Humanity’s biggest own goals

There’s no question in my mind that human-driven climate change has to be one of the biggest own-goals humanity has ever struck on itself. And we should have seen it coming. I mean, we’ve been pushing combustion products into the atmosphere in ever-larger quantities since the advent of industrialisation, over 200 years ago. We’ve been burning up fossil fuels, polluting the environment, hacking down forests and generally creating ecological mayhem at ever-increasing scale and speed. What did we think would happen?

A beautiful picture of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.

When I say ‘one of’ the biggest own goals, to my thinking there’s only one other totally massive own-goal in the same league; the invention of nuclear weapons. And it’s a bigger one. The thing about human-driven climate change is that ultimately it’s not risking end-game. It’ll likely reduce what we call our civilisation. It’ll change the ecology in ways that aren’t convenient for those who feel they are entitled to first exploit the labour of the economically powerless, and then deny that the waste products of industry fuelled by such practises are destroying our future. After this has played out, Earth won’t be able to support the scale of humanity and its idiotic wastage, as we have today. But the world won’t blow up and disappear; it’ll just get ugly, slowly. And the poor and the powerless, we can be sure, will suffer the most along the way.

The issue with nuclear weapons, though, is that they’ll turn the world ugly much faster. Worse, the technology of nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented, and all the international controls on them, including general moral condemnation and the fact that my country, New Zealand, passed laws against all matters nuclear over 30 years ago, haven’t stopped at least one rogue state from making their own nukes. Damn. There’s also the break-down of the treaty control system – some major nations have renounced them and are about to embark on new nuclear weapons programs.

Yeah, I know it’s the human thing. We always do this, as a species. What ever happened to tolerance and the idea that kindness is a virtue? Sigh…

Well, there’s one example. Back in 1983, when the Cold War was at its height, humanity came very close to nuclear armageddon. All that stopped it was one Soviet officer, Stanislav Petrov (1939-2017), who decided that reports of an incoming US nuclear strike were false. Without his judgement – which was, of course, right – the ‘mutually assured destruction’ policy of both Cold War opponents would have followed, doing apocalyptic damage to both super-powers at the very least – quite apart from any allied nations and the fate of all in the fallout zones. It would also have likely triggered the nightmare ‘nuclear winter’ scenario in which burning cities suffered Dresden-style firestorms, sending carbon into the stratosphere above the rain level and blocking out the sun across the world for an extended period.

Test ‘Ivy-Mike’ on Eniwetok Atoll, 31 October 1952. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

We might go ‘phew’, but don’t think that this spectre ended with the Cold War, back in the early 1990s. No such luck. Recent studies suggest that a ‘limited’ nuclear exchange, between (say) Pakistan and India, and involving maybe 100 nuclear weapons, might be enough to trigger the same ‘nuclear winter’ scenario, dropping food production globally. You could call this ‘super-accelerated climate change’; but I see it in a different league – faster, specific, and with fallout and radiation effects that compound the damage. It happen essentially overnight, as such things go – perhaps on the back of some political crisis that might brew up in just a few months. Human-driven climate change is far slower – slow enough, as we’ve seen, to fuel efforts to deny it.

So to me, nukes are the more immediate and instant own-goal, in a league of their own, and I say this even nearly three decades after the end of the ‘Cold War’. As Einstein remarked in 1945, these weapons change everything, except the way we think. And that’s the problem. It turns out that humanity isn’t a particularly nice species, and our hard-wired drive to dominate, exploit and destroy each other is perhaps unprecedented in the animal kingdom. War and violence defines our history in many ways. Hmmn… And then we invented nukes. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

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23 thoughts on “Humanity’s biggest own goals

  1. I’m watching Chernobyl – the mini-series – right now quite weirdly delighted that horror story is being portrayed to a mass audience for the first time. And how close total disaster for Europe seemed to be there.

    But I do despair as how the rest of the destruction is for big business – so some guys at the top can get mega rich. And I can’t think of a solution, really.

    I do my bit. I don’t drive, have kids, recycle everything. I take solace in culture. Yuval Noah Harari’s estimate is the species will be finished within a century, and Carlo Rovelli backs him up.

    Bloody hell. It’s the Monaco GP this weekend… escapism to block this out.

    1. Chernobyl was an appalling catastrophe – still rolling, given the time it takes for the radiation to diminish. Not to mention the Semipalatinsk disaster of 1956, which the Soviets managed to cover up because it didn’t leak beyond Kazakhstan, but which was apparently four times worse than Chernobyl. And now there’s news that the concrete lid atop the radioactive dump on Runit Island, courtesy the US bomb tests of the 1950s, is likely to break in the next storm. Urrrrgh. I guess the more serious issue is that all of this, along with the behaviours that have led the world to where it is now – a world of greedy self-entitled one-percenters, impoverished everybody-else, fighting and the endless ‘intellectualisation’ of behaviours in which nations, policies and people are basically just being assholes to each other. To me it all seems to merely reflect the nature of humanity. History tells me that we do this to ourselves. All the time. I suspect it was a survival mechanism back in the day. Now? Umm…. And this is something I’ve been pondering a while.

