Food as 5th-gen warfare vector

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.

6 thoughts on “Food as 5th-gen warfare vector”

  1. I think he probably could have amended “imported water” at the end of the first sentence below.

    “That’s where most of the population growth and water stress problems will erupt in coming decades, and it’s also where countries all tend to be highly dependent on imported food. See your Arab Spring and realize how much of this unrest is caused by rising food prices and you’ll get the overall picture.”

    Looking at previous post with the tag water, he quotes from an Economist piece that water usage world-wide for agriculture far outstrips industrial and domestic usage:

    Based on this I’m betting he sees water disputes as part-and-parcel with disruption due to food availability and pricing. He’s suggested in other posts that domestic water availability is a simpler problem to fix:

  2. I’m currently reading The Windup Girl and its biopunk setting immediately sprung to my mind – a terrific illustration of a biotechnological dystopia, complete with rapidly mutating plagues, catastrophic consequences of climate change, genetically engineered pests, corporate bio-terrorism and mass extinctions… Makes you seriously think about how privileged we are to enjoy the wonderful culinary benefits of our fragile biosphere.

  3. The problem of water supply boils down (excuse the pun) to the energy supply problem: given abundant energy one can desalinate seawater and/or transport freshwater over long distances where it is needed. Both options have ecological and political problems.

    Personally, I believe that energy-efficient and environmentally sane desalination techniques coupled with water conservation are the best way to keep civilisation rolling.

  4. I’m not so sure his analysis is on target with food. Almost all the major military and economic powers (U.S., China, Europe, Brazil, Russia) produce more than they need or a very large portion of what they need. They also, for the most part, happen to all have decent water supplies. This means there is very little chance these countries would go to war for food.

    It also means the most powerful countries would look very unkindly on other countries, which would be the very weak ones, going to war for food. This, in turn, means that it is unlikely the weak countries would go to war, as the powerful countries would find a way to stop it through military or economic means.

    This is one reason the U.S. gives away billions to other countries throughout the world. It gives them a say in that countries affairs.

    Of course, there could be other issues that convince the powerful countries to let the weak countries off the chain, but that reason won’t be food.

  5. @Chad:

    I think Dr. Barnett would agree with you with regard to wars between major military/economic powers. Indeed the foundation of his theory is that conventional war between major economic is null and void due to their nuclear capabilities. His sphere of concern is mostly geared towards those countries located primarily in what he calls the “gap”, which in this case also includes all the countries between the tropic of capricorn and cancer. These are the countries that will likely be going to war and creating conflict and by extension, in his analysis, causing the US to be engaged in wars for the coming future in those areas, for many years to come.

  6. @Gregory
    I differ with Barnett. I don’t think the major powers will allow any significant countries to go to war with each other. By significant I mean any country that is important strategically or has valuable natural resources.

    This leaves a few small, weak, and resource poor countries in Africa and Asia to war with each other over food, but not much past that. The U.S. would never let South American erupt in a food war and Brazil is becoming strong enough to provide stability as well.

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