Just how serious IS the nuclear pathway to human extinction?
Many of us would say that we should not spend too much time, even on this list, in trying to calibrate how great that threat is, because, even on this list, we can then move on to discuss ways to try to advance new technologies, like space solar power and such, which increase our probability of survival, considering not only the nuclear threat but some others. That sounds reasonable to me, and I will try to support efforts by others on this list to jump start some space technologies.
But if people imagine there are no threats at all.. that we live in a new era when corruption, war conflict and coups d'etat have all disappeared into irrelevance... well, the nuclear threat of human extinction does deserve a bit more serious attention, at multiple levels.
Where to begin, since it is a complex issue, and I have looked at it from many vantage points?
4 parts --
discussions with Herman Kahn
discussions with DOE nonproliferation office
lessons when I ran interagency research in nuclear terrorism threat
1. Apriori theory
One worthwhile vantage point is theoretical, starting from perspectives Keith Henson has raised.
Keith has mentioned evolutionary psychology, which I view as a kind of modern sanitized cousin of E.O. Wilson's evolutionary biology, and at times a cousin of artificial life ala Stuart Kauffmann and the Santa Fe Institute. It can be very instructive to run "artificial life" type simulations to
get a picture of where biological populations might move, under natural selection and ecological/economic constraints. In a way, those simulations are a descendant of the classic book by May on stability and complexity in model ecosystems, where he shows how species extinction occurs far more easily and often than fuzzy headed ideologies had assumed in the past --- the usual sort of fuzzy-headed ideologies based on posturing, wishful thinking and other aspects of human groupthink ever so well known by now, and ever so relevant today still.
Wilson's concepts, in Sociobiology, of r and k environments, and of what allows organisms to cooperate (avoiding things like total warfare or dark ages bandit-based economic inefficiency and stagnation) , could probably be simulated pretty easily in a Santa Fe kind of system. Probably someone at Santa Fe did it long ago; forgive me for not tracking down the citations.
Wilson identified the earlier pastoral niche or way of life as absolutely crucial to the kind of cooperation which made possible and led to the level of cooperation behind the "great civilizations", which I would identify with the twenty-odd civilizations Toynbee talked about. It's not perfect, but it fits relatively well. (Lately, I think of that old history as people of the horse versus people of the boat versus people of the vegetable, but no need for such detail here.)
One can easily envision a Santa Fe style simulation, giving mathematical vividness to Wilson's picture of an idealized ancient Afghanistan, where a stable though dynamic competition between tribes gave rise to loyalty to tribe, a machine constantly cranking out people who could cooperate with their brothers taking over the rest of the world again and again, even as the core of that world remained much the same.
However: a game or niche which results in that kind of situation can change when a few parameters of the game change. Add nuclear weapons to the tribes, and the prediction of everyone dying becomes pretty much inevitable. Work it out. Long ago, when I first became aware of these things.. I often thought of a less realistic "generation starship game," considering what would happen with an internal competition on the ship, and a series of weapons ever riskier to the survival of the ship itself... and the selection pressures which
would gradually make it inevitable that they WOULD be used, and the starship WOULD die.
If any of you do computer simulations as a hobby, you could have fun with making these obvious things more clear to those who don't have a clue.
"Just add nuclear weapons to the same old game"...
This does not tell us the probability that our game, too, will explode, but I see no rational basis for blithely assuming it won't.
2. Slightly more real: Herman Kahn's discussion
Some of you may remember when Herman Kahn's book, Thinking about the Unthinkable, was pretty much the leading text on nuclear strategy for the US. (I also remember a lot of noise attacking Von Neumann for being "the real life Dr. Strangelove," who dared to try to be rational about thinking about such things.)
Years ago, for reasons I can only speculate on, I received a kind of scholarship to attend Kahn's summer course seminar on key principles in national security, held at the Hudson Institute when it was really by the Hudson. That was a great experience, a very intense week or two getting really deep into the real roots of his thinking. There was a whole lot of history there.
At one point, he said, in essence: "For millennia and millennia you can see how new weapons were developed, which vastly extended the killing power available to people. In some cases
(he gave examples) the growth in the death count was truly overwhelming, and all the religious authorities and leaders agreed it would be an insult to god (or gods) himself. There were many successful bans on the use of such weapons, lasting for a long long time. But in every case, there was a first use... after which the next potential user could say 'he did it first, I couldn't change anything, it was too late." (Does anyone doubt that this kind of human psychology is still in effect in power circles all over this world, and in populations???) And then it moved to the Nash equilibrium, regardless of the larger consequences, regardless of the fact that the
outcome was far, far worse than the Pareto optimum which was theoretically available to people.
There was also discussion of the experience of "kembi," a kind of propagation of conflict studied very well and precisely in Africa, very similar to what can happen in our world today.
Nuclear kembi... one of the key risks.
