May 29, 2005
Iraq War Bucks Trend Toward Decrease In Violent Conflicts

Writing for the New York Times John Tierney draws attention to a worldwide trend toward a reduction in wars.

You would never guess it from the news, but we're living in a peculiarly tranquil world. The new edition of "Peace and Conflict," a biennial global survey being published next week by the University of Maryland, shows that the number and intensity of wars and armed conflicts have fallen once again, continuing a steady 15-year decline that has halved the amount of organized violence around the world.

Before his death Julian Simon predicted to Tierney that the incidence of war would decline.

"I predict that the incidence of war will decline," he told me in 1996, two years before his death. He based his prediction on the principle that there is less and less to be gained economically from war. As people get richer and smarter, their lives and their knowledge become far more valuable than the land, minerals and natural resources they used to fight over.

The Iraq war is sometimes described, by both foes and supporters, as a pragmatic venture to keep oil flowing, but not even the most ruthless accountant can justify the expense. Even before the war, America's military costs in the Persian Gulf were much greater than the value of all the oil it was getting from the region, and now it's spending at least four times what the oil's worth.

Knowledge about how to create new resouces avoids the need to come to blows over existing useful resources. Technological societies can reduce their need to get entangled relationships with more backward but resource-rich societies by making technological advances which eliminate the need for the natural resources.

Tierney's argument about costs illustrates why an increase in government energy research funding makes so much sense. Even before the war were US military costs in the Persian Gulf high enough to justify much more government funding of research aimed at obsolescing oil.

The cost of the Iraq war is growing with no end in sight. Even official cost estimates understate the total cost of the Iraq war because the soldiers who die will make no future economic contributions to the US economy (or to the raising of their children) and survivor benefits will cost the public purse. Plus, the maimed will need care for decades to come with some requiring institutionalizatoin. Some of the injured survivors will be unable to work again while others will be able to work only at diminished levels. Due to advances in medical treatments the permanently damaged outnumber the killed.

But the invincibly ignorant Bush Administration wants to cut energy research.

In February, President George W. Bush’s Administration requested approximately $3.5 billion for fiscal 2006 for the Science Office—a 3.8% cut from 2005.

More than two thirds of the US Senate members want energy research to go up, not down.

More than two-thirds of U.S. senators have signed a letter recommending an increase of 3.2% in the FY 2006 DOE Office of Science budget. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) were joined by 66 of their colleagues in signing a letter to Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) and the subcommittee's Ranking Member Harry Reid (D-NV) advocating a $3.715 billion budget for the Office of Science.

This strong demonstration of bipartisan support for the Office of Science comes at a key time. Appropriators will wrap up their hearings in the next few weeks and will then start drafting their FY 2006 budget bills. Setting the stage for this year's budget cycle was a Bush Administration request of a 3.8% reduction in the Office of Science's budget to $3.463 billion for the fiscal year that begins on October 1. This amount is less than the FY 2004 budget (see

The $421 billion US Defense Department baseline budget plus at least $85 billion in supplementary appropriations - mostly for Iraq but also for Afghanistan - include only part of the total cost of defense. Once other security related items are added in US defense costs add up to over $667 billion.

If other security items are added in - homeland security ($40.4 billion), foreign policy and international stability ($31.7 billion), and Veterans Affairs ($68.3 billion) - the grand total reaches $667.2 billion. That exceeds any annual sum the US has ever paid for security in any war at any time, Mr. Wheeler notes. It even exceeds annual security spending today by all other nations on Earth.

US federal energy research spending therefore equals about a half of a percentage point of US defense costs. Yet technological advances could obsolesce oil, reduce money available for terrorism, reduce money available to spread Wahhabi Islam, and greatly decrease US interests in the Persian Gulf and in the Middle East as a whole.

When faced with arguments for war or projections of future conflicts over resources we should always stop and ask ourselves whether armed conflict could be avoided by accelerated advances in science and technology.

