What hope is there for humanity in a nuclear age? The answer must be: none
The day foreseen by US journalist HL Mencken when the White House is “adorned by a downright moron” seems, on the face of the accumulating evidence, to have dawned. Regrettably this person has his finger on a certain button.
Why Americans are not more alarmed about this can only be attributed to the very poor level of scientific literacy in what is, to all intents and purposes, the world’s foremost scientific society.
The missing bit of information is that a nuclear war, even a small one, could eliminate most of civilisation, Americans (even those with well-stocked fallout shelters) included.
It remains an obscure historical detail that all-out nuclear Armageddon between the USSR and USA was avoided, in the 1980s, by some brave scientists sticking out their necks to warn Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that their calculations had revealed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought”, as Reagan summarised it in his 1984 Address to the Nation.
These scientists had worked out that – regardless of fireball, blast and radiation – the volume of dust and smoke thrown into the atmosphere by multiple nuclear warheads would chill the planet by several degrees for several years, causing massive crop-killing frosts that would destroy food food production around the world.
Climate modelling has since become immensely more precise and sophisticated. Alan Robock and Brian Toon used it to calculate that the amount of dust and ash from even a “limited nuclear war” would wreck food production globally for years. Fifty to 100 small (Hiroshima-sized) nukes would cause 1-2 billion people to starve and possibly end civilisation, they calculated. Eight countries presently have this power in their nuclear arsenals.
But, to be brutally frank, how many of the countries are run by someone who is completely sane, and doesn’t suffer from some wild, obsessional hatred for some other branch of humanity?
Thus, the real problem emerges. There are, and will be, innumerable idiots with their finger on a button potent enough to destroy all or most of the 7.5 billion human inhabitants of Earth. The conjunction between nuclear firepower and mental incapacity is unavoidable.
US President Donald Trump alone, we are told, commands the potential first-strike launch of 900 nuclear weapons – 9-18 times enough to eliminate civilisation. Then he has another 6000 nukes in varying states of readiness to support his initial misjudgement. So Trump can – in theory at least – take out human civilisation 70 times over, not counting any responses.
Those who desire to sleep easy will be comforted by the theory that Trump has to go through his senior military officers to order the End of the World. In practice, the US has rather a refined system for weeding out people who might defy the command. Few, if any, military leaders will reply – like the commander at Bastogne – “Nuts”, if ordered to take out their grandkids.
Or are there? Is there a ray of sanity in the US High Command which would hustle the President off to Bethesda in a white jacket with straps, should he become over-excited by what he had just seen on Twitter or Fox News? Put simply, do the US military have the guts, intelligence and integrity of the scientists who told Gorbachev and Reagan a pre-emptive strike would be curtains for all? For that matter, does any nuclear-armed military have them – in Russia, Israel, France, Britain, China, India, Pakistan, Iran or North Korea?
Thus, the problem grows. Multiple nuclear arsenals, in the hands of individuals of indifferent or suspect mental capacities, backed by militaries of varying fanaticism who prize blind obedience over human survival. Furthermore, with nuclear materials being stolen every 10 days, eventually, nuclear weapons will become the playthings of fundamentalists to whom “mutually assured destruction” means absolutely zero.
This is the ultimate algorithm of the atomic age. The combination of unbridled insanity with apocalyptic destructive power.
On July 7 this year, 122 nations in the UN voted for a comprehensive Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, a promising two-thirds majority. But 71 nations withheld their vote including, of course, all the existing and aspiring nuclear powers. The holdouts included the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Belgium, Norway, Italy, Spain, Finland, Singapore etc.
With so much of humanity signed on for, or indifferent to, its own destruction, what hope is there for the rational part?
The only conclusion must be that, like Americans, a third of the world’s countries simply do not grasp the remorseless scientific logic of human extinction. Their education, imagination or simple common sense, does not encompass it. They have no intuition of what global famine, societal disintegration, mass cannibalism and infanticide might look like. So, they block out the issue.
This, alack, does not abolish it.
Only wisdom can do that.
Ban all nukes, their materials and technology. Ban them now. Ban them everywhere. Ban them forever.
Julian Cribb is an Australian science writer and author of Surviving the 21st Century (Springer 2017)