Food as 5th-gen warfare vector

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2011

There’s a lot of things on which Thomas Barnett and I would disagree, but there’s no getting around the way he can see further ahead than most foreign policy wonks. Forget oil, and start worrying about food supply:

Everybody thinks that the future is going to see fights over energy, when it’s far more likely to be primarily over food. Think about it: The 19th century is the century of chemistry and that gets us chemical weapons in World War I. The 20th century is the century of physics and that gets us nuclear weapons in World War II. But the 21st century? That’s the century of biology, and that gets us biological weaponry and biological terror. My point: obsessing over nuclear terrorism is steering by our rearview mirror.

Which gets me to our Spanish friend over here: an actual E. coli outbreak in Europe, centered largely in Germany, kills upwards of two dozen while sickening hundreds more. The early fingers point at Spanish cucumbers, but that’s looking iffy on investigation. Truth is, we may never know, but once the accusation is levied, Spain’s vegetable and fruit export industry may never be the same, and to me, that’s an interesting pathway for what I expect Fifth-Generation Warfare (which focuses – by some experts’ definition – on the disruption of the enemy’s ability to “observe” in John Boyd’s OODA loop)  will be all about in the 21st century: biological terror to create economic dislocation and loss (along with the usual panics).

Not so sure about his “century of [x]” reasoning, and I’d argue that we’ve seen the “wars over energy” being played out in the Middle east over the last few decades (with, sadly, more to come, though I think we could be in the final act of that particular movie), but by highlighting food supply as an infrastructure that could (and will) be leaned on to highly disruptive effect, I think he’s pretty much spot on. Likewise with the idea of ideological factions piggy-backing on events that may simply be natural or emergent; why invest effort on complicated terror schemes when you can just claim random events for free?

However, I’m surprised that he misses (or maybe simply fails to mention) food’s close sibling, water, which is already becoming a critical resource in developing nations, and is the infrastructural elephant-in-the-room in The Artist Formerly Known As The First World. Seriously, talk to people who work in utility infrastructure; we’re going through way more water than is sustainable, and climate change is likely to exacerbate the problem by changing availability patterns at local levels (hi, Australia!). We’ve already got Alaskan towns looking to export their allotted water rights to the more thirsty corners of the world… and while there’s a possibility we could wean ourselves off our addiction to long-chain hydrocarbons (technically simple, but politically fraught), water is a fundamental need, and an issue that demands we either start thinking in global terms or face some sort of Mad-Max-esque descent into feudal squabblings over the echoing mouths of artesian wells..

Civilisation is a product of cognitive surplus… and if you’re constantly wondering where your next drink of water is coming from, you’re all out of cognitive surplus.