Will the trend toward less armed conflict continue indefinitely? Here are some reasons why that may not be the case:

  • The current trend might just be a calm before the storm while new powers rise up to become strong enough to eventually challenge the existing world order. China comes to mind on this score.
  • The number of people and governments which want to engage in conflict might continue to decline. But those few who do want to engage in conflict might find technological advances allow them to engage in asymmetrical warfare using biological or nuclear weapons that kill large numbers of people.
  • Genetic engineering might eventually split the human race into subspecies whose interests and motvations are deeply incompatible.
  • Artificially intelligent robots might make a bid for supremacy.
  • Highly xenophobic aliens will receive the radio signals we started sending out in the early 20th century and they will send spacecraft to attack us.
  • Religious and cultural differences will supplant economic competition as drivers of human conflict. Samuel Huntington's Clash Of Civilizations will lead to war. Certainly such differences helped cause wars in the past.

We can not avoid all violent conflict. But scientific and technological advances could eliminate the motives and means behind some conflicts.

Update: Some factors weigh in favor of reduced conflict in the future. Most obviously, the populations of the Western countries, Japan, and China are all rapidly aging. War is a young man's game. As young men become proportionally smaller portions of various populations the mainstream of each population will oppose war. Also, small family sizes make mothers especially more reluctant to risk losing a single son at war.

The effects of future rejuvenation therapies will cut in both directions. By making populations physically younger and boosting testosterone levels rejuvenation will make populations more physically able to engage in war. But the knowledge that one's own death in war would cost one thousands of years of foregone life might make people very risk averse. Some rejuvenation enthusiasts make that argument. But I'm not totally sold on it because human minds are flawed and humans do not always properly calculate risks and benefits. Look at gambling addicts or people who engage in dangerous sports for the thrill of it. Rejuvenation by itself will not make people perfectly rational calculators. For a substantial fraction of the world's population urges for immediate gratification of desires for revenge, pleasure, and dominance might override fears of death or desire for longer term satisfaction.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 May 29 05:26 PM  Trends Human Conflict

Joseph said at May 29, 2005 10:02 PM:

As far as the energy budget plans... if memory serves the cuts were in 4 areas. The great majority of areas (13? I don't have it cached anymore) recieved varying levels of increase. The fields are to varied and uncertain for anything approaching a manhatten project to be usefull. People like to point out that the budget supports traditional sources more yet those are the proven systems with the greatest short term impact. I would be apprehensive of anyone dumping all funds into an unproven field. Keep in mind the manhatten project was an effort focused on producing a specific item. Hydrogen storage or even battery developement have numerouse, and sometimes totally unrelated, directions of research. There were only a limited number of routes available to produce a fission weapon, would people prefer that someone guess and direct all effort into say some specific area of battery research when there's no clear indicator that it would be the proper one?

Scenarios of conflict (mid/high intensity conflicts with potential for nuclear exchange). The ones I've seen pulmagated were:
Indian subcontinent ~2005. Apparently defused now.
Middle East ~2010. Hopefully being defused now though not yet resolved.
Asia 2010~2015. This may have moved into the ~2008 timeframe with the potential economic implosion of China and what that
might mean for balkanization.
South America ~2020-2025. An example, Argentina/Brazil
Eastern Europe ~2030. A developing Eastern Europe giving back the old Soviets some of their own.

As far as other possibilities. Well I tend to think due to the lethality of galactic conditions that intelligent/technology using life may be a rarity (life itself may be very widespread but think of the dangers for an inhabited planet as it's system orbits through the galaxy. What for example would have happened to humanity if the Indonesian caldera had erupted now instead of 180000 or so years ago). As far as intelligent machines...well if I ever hear of anyone named Forbin working on a practical AI immagonna shoot him :)

Randall Parker said at May 30, 2005 6:37 AM:


The Manhattan Project had to solve so many problems that it required the best physicists of America, Canada, Britain, and refugees from Europe to do it. If memory serves it also consumed about 1% of the US GDP during WWII. So that would be like spending over $110 billion per year now.

