In the battle last year for Mosul, an Iraqi city of [fewer] than 1m[illion], the American-led coalition killed at least 1,000 civilians despite using mainly precision-guided, or “smart”, bombs. Idlib, whose population is three times larger, will face Russian bombs that are almost entirely unguided, or “dumb”, meaning they are quite likely to miss their targets and instead hit civilians. The battle for Syria’s last rebel redoubt looms, the 'Economist', 8 SeptemberMeanwhile Katherine Bourzac writes about research into an innovative way of dealing with the brine generated by reverse osmosis, which would otherwise be dumped into the sea with possibly damaging effects on the marine environment:
[A]llowing forward, not reverse, osmosis [makes] it possible to get more and more water to flow across a salt-excluding membrane into a container of brine, increasing the pressure. That pressurised water can be used to drive a turbine and generate electricity in a process called pressure-retarded forward osmosis. Our thirst for water is turning the oceans saltier, Katherine Bourzac, 'New Scientist', 8 SeptemberThe details aren't important. My point is the contrast between the two visions for humanity. On the one hand, we face a human-induced scene of carnage, avoidance of which is assumed to be beyond our capabilities. On the other, we have scientists and engineers researching ingenious ways of improving the environmental consequences of extracting fresh- from sea-water.
Is it too simplistic and naive to think that the immense human costs of the forthcoming Idlib catastrophe outweigh any benefits that might accrue to the competing factions in the Syrian conflict? And, if we accept that, why do we assume that we can't do anything about avoiding them?
The answer, I think, is that our multitudes of political systems aren't fit for purpose. They are incapable of aggregating the wishes of ordinary human beings, and weighting them against the perceived, narrow, self-interest of (in this case) politicians, warlords and arms merchants in Syria and beyond; maybe a couple of hundred guys who could halt the catastrophe, but choose not to. The problem, as we see from New Scientist, is not a lack of human ingenuity. The problem is that, while some of it's channelled into schemes that benefit humanity, far too much is channelled into endeavours you might think of as low priority or - much worse - into creating and prolonging human catastrophe.
We could, and many of us do, sneer at the profit motive as a solution to human problems. There are many, especially on the left, so blinded by ideology that they see monetary incentives as unacceptable ways of solving our human problems. Presumably these people are waiting for some sort of psychological revolution, or deus ex machina* or maybe they feel it more important to belong to a tribe of believers in their bankrupt ideas than actually pay people to solve problems that in their view, shouldn't exist and wouldn't exist if we were all nice to each other.
I don't think we can afford those views. The challenges we face on all fronts - environmental, as well as political and military - are too huge and too urgent. As well, just as teachers (these days) are paid, so too would providing incentives for people to, for instance, eliminate war, bring more people and more resources into that endeavour. Some might become rich by helping eliminate war (is that so terrible?); others might simply earn the same salary as they would say, by advertising pet-food or working as a warehouse person in a plant that manufactures chemical weapons.
For centuries religious leaders, monarchs, ideologues, international organisations and politicians of all stripes have failed to end war. Even now, as with Idlib, we think we are powerless to prevent it. Why does violent political conflict continue to cause untold suffering, despite most people’s deeply-felt wish to live in peace?
We cannot answer these questions now, but I don't think we need to. What we can do is reward peaceful outcomes, however they are achieved and whoever does so. Nobody can possibly identify and remove all the possible causes of violent political conflict. But what we can do is reward the sustained periods of peace and leave it to a motivated coalition to explore potential solutions and implement the most promising ones. Currently, instead of rewarding peace, governments finance activities, or institutions, or programmes, or policies that are supposed to work for peace, but have signally failed to achieve it. The answer, I think, is to make the rewards conditional on the ending of war.
Conflict Reduction Bonds would do this. Backed by governments, philanthropists, non-governmental organisations and the public, possibly under the auspices of the United Nations, they would be issued on the open market for whatever price they would fetch, and would be tradeable at all times. They would be redeemed for a fixed sum only when the number of people killed or injured by violent political conflict reached a very low level. Importantly, the bonds would make no assumptions as to how to bring about greater peace - that would be left to bondholders. Unlike normal bonds, Conflict Reduction Bonds would not bear interest and their redemption date would be uncertain. Bondholders would gain most by ensuring that peace is achieved quickly. The broad effect would be twofold:
- More resources would be devoted to achieving the outcome of peace
- Market incentives and efficiencies would be injected into every stage of peace building.
For more on Conflict Reduction Bonds and variants see here.
*Deus ex machina is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and seemingly unlikely occurrence...Its function can be to resolve an otherwise irresolvable plot situation [or]...to bring the tale to a happy ending.... Source