How the World Could Actually End (and Almost Did)

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The specter of nuclear holocaust may have shrunk to practically zero. But it isn't zero.

477px-Castle_Romeo-615.jpgWikimedia Commons

December 21, 2012 has arrived, and the world has not come to an end, despite the feverish expectations of millions worldwide believe the Mayan calendar foretells our collective doom. However, there is a very real potential doomsday which does threaten our global civilization and virtually all forms of life on the planet, and our complete disregard for this threat is a form of collective madness far more crazy than waiting out December 21 in a backyard bunker.

At the height of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear arsenals that exceeded 10,000 warheads a piece. Today, the United States and Russia still possess approximately 1,500 nuclear warheads each. That's a dramatic reduction numerically, but a nuclear exchange involving 3,000 weapons would end our civilization just as effectively as one involving 20,000 -- to say nothing of the strategic stockpiles in China, France, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan and Israel, or the suspected nuclear weapons program in Iran.

It's pointless to try and guess how many would perish immediately in a full-scale nuclear exchange, or whether the survivors would die primarily because of radiation sickness, hunger, thirst, or disease. Life in a post-nuclear world would be savage, brutal and miserable beyond imagination. If you survived the initial blasts, and didn't soon afterwards succumb to radiation poisoning or typhoid, where would you find food for you and your family? How would you stay warm when winter arrived? What would you do for entertainment without the Internet, video games, cable TV or Netflix?

And yet there is close to zero public debate or discussion of the horrifying threat of nuclear arms. It's astonishing that people who don't trust government to administer a national health-care program, or who don't trust politicians to decide on the nation's top tax rate, seem to have unqualified and unthinking trust in the people and institutions that get us all killed, practically speaking, in a heartbeat.

Nuclear weapons are subject -- at least, I hope -- to the strictest controls known to humanity. And while we scoff at the doctrine of papal infallibility, we seem to accept without hesitation the notion that the command-and-control systems of the White House and the United States military are absolutely and perfectly failsafe. And if you have no doubts about America's systems, we are still at the mercy of command-and-control systems in Russia and in China -- systems you might consider even less reliable than ours.

Nothing designed by man is absolutely and perfectly failsafe. And major decisions about these doomsday devices are ultimately made not by all-knowing and infinitely wise philosopher-kings, but by elected politicians prone to miscalculation and misjudgment. According to recent and authoritative histories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy balked at offering the Soviets a critical part of the bargain that ended the nuclear showdown, removing strategically useless American Pershing missiles from their bases in Turkey. His express motivation was that doing so publicly before the November 1962 elections would cost his party a dozen seats in Congress. Think about that for a moment.

There have been other times when the world stood at or approached the brink of total annihilation. Probably the closest call was during the 1983 NATO military exercise Able Archer, when there were elements within the Kremlin and the Red Army who were convinced that it was a cover for a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union ordered by their arch-enemy Ronald Reagan, and they seriously contemplated their own pre-emptive strike against the U.S.

In addition to the risks of political misjudgment, consider that the technology we rely upon is prone to mistakes, too. Here is a list of some of the occasions when Russian or American nuclear arsenals were put on high alert footing for imminent launch simply because of systematic errors: the 1979 "training tape incident," the 1980 "computer chip incident," the 1983 "autumn equinox incident," and the 1995 "Norway 'sounding rocket' incident." I don't believe that it is rational to trust our lives, and the continued existence of civilization, to the absolute reliability of computers, forever, without ever a technological glitch.

We know that people are bad at evaluating risks and calculating their consequences. Driving to the local airport is infinitely more dangerous statistically than taking a trans-oceanic flight, but many of us feel much more apprehension about the latter than we do about the former. And people are not very good at understanding remote but catastrophic dangers. The odds of a nuclear war today are practically nil. But over a sufficiently long time horizon, they become a probability.

Of course, the Cold War ended over two decades ago, and our former ideological and military adversaries Russia and China are both members of the World Trade Organization. We can be properly thankful for this. But the chances of an accidental and massive launch of nuclear-armed missiles have not irrevocably receded. And we should not complacently mistake two decades of relative peace for a permanent end to the much longer historical tendency for conflict and war.

In Siberia, villagers are stocking up on matches, vodka and other necessities in preparation for the end of the world. In Zhejiang province, one enterprising businessman is doing a brisk trade selling steel-and-fiberglass floating spheres designed to literally float above the end-of-times floods. And there are websites that offer special drink recipes and suitable music tracks for partygoers on December 21. But very few people take seriously this more realistic possibility: in the event of an accidental or intentional nuclear exchange between any of the countries that currently possess massive nuclear strategic forces, you can expect that your mutual funds will drop in value to zero, your pets will perish, and you'll never see the next installment of "Two and-a-Half Men." Oh, and you and almost everyone you love and know will die.

Should there someday be such a nuclear holocaust, I will not even have the pleasure of enjoying the last laugh on those who scoff at its possibility. At least, I can only hope, as being instantly and unconsciously vaporized would be far preferable to an agonizing and slow death from radiation poisoning or starvation and thirst.

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