Our nukes problem

by Rob Tiller

We live in a time of bad ideas. Not just a few bad ideas, but many, with major consequences, all around us. I used to think that the worst widely accepted and destructive ideas were mostly in the past, or at least had almost passed ā€“ the Inquisition, alchemy, witchcraft, fascism, Communism, anti-Communism, etc. I thought we had gradually gotten less likely to be swept up in a tide of confusion, fear, and hysteria. But I no longer think that.

As a passionate amateur of science, I’ve read a lot about the amazing power of the human brain, with its many billions of neurons and incredible complexity. And the human brain is a remarkable thing. But let’s not kid ourselves. All of us, including the very smartest, are full of biases, unfounded assumptions, and prejudices. Our powers of reasoning are frequently misdirected by logical fallacies and overwhelmed by our basic urges. We are prone to making poor decisions.

But this doesn’t come close to explaining our worst ideas. Here’s a major example: holding the entire world hostage to nuclear weapons. This week the NY Times reported that the U.S. would not declare a policy of no first use, meaning that it claims the prerogative to unleash the almost unimaginable force of our nuclear arsenal without being attacked first.

I seriously doubt that we (excepting Donald Trump) would do this intentionally. But nuclear mistakes can happen ā€“ they have happened before, with nearly disastrous consequences. See Command and Control, by Eric Schlosser. For now, it looks like we’ll continue to maintain our arsenal at the ready to obliterate entire populations, with a nuclear winter to follow that would destroy many or all of the rest of us. Thus we continue to face the risk each day that a computer glitch, mechanical malfunction, or human misjudgment could start a catastrophic chain reaction.

This is a dire situation. You might think that even if people were not so prone as they are to being easily panicked, they would still be terrified. Unlike many of low probability events we greatly and pointlessly fear (shark attacks, random terrorists, men in women’s restrooms ), this risk is truly existential. Yet amazingly we somehow mostly ignore it.

To some extent it has surfaced recently because of North Korea’s recent nuclear tests and missile tests. It is, of course, frightening to think that the bizarre dictator of that unfortunate country might target us or our friends with nuclear missiles, or use them to threaten and extort. And I hope we can find a way to stop the North Korean program.

But it’s hard to hold the moral high ground against the unlovely Kim Jong-Un, when our government, the only one ever to use nuclear weapons, continues to maintain on hair-trigger alert an arsenal big enough to destroy the planet and claim the right to wreak mass destruction at will. We ourselves pose an enormous threat, to the rest of the world and to ourselves.
I was surprised that President Obama decided not to embrace no first use , because he clearly understands the nuclear peril and has spoken passionately about reducing it. Perhaps he felt constrained by military leaders and the other stakeholders in the status quo, like the arms manufacturers and their politicians. At any rate, maintaining the nuclear hair-trigger that could so easily destroy the world is not acceptable. We’ve got to de-escalate.

For me, when I am shaken by the nuclear risk or other bad ideas, it is both calming and motivating to do some hiking and focus on the fragile beauty of the natural world. Nature is such a great artist of life. There are so many tiny, beautiful things flying, crawling, growing. May they live in peace. Let us work for life and peace.