As for unproven systems: Invasion and occupation of a country as a method to turn it into a liberal democracy is a really unproven system. In fact, most US interventions in other countries have failed and Germany and Japan are the exceptions, not the rule. Yet we are in the process of spending a few hundred billion on just such a venture. What I'm arguing for is much lower risk and more certan to succeed than the Iraq invasion. It is also cheaper and will yield a much larger benefit.

What is unproven about batteries or photovoltaics or wind? We use them all. We just need big improvements on each.

Running lots of mini-Manhattan Projects reduces the risk because even if some fail others will succeed.

BTW, the real Manhattan Project produced 2 final products: A uranium fission bomb and a plutonium fission bomb. The Manhattan Project also had a number of subprojects such as the uranium enrichment plant at Oak Ridge and the reactor for generating the plutonium.

Rob McMillin said at May 30, 2005 6:47 AM:

Is it just me or is does Simon's prediction ring eerily close to the kinds of predictions made on the eve of World War I about economic interconnection preventing war?

Randall Parker said at May 30, 2005 7:21 AM:


Yes, many of the factors which are lowering the rate of armed conflict today could turn out to be highly transitory. Lots of systems seem highly stable right up to the point where they become unstable and all hell breaks loose.

Still, primitive humans living in tribes kill each other at much higher rates than industrialized societies do. The big wars of the 20th century killed smaller fractions of affected populations than the Yanomamo routinely kill in their inter-village battles. The Yanomamo are not the only primitive group which anthropologists have found kill each other at high rates.

Jamisia said at May 30, 2005 8:37 AM:

War is a young man's job... China is rapidly aging too...

Oh really? What about China's surplus of young and able males? China can't run on cheapo labour forever, just like it can't go on copying it's way into a modern economy. The latter may not be much of a prob (given the number of engineers they turn out), but the former is... Of course, China could clone a few women, but it doesn't seem very likely. Russia is facing a demographic crisis of the first order, so that makes for a nice worldproblem. So Julian Simon's prediction may or may not become reality, but along the way we'll sure see some interesting stuff.

Randall Parker said at May 30, 2005 8:45 AM:


Yes, China has plenty of people to use for staffing an Army. But all the older people will be reluctant to see their society plunge into war. Older folks want more peaceful conditions.

Rob McMillin said at May 30, 2005 9:17 AM:

Also: liked the xenophobic aliens scenario. I Love Lucy causes intergalactic war! Film at 11.

The major problem I have with spending federal bucketloads on energy research is that it is likely to go to the well-connected or the well-rehearsed rather than those who actually have a chance of making a go of it (read: profitably commercial). Nanosolar, for instance, may be BS, but they have an astounding number of people with actual track records on board, unlike some guys who flit from grant to grant.

Rob McMillin said at May 30, 2005 9:19 AM:

Oops, used the wrong link above; shoulda been this one.

Randall Parker said at May 30, 2005 9:41 AM:


I'm specifically advocating increased research in non-fossil fuel sources of energy. My 3 favorites are batteries (to eliminate the need for liquid fuels for most transportation), photovoltaics, and nuclear.

Randall Parker said at May 30, 2005 9:44 AM:


I expect that if there is life out there then some of them will be extremely hostile. Therefore our radio waves are eventually going to bring a hostile response. Now, the response might take tens or hundreds of thousands of years to get here. But I expect hostile aliens to show up some day.

In fact, if xenophobic aggressive aliens exist and are efficient at snuffing out other races then the xeonophobes might be more numerous than the friendlies.

spiny widgmo said at May 30, 2005 10:00 AM:

Fermi's Paradox was based on the observation that'if technological civilizations were common and moderately long-lived, then the galaxy ought to be fully inhabited.' You suggestion of xenophobic aggressive (and paranoid) aliens would explain that. All it would take is for once in the history of the universe for a single species to attempt xenocide or have a (really) bad first contact. If any species survived it would be easy to see how it could become ingrained that immediate extermination of any threat is the only way to guarantee survival.

gmoke said at May 30, 2005 1:21 PM:

I suggested to Rick Kaplan of MSNBC last year that he provide a regular "box score" of world conflict on his newscasts. He wrote it down in his little black book but I have yet to see anything come of it. Would be good to have that kind of regular reference of wars, revolutions, coups, and conflicts on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Might keep our eye on the ball in such places as Rwanda, the Congo, Darfur (whose problems we seem to be solving by letting all the refugees die), Colombia, the Philippines, Burma....

