In Series …
Local (personal, potentially shallow, and subject to change) outlooks on science, technology, growth, and occasionally culture and history. I aim to write an essay every week, but whether it can make its way to FWPhys is random. Hence the series title.
Today (30 Sept), the UN Security Council is supposed to meet and talk about the Nordstream leak incidents, now four and counting.
The perpetrator behind the sabotage of the two Nordstream pipe systems off Danish and Swedish waters, and whoever stood to benefit from the ensuing chaos, will be left for future history to unravel, and I do not wish to speculate on the ongoing conflict. What this essay will discuss instead, is the looming possibility that our collective assumptions of peace are dissolving. An era is nearing its end, and the world will start to feel it.
Nordstream is a new example, of a system that was built beacuse the world expected it to remain operational “assuming a functional world order”: working markets, regular maintenance, and, of course, lack of torpedoes.
Most of our modern civilization operates on similar assumptions, to varying degrees. The tunnels and bridges connecting regions, international energy grids, trans-continental railways, undersea cable systems, and various civilian projects built without measures against aerial bombing or targeted missiles…
For any militantly capable power, destroying many of the above is not an impossible task, but few did. For too long, and for too many, factions who actually fire upon public infrastructure were only seen in single-use villain roles in blockbuster movies, and the world enjoyed a long period of reduced costs and increased connectivity.
Other than the occasional pastime when I stare at international air and marine traffic maps before bed, I am not someone who interfaces with these massively complex systems daily as a job requirement. Still, the pandemic sure is a lesson on both the connectedness of our world, and its fragility. Even more so when it’s dysfunctional, like the Suez Traffic Jam of 2021.
Coming back to the news. The developments in recent days have made it obvious that tactics to destroy and disrupt were never off the table for some powers as long as there is considerable profit. And the more incidents like this occurs, the bigger the question for the global economy, how it should operate when even its megaprojects become unreliable.
If — when — one day, no infrastructures can be trusted. Cables severed, grids bombed, flights rerouted, shipping lines blocked… How will such risks be hedged?
No matter what the solution may be, the moment such a question is asked, extra costs are already accruing. The pessimistic and secluded may consider this an overdue debt of globalization, while the general public inevitably wakes up to it in an unpleasant way. After all, who will bear the burden of such new risks that nothing is assumed to be reliable?
The underwater bombs that took away the Nordstream and released tons of methane into the nearby atmosphere might have sounded quiet — I am far away; you might not have been there, either. But its echoes will ring on and on, from increased shipping costs to elevated difficulties in international trading, until it is heard by all members of our society.
*: Humans have been leveling cities and wiping trade routes off maps for as long as cities existed. This happened in ancient history, in recent times when colonies changed hands, and during modern warfare which never stopped. The natural gas incident of the past few days is an example close to home for Western Europe and that is probably why it warranted lots of discussions in the English-speaking circle.