Some people would say: "But there ALREADY was first use of nuclear weapons on a human population. So if your concerns are realistic, why isn't everyone just saying 'Hey, the US did it already, so now we will..?" If we are honest, we will admit we understand why this hasn't fully happened YET, but that we are not out of the woods. The event was so far back in history, and so remote for most people, that it doesn't have the current competitive flavor of an event within the past generation. In the first generation or two, the Soviet Union was the only other place which COULD start a large-scale nuclear war (let alone a kembi), and frankly we did stand close to extinction in the 1960's. (Many at the time doubted that, and many believed in Adam and Eve, but the literature was not exactly small.) The key point: the OBJECTIVE parameters are far worse now than they were then, and nuclear kembi and nuclear war far easier to envision, than then. The kembi psychology is evident...
Caveat: would nuclear war at the height of the Cold War only have killed, say, 95% of the human population (due to "system of systems" effects, studied, e.g., at Los Alamos and Sandia), allowing the rest to eventually work their way back to civilization millennia later?
There was a lot of discussion of that. Rational people would generally say -- "Hey, whether it's 95% or 100%, let's just work together to prevent it." But no, Kelly, you don't just lob a nuc or two at your neighbor, and expect it to end there. That's not how it works. And the system of system effects look greater now than they did then. When people THINK they can just lob a nuc or two, and have it end there, the probability of nuclear kembi grows much larger.
3. Discussions at DOE 1980's
In the 1980's, I worked at DOE headquarters, and one of my closest friends there moved to the nuclear proliferation office, where we discussed these things a lot in the cafeteria.
My friend was an economist, who took a somewhat jaded, cynical view of all these things.
"The prevailing view is... we will show the flag on this issue, but everyone knows the cat is out of the bag. We can't really stop it anyway, so why create mess in the world trying to do so."
My reply was: we need to think in mathematical terms. It's one thing when a cat is out of the bag, but consider what changes when that cat is simply ten times larger. Would you put out a news release to the local village: "A big tiger is out of the zoo. Since it is already out of the zoo, just pay no attention, live life as usual?" Would you say: "The vampire is already out of the coffin, flying in your neighborhood, so relax and live life as usual?"
Numbers matter. From the game scenarios... not only the number but the diversity of actors with access to nuclear technology matter hugely. What can be contained with great effort when there are two relatively predictable actors becomes hopeless with twenty to a hundred
with a much more high-variance and intractible diversity of game plans and beliefs.
The less our probability of survival, the more rational it is to grasp for what hope we have.
Of course, calm and normal ostriches can say, "That's nice, but it's all science fiction. We live in such a nice and friendly new world. Nothing like that could ever happen here..."
Psychiatry really is an important ingredient in whatever hope of survival we have.
In all fairness... I really can envision a "global Chernobyl" scenario in which humans really do put the genie back into the bottle after a first REAL use of nuclear weapons.
At the end of the day, the scenario which haunted me the most in the 1980s was a very detailed scenario... where a certain exchange of nuclear weapons (maybe by terrorist, maybe by rocket).. maybe In India/Pakistan... led to revulsion and fear in the world far beyond anything humanity has ever experienced before, beyond what Herman Kahn ever saw in past history. When we look at how serious the reaction was to Chernobyl... multiply the deaths by 1000, and get rid of reasons to think it stops there... I really could envision almost all of the governments of the world falling, followed by a very determined movement to stop all nuclear technology. But... well... think of Robespierre... there is a certain momentum in such things. My concern was with a dark age so deep and so severe... that... system of systems effects considered.. THAT actually winds up being a path to extinction too, if a bit slower.
By the way, for more than half my time at DOE, I too wore an economist hat, and it was a very interesting community to be part of. The best economists would grouse: "You spend your whole life trying to figure out how economies really work... and then they just go to a bar to come up with random ways to throw a monkey wrench into the system. They wouldn't do that with their surgeon...." Sure, established economists have a thousand ways to go off the mark, but will sheer drunken randomness solve any of our problems either? And are drunken billionnaires any better than drinken communists or jihadis? Sometimes THEY think so, which almost by definition makes them a bigger risk. (But of course some billionnaires do know the importance of working hard to make things actually work... while others grew up in the "take the money and run" school of VC.)
4. NSF/DHS era
From 1988 or 1989 to 2014, I worked as a program director for engineering at NSF.
(Two of my degrees were economics, and two applied math from the Engineering Division at Harvard, part of why such movement was possible.) Of course, since I retired from NSF in 2014, nothing I say represents its view.
Not so long ago, a former colleague, a Republican, set up a new collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and NSF, the Academic Research Initiative (ARI). ARI was intended to open the door to all kinds of new and better ways of doing things.
In a way... this was a decently funded, systematic, broad and official effort to address the nuclear extinction threat which we talk about less formally here. A guy like Kelly might say: "Hey, they are already onto it, very serious, so why don't the rest of us just forget it. Isn't it a solved problem?" And indeed, I have great respect for the colleague who started this.
