study and determine how successful or not it is. A good start is: France is about 79% nuclear, with the cheapest electricity in Europe and is also a huge exporter of electricity (and produces sod all CO2).

    I agree about the EROI figures, I’ve seen from 5 to 60 quoted for nuclear. When you take into account extraction, shipping and waste management energy usage, I find it impossible to imagine that nuclear is worse than coal.

    One thing that the anti-nuke crowd quietly ignores is that coal plants release far more radioactivity into the environment than nuclear plants do, worse, it goes straight into our lungs, water, etc.

  26. I quickly checked today, and can find no studies suggesting that uranium supplies are near peaking. After decades of underinvestment, time is needed to bring new supplies on line — the opposite problem to peaking.

    Very good point about talent. It’s not scarce, but it would be nice if America produced its share of engineers? This is not a problem specific to nukes or oil, but related to a globalized market for talent. American logically prefer to focus on job areas that are not exposed to globalization — like medicine, law, and investment banking — where third world talent does not so directly force down wages.

    I agree with you about the potential for fission. It was fusion I am skeptical about over the short and medium term horizons.

  27. Re Uranium:

    A couple of quick points from it:
    “Eleven countries have already exhausted their uranium reserves. In total, about 2.3 Mt of uranium have already been produced. At present only one country (Canada) is left having uranium deposits containing uranium with an ore grade of more than 1%,”

    “The proved reserves (=reasonably assured below 40 $/kgU extraction cost) and stocks will be exhausted within the next 30 years at current annual demand. Likewise, possible resources – which contain all estimated discovered resources with extraction costs of up to 130 $/kg – will be exhausted within 70 years”. Note that’s at current demand, greater demand will reduce this time. Yes, breeder reactors extend this time (not in the least because thorium 232 can be used, which is at least as plentiful as uranium), also new designs of ‘normal’ fission reactors use breeding to improve their efficiency. These are not true ‘breeders’, in the sense that they still consume more fuel than they create, but may achieve 70%+ efficiency.

    Depending on how many breeders are built, uranium, thorium (and possibly some other elements) availability and how many ‘normal’ fission plants are built gives the expected lifetime of fission power.

    Estimates vary wildly, but some estimates (from a miriad of sources) cluster around the 50-120 years, depending on demand. Obviously a crash program to replace coal and gas power stations throughout the world (even just the western world) moves us closer to the bottom limit, lower demand moves us to the higher limit.

    But eventually you run out of feedstock for the breeders then the fuel cycle stops. Long before that point you can no longer create additional fission plants, as all the fuel in the total fuel cycle (new stock + recyling)is required for existing plants. This creates the ultimate ‘cap’ of fission energy production that I was talking about before. They key thing is to ensure that fusion plants are commercially available at (or preferably well before) this point, so that they can be phased in as fission energy production peaks, then starts to decline.

    Note the canny Japanese, they are big supportors of ITER (and DEMO) but are still maintaining their own large fusion research program. Obviously they want to try and position themselves as an independent competitor to the EU in the future fusion plant contruction market. Not in our lifetimes, but a 20 year old today will seen commercial fusion reactors on-line.

  28. Thanks for sending, I will read with interest. But a few things leap out from a quick skim.

    1. I am not sure what they mean by an extraction cost of $40 – $130/kgU. But the current spot price of yellowcake (U3O3, the standard price) is $172/kg. As fuel costs are a trivial fraction of the end cost of generating electricity by nuke power, the cost of uranium fuel could rise quite a bit and not change the economics of nukes vs. alternatives.

    2. Commercial reserves, the only reliable source of this data, are typically about 30 years. Considering the cost of verifying mineral reserves (unlike oil, that means drilling holes in the ground), why bother to find more? Using these numbers to mean “total recoverable reserves” was the fallacy of the 1970’s “resource scarcity” hysteria. Three decades later we still have 30 years usage of reserves. That’s why this report says that the reserve numbers are speculative; folks can only guess how much is beyond “reasonably assured reserves.”

    3. Since uranium prices lifted off the floor (it was $34 in Jan 2004), there has been a wave of exploration — and new finds. Whatever the reserve numbers were when they wrote this in Dec 2006, they are higher today.

  29. About that shortage of uranium…

    Exploration drives uranium resources up 17%“, World Nuclear News, 03 June 2008 — Excerpt:

    “Current economic uranium resources will last for over 100 years at current consumption rates, while it is expected there is twice that amount awaiting discovery. With reprocessing and recycling, the reserves are good for thousands of years.

    “Worldwide around 5.5 million tonnes of uranium that could be economically mined has been identified. The figure is up 17% compared to that from the last edition of the Red Book because of a surge in exploration for uranium prompted by a dramatic price increase.

    “… The data comes from Uranium 2007: Resources, Production and Demand – often known as the Red Book – published every two years by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

    “The Red Book figures are for deposits which could be mined for less than $59/lb. This compares to the current market spot price of around $70/lb. Based on 2006 nuclear electricity generation data, the 5.5 million tonnes of known uranium would be enough to sustain nuclear power’s current contribution in electricity for more than a century.”

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