Sunday, November 23, 2014

Nuclear war: A forgotten threat to human sustainability

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 Kubrick'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.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

1 comment:

ChemEng said...

I like the Just-in-Time article. My observation is that many industrial managers are increasingly aware of the difficulties that you describe. Some months ago I ran a post to do with Black Swans in the process industries, i.e., events that are completely unpredictable using conventional methods of hazard and risk analysis. I would say that roughly half the respondents said the Black Swans could happen and half said the opposite.

The response to a Black Swan is to invest in resilience and diversification. For example, the economics of Just-in-Time and Economies-of-Scale encourage managers to build one large unit with minimal inventories rather than two half-size ones with lots of spare parts and substantial raw material inventories. But, if a catastrophe hits the first system will be wiped out, the second will probably keep going at 50% rates.

Of course, these measures will make no difference in the event of a catastrophe such as a major nuclear war, but they could be helpful if lower-level conflict breaks out.