The trend also seems to be less cross-border wars and more intra-nation conflicts. Of course, the USA is the exception. We reserve the right to war on anybody, any time, and anywhere, including space. Not too much of a stretch of the imagination to see the USA as evolving into that xenophobic aggressive alien specied vis a vis the rest of the universe but that's just my paranoid projection.

Joseph said at May 30, 2005 1:32 PM:

Randall Parker

It should be remembered that the great bulk of the Manhatten project funds were for infrastructure. Seeing that research center requirements are pretty well met with no need to put something in a remote area for security reasons and then support it I would hazard that only about 10% of the total went to actual research and construction. I do agree more support would be appropriate but I don't know how much time it would actually save in any particulare effort.

As far as military action I point to my origional scenarios. If the current effort simply breaks the cycle of barbarity in the middle east it will have been worth it. The simple fact of involvement in the Indian subcontinent does appear to have prevented an expected confrontation between India and Pakistan (they've went to war before this). I have my own opinions but the future will pass judgement on the practicality.

I feel this great irresistable force drawing me into the ET scenario :) Other scenarios do have potential of course. Genetic manipulation could go to far (that's one reason I'm not to disconcerted by all the moral arguments, it should instill caution in society not to go to far). I don't dissalow the potential of someone eventually producing devices which at least mimic self-awareness. I would hope though that they'd not be so stupid as not to have a manuel "off switch" easily accessible..just in case.

I still tend to believe that while life may be fairly common, technology using life is extremely rare in the long term. We may in fact be the only current race or even the first this galaxy has developed which is contemplating leaving it's home world. We're allready thinking of autonomous exploration vehicles with self replicating ability. We could possibly have such within the next generation or so. If techno life was common the galaxy should have these things wandering throughout with the report home signals vastly increasing odds of our notice of them (logic would dictate that such probes would leave monitors around our own planet, there were actual radar scans, done by the government, of the variouse trojan points etc. to see if such things might be hanging around). Our own species is now very close to the point that if was so desired a planetary effort could successfully send colonising "arks" to nearby stars. Physics, genetics etc. are about at the point that we could contemplate such an effort. Some people have done the math and a sustained effort would fill the galaxy in a few tens of millions of years. We're on prime realestate so why hasn't someone conlonised this place during the last billion years or so? Some people can't visualise doing such things but just as many would embrace it as soon as possible whatever the sacrifice. (Yes I'll admit it, I have this wistfull vision that some vastly remote descendant of mine will be sitting at a console at the end of days preparing to push the button labeled "reverse entropy")

It should be noticed that we've been very fortunate in our circumstances. Our system had at least whatever minimum level of metals content was needed to develope life and support technology (many regions have a far lower amount so if advanced life still developed would they have resources at hand for industrial uses? Also at what level does it become poisonous to higher life?) Our system seems to be riding ahead of the major star forming reagions (and the inherent dangers of nearby nova events). We've not passed through the sweeping flash of a nuetron stars polar region. Our local space junk content isn't excessively high (Tau Ceti which was thought a good candidate has about 10x our amount of astroidal junk supposedly so postulate what that would mean to a life bearing planet). No nearby stars have kicked the ort cloud into motion (supposedly a red dwarf will do this in about 900k years though) which would shotgun the inner planets. Finally our race seems to have developed during a fairly benign period on the planet (except that caldera incedent that is believed to have reduced early humanity to only a couple of thousand survivors).

As far as xenophobes. Well they're just as likely as benign races if not more so. People would argue that such a race would destroy itself yet what if a particulare grouping "won" it's planetary wars of extermination and turned it's aggression outward? I would tend to believe that a xenophobic race would pursue tech more aggressively than a benign race. Time will tell I suppose. Many of the more imaginative SF writers have put together plausible scenarios of how other life might develope and why it might have aggressive perogatives. It would be hoped though that our descendants will also be cautious and not forget how to build guns. You never know.

