The Century of Attrition

3 November 2022

There’s a particular narrative you’ll find showcased in many of the disaster films created in the past couple of decades, whether it’s a classic like Independence Day, the show-stopper that was 2012, or the quintessential climate disaster film, The Day After Tomorrow. In each of these films, we generally see a similar theme: Humanity is caught unaware by some catastrophe and suffers greatly as a result; entire cities are destroyed and hundreds of millions die. But just as we face the brink of total annihilation, we’re saved by a plucky band of heroes or the disaster simply passes. Against the odds, humanity has struggled through its ordeal and begins to rebuild what was lost.

Unfortunately for us, life rarely plays out as it does in the cinema. But it’s precisely this kind of dominant narrative that has helped shape a global citizenry incapable of conceptualising the unique nature and scale of disaster promised by catastrophic climate change. Because in truth, what we’re facing isn’t a single disaster or even a series of them, but rather a fundamentally different state of existence. One in which humanity will be confronted by planetary conditions increasingly foreign to those which allowed our civilisation to thrive in the first place. We thus can’t understand unchecked climate change as simply a disaster to be overcome, as Hollywood cinema and short-sighted politicians would have us believe, but rather as a steadily intensifying disaster of attrition.

The fundamentals of a war of attrition (from which I borrow my term) are this: rather than launching a large-scale, decisive offensive in the hopes of a bloody but speedy victory, the aggressor focuses their efforts on slowly but steadily wearing down their opponent’s manpower, logistics, and morale until total collapse is all but inevitable. The example most often brought up is the First World War, which was a war not of grand victories and decisive battles, but of the relentless grinding down of a nation’s ability to wage war. In such an engagement, it’s not the big battles you need to worry about but rather the endless tide of smaller confrontations that, given enough time, will wear down even the strongest adversary.

Much like a war of attrition, catastrophic climate change promises not a single large-scale disaster that might plausibly be overcome or repelled. Rather, it will manifest as a steadily growing tide of countless small, interconnected, compounding disasters that, over time and without respite, may slowly wear down humanity’s ability not just to thrive but, as we’re beginning to see in the most vulnerable regions of the world, to simply survive in any acceptable state. We can thus conceptualise catastrophic climate change as a disaster of attrition: an ever-worsening state of hunger, thirst, heat, flooding, and destruction that, based on our current trajectory, may very well come to define the 21st Century.