(To be honest, there were times when I wondered why I didn't try to marry her sometime back then.) The idea was to draw on the full intellectual resources and creativity of the entire technical community in the US, not just the limited resources we usually see in the depths of government agencies, to address the full long-term picture and find a better way forwards. Great idea.
ARI was conceived as a kind of 50-50 partnership of DHS and NSF, though DHS provided almost all of the money and NSF the front line administration. For various political reasons, the position of administrator was rotated as a one-year position from one NSF engineer to another. I remember one of those one-year administrators was especially sincere and intellectually serious and honest, but still, a chemical engineer, doing his best.
And then... I remember vividly the guy who said: "Paul, shouldn't it be your turn?" So I ended up managing this thing for three years, not the one which was supposed to be the term.
Probably I was the first guy running it who actually had taken a course in nuclear physics, let alone international politics and machine learning, all major parts of the research. Or even modern electronics.
It was a wonderfully entertaining learning experience at first, and, as you know, I am fully committed to and fully serious about what they were all trying to accomplish. But it was also a very sobering and scary experience.
Maybe it was then that I started saying: "You are only worried because you don't have all the facts. If you did, you would be terrified out of your mind." Or am I just repeating what someone else said? Many others did...
Though I had no security clearance... there is a whole lot of stuff out there in the open.
For example, there are colorful slides out there showing the layers of protection, the series of walls, between us and a nuc going off in some big city in the US. But...
Turns out that most of those walls are paper tigers. I summarized the situation, in official contexts, as: "The US is like a house with twenty doors, ten locked firmly with better and better locks, and ten swinging wide open for all the world to see."
Hey, folks, if any of you live in or near a big city in the US, this is your life and your future we are talking about now, and maybe a lot sooner than you think.
It turns out that the main reason, by far, that it hasn't hit us yet, is the tight limited amount of PRIMARY nuclear material, like HEU and plutonium, around the world. But if various changes in the world energy economy should lead to a ten or 100 fold multiplication of the use of fission (as many strongly push for and predict even today, people so happy about the psychological recovery form Chernobyl), that changes. China has been a major new buyer for that... yet China has more terrorists hostile to its own state within its own borders than the US does, by far, with ties to ISIL type folks. (Believe it or not, I still remember when my Russian wife
asked me to stay in the room when she went down to the elevator to deal with Afghan pilgrims in the main hotel they inhabited in Xinjiang province, which is also the main base of China's nuclear program. Just comic relief, and it was pretty comic at times ... but life keeps reminding me that this stuff is very very real.)
In my view... the number one thing we as a species could do to prevent this risk reaching unmanageable proportions is to work much more effectively to reduce costs and facilitate
alternative nonfossil sources of electricity generation. (And no, we don't use oil for this in the continental US, so oil industry lobbyists shouldn't feel a kneejerk reaction to kill us all. Please don't. I sure wish Boeing PR people hadn't tried to sell such wrongheaded and inflammatory notions in Texas, where I do believe one of the dead bodies was one of the consequences.)
AFFORDABLE space solar power, and LESS EXPENSIVE solar thermal solar farms, are enormous unmet opportunities, which could also have great economic benefits and create a few new well-deserved billionaires. The barriers are very daunting now, and the problems Jens talks about really have frozen progress on those fronts, as we can discuss... but the goal should not be to cast blame (what a stupid game!) but to find SOME way to break the logjams. But yes, Jens is right, that if the entire earth freezes into being one big logjam, whether of sharia or of canon law or of nutzoid beancounters, the technologies which could have saved us won't get through. And, ironically, grand pooh-bahs devoted to concepts of stability could end up just killing everyone including themselves in the name of stability.
Of course, alternate energy is certainly NOT the only useful way to reduce the probability of those nuclear terrorism and war scenarios. Absolutely not.
Still... I retired as NSF manager of ARI, after which they cancelled NSF involvement, because the emerging political constraints limited what could be accomplished. The bottom line on nuclear survival is ever so vital, but huge efforts which do not really have enough value added on the goal... warrant reconfiguration, and reallocation of resources. I suppose I view NASA in a similar light these days, though there is still maybe some hope. Or maybe not. Hard to tell.
So no, the ARI agenda is not at all a solved problem. We are not home free.
On a final note... the discussion above mainly focuses on the usual kinds of fission, thermonuclear or dirty bombs, all of which could be discussed in much more detail, covering important aspects I did not mention here. There are other nuclear technologies which I also find quite interesting, beyond the scope of this email -- with a variety of extinction implications, but also some positive opportunities. Laser-induced fusion in space looks especially benign and discussable. (It's not so easy for a random lone wolf jihadi to get to geosynchronous orbit and back, let alone make use of it..)
Best of luck. You need it.
That came from a lifeboat discussion.
For this blog, I should add that issues like internet privacy and tracking and spiritual issues also will have a major impact on the probability of extinction by nuclear pathways. Exactly how, and what are the tradeoffs?
But I have already posted a lot related to those topics, and this post is long enough.