A former history teacher of mine used to say that something is only inevitable after it has happened. History is a hard teacher and its lessons are some of the most difficult to learn. The more humanity progresses the greater the need to learn from the mistakes of the past as the spectre of extinction appears over us all.
But is it certain to happen?
Since the Second World War, the population of Earth has exploded from 2 billion people to over 7 billion. It is expected to rise exponentially over the next century to 8 billion by 2030, rising as high as 9 billion by 2050. A larger population will require greater room, particularly in the more affluent Western Hemisphere.
Smaller countries could simply be annexed in the rush to house countries growing populations. A consequent increase in tension between neighbouring countries could lead to military conflict.
Nation states could merely cease to exist under the clamour of increased populations. Larger countries could become overpopulated and may need to war to survive.
A population increase such as the one stated above has been countered to some degree by a decrease in global fertility rates across both the developed and developing world. The average number of children a woman is predicted to have has decreased from an average of 5 in 1950 to 2 in 2010 and it is expected to stabilise over the next 40 years.
Population increases run in tandem with the means to destroy, the proliferation of nuclear weapons by some countries has led to arms races between nations as they look to defend themselves. It began with the first great nuclear power, the USA which today has over 7000 nuclear weapons at its disposal. Not to be outdone, the Russian federation has over 8000 nuclear weapons. Countries which used to face the prospect of war with the former Soviet Union like France and Britain have slowed down their nuclear weapon production.
Newer countries like India and Pakistan, engaged in their own arms race have developed nuclear weapons fairly recently and other countries such as Iran and North Korea have moved to acquire or develop nuclear weaponry. The rise of these rogue states (states which ignore international conventions when they want to) has increased the likelihood of brushfire wars, which could lead to wider conflicts.
It would be remiss of me at this stage not to mention the international black market for nuclear weapons, which sprang up mostly because of the demise of the former Soviet Union. The machinery for making Nuclear weapons, fissionable material and other items which could be used to develop untraceable nuclear weapons. Well financed terrorist groups such as IS and Al Qaeda could use these weapons to provoke international tensions to breaking point.
The concept of mutually assured destruction has led many of the nations of the world to move away from nuclear weapons and back to conventional warfare. Although the concept of a winnable nuclear war continues to occupy the world’s top military strategists, the move towards nuclear disarmament cannot be ignored. The only burr in the saddle of this horse is the possibility of a nuclear war with no destruction via the supposedly safe Neutron bomb.
While the political world can fluctuate as often the weather, one thing political nations have always relied on is the availability of natural resources. But what if these disappeared? Of the resources we have we have almost 1000 million tonnes of coal, 1120 billion barrels of oil and 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. As a species we consume 18 million tonnes of coal a day, 84 million barrels of oil and 104 billion cubic feet of gas. Without doing the sums any layman can see that we consume more than too much. Escalation in things like the price of oil or gas could bankrupt entire countries, leading to internal strife which could be exploited by an external power. There is also the possibility of countries being held to ransom by the oil producing nations of the Middle East.
The dependent countries of the world, however have not sat idly on their hands while their supplies have decreased. Investment in sustainable renewable energy sources like wind farms, solar farms and hydroelectric power has grown exponentially over the last half century. Nuclear power, once demonised by the environmentalists has enjoyed something of a recent resurgence even in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear plant accident. Fracking, although a highly controversial environmental issue could provide a patch until more productive renewable energy resources are discovered.
A globalised ecosystem, such as the one we have on this planet can manifest newer and more unpredictable organisms, none so fierce as the virus. The usage of mass transit systems and technological advances means that a virus moves a thousand times quicker than it could 100 years previously.
Pandemics such as Bird Flu, Sars and the recent Ebola viral outbreak in West Africa while perceived as isolated incidents could have escalated into full blown worldwide disasters. The World Health Organisation is getting better at identifying and containing these pandemic outbreaks but with the increase in the usage of genetic engineering and the possible development of chemical weapons by terrorist groups, how long will it be before something comes along which cannot be managed or countered?
Governments dealing with this new pandemic would struggle under the strain of having to deal with it and maintain the rights of its citizens. The resultant restrictions could breed anarchy, which may allow more extreme factions to take over democratic countries.
As the world becomes more globalised, nations become less and less able to control the influx of economic and social migrants. The concept of the nation state will inevitably become a more redundant concept. Or will it?
Nationhood may enjoy a resurgence in this newly globalised world, as the indigenous populations of those countries most greatly afflicted by immigration express their dissatisfaction with the influx. A desire to return to the “good old days” of national pride will provide fuel to those fires and marginalised groups which extol a more extreme view of democracy could gain a foothold. Religious intolerance and segregation, used by these nationalist parties as their main tools could exacerbate the situation even further.
On the other hand the concept of the nation state may die a quiet death, as the world moves forward in a more integrated phase. Globalisation could unite the world in a more far reaching way than any war could. Borders would become unnecessary, as would the concept of individual nation state armies.
We must at this stage consider the role of the individual in the global system because even an individual can cause massive global change by one single act. As long as acts like this can be thought of they will continue to be perpetrated. Individuals like Mohammed Atta, Timothy McVeigh and latterly Edward Snowden have changed the world with such acts.
Gavrilo Princip changed the world forever with a grenade and a couple of well placed bullets. An individual such as this, assassinating a key individual such as the President of the United States could start a chain reaction of events that would lead inexorably to war. If the individual perpetrating the act was Russian for the purposes of this example, then already strained relationships may break. All it takes is one man with an idea.
Likewise, a man with an idea could change the world more positively. Gandhi changed the destiny of one billion people with his ideas of non violent action. Imagine what a similarly minded individual could do to the destiny of a planet.
So, coming back to our initial question: Is a Third World War inevitable?
To say that this is inevitable is ultimately a fallacy and ignores the motivations and prejudices of the peoples of the world. In the final analysis, there are as much catalysts for change as there are participants. It all comes down to one simple thing: Are we prepared to let it occur?
© R Simmons. All Rights Reserved.