I’m in danger of becoming a pessimist.
I always assumed human society would survive, at least for another dozen generations. That’s long enough, for a species with 80 year life spans. I don’t buy into paranoia about nano technology or artificial intelligence. Look close, and these things are much less awesome than their publicity suggests.
Nuclear weapons are, however, technology that can finish us off. Yet the Cold War ended peacefully, and no one’s used a nuke since America dropped one on Nagasaki. Reagan’s administration ratcheted up the risk, especially in his first term. ABC broadcast “The Day After” in 1983, a big-budget TV movie that pretty accurately showed the aftermath of a US-Soviet nuclear exchange. More than 100 million watched. Then Gorbachev appeared, circa 1985. His revolutionary foreign policy, and Reagan’s senility, undermined the mutual threat. Famously, these two men almost signed away all their nuclear weapons in Reykjavík Iceland, which left the US security establishment apoplectic. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, which hit a 20 year low of 3 minutes to midnight in 1983, bounced up to 6 minutes.
The extreme concern of nuclear policy leaders helped reduce concerns about nuclear weapons. Even George Bush’s exaggerations and fabrications about Iraq WMD, the threat of an Iraqi “mushroom cloud,” demonstrated how serious global leaders were about nuclear proliferation. It was the one potentiality certain to galvanize international and national support.
Long-term, nuclear weapons remain the single biggest threat to human civilization. Global warming, a real danger, is something people will adapt to. Humanity will muddle through.
But as long as nuclear stockpiles remain, eventually a mistake, miscalculation, or madman will put them in use. A single, limited exchange will devastate. If even 1/100 of all nuclear weapons are used, they’ll do to humans what the asteroid did to dinosaurs.
If that potential is low, it gives people time to organize and get rid of nuclear weapons. Up until Trump’s election I considered that the best, most likely scenario. I do believe that each generation gets a little wiser, though it’s two steps forward, one back.
But the world’s new crop of leaders, Putin in Russia, Xi in China, and, not to be outdone, Trump in the US, have less awareness of nuclear danger. Trump, in particular, has drawn the worst superficial conclusions from 20th century history. He credits nuclear weapons with suppressing war, including local wars between nuclear states like India and Pakistan. He wants Japan and Korea to go nuclear, to balance China’s arsenal. Regardless of his statements, his Iranian strategy will lead to their bomb’s quick development, followed by Saudi Arabia and other mid-east countries. All of which he considers appropriate.
Unfortunately, his naive view of nuclear proliferation is joined to his jaded view of people not American. One suspects the prospects of 20 million murdered Arabs, 40 million dead East Asians, or 60 million annihilated in Pakistan, are not visions that keep him awake at night.
Nuclear proliferation will increase risks ten-fold. Pakistan is the most likely entity to fire nuclear missiles, today. They’ve got six minutes between a radar notification of an Indian missile launch, and firing their own missiles, if the Indian missiles happen to be nuclear. The Pakistanis must guess what the radar detects, whether they’re test fires, whether they’re targeting Pakistan or somewhere else. No one expects Pakistan’s generals to err on the side of caution. Luckily India is very conscious of these circumstances. They have the same problem in reverse. Both countries try to minimize ambiguous launches.
It’s possible Pakistan’s nukes will misfire or fail to explode, I suppose. It’s hard to see how they maintain quality, given the country’s weak technological infrastructure. Even one nuclear explosion on the heavily populated Indian subcontinent could murder millions, or tens of millions. But it might be contained.
The same isn’t true of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Japan, Korea, or other countries. If it’s possible to limit weapon launches in India, that’s not the case in the middle east. Saudi Arabia, like Pakistan, will have minutes to determine what to do when an incoming Iranian object shows up. Not only do they have people to protect, but the cornerstone of the global oil supply. Expect them to err on the side of Iran’s annihilation. Yet they’ll probably fail, and be destroyed as well. Besides the immediate catastrophe, Europe will be virtually unlivable from radiation. It’s easy to model how the entire northern hemisphere’s population will be extinguished.
That’s why I becoming a pessimist, without even thinking about the historical enmity between Japan, Korea, and China.
Further, Trump is reactionary, in the political and psychological sense. He reacts to perceived insults, threats, by rampaging, lashing out. His Putin bromance may end like many foolhardy romances, in a squabble. But a Trump squabble can sputter into blood sport, with no backing down. Trump can easily position the US on the wrong side of history, which Putin will use to ratchet things up, as a wedge between the US and its allies. Annihilation becomes a real possibility.
I always thought the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday clock was too nervous. It seems illogical that it’s been at 10 minutes to midnight or less for most of the past 65 years, while we’re still here. I sort of equate a minute to a year, though the Bulletin is mum on the point. I guess the other way to look at it is a buffer. Like brake pads that have 20% left, something should be done. But the brakes won’t fail immediately, nor the world end tomorrow.
But buffer statistics have had a bad run in 2016. Hence, pessimism. There will be blood.