It would be nice to say that we always exaggerate our fears of pending Armageddon. The idea of imminent doom is a common thread across human societies through time. It appears to be hard-wired into us; and often it’s an over-blown fear.
Right now, the world is entering an unprecedented era of human-driven climate change and environmental damage in which, incredibly, we still seem to be fighting each other over whether the problem exists or not. Western neo-liberal philosophy has reached its generational use-by date; and a new ‘social media’ environment has emerged, which on the one hand has been a wonderful way of bringing us together, but on the other has served to expose the dark underbelly of human nature. That dark side includes the way that the internet has become dominated by a small handful of large corporates and the way a new generation is inviting a ‘surveillance world’ into reality, implying a future dystopia of the Aldous Huxley variety. In the face of all this, the idea that the end of our particular civilisation might be near seems all the more credible.
There are all sorts of scenarios, of course, some more plausible than others. In reality, any actual cracking of the facade will probably be unexpected; and maybe the collapse won’t be so obvious from other viewpoints. Take the ‘decline and fall’ of the Roman Empire, for instance, which view was largely peddled to us from the Euro-centric perspective of eighteenth century rationalism and rising national identity by Edward Gibbon. Those around when Rome was sacked in the early fifth century had a different view; arguably the process was more one of transformation, and, as we know anyway, the eastern half of the empire – transformed and renamed – survived as a political continuity until May 1453.
But every so often, something dramatic happens for real. That doesn’t mean the world disappears; as Frank Zappa pointed out in ‘Dumb All Over’, from his You Are What You Is album, it just ends up looking ugly. And it seems to me that civilisation sometimes disappears into that ugly.
Although we’re beset with worry about where the environment is going on the back of our conduct as a species, there’s a really major mechanism to bring everything down far more quickly, in true Armageddon-fear style. Nuclear weapons. The ‘cold war’ might be over; but the weapons that largely defined it remain with us, and diplomatic tensions somehow seem no less at times. The ‘Nuclear Armageddon’ scenario here doesn’t stem from the risk of a rogue state building a dozen or so and using them. That’s appalling, of course, and the human cost of even one nuclear strike is so horrific it scarcely bears thinking about. But it won’t bring down the planet.
The worry is when a large number of such weapons are used as ‘city busters’, devastating a population. Based on what is known from the Second World War nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with firestorms driven by mass use of conventional weapons, such as in Dresden and Tokyo, it has been calculated that ‘nuked’ cities would likely suffer uncontrollable firestorms of such intensity that the soot and combustion products would be hurled into the stratosphere, hanging there for months – because it’s above the cloud-level – and spreading across the globe via high-altitude winds.
When this was first proposed in the 1980s, there was a supposition that it might take the combined arsenals of the United States and Soviet Union to do it. However, recent studies suggest that a ‘limited’ nuclear war involving ‘only’ 100 to 150 Hiroshima-sized warheads might be enough. These weapons, if deployed against cities, could cause fires able to throw up to 5 million tons of soot into the upper atmosphere, dropping world temperatures by around 1.25 degrees C on average. This may not seem like much, but don’t forget that an 0.8 degree C average global temperature rise since 1880, two thirds of it since 1975, is causing obvious climate change right now, bringing with it weather chaos. (To be clear on terms, ‘climate’ is an average of conditions in a given area over 30 days; ‘weather’ is what the same area gets day-by-day).
The issue isn’t the average global temperature so much as the fact of a change in the value. A sudden drop would provoke similar weather chaos to a rise, and would have dire effects on the growing season, quite apart from anything else. There were suggestions as far back as 2007 that up to 1 billion people might starve to death following a nuclear winter-induced downturn in food production. Worse, other studies suggest that the soot in the stratosphere produced by just 100-150 ‘Hiroshima’ scale bombs directed against cities would trigger a chain-reaction destruction of the ozone layer, dropping its levels by 30 to 40 percent.
Climate-change induced famines have happened twice before in relatively recent history. The ‘Kaharoa’ eruption of the Tarawera volcanic complex in New Zealand, dated to the first decade of the fourteenth century, is thought to have triggered the widespread famines that tore through Europe in 1314-15. Much more recently, the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 so shrouded the atmosphere in ash that 1816 became the ‘year without a summer’ in which crops failed and there was widespread famine. Some of the social changes of the period have been traced to the stresses caused by this food shortage.
There isn’t a lot humans can do about natural climate change; but the climate change we’re undergoing now, and the kind that might be induced by a nuclear winter, represent own-goals of the largest scale. And we have the power to stop it.
That’s why this month’s sudden military crisis between India and Pakistan was such a worry. And before you say, ‘well, that’s the cure for global warming’, no it isn’t. The human cost of even a ‘limited’ nuclear exchange is incalculably huge – it would be one of the most tragic and catastrophic disasters that our species has ever experienced. Add to that the human side of the nuclear winter scenario, which is global, and that cost is multiplied many times. But wait, it gets worse. Nuclear winter won’t reduce the greenhouses gases and other products that have provoked the current burst of climate change in the first place – it’ll add a further layer of chaos, strip much of the ozone layer, and when the soot’s dissipated the warming trend will be back, and it’ll be nastier. Do you think that a species which spends much of its energy and time fighting and destroying itself will cope with the loss of resources to that scale?
That also suggests a real answer to the issue. It rests on human nature, which has to change, or we’re doomed – one way or another. Nuclear winter is a worst-case scenario for the end-time of western civilisation. There are others, none of them very pleasant, and some of them slow. For humans to avoid any kind of collapse in the future, we need to change the way we think. And that, I suspect, will be the greatest challenge of all.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019