      I am so gonna write a book on this. Meanwhile… yeah, the Monaco GP sounds like just the ticket, before I get too depressed…

      1. It is that sense of individualism that’s the problem – greed. I never claim to be the smartest sort, but I do think I have a level head and some of our present issues could be easily sorted if billionaires chipped in a bit. And the concept of going all out for wealth wasn’t the ultimate goal in life.

        My suggestion is democratic socialism to spread wealth around so everyone profits. But it’s mindless naiveity, I feel. So I think at this point it’s just a terrible mess.

        And I read Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices From Chernobyl years back and that was terrifying. This series does that investigative journalism proud.

        Meanwhile, a Niki Lauda-free weekend, unfortunately, but Monaco does demonstrate humanity ability at its finest. I can dig that.

        1. Yes, I always thought democratic socialism (aka ‘liberal socialism’) in its broadest philosophical sense was a great approach – it’s where New Zealand actually went from 1935, and it worked pretty well for a couple of generations. The problem was that the operating model – here, at least – wasn’t updated as time went on, people got lazy with it, and it became restrictive. When change finally came, it was by a total over-reaction, utterly discrediting the ‘old’ approach in favour of one where people were given total freedom to tear each other down in a vicious struggle to obtain as much wealth as they could to themselves, all the while consuming everything they could get in satiation of their own hedonism. Government, meanwhile, slammed the country with policies that pretty closely matched the 1941 Japanese economic exploitation plan for a conquered New Zealand (I know, I looked it up – it’s in the Prime Minister’s files in Archives New Zealand). And that was just the 80’s. Damn. The problem, as always, is that human production can’t provide enough to make everybody in a large and complex society rich: it never has. But as you say, there are ways to ameliorate it. And the way forward, of course, isn’t to re-run what worked for NZ in 1935, or for people to demonise each other for holding one apparent ideology or another (as seems to happen these days, all too often). The answer is to figure out an approach that offers fairness for all and which preserves the principles of humanity, kindness, tolerance and respect. Some form of democratic socialism with new mechanisms to match the new society, for instance – where people are encouraged to look after the well-being of all others, including those of different viewpoints; where it is possible to innovate and generate return for personal effort and creativity; but where those disadvantaged through no fault of their own are looked after. I suspect NZ’s current Prime Minister is on to it, but whether that’ll actually produce results remains to be seen.

  2. I grew up during the Cold War, and I can’t disagree with a word you’ve written. Perhaps that’s also why I am so strongly against nuclear energy. To me, ‘solving’ climate change by turning to nuclear power is simply jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Sadly one of the other nasty characteristics of homo sapiens is that we can’t even learn from our recent mistakes much less our historical ones. :/

    1. I agree – humanity certainly can’t learn from its mistakes. We keep doing the same deranged ape thing, over and over. History doesn’t repeat… but human nature does. And that’s the problem. Fix that, and it’ll probably stop us doing things that ultimately risk destroying everything, if it isn’t too late. The problem, I fear, is that to ask humans to stop behaving like humans is similar to asking a cat to stop behaving like a cat… (you know, all it’ll do is sack its current staff and go off to find others…)

      1. lmao – I do like the comparison to a cat. What I can’t work out is why a good percentage of humans are kind, caring, sensible, creative, empathic etc etc, yet it’s always the /other/ crowd that have all the power. Or maybe that’s the answer, the nice people don’t actually want the power. -sigh-

        1. I’ve pondered that myself – how do the bad guys end up with the power? I suspect it’s because they’re prepared to do things that the caring people are not. I think NZ’s Prime Minister has shown that it’s possible to be both kind and strong at the same time, but in general I fear that it’s looked on as an either-or calculation.

          1. Yeah, I fear you’re right about the ‘either or’ calculation. I hope your Jacinda Ardern inspires some new, young leaders to step forward and follow in her shoes…especially here in Australia. :/

  3. Wow, thanks for your wonderful discussion!
    On most days I tend towards negativity for our survival but always figured earth would be ok in the long run, however your thoughts on nukes makes me rethink that one. I do believe “human nature” has outsmarted evolution and even with all our intelligence we still can’t figure that out. Greed is the biggest deterrent to our survival and if we can ever figure that one out we may have a chance. Otherwise I see humanity as we know it becoming extinct in the next couple of decades.
    Sigh.

    1. Yes, I’m with you – I can’