Why We Should Be Optimistic
I dedicate this blog to Bruce Kent. He is the one person I have most admired ever since I met him in 1966 when he was Catholic Chaplain to the University of London and I was President of the University of London Union. Bruce’s integrity, beliefs, courage, convictions, sense of humour, and humility were second to none.
When Bruce founded the Movement for the Abolition of War in 2001 I became a life member, and I greatly value the personal contact we maintained until his death.
Bruce’s help is acknowledged in my new book, THE FUTURE OF HUMANKIND Why We Should Be Optimistic.i
It begins by examining current major predictions for our future. Part One considers predictions for our extinction by natural disasters (including pandemics), by nuclear war or accident, by artificial intelligence, or by population explosion and climate change.
Chapter 3 evaluates predictions for our extinction by warfare, chief of which is nuclear. The spectre of a nuclear holocaust began to haunt the public imagination in August 1945 when the USA dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, followed three days later by one on Nagasaki. It took an even more frightening dimension in 1961 when the Soviet Union tested a bomb they called Big Ivan based on nuclear fusion technology. It had an explosive power of 50 megatons of TNT, some 1,400 times the combined power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs and 10 times the combined power of all the bombs used in the Second World War. It remains the most powerful nuclear weapon tested to date.
Nuclear stockpiles increased dramatically during the Cold War between the USA and the USSR, peaking at some 61,660 in 1985 followed by a steep decline to approximately 13,400 in 2020, of which the USA and Russia account for 91 per cent. The primary reason for the steep decline after 1985 was the crippling effect on the Soviet economy of their cost. This prompted a series of nuclear arms reduction treaties, while governments were modernizing their nuclear armoury and testing new delivery systems.
I think it highly improbable that North Korea will launch a nuclear attack on the USA or one of its allies because a retaliatory strike would be fatal for the North Korean regime. I also think it improbable that India and Pakistan will engage in nuclear warfare in one of their periodic border disputes, or that Israel will use its nuclear weapons against a Middle Eastern neighbour. Even if any of these things did occur, the consequences would be appalling for the populations targeted, but it would not extinguish the human species.
However determined the Putin regime may be to take control of the territory of the former Soviet Empire, it is highly improbable that this will lead to a deliberate nuclear exchange between Russia and the USA acting on behalf of NATO. More possible is that a nuclear war could be triggered by accident.
Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (2013), documents incidents from the Cold War era, including the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when false alarms nearly triggered nuclear exchanges.
Hundreds of land-based Minuteman III missiles formed part of launch-on-warning, an essential part of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), America’s nuclear war plan that aimed to destroy 12,000 targets within the Soviet Union. Despite leading scientists, generals, US politicians, and officials like former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara calling the policy crazy and demanding its abandonment, Schlosser maintained that Minuteman III missiles still sat in their silos armed with warheads and ready to go.
Schlosser argues that the systems devised to govern the use of nuclear weapons, like all complex technological systems, are inherently flawed. Many of the nuclear weapon systems on both sides are aging and obsolete. Moreover, today’s command-and-control systems must contend with threats that barely existed during the Cold War: malware, spyware, worms, bugs, viruses, corrupted firmware, logic bombs, Trojan horses, and all the other modern tools of cyber warfare.
Schlosser concludes that “today, the odds of a nuclear war being started by mistake are low—and yet the risk is growing, as the United States and Russia drift toward a new cold war.”
If such an event were ever to happen, human civilization would suffer a horrendous setback, but it would not destroy the human species.
Some, however, hold a different opinion. A 1983 book The Cold and the Dark: The World after Nuclear War by Carl Sagan and others predicted that a nuclear exchange would send a giant cloud of black dust into the atmosphere that would cover the globe, blocking out the sunlight and producing a climate change like that which caused the sudden mass extinction of the dinosaurs and half of Earth’s species.
Chapter 3 of THE FUTURE OF HUMANKIND documents the analyses of a raft of leading scientists who strongly oppose warfare but who conclude that the nuclear winter claim is fundamentally unscientific and wrong.
One reason we should be optimistic is the fundamental shift in geo-political views since the 1980s, when CND was attacked as a communist dupe or worse, to 2020 when its aims were enshrined in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons signed by 86 member states of the United Nations. The treaty has its weaknesses, including the fact that no state already possessing nuclear weapons has signed it.
However, many other international bodies have similar aims. A manifesto “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” drawn up by former US defence officials in 2008. By December 2020 it had been backed by an impressive international list of 283 current and former leaders in the field, including former Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and Jimmy Carter.
Nuclear weapons are now being stigmatized in the way that no nation proclaims the right to unleash chemical weapons, nerve agents, plague, or polio.
Warfare itself as a means of gaining territory or settling disputes has now diminished as part of human evolution since the Stone Age, when it accounted for 36 per cent of all adult male deaths.
But these are not my only reasons for an optimistic future. The figure on page 216 of the book shows human evolution as a groping increase in cooperation, altruism, and convergence with a decrease in competition, aggression, and divergence. The fourth part of the book gives a unique and unequivocally optimistic forecast for the next stage of our evolution.
i THE FUTURE OF HUMANKIND Why We Should Be Optimistic by John Hands
Published by Castleton at £24.99
Hardcover ISBN 978-0-99337-19-4-3
eBook ISBN 978-0-99337-19-6-7