The Casual Blog

Tag: nuclear war

Looking on the bright side — how to fix our nuclear problem

This week Trump has been threatening to start a nuclear war against North Korea, which got me rattled.  So far, the sun has come up every morning, and with each additional day with no mushroom clouds it seems more likely that those threats are just bombast.  His continuing along on his golfing vacation is also reassuring, if ridiculous.  But how could anyone with the slightest clue as to what nuclear war would do even talk like that?  And how could anyone think it a good idea to explore what happens when you provoke a nuclearized,  paranoid dictator with threats of ultimate destruction?   

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Kim Jong-Un is only pretending to be crazy,  Trump’s impulsivity is contained, and we survive.  Even so, the threats will have done real damage.  Markets have been roiled.  In the community of nations, our government is viewed as even more irresponsible and unpredictable.  At the personal level, my own mood has been darker than normal, tense and uncertain, and I’m surely not the only one.  Our mental health is not good.

I usually try to find the bright side of dark situations, so I’ll take a swing at it here. If we’re lucky and avoid disaster, we might finally wake up, realize we’ve long been on the edge of the nuclear precipice, and carefully back away.  Nuclear risks are not something anyone likes to think about, which in part accounts for why we are where we are.  But we can’t not think about them now, with the threat so clear and close.  We might take this as an opportunity to reconsider received ideas and correct some mistakes.    

We thought initially  that nuclear weapons could assure our safety by terrifying others into submission.  When that didn’t work, we raced to build still more weapons, with ever more destructive force, until we could in a matter of hours destroy the world several times over.  We put the weapons on hair-trigger alerts, and the risks of accidents and miscalculations increased.  

In the past decades, there have been several nuclear accidents and close calls that could have killed thousands or sparked an all-out conflagration. In  Command and Control, Eric Schlosser  recounts a number of these, and there was a quick overview last week in the HuffPost .  Our engineering is imperfect, and always will be.  Maintaining large numbers of weapons on hair-trigger alert is incredibly dangerous.   

In addition to the risk of system accidents, we live each day with the risk of human failure.  People make mistakes in the use of violence for any number of reasons — lack of knowledge, lack of sleep, intoxication, mental illness, etc.  And people’s reasoning powers are frequently overwhelmed by  powerful emotions.  It’s far from impossible that fear or anger could cause a nuclear attack that results in a counter attack and the end of the world as we know it.  

The worst possible way to manage this risk is the one we’ve adopted:  give one person with no training or qualifications complete power to launch the missiles.  The dependence on the good judgment of a single individual with no constraints is inherently dangerous.  Even the best of us from time to time make poor decisions when angered or confused.  To put it mildly, Trump is not the best of us.  

So is the situation hopeless? No.  It’s not hard to imagine international agreements that greatly reduce nuclear forces and the risk of total annihilation.  Indeed,  the START treaties accomplished a lot.  The new U.N. treaty banning nuclear weapons adopted by 120 countries shows that more is possible.  It’s not hard to imagine doing away with the hair trigger and engineering in more time for analysis before launching.  Likewise, we could put in place checks and balances on the executive, as we do in other areas.  

But we need to start with adjusting our thinking, and recognizing that the nuclear risk is intolerable.  We need to treat this problem as time-sensitive and high priority.  If we do nothing . . . well, it’s unthinkable.

Spring flowers, golfing again, and a new question: is nuclear war good for us?

It is well and truly spring!  I highly recommend getting outside and looking at what’s blooming.  These pictures are ones I took on Saturday at Duke Gardens in Durham.  In the native plants area, the wildflowers did not disappoint!  The tulips were a little past their peak, but still riotously colorful.   

 

 

I read recently that learning new sports could slow down the inevitable mental decline of aging.  The idea seemed to be that new physical activities would stimulate new brain activity.  It sounded plausible, but time-consuming and potentially embarrassing.

It might be more productive and fun to improve at a sport at which you are currently mediocre.  Anyhow, that’s my working theory, as a new golf season beckons.  The last few months I played very little, owing to a series of minor injuries and uncongenial weather.  But this week I resumed my golf lessons with Jessica at GolfTec, and started practicing again, ever hopeful.

 

It’s a shame that Trump is such an avid golfer; it reflects badly on the game.  But the game will survive, and so will we.  I hope.  My confidence was somewhat shaken by recent reporting by Jane Mayer on the Trump circle. Her recent New Yorker piece  focused on Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire with wacky right-wing ideas and enthusiasm for politics.  He and his family funded Bannon and Breitbart News, assumed a leading role in Trump’s presidential campaign, and are now directly involved in presidential decision-making.  

It’s not surprising that there are super rich people with nutty ideas, but this seems new:  super rich loonys more or less controlling the presidency.  The Mercers have promoted the “science” ideas of a bizarre figure named Arthur Robinson who champions the nonsense of climate change denialism.  Again, we know such people exist.  But new to me was his idea that nuclear war could be beneficial to human health.

In an interview on Fresh Air (transcribed here), Mayer said that Robinson and Mercer believe that nuclear radiation is good for people, and actually benefitted the Japanese who were subjected to the first nuclear attacks.  

In this political season, we’ve learned that there is no idea so crazy that it cannot be adopted by certain large groups of Americans.  So there may already be a significant  subpopulation that believes that nuclear war might be a good thing after all, with some of them in the White House.  That’s scary!  We need to reread  Hiroshima by John Hersey, and discuss the reality of the nuclear peril, and try to contain this existentially bad idea before it spreads.