I blame Mr. Parker for giving me such an opening to rant about the subject :)

James Bowery said at May 30, 2005 8:30 PM:

Government funding of research is one thing but government funding of technology is a disaster.

The last thing you want is for Congressmen to be making decisions about risk investment.

The problem is over-centralization of net assets resulting from de facto subsidizing of asset holders. Asset holders are the beneficiaries of property rights and that is a service they should pay for.

Until taxes are treated as insurance premiums for the social construct of property rights, asset holders will be corrupted just as surely as welfare queens and their investment decisions will be risk averse and zero-sum.

Brett Bellmore said at May 31, 2005 3:12 AM:

Until we have self-sustaining space colonies, "war" with a xenophobic alien race is logically impossible: If all they want to do is kill us, given the speeds you have to achieve to travel between the stars, a simple kinetic kill projectile would do a good job of it, making a major asteriod strike look like a firecracker. It wouldn't be "war", just extermination. The opening shot would be every major body in the Solar system taking a relativistic strike.

OTOH, unless they were quite close, we probably WOULD have such colonies before their strike could arrive.

Randall Parker said at May 31, 2005 5:29 AM:

James Bowery,

The US government funded the technology development that produced fly-by-wire F-16 fighters, B2 stealth bombers, nuclear submarines, nuclear aircraft carriers, F-15E Strike Eagles, GPS satellites, JDAM GPS precision bombs, laser-guided bombs, the early versions of the internet, successive generations of radar technology, and a whole lot of other really fancy, sophisticated, and innovative hardware and software systems. The US military funds research that leads to breakthroughs which the military then uses in technological development programs to produce weapons systems and other military systems.

We currently spend about a hundred billion a year on the Persian Gulf through our military. Many military research and development efforts are on-going to solve problems in the unfolding Iraq war.

I am arguing that we treat energy technology as technology that is important to national security. Energy technology really is important to national security whether we acknowledge it through policy or not. New energy technologies will some day obsolesce oil and as a result will make the Middle East a whole lot less expensive to deal with.

Braddock said at May 31, 2005 7:10 AM:

Technological innovation is vital for a healthy economy. An innovative society is created through innovative thinking, individuals who are innovative.

The ideal graduate is someone with skills in science and technology, plus entrepreneurial skills. Schools should be giving children better backgrounds for technical and scientific careers. In addition, schools should be teaching children entrepreneurial skills. Instead they fill the kids' heads with PC garbage that contradicts their real world experience.

More spending on energy r&d would we great, assuming the money were well spent. Government oversight is not always the best. Government schools are not the best, so why would you expect government spending to be?

Randall Parker said at May 31, 2005 7:58 AM:


You state:

More spending on energy r&d would we great, assuming the money were well spent. Government oversight is not always the best. Government schools are not the best, so why would you expect government spending to be?

First off, the market provides little incentive for basic research. I propose big increases in basic research for photochemistry and electrochemistry. These research areas will produce advances useful for photovoltaics and batteries.

Second, yes of course government money is often not as effectively spent as private money. But government money can so increase the amount of funding in an area of investigation that the rate of progress in that area accelerates dramatically. It was government funding that produced the first radar, the first internet, the first rockets that made it into space, the first orbital satellite (Soviet btw), and the first fly-by-wire aircraft among many other things.

Government spending on energy research could lead to a decreased need for far larger amounts of government spending on defense. Why not spend money to save money?

gmoke said at May 31, 2005 11:52 AM:

Government spending is more subtle than simple line item expenditures. Subsidies exist for most energy resources on a variety of different levels: oil depletion allowances, exemptions from environmental regulations for coal companies, Price-Anderson Act to transfer the insurance burden for nukes from the private sector to the public... The subsidies for renewables is a pittance besides these.

Government spending can mandate towards best practices and state of the art technology in order to prime the pump for the marketplace but we haven't consistently gone that route either.

Mostly it's about pork but I guess you already knew that.

