Archives for May 2010

Simmered to the Edge of the World

When denier ideologues make the transition to accepting the reality of anthropogenic global warming, one of the arguments they start to use tends to go something along the following lines: “Sure, the polar bears might get screwed over, but otherwise things will be just great. Crop yields will increase and northerners will get to have their own sun-drenched beaches”. You wish. New research* indicates that beyond temperature rises of 7C, “zones of uninhabitability” will begin to overspread much of the world (“An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress” by Sherwood & Huber 2010). Not a Mediterranean world, more like Mad Max in Waterworld.

Of late climate models have been leaning to the upper range of the IPCC’s projections for global warming, e.g. the median forecast from a recent MIT study gives a rise of 5C by 2100 (with a 10% chance it will exceed 7C). According to the Sherwood paper, “peak heat stress” (quantified by the wet-bulb temperature) never climbs above 31C across today’s climes, which is safely below the body’s normal temperature of 37C. But with a global temperature rise of 7C possible by as early as the late 21st century – even without accounting for predictable tripwires such as accelerated release of Siberian and Arctic methane – some regions of the world will be subjected to peak wet-bulb temperatures of 35C, inducing “hyperthermia in humans and other mammals, as dissipation of metabolic heat becomes impossible“. With a global temperature rise of 11-12C, a belt of uninhabitability will come to encompass the bulk of today’s densely populated areas.

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Emerging Technologies: Limits to Growth vs. Moore’s Law

Like my post on Resource Depletion and Peak Oil, this is intended as a reference article for another key future trend. One important observation I will make at the beginning is that the approach of Limits To Growth (already imminent in the developed world) will not lead to a cessation in technological growth. In fact, they might even act as a spur to innovation, because 1) the end of growth prospects in material product will encourage a reallocation of resources to doing things better or more efficiently, and 2) the Boserupian Effect (in the Malthusian context – “relative overpopulation creates additional stimuli to generate and apply carrying-capacity-of-land-raising innovations”). So to my fellow peakists, please bear these qualifiers in mind before condemning me for “cornucopian” or “techno-progressive” heresies.

One of the best summaries is the Wikipedia page with the List of emerging technologies and I’ll be drawing heavily on it. I’ve marked out the technologies I consider to be more important and MOST IMPORTANT. Please feel free to chime in with your own suggestions.

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Augmented Reality Warfare

In this installment of my series on future war, I’ll be taking a holistic view of ground combat. Unlike the case for naval warfare, which is going to be revolutionized by new weapons platforms – railguns, battle lasers, and submersible arsenal ships – developments on the ground are slated to be more low-key, albeit no less transformative in their cumulative impact… future wars will be fought in augmented reality.

The effectiveness of armies will come to be defined by the quality and resilience of their networks. Individual platforms will acquire exceptional “battlespace awareness”; coupled with the continued miniaturization and affordability of smart munitions (Moore’s Law), this will empower the common soldier to a degree unprecedented in history. Most importantly, new technologies – the modern IADS, battle lasers, even the humble RPG – will favor the defense over the offense, bringing our Cold War dreams of epic armored thrusts and battles for the heavens to a long stalemate.

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Crisis Demography in Eurasia

In a recent post, Mark Adomanis pointed out that the Russian economy has done significantly better than many other East European nations during the recent crisis and is now mounting a strong recovery. He also speculated on the effects of the crisis on the demography of badly-affected countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltics, on the basis that “Russia’s experience during the 1998 debt default amply demonstrates that cutting healthcare budgets and pensions in the midst of an economic catastrophe causes a lot of excess deaths among vulnerable sectors of the population”.

Now I’ve never really worried about the consequences on mortality of an economic recession, because I don’t buy into The Lancet‘s arguments that it was the reduction in Russian social spending in 1998 that contributed to the mortality wave of 1999-2002, since the increasing affordability of, and consumption of, alcohol was by far the more convincing factor. (Also, in industrialized states, recessions tend to correlate with falls in mortality rates). On the other hand, hard recessions – especially ones which result in reduced public spending on social welfare – usually are associated with substantial reductions in fertility. In this post I’m going to take a look at how valid these observations and theories are in light of the recent economic crisis in Eastern Europe.

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The People’s Choice, or how Ukrainians are Learning to Stop Worrying and Love Eurasia

I enjoyed the egg-throwing scenes from Ukraine’s Rada on the ratification of the gas-for-fleet deal with Russia as much as anyone. It also reflected the polarized commentary on the interwebs. The Ukrainian patriot-bloggers get their knickers in a sweaty twist. The academic beigeocrat Alexander Motyl (he of “Why Russia is Really Weak” fame some four years back) now warns of the “End of Ukraine”. Ukraine’s (self-styled) intelligentsia writes open letters condemning the Kharkov deal and Yanukovych’s sellout of the national interest. 2000 protesters stage a demonstration against his pursuit of closer ties with Russia in Kiev, a city of three millions. Alexander Golts, liberal Russian military analyst, argues that the asymmetric nature of the exchange – “with the lower gas prices to take effect immediately, Ukraine can now save roughly $4 billion annually, whereas the lease extension will only take effect only after the current agreement expires in 2017” – means that Russia was duped. In my view, these screeds are ideologized, or approach the issue from a set of false or incomplete assumptions.

Let’s start from the “banderovtsy” who despise the “sovok” Yanukovych for selling out Ukrainka to the Moskali Horde. (Yes, I’ve grossly caricatured three complex groupings in that sentence). Their problem is that they believe the “Ukrainian people” share their own rigid conception of Ukraine as a rigid nation-state, rejecting opposing views that stress its civilizational commonalities with the Orthodox, Slavic, or Eurasian spheres. This manifests itself in a particularly antagonistic attitude to Russia and Russianness, which are perceived, not inaccurately, as the greatest enemies of Ukrainian nationhood yesterday, today and tomorrow. Their biggest problem and frustration – indeed, their predicament – is that by and large, the Ukrainian people simply do not buy into their efforts to imagine into being a narrow, militantly Ukrainian vision of Ukraine*.

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Making the Best of a Bad Situation

So news is in that Britain’s next government is going to be a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, bringing an end to thirteen years of New Labour dominance. At a time of profound economic uncertainty and the imminent return of Great Power politics, it is pollyannish to believe that any British government could resolve Britain’s manifold problems without incurring big social costs. That said, this coalition is likely the UK’s best chance of pulling through in salvageable shape.

Let me recap. First, the UK has a budget deficit of 13% of GDP and a debt to GDP ratio of 80% for 2010. (For comparison, the figures for defaulting Argentina in 2001 were 6.4% and 62%, respectively). According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, “Britain would have to make across-the-board budget cuts of 5% a year to come close to cutting the deficit in half by 2014” – and that assumes an economic upturn that may not materialize due to Britain’s deindustrialization, high energy costs, and the growing crisis in the Eurozone. (If Britain doesn’t make deep cuts soon, a descent into a Greek-style compound debt trap is inevitable). Second, the UK’s abysmal energy policy under New Labour – ignoring the depletion of the North Sea gas fields, declining to invest in new generating capacity, and not concluding long-term gas supply contracts – has made chronic electricity shortages all but inevitable by 2015. Third, separatist undercurrents are ever present. Not very visible now, granted, but that tends to change when a state comes under severe socio-economic pressure. Overall, I would say all this qualifies as a “bad situation” for Britain.

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Reconciling Stalin with Victory

За нас за вас и за десант и за спецназ! I would like to start off by expressing my deepest respects to the Red Army veterans who fought and died so that (literally) hundreds of millions of their Slavic brethren could live. Вечная слава героям!

Last year I discussed four myths about the Eastern Front, and Fedia Kriukov unraveled a fifth in the comments. This year, I’m going to comment on one of the most contradictory, even harrowing, debates in Russia. How to reconcile Stalin, the despotic Messiah, and Victory 1945, now emerging as the primary national myth consolidating the Russian nation-state. I don’t intend to resolve this debate (I don’t believe that’s even possible), but I do believe it is necessary for people on all sides – Westerners, ordinary Russians, Russian liberals, and Stalinists alike – to understand it a bit better. This is my humble hope in writing this.

First, the facts. Russians are not hardcore Stalinists. Neither is the Russian government. President Medvedev unequivocally condemned Stalin, saying there is “no justification for the repressions”, and spoke out against Moscow mayor Luzhkov’s initiative to publicly display a few Stalin posters (amongst thousands) during the Victory celebrations. He was backed in this sentiment by 51% of Russians, while only 12% fully supported Luzhkov. Today, most Russians are either conflicted on or indifferent to Stalin. Neither for, nor fully against. Ambiguous.

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Revolution in Naval Warfare

A few days ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired a warning shot across the bow of the US Navy, questioning its “need” to maintain 11 carrier strike groups. He justified this on the basis of 1) “the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys”, 2) “the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries”, and 3) the huge costs involved, e.g. a Ford-class carrier with full air wing “would represent potentially $15 to $20 billion worth of hardware at risk”. Though his statements had to take political sensitivities into account, Gates is eminently correct. Not only is such a large force a questionable asset for a fiscally overstretched superpower, but the aircraft carrier is fast becoming to the 21st century what the battleship was to the 20th. This is part and parcel of the biggest paradigm shift in naval warfare since the coming of fossil-fueled ironclads, a paradigm shift that I intend to popularize as the Revolution in Naval Warfare (RNW).

Much has already been written about the dangers to the West’s big surface fleets emanating from the global proliferation of supercavitating torpedoe and hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile technology. I’m not going to recap the debate – see these “classic” articles by David Crane and the War Nerd. Instead, what I’m going to do here is to look “over the horizon” at the impact of three major, ongoing developments on the future of naval warfare: railguns, battle lasers, and naval platforms.

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Why Russians like Putin’s Russia

On May 5th, Levada carried out an opinion poll asking Russians what percentage of their family’s income is spent on food. No “Putin licking”, useful idiocy, or ifs and buts about it. It is a very straightforward question, put to the Russian people, the long-suffering Russian people for whom Russia’s liberals and the Western commentariat presume to speak for. What do they say? In 1991, 30% of Russians spent “almost all” their family income to obtain the bare essentials for life. Throughout the 1990’s, the period of anarchic stasis, this figure fluctuated in the 45-65% range. But after 1999, it began to plummet. It fell to 14% by 2007-09, remained unaffected by the economic crisis, and reached just 10% this year. This figure, I would venture to guess, is not very different from most developed countries (and certainly a real world removed from some Russophobe fantasies about food availability dropping to World War Two levels under Putin). The graph below is worth a thousand words.

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Prophets of the Great War: Friedrich Engels, Ivan Bloch, and Pyotr Durnovo

Though there are plenty of caveats and exceptions, it is safe to generalize that predictions of what the “next war” was going to be like before 1914 were completely inaccurate. The Great War would not be the quick, clean affair typical of the wars of German unification in the 1860’s-70’s or the sensationalist literature of the antebellum period. The generals were as wrong as the general public and war nerds. France had an irrationally fervent belief in the power of the offensive and dreamed of the Russians steam-rolling over Berlin before winter, while the Germans gambled their victory on the success of the Schlieffen plan. When the war finally came, the linear tactics of previous wars floundered in the machine guns, artillery, mud, and barbed wire of trench warfare. The belligerent societies were placed under so much strain by this first industrial total war that by its end, four great monarchies would vanish off the face of Europe.

Nonetheless, there were three theorists – a Communist, a Warsaw banker, and a Russian conservative minister – who did predict the future with a remarkable, even eerie, prescience. They were Friedrich Engels, Ivan Bloch, and Pyotr Durnovo.

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