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Nuclear war: A forgotten threat to human sustainability

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Nuclear Air War, Pattern I. Coextermination (1954). Author: Stefan T. Possony, a specialist in the Directorate of Intelligence, Headquarters USAF.,_Pattern_I_Coextermination.jpg

The possibility of a new Cold War between Russia and the United States and its NATO allies brings with it the spectre of nuclear war, an all-but-forgotten threat since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Even as the number of nuclear weapons has declined through mutually agreed reductions from a worldwide total of 68,000 in 1985 to an estimated 16,400 today, the destructive force of such weapons is so great that if the remaining ones were used, they might well spell the end of human civilization as we know it.

One indication of the rising threat is what NATO calls an “unusual” increase in Russian military flights over Europe involving so-called Bear bombers, long-range Russian counterparts to American B-52 bombers. But, of course, U.S. and Russian nuclear forces have been operating all along since the end of the Cold War even as their arsenals were being slashed. The threat of nuclear war was always there even if tensions were falling between Russia and the United States.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin making a premature exit from the G-20 summit as world leaders began to discuss Russian complicity in a rebellion in eastern Ukraine, it seems likely that tensions between Western powers and Russia will escalate from here.

If they do, the threat of nuclear war will rise with them–now with several more permutations than before since the original five nuclear powers–the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom–have now been joined by Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea. All of these latter entrants into the nuclear club face obvious regional tensions that could lead to a nuclear exchange, an exchange that might draw the original nuclear powers into the regional conflict.

Once again there will be talk of MAD or mutually assured destruction, an apt acronym for a doctrine that assumes that the fear of nuclear annihilation (from a retaliatory attack) has prevented and will prevent the first-strike use of nuclear weapons by both the Americans and Russians (and everyone else).

And, with new nuclear players on the stage, there will undoubtedly be talk of “limited” nuclear war. There was a serious discussion about such a limited war between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. Proponents of a first-strike attack claimed that the United States could win such an exchange (whatever that means).

The problem with that thinking is that it fails to take into account just how interconnected the various parts of our global system are now. Even back in 1954, Harrison Brown, author of “The Challenge of Man’s Future,” put it this way as he thought about such an outcome:

Once a machine civilization has been in operation for some time, the lives of the people within the society become dependent upon the machines. The vast interlocking industrial network provides them with food, vaccines, antibiotics, and hospitals. If such a population should suddenly be deprived of a substantial fraction of its machines and forced to revert to an agrarian society, the resultant havoc would be enormous. Indeed, it is quite possible that a society within which there has been little natural selection based upon disease resistance for several generations, a society in which the people have come to depend increasingly upon surgery for repairs during early life and where there is little natural selection operating among women, relative to the ability to bear children–such a society could easily become extinct in a relatively short time following the disruption of the machine network.

The modern global economy is like a shark; it has to move forward or it dies. The widespread adoption of just-in-time inventory has resulted in acute vulnerabilities from even very short disruptions. The modern global machine now requires continuous inputs of energy and materials and continuously operating global freight transportation or it starts to break down.

Even partial destruction, say, 15 to 20 percent of the industrial plant in the world, might be enough to make the global economic system inoperable. Because self-sufficiency has become a dirty word in our free-trade crazed political culture, countries have become so specialized in their manufacturing that it might not be possible to reproduce the necessary facilities nearer home quickly enough to prevent a global systemic breakdown. We would not simply revert back to the level of economic activity of, say, the 1950s. Instead, we could experience a total breakdown that leads to our inability to restart modern technical civilization after even a limited nuclear war.

One of the most troublesome effects of a nuclear attack is that it can render some or all of the electrical infrastructure inoperable through something called EMP or electromagnetic pulse. This pulse is discharged by every atomic explosion and can cripple transformers throughout the electrical grid. And, just one or two bombs exploded at high altitude could affect the entire United States or Europe; therefore, an EMP-focused nuclear attack is within the reach of the smallest nuclear power.

There is no vast ready supply of transformers to replace damaged ones. New transformers are expensive and require a year and a working electrical infrastructure to make. This is just one of the many loops in our current system that cannot be disengaged without great peril.

Our ability to mine basic minerals is now entirely dependent on an existing industrial infrastructure that can supply machines and undertake chemical processes to extract minerals from the very low grades of ore that remain (since we’ve already managed to mine all the high-grade stuff). Our ability to grow food depends largely on that same industrial infrastructure which produces machinery, chemicals, and fertilizers all necessary to modern farming and which provides the transportation and processing facilities. Without that infrastructure, the world’s farmers could feed only a small portion of those alive today.

And, we should remember that all this could happen unintentionally if the machines which control nuclear military operations malfunction–or if a rogue commander decides on his own that nuclear war has become necessary. If an attack is the result of a mechanical failure, can the side being attacked really be convinced that the attack is a mistake? If the attack is by a rogue commander, would representations by a civilian leader that the commander was not authorized merely be seen as gamesmanship and part of an overall attack plan?

For a dramatic presentation of the malfunction scenario, one need only reach back to the middle of the last Cold War for the book and film entitled “Fail-Safe.” For the rogue commander scenario treated with dark humor, see director Stanley Kubric’s “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” For a strictly dramatic presentation of the rogue commander scenario, let me suggest the film “Seven Days in May” from the same era.

The danger of nuclear war didn’t really go away at the end of the last Cold War. It has simply been out of view as other problems took precedence. Now we are once again forced to contemplate it. No matter how remote the possibility of such a war may seem to us, its severity demands our attention–and our efforts to prevent it.