As for wars, my impression is that conflict may have diminished but casualties and damage may not have. 800,000 or more people were butchered in about a month in Rwanda. The best estimate is that at least 100,000 Iraqis have died in our latest invasion with the numbers continuing to accumulate. This is not the massive damage of WWI or WWII but still nothing to be ignored. I would also be very wary of thinking that India and Pakistan have solved their mutual enmity. This may be a temporary lull while India aligns with China and Pakistan grows closer to the USA. Kashmir is still an unresolved issue and the increase in both Hindu and Islamic fundamentalisms does not bode well for a pacific future.

Joseph said at May 31, 2005 4:17 PM:

Randall Parker

Government spending on energy research could lead to a decreased need for far larger amounts of government
spending on defense. Why not spend money to save money?

Hmm you perhaps have it turned around. Normally government research into defense areas is actually the basic research used by industry. It's a bit selective at times I grant but it does count as the basic research that profit driven organisms base their developements on. I'm a firm believer in serendepity (though I admit the government has sponsored some research that's so boneheaded that even serendepity will never apply).

I don't have statistics to back it up but my gut feeling is that defense spending by the US has been the reason for it producing most of the real discoveries the world has seen this last 70 years. Now various countries do produce their share but it should be noted most are simply extentions of discoveries made in the US.

T. J. Madison said at June 1, 2005 2:55 PM:

>>Due to advances in medical treatments the permanently damaged outnumber the killed.

Let's be optimistic for a moment. Maybe more advances in medical treatment will make that damage less permanent!

gmoke said at June 1, 2005 3:14 PM:

"Let's be optimistic for a moment. Maybe more advances in medical treatment will make that damage less permanent!"

Every veteran I know who has been involved in combat has been permanently damaged whether they were wounded or not. War causes permanent damage to those who engage in it. That's a reality.

Yes, I hope that medicine can make the physical and psychological effects less grievous and more fully recoverable but the scars will remain and tend to be deep, the deepest being those that we can't see.

Eric Pobirs said at June 1, 2005 3:41 PM:

Private enterprise was not going to conduct a Manhattan Project. Unless a corporation was going to go into the nuclear blackmail game there wasn't a market for the Manhatten Project's product. The same can be said for many technological innovations that first entered existence at DOD behest. Much of that technology eventually found its way into civilian applications but that is not an indicator it would only have been first developed to satisfy military application needs. There is, however, vast sums to be made from having the best battery technology and many other innovations. Private enterprise will pony up for basic research when they find nobody is going to pick the public's pocket to supply it for them gratis. We have a patent system for this very reason, to motivate innovation.

The government is involved in funding a mindboggling wide array of things that have absolutely nothing to do wwith running the country. Far better to let people keep their money and choose for themselves whether to fund companies doing or funding research. They in turn will see the direct benefits of that investment if they choose the right company while everyone else benefits indirectly.

Frankly, I think my chances of being able to spend some time in orbit would be vastly improved if the government had gotten completely out of the launch business after ending the Apollo program except for military applications. NASA was created as aCivil War reparations program for the Deep South and should have been taken out behind the barn and shot decades ago.

Joseph said at June 3, 2005 1:53 PM:

If there had been no NASA you would not have a computer now capable of reading this. If there had been no military funding for coldwar related technologies you'd have no net to connect your non-existent, cheap high end computer to.

What NASA has become now is a shame yet in it's early days it tackled projects and spun off technology that no for profit intiety would have touched for decades. As far as batteries look what the driving emphasis was for that technology... DARPA needed more powerfull power supplies for radios, laser designaters etc.. The basic research conducted jump started the R&D for the lithium battery mutations (along with specialty batteries such as the lithium thionyl chloride for airospace use). The examples are legion (fuel cells owe there inital boost to NASA also).

Sometimes only a government can invest the sums over a long enough period of time to make a technology practical for industry to pick up and run with. Having said that though the initial effort has been expended on battery tech. Industry now needs to assume it's traditional role of running with it to make their profit. Perhaps more support might be called for to hasten the outcome but I basically don't see where a massive government push would pay off in this case.

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