Monday, June 19, 2006

It turns out, nuclear war is bad

So I spent the weekend depressing myself thoroughly, by reading an excellent book. In this case, the book was The Fate of the Earth, by Jonathan Schell. Originally published in 1982, it is (for those who haven't read it) a chilling piece of work, thoroughly documenting the known and unknown dangers of nuclear war. There's quite a bit in the book, and I'd definitely reccomend it to anyone who, like me, enjoys pain in their reading.

The book is divided in three parts, with the first part mainly dealing with what could be called the "direct" effects of nuclear war - the physical and environmental destruction that would have occured (and could still occur) if the Kremlin and Washington had a really, really bad day. The second part deals with the moral and ethical questions of human extinction, and was for me an important, if slightly repetitive part to the book. Schell argues that nuclear war, regardless of the "reasons" it was fought for, would be an immense crime against the entire human race. He also notes that, as a species, we tend not to want to think abou these things - something which should trouble us all. As Schell says, a species that spends so little time contemplating the single biggest threat it faces cannot be called mentally well.

Speaking of "biggest threats" we face, I'd also like to note that Schell's book - published in 1982 - contains not one but two mentions of global warming driven by increasing CO2 emissions. But lord knows, the science is still too uncertain, no matter how many polar bears eat each other.

Finally, the first part of Fate of the Earth contains a number of disturbing descriptions of likely results of nuclear attacks on New York, but the section that haunted me the most was the survivors accounts of the real-life results of Hiroshima. The passage that kept me from sleeping Saturday night:
Throughout the city, parents were discovering their wounded or dead children, and children were discovering their wounded or dead parents. Kikuno Segawa recalls seeing a little girl with her dead mother: "A woman who looked like an expectant mother was dead. At her side, a girl of about three years of age brought some water in an empty can she had found. She was trying to let her mother drink from it."
The destruction of Hiroshima was so complete and sudden that the normal safety net the a community provides simply disappeared. It was not simply that the atomic bomb destroyed the physical aparatus of the city - The City itself, as a human community - ceased to exist. Survivors straggled out to the hills surrounding the city, many dying on the way there. All in all, the bomb probably killed 130,000 people from direct effects and radiation poisoning.

There are still 30,000 nuclear warheads out there, with God knows how much megatonnage among them. The vast majority are still held by the Russians and Americans. And in case you were wondering, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists says we're still seven minutes to ultimate midnight.


Anonymous said...

I remember distinctly a conversation I had with some Midwest right-wingers soon after the book came out:

Me:"He says the only answer is a world government."
Repub Friends:"No way. Never."
Me:"How about a world government controlled by America."
Repub Friends:"I can handle that.(Grin)"

...bob mcmanus

Westacular said...

He also notes that, as a species, we tend not to want to think abou these things - something which should trouble us all. As Schell says, a species that spends so little time contemplating the single biggest threat it faces cannot be called mentally well.

That's garbage. The majority of the human species cannot affect the likelihood of nuclear war in any direct manner and for those who do have power, any state nuclear war is (generally) regarded as mutually unfavourable, even as they subscribe to the deterrence doctrine. Among the general population there is no use contemplating it (there's not terribly many cost-effective things you can do to prepare for "if the bombs fall"), and the lack of mass hysteria should be regarded as mental fitness.

His reasoning is silly. Unless you weight by probability (to create an "expected threat" value), you could argue that the single biggest threat to every species on Earth is an asteroid impact and humans are the only species even able to contemplate that. The probability of a full nuclear war is low (can't speak for 1982), while the probability of soon running out of cheap fossil fuels is very high.

john said...


Nobody's calling for hysterical screaming. But contemplation, and recognition of the problem, yes.

And Schell wasn't being exclusive. His words were about any threat to our survival, not just nuclear weapons.

In 1982, I'd say without a doubt that nuclear war was a) possible, and b) far more likely to kill the human species than other alternatives. Of course, we beat the odds.

That said, I would say your example (petroleum depletion) would also justify Schell's comment - we are living in a state of denial about the future of hydrocarbons, and we are (largely) avoiding thinking about it.