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13 Comments on "Nuclear war: A forgotten threat to human sustainability"

  1. Makati1 on Sun, 23rd Nov 2014 7:09 pm 

    With no country is now committed to using nukes only upon attack by another cojuntry, the fuse is shorter than ever. Obomination already is threatening to use (has used?) “tactical” nukes in the ME an has trashed the limits of a first nuclear strike on a nation. Some in Congress have already been pushing to nuke Iran and Russia.

    Someone once said that “When you have nothing to lose, you lose it”. I think that goes for the USSA also. Russia has nothing to gain, but the USSA has lost about everything that gives it power. A cornered animal is at it’s most dangerous. And the USSA is full of ‘cornered’ psychopathic ‘animals’ in places of power.

    I think we will not see 2025 without a nuclear war. I hope not, but all of the current events are closing in on that end possibility. Will Russia be forced to push the button for defense or will insanity rule in DC and “O” destroy the world in a fit of psychotic greed? We shall see.

  2. Dredd on Sun, 23rd Nov 2014 7:16 pm 

    “… if the remaining ones were used, they might well spell the end of human civilization as we know it …”

    There is no “might” or “possibly” about it.

    “MAD” means mutually assured destruction.

    Some psychopaths are planning a first strike because “might” is replacing “assured” as the national leaders become more suicidal (Civilization Is Now On Suicide Watch – 2).

  3. Plantagenet on Sun, 23rd Nov 2014 7:23 pm 

    Nutjobs like Putin or the North Koreans might threaten to use their nukes to bully other countries, but its hard to imagine anyone stupid enough to actually start a nuclear war, except possibly the Iranians.

  4. Richard on Sun, 23rd Nov 2014 9:33 pm 

    In the last century around 1966 there were certainly more than 90,000 weapons. It is nothing but madness, such filth.

    A lasting legacy that will remain most likely for the next half a century, even with the problem energy depletion.

  5. Makati1 on Mon, 24th Nov 2014 6:32 am 

    Plant, what world do you live on? Certainly not earth. Russia has all it needs and would not start a nuclear war. Iran and North Korea have no reason to nuke anyone. They know they would not last an hour as a livable nation. But, the US has drifted into the insanity camp and now many at the top believe the US could survive and win a nuclear war. You know why? They are “exceptional” of course and not subject to things like nuclear winters and radiation … or sanity.

  6. Davy on Mon, 24th Nov 2014 7:01 am 

    The propaganda bitch speaks.

  7. Christopher Beowulf on Mon, 24th Nov 2014 7:44 am 

    it would seem that people think the masses dont even know what a nuke is, and that it is news to tell people what nukes are and how they work and all sorts of non interesting factoids that are irrelevent. how about concentrating on how putin intends to start a MAD, using the word mad is sufficeitn to underscore what is coming, it is entireley unnessecary to talkt o the general public as f they are retarded children as a matter of fact, the fact that the author talks in this fashion indicates his mental ability level. most people around back then surely have a 100% grasp on what MAD is, and kids these days grew up with it, however slightly muffled are not stupid either, im sure they are offended just as i am at this trite article. i mean, write abouthow putin may trigger one, or kim jong il or any other crazy nuts leaader whoes ego is larger than his will to live.

  8. Joe on Mon, 24th Nov 2014 7:47 am 

    Makati you can point a finger and rant or rave but people are not blind dumb or totally ignorant even when you feed us lies and propaganda we are aware what is going on.. IT is people like you that will ride that first bomb down too as you think the way you do. Good luck be to you poor fool. Do yourself a favor and poke into things a bit instead of taking what your one State run TV station feeds you each day over there in Russia. Maybe you should question why it is so many people are dying for your country’s efforts to “Protect” them. You know Hitler was fond of Annexation too.

  9. SugarSeam on Mon, 24th Nov 2014 8:07 am 

    The Red Scare is deep with that one…

  10. paulo1 on Mon, 24th Nov 2014 9:45 am 


    If someone draws a comic strip about Muhammad they get killed. If someone writes a book that is declared inappropriate they are issued a Fatwa and are hounded and killed. Wars are being fought because infidels are ‘in’ holy lands. And you say there has already been a nuke used in the ME?

    Hmmmm, wonder why nobody heard about it until you wrote your post?

  11. GregT on Mon, 24th Nov 2014 12:04 pm 

    There has been a great deal of speculation over the use of cluster bombs, white phosphorous bombs, depleted uranium munitions, and tactical nukes in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course this would be difficult to prove considering the situation that now exists in both of those countries. Who to believe? The government that bombed Iraq back into the Stone Age and killed several hundred thousand civilians because it’s ‘brutal dictator’ had weapons of mass destruction? The government that went into Afghanistan to take out Osama Bin Laden’s intricate network of caves from where he masterminded the attacks of 911?

    How many more lies are people going to fall for? When are people going to wake up? Any credibility that the US oligarchy once had, has already been destroyed.

    Not anti-US. Pro truth.

  12. tahoe1780 on Mon, 24th Nov 2014 2:19 pm 

    GregT – Right on. 100,000 troops sent to Afghanistan to deal with a then-estimated 60 al-Qaeda members, funding and supporting alleged Syrian rebels while denouncing Russian support of eastern Ukrainians defending against a CIA-orchestrated coup, etc.

  13. Dredd on Mon, 24th Nov 2014 3:11 pm 

    GregT on Mon, 24th Nov 2014 12:04 pm

    … Who to believe? …
    That really is the underlying dynamic in our current cultures that are the parts of the puzzle (The Pillars of Knowledge: Faith and Trust?).

    Under them, like us, is a subconscious cultural trance that may obviate even those choices (Choose Your Trances Carefully).

    At least in the current configuration.

    Who we gonna call (Ghost Busters)?

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