Our lives just changed again. Terrible things are beginning to happen and it’s going to get worse. How much worse? Well, my worry is on three fronts:
- Nuclear disaster
- Economic disaster
- Digital disaster
They are all connected, of course, and any or all will lead to a humanitarian disaster. We could be heading for all three simultaneously, or one might happen immediately, leading to the other two. But whichever way you game it out, we are most probably heading for disaster.
To say this is a bad day is an understatement.
When I heard the news of the invasion late yesterday I went quite blank. The kind of blank your body feels when you’ve sustained a terrible injury—your leg sliced off by a falling sheet of glass; a bullet wound in the belly—and shuts down temporarily because there’s too much to process. I’d been expecting it, of course. “Oh,” I thought. “Well, it’s begun.” Then I blinked, read a chapter of a ho-hum novel and went peacefully to sleep—because what else was there to do? I don’t control anything that would make any difference to individuals in Ukraine and Russia, or the decisions of governments.
Today the numbness is wearing off a little. I have started to sidle up to possibilities and, being an occasional science fiction writer, I immediately went to apocalyptic scenarios. Bear in mind many of these things will happen simultaneously.
- Russia will focus on the many Chernobyl-style reactors in Ukraine. They will most likely want to capture them but, well, accidents happen. And though these things are reasonably well built, conventional weaponry is very, very good at blowing things up. Imagine the effects of three concurrent Chernobyl-style disasters in Europe…
- When Russia is cut off from the global banking system, many people will panic. Although Russia isn’t particularly deeply enmeshed in global finance, it’s not isolated. It’s a huge commodities supplier, for example. And panic spreads. In terms of the market, we’ve already entered Correction territory and it’s very possible we’ll soon be in a Depression. And when money becomes scare and/or inflation balloons, corners get cut. (See Nuclear disaster, above. See Digital disaster below.) Of course, once deep sanctions are in place, Russia will retaliate: they will cut off supplies of oil and gas to Europe. Many Europeans will suffer—Germany, for example, gets more than 40% of its energy from Russia. When Europeans start suffering, the global economy will tank.
- Cyberwarfare is about to begin—if it hasn’t already. The US, Russia, China, and many other countries have been engaging in computer network operations, that is, cyber attacks, for decades, probing each others’ defences and systems, and occasionally disabling a particular operation or system—see, for example, the joint US-Israeli disruption of Iran’s nuclear programme. But these are more like sniper attacks: small, focused, and contained. Russia has already taken down big chunks of Ukraine’s systems. If and when the US unloads any serious attack on Russian infrastructure—on their military supply chain, for example—Russia, naturally, will retaliate. But here’s the thing. Computer network operations are relatively new, in the sense that there are no established protocols and fallbacks, no national agreements and diplomatic mechanisms. It would be very, very easy for things to deteriorate to the point of going after the power grid, sewerage, water supply, train systems, internet, hospitals, manufacturing, distribution, air traffic control… There is no limit to what could fail. I doubt this is where it will start; I doubt that, right now, it’s anyone’s intent—because frankly a full-out cyberwar is essentially civilisation-level suicide. But, again, accidents happen. And once you interrupt a deeply-connected complex system that system has a tendency to fail catastrophically. This worries me more than nuclear disaster—which of course would happen anyway, and in the blink of an eye, in the event of a committed, no-holds-barred cyberattack, and counterattack, on US or Russian infrastructure.
Having said all that, bear in mind, too, that this may all end up being limited to Russia and the Ukraine; Putin could be deposed; diplomats may eventually sort things out; and many other good, useful, positive possibilities may come to pass. I hope so, I really do.
But at the back of my mind is the understanding that the world has been in retreat from state-level reason, justice, and rationality for a couple of decades now. Democracy is in retreat. Trust in government is in retreat. And every time there’s any kind of a disaster—climatological, say, or a pandemic—this isolationist me-first attitude becomes more entrenched.
Put another way, twenty years ago the thought of a major power invading a large, sovereign neighbour in Europe was more or less unimaginable. A combination of the end of the Cold War, the formation of NATO, and the ascendance of the European Union led Europeans to think of themselves as safe, beyond overt war. Just take a look at the last few decades of government spending: the percentage of national budgets used on the military has been steadily shrinking. With the invasion of Ukraine, all that has changed. As fearful governments reverse the decline of military spending—and trust me, they will—where do you suppose the money will come from? Healthcare, eldercare, childcare, education, and all the other things I associate with safety and security.
So, yes, this invasion has changed the world. I don’t know how this particular situation will turn out but I have a bad feeling it may culminate—next year, or 10 years, or 40 years from now—with World War III. And to paraphrase Einstein, after WWIII, when and if there are once more enough people in any shape to engage in war, that war will be fought with sticks and stones.