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What are the chances of a third world war? [pdf] (fooledbyrandomness.com)
54 points by DyslexicAtheist 41 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 75 comments



There's a 100% chance of some sort of conflict between the US and China over Taiwan and dominance over the Western Pacific. It's just a question of "how severe?"

By the US Navy's own accounting, the pace of deployment has not been met with adequate maintenance. The US Navy's material readiness has been significantly impacted. In some cases over 30% degraded.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jo4i1qD63Ss

I'm also close to 100% certain that some sort of violence will come of conflict over space resources. Something will happen in relation to lunar resources. There will also be a tragedy involving collisions with orbital debris.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0P3tbf3JHhc


"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones" -Albert Einstein

Funny. I'm starting to think the probability of armed conflict is near zero. I see it playing out rather like the Umbrella Revolution in HK. Just as HK's financial sector proved resilient (and even is in the midst of an IPO boom). Taiwan exports will be largely unaffected. Any shift to mainland policies on the island will occur gradually. And any existential threat the US feels in losing Taiwan, will be subsumed with a growing isolationism and focus on domestic discontents.

Am also very optimistic about New Space economics. The combination of AI and ubiquitous satellite internet will be enormously net positive for all humankind ;)


> Something will happen in relation to lunar resources.

Lunar what now? I mean, I thought the stuff over Taiwan was a little over the top, but... this is just satire, right?


Depends what your time horizon is. Over a long enough time period I fully agree with the OP.

In the next twenty years, not likely.


You think over a long enough time period the moon will be made up of something other than rocks? It's rocks. There are no "resources". It's ejected mantle material just like we have here right under our feet, with the added disadvantage that there's no tectonics that would have had the effect of concentrating what trace materials were there. It's rocks.

Someone who wants to imagine going to war with China over rocks on the moon is someone who wants to imagine going to war with China. That's not a serious (nor responsible) position.


There are no "resources".

Aluminum. Silicon. Titanium. Iron. Water. (Hence hydrogen and oxygen.) Many of the other elements we need are available in the asteroid belt, and it's far less cost in energy to go there from the Moon than it takes to get off of the Earth.

It's ejected mantle material just like we have here right under our feet, with the added disadvantage that there's no tectonics that would have had the effect of concentrating what trace materials were there. It's rocks.

You're judging this by terrestrial standards. Given enough energy, rocks are still resources. Remember: the energy potentially available to a space faring civilization is literally orders of magnitude greater than that available to an Earth bound one.

Someone who wants to imagine going to war with China over rocks on the moon is someone who wants to imagine going to war with China.

I'd rather nothing like that ever happened. My wife is Chinese, for heaven's sake. However, the biggest wars are fought over energy resources. The control of lunar resources will be key in who gets to exploit vast amounts of solar energy at some point. Just as wars are now fought over oil, at some point, wars will be fought over who gets to build power satellites.


I share your hope that there will be no war, and most of your points about exploration, but am less pessimistic. Wars are fought over oil on earth because it is a limited, nonrenewable resource. Solar energy is not practically limited, is already cheaper than oil, and can be harvested directly on earth. Perhaps war will be fought for access to the asteroid belt (similar to the US’ strategic position in the Middle East regarding access to oil), but if current trends continue, I doubt - and hope - that we will never go to war again over energy itself.


Solar energy is not practically limited, is already cheaper than oil, and can be harvested directly on earth

You're making a key mistake here. You're using terrestrial standards to judge something which can grow exponentially to many times what's possible to do on Earth. If the planners of major powers recognize this exponential expansion in an early phase, wars can be fought over who gets to plant the seeds and harvest the result.

The military power embodied in the kind of energy harvesting we're talking about here, greatly dwarfs the same possible on Earth. If the great powers realize this, they will fight over it, with more ferocity than they do over access to the oceans.


> You're judging this by terrestrial standards.

That's right! Because we have plenty of rocks right here on earth!


That's right! Because we have plenty of rocks right here on earth!

Now, work out the economics of using Earth rocks to build power satellites. Compare that to the economics of using material from the Moon. The difference is orders of magnitude. Will that take a lot of energy? Yes, but there too, the difference is orders of magnitude.


The biggest wars are fought over resources? I’m don’t know.

The biggest wars the US fought are WWII, WWI, and the Civil War. None were over resources.


WWII was absolutely about resources.

The Nazis wanted the fertile lands in Eastern Europe and Russia for their own supposedly superior people. In fact, one of their most popular slogans was about "Lebensraum im Osten"("space to live in the East"), which, now that I think about it, has a similarity in sound to the slogan of "Manifest Destiny" in the US.

The first step of the "Lebensraum im Osten" plan was to invade Poland. Hitler split it with the Soviets in order to keep the Eastern border calm, since he needed all his forces on the Western front, to handle the backlash by the UK and France over the invasion of Poland. His original plan was to take on the Soviet Union only after having won the war on the Western front.

However, he backtracked on that strategy and invaded the Soviets in 1942 because the war in the West took longer than expected. Several key campaigns on the Eastern front, including the infamous Battle for Stalingrad, were specifically about securing resources like steel and oil (and, conversely, cutting off the Soviets from those supplies).

Disclaimer: I'm not a historian. All this is going off of what I would consider common knowledge as a German.


The biggest wars are fought over resources? I’m don’t know.

The biggest wars the US fought are WWII, WWI, and the Civ

In other threads, I've been decrying the degradation in History education in the US and across the western world. It's gotten so that the current generations in the work force only have a "Flintstones" understanding of how the current world got to where it is now, and what lessons can be learned from history.


The rocks under our feet are valuable in places and many wars have been fought over them. Why should the moon be any different?

Additionally the density of the moon is lower than earth, so it will have higher concentrations of kinds of elements that may be rare here. Leading to mines that might be surprisingly valuable. More important may be the fact that these resources are at the bottom of a much smaller gravity well.

On a long enough time period we'll be living on the moon in permanent colonies. You are unfortunately mistaken if you think that will all happen peacefully.


The rare ores under our feet are there because billions of years of heating/cooling cycles, water flow, and cracking events have managed to concentrate like materials. A given iron compound, say, all melts at the same temperature and pressure. So when the rock reaches that condition the iron all leaches away to a crack, where it concentrates. Then the same thing happens 20ky later, etc... Eventually you get an ore vein.

That does not happen on the moon. It's cold. The rocks are just rocks.

And I'll say it again, it sounds like you're engaging in this ridiculous fantasy not because you genuinely think the moon is a treasure chest but because you privately think war with China sounds kinda cool. You know how you get dumb wars? That's how you get dumb wars.


That does not happen on the moon. It's cold. The rocks are just rocks.

In the desert, a cup of water is a treasure. In space, even rocks are very useful as radiation shielding.

And I'll say it again, it sounds like you're engaging in this ridiculous fantasy not because you genuinely think the moon is a treasure chest

Lots of people have studied and thought about this. In relation to the environment, it is a treasure chest. It has the right materials to build the bulk of solar power satellites, much more economically than importing those materials from Earth. Again, with enough energy, even dumb rocks become ore. There is a lot more energy available in space.

You know how you get dumb wars? That's how you get dumb wars.

Here's a challenge: Name a dumb war that wasn't at least peripherally about the control of resources, especially energy. The recent ones have been at least peripherally about oil.


I've no interest in wars, and I rather doubt that it would be China and the USA fighting over the moon. They won't last long enough to see that.

This will be hundreds, if not thousands of years from now.

I don't think there will be no resources of value on the moon, but I'm not an expert in the field, so I won't die on that hill. Sadly, even if there was nothing of value there aside from the land itself, we'd probably still fight over it.


This will be hundreds, if not thousands of years from now.

It's going to happen sooner than you think. Humans are bad at exponential change. It will be under 100 years from now.


We'll definitely be there in under a hundred years, just probably not in a huge way. I just would be surprised if we're fighting wars there before then.

That said, humans are surprisingly belligerent, so maybe.


Not that I agree or disagree with you, but ISTM there are no literal feet on the moon for resources to be under, which removes much of the need for fighting. Why would a country go to war over the discovery of resources in one location when there is literally a whole moon remaining in which to find alternative sources for those resources?

I’m not a geologist but it just seems unlikely to me that the moons natural resources will be materially constrained in the next few hundred years.


The moon is a lot smaller than earth for one. I seem to recall it's comparable to the size of the USA, someone correct me if that's a bad memory.

But given enough time, would it not be likely? The present lack of people there has no predictive value about the far future.


I doubt that we have extracted even 1% of the valuable, accessible non fossil resources of Earth yet, and while I know that the more valuable materials are also harder to extract, the moon is currently 100% unutilised, so the idea of near term war for resources on the moon seems like an extrapolation too far for me.

That’s not to say that there is no chance of war on the moon, given enough time as you say, but “enough time” IMO is centuries, at which timescale any kind of prediction is really just a guess.


I fully agree. If you go back to my original post it was absolutely clear that's not likely in the near term.


It's somewhat larger.

https://xkcd.com/1389/


there are no literal feet on the moon for resources to be under, which removes much of the need for fighting.

By the time we have large scale industry on the moon, is this going to be the case? Probably not. Also, not all lunar resources are distributed evenly.

Maybe you're right, which would actually be a very good thing for the human race.


Why would we live on the moon in permanent colonies outside of scientific research? There are still tons of uncolonized places on earth that are much more hospitable than the moon.


There could be a great many reasons to do that. I'm not talking in the next twenty years here. But can you say there's no reason to do that in the next thousand years?

Even just as a source of materials in a much smaller gravity well it could be instrumental to future human space industry and exploration.


You don't need to live somewhere to colonize it.


I mean, I thought the stuff over Taiwan was a little over the top, but.

Did you know that the US just paid approaching 6 billion dollars to buy Italian warships? Basically, the US Navy feels like it's going to need blue water forces, while it has instead been concentrating on littoral craft.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buA4ajpCtpQ

This does have something to do with China.

China wants to have a dominant blue water Navy and become a world power. They can't viably do this without Taiwan. Considering how big China is economically, and how it's growing, it may be just a matter of time before mounting an invasion goes from uncertain and dicey, to something they can easily afford.

this is just satire, right?

No. The biggest wars of the 20th century had a lot to do with control over energy resources. Whoever can operate industrial infrastructure on the moon will be able to build space solar power. At large enough scales, this basically is fusion power. Whoever controls this energy can eventually dwarf the energy resources available on Earth by multiple orders of magnitude. At long enough time scales, this will blow away even turning the Sahara into one big solar farm, even with regards to incremental cost.

It may be a long ways out, but it's inevitable if we don't first bomb ourselves back to being earthbound.

Issac Arthur: The Moon Industrial Complex

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y47MMNqKGxE

It takes a lot more energy resources to exploit many space resources. However, note that this is subject to exponential growth. The more energy one can produce in space, the more resources can be converted to generate more energy to convert more resources. Planners of major powers may be able to forsee this exponential growth, and go to war over its potential.


Nice writeup! I think Taiwan will remain free for at least a few years, as China would pay a very heavy cost for not too much gain invading Taiwan in the near future. We'll see if Taiwan goes nuclear in the interim. The Hong Kong experience might be pushing things in that direction.

I completely agree about space being a viable new frontier. People don't seem to get that with effectively unlimited energy, habitats throughout the Solar System and even out to the Oort cloud can be arbitrarily luxurious and enjoyable.

Advances in spacecraft design and propulsion will only accelerate things... heh


> The US Navy's material readiness has been significantly impacted. In some cases over 30% degraded.

They still outgun the PLA navy by about 5:1.


For now, the PLA Navy is playing it asymmetrically. They choose the time and place, with the point being to wear down the opposition.

I hope their artificial islands show some more typical Chinese construction industry flaws.


"There's a 100% chance of some sort of conflict between the US and China over Taiwan [etc]"

Yes, it's happening all the time along with several other conflicts. However it is not WWIII as envisaged by OP or me.

WW3 is what I and anyone else aged around 50+ worried about in the '50-'90s and it was a sort of W Europe + US n that vs the USSR and that and would involve tactical nukes to start with and then go strategic or vice versa (without the versa.)

The sort of conflict that might spring up between the US and another nation in a major way over something is a bit undefined at the moment. It might involve the USMC and a carrier group or whatever or something else. Perhaps we could get PotUS to play Top Trumps vs Pooh Bear. I don't know but I am fairly sure that nuclear is still off the table.

I think you might be right about space: willy waving with minimal personal danger sounds about right.


Russia-Ukraine might be closer.


Why not both? China will gladly take advantage of the West being busy with Russia. Similarly, Russia will gladly take advantage of the West being busy with Taiwan.

If it's China, they could even decide to take over Tesla Shanghai, thereby crashing Tesla's stock price, and the S&P 500 index a week or two before.

They know the West is fighting on a thousand fronts right now - many of which are imaginary and unwinnable - so the more fronts that are open, the easier to win in the ones they care about.


If China wants to crash the world economy, they just need to dump their US debt. I don’t get what Tesla has to do with any of this, it’s a bit player in these games.


1/3rd of the Us debt is owned by foreign investors. Of that, I'd be surprised if China own more than 10%. I don't know how much power xi have over private chinese banks, and ho much the debt is diluted in funds, but if half is dumpable it would be interesting.

This much debt will be rolled anyway, and not waiting for debt maturity will cost china more than a supposed increased cost of interest rates.


They wouldn’t do what I speculated if they cared about interest rates. It would effectively be an act of war.


China is probably trying to wear down the US Navy and the Taiwanese Air Force by provoking those organizations into a higher pace of operations.


Russia-Ukraine has been ongoing for years. It's quite strange that people don't recognize that.

It can ramp up a lot still, but that won't be the start of anything. It definitely already started.


> There's a 100% chance of some sort of conflict between the US and China

i agree to a certainty, but only if the respective governments stay the same. things become less dangerous if capitalism destabilizes communist china or communism destabilizes captilast america.


China is also poking India too.


I believe that’ll continue like this at least till Dalai Lama’s death.

Then, there would be the whole issue of the next Dalai Lama. Just like Panchem Lama, there will be two successors - one picked by the Chinese and the other legitimate one.

What happens next is anyone’s guess....


and India and Pakistan have their own beef.


> There's a 100% chance of some sort of conflict between the US and China over Taiwan and dominance over the Western Pacific.

Actually, there is a 100% chance of a Russia/USA war. I'm highly doubtful of a China/USA one. Russia and the USA have thousands of nuclear war heads (in the ~6.000) while China has only 300. Least China has been making nuclear bombs secretly, they are at a massive disadvantage in a nuclear war with the USA.

That should explain why USA war efforts have been focused on Russia. Once the US tackles Russia, it'll have militaristic supremacy and carry on establishing its world order.


The US and Russia have been successfully not having a war since 1945, why would that stop now?


Several times since 1945 war between the US and the Soviet Union has been averted by what looks like almost sheer luck. So if the next 65 years look anything like the last 65, war is quite probable.


Next you'll tell me a ball bearing is just round chunks of metal and that's all there is to it.

Many, many hours have been spent designing the command and control policies and procedures that surround weapons systems capable of quickly starting a war. It's not "just luck" anymore than a ball bearing is round metal but disdainfully looking in from the outside I can see how it might appear that way.

Of course luck is involved. Luck is involved to some degree to any human endeavor. But to say that the only reason we haven't had WW3 is luck is to discredit the work of many people and deny the agency of many others.


I didn't say it was the only reason. I understand people would think that was implied, so I'm glad you pushed back. In every multi-factor complex system people insist on figuring out which factor is most important. Which is bullshit, because in most cases many different factors are critical in the technical sense of the word critical.


The US and Russia have been engaging in Proxy wars since 1945. The US has been closing on Russia and getting too close (Syria/Ukraine), and that raise the probability of a Russian offensive.


It doesn't make much sense to send nukes all over the world. You ruin your land and any land you wish to take long-term. The survivors will have a historical grudge against the carnage. A more reasoned goal would be to cripple the military complex's ability to strike, but that's impractical, even with all the nukes. Subs, fighters, underground bases, etc. So we're left with "make it expensive to replenish forces locally". An aim to cripple the responses within a limited theater is economical in every regard. Small scale hotbed areas are where recent wars have been fought and are likely to continue to be fought.

The global firezone where there are no clear goals or gains is rather silly to imagine.


You're right, but let's say one side strikes first and the other is impacted but doesn't have their military command totally wiped out. They're probably going to respond back with more nukes. And what'll be the response to that?

Even if it may not be a total "ensure every square mile is in range of blasts or fallout", and even if maybe not every single person in either country dies, it'd likely quickly escalate into humanity's worst catastrophe (so far...).

I could potentially see tactical nuclear weapons being deployed in theaters that are far away from any superpower's homeland, though, as almost happened several times during the Cold War.


> You're right, but let's say one side strikes first and the other is impacted but doesn't have their military command totally wiped out. They're probably going to respond back with more nukes

I don't follow this. Russia is driving tanks and trucks and flying planes over to Greece. Ok, now NATO comes in with planes and tanks and bombs some staging areas and factories in Russia prior to a land invasion. Ok, Russia Nukes who? Why? They are in Greece, nuking some point in Europe is just going to get retaliated (like Moscow and somewhere else) from anonymous submarines while the land forces stream into Ukraine and eventually Russia. Maybe he's got super intel and is able to pinpoint nuke land forces that will stall the liberation of any area for weeks or months.

Putin would be shitting himself because he would have 2 options. NUKE THE WORLD and kill himself, because he doesn't get to keep Greece and it's going to end in one of those directions, either way.


I agree, which is why I think a nuclear conflict is not that likely to (intentionally) happen between large nation-states. I was just responding to a hypothetical scenario where nukes are used in an attempt to neutralize a country's military, which I initially thought was what you were proposing but I see now you weren't and were making a different point entirely.


A war with Russia doesn't make sense. The US would have everything to lose and almost nothing to gain. Most literature I see is squarely focused on China, and specifically Taiwan.


300 nukes is still enough to kill at least tens of millions of Americans, possibly over a hundred million. At that point, who in the US will care if we have an "advantage"?


If they were all deployed, plus some similar retaliation, would that not lead to a global nuclear holocaust? Aside from just the initial destruction.


There is already a pan-continental war happening at large scale in case you haven't noticed; it comprises a mix of information warefare and cyber attacks.

Further conventional wars are to be expected, too: some people speculate that they will be about access to clean water (in the past, borders/owning land areas were more often the motive behind armed conflict). Current tensions of this kind can be observed e.g. between India and Pakistan, although they have not escalated.

Questions about the chances of a world war should specify the time range to be complete/meaningful.


Spec fiction: somebody takes out a US carrier group, and all bets are off [1].

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Twilights-Last-Gleaming-Michael-Greer...


thanks I didn't know this one. just finished a very similar one recently https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_Fleet_(novel) ... much recommend it


Tom Clancy level writing... But far more bleak for the good guys (tm).


[2] Feb 2021 issue of WIRED


Seems like no conclusion can be drawn?

> We show that the inter-arrival times among major conflicts are extremely long, and consistent with a homogenous Poisson process: therefore no specific trend can be established: we as humans can not be deemed as less belligerent than usual. For a conflict generating at least 10 million casualties, an event less bloody than WW1 or WW2, the waiting time is on average 136 years, with a mean absolute deviation of 267 (or 52 years and 61 deviations for data rescaled to today’s population). The seventy years of what is called the "Long Peace" are clearly not enough to state much about the possibility of WW3 in the near future.


At least not on the basis of backward-looking statistics, assuming that inter-arrival times of major wars are correctly/most closely modeled by Poisson processes as the authors believe. You could make a claim based on other things. For example, you could claim that the speed and fidelity of information transfer render it now more difficult to have a major war. You could argue that the incredible amount and speed of power projection we now have access to render international warfare game-theoretically very difficult. (For example, there will not likely ever be another amphibious invasion conflict between of equiv-tech major powers. There are too many weapons systems that can accurately destroy surface ships, so it would be impossible to get close enough to make landfall.)

But any such claims could not be based on statistics.


What are the chances they should have added the date this was published : 100%


Money is fundamentally a technology. My concern is that the US-central system may simply become obsolete in the face of China's digital currency.

Then there could be a fight to preserve the older dollar system in the form of a war. And since it's an inferior technology, the US would be on the wrong side of history.

The war would not be justified with financial arguments but rather propaganda as all wars have. So both Chinese and American citizens would feel a strong moral imperative to attempt to kill as many millions on the other side as possible in order to stop their "evil" ways.

Another aspect of this is the still unfortunately strong propagation of Social Darwinist perspectives that fundamentally do not value human life.

I think that the sane way to move forward is to apply our technology and social infrastructure towards resolving the political, philosophical and logistical conflicts directly. And I suppose it's quite unlikely. But this would mean leveraging things like smart cryptocurrencies and decentralization technologies (which in fact have large potential now for the next paradigm of government).


Hypothetical: what if us abandons the dollar and adopts bitcoin instead?


President Joseph Rogan pegs the price of bitcoin to the price of 1 pound of grass fed beef.


Because of the low transaction rates among other limitations, Bitcoin could work as a digital equivalent to gold but not for currency.

Ethereum 2.0 could work as a currency among many other things.

Adopting something like that would be a very smart move for the United States. It would also be extremely difficult to do, and undermine the current sovereignty.

One of the nice things about Ethereum is its programmability. So I hope that future sovereign digital currencies will be integrated using something like that, assuming an alternate digital global governance system built on open non-national protocols does not become viable.


> Ethereum 2.0 could work

Ironically China beat the West to the punch here too. Conflux network fixed the throughput issues already. It’s similar to eth2 except has been live for months (and picked a diff solution). Just doesn’t get much English coverage


Well, technically there have been many potential options for transaction increases. I just favor Ethereum for various reasons such as social momentum and technical soundness.

Maybe I should buy some CFX though.


>social momentum

That is the key yes. There are a hell of a lot of Chinese though & following their social media chatter they see this very much as a "this one is ours" type deal. So it has social momentum too, just a very different flavour.

Risky but I think the rewards could be there



There won't be another "world war" if you think that means fighting with guns, tanks, and fighter jets. 21st century war is being fought under our noses as "unrestricted warfare" (https://www.c4i.org/unrestricted.pdf). Information warfare, legal warfare, economic warfare, etc. are how battles are fought. Why would a country want to shoot bullets at the US when they can control or dismantle it from within?


the same chances of Taleb writing something not overtly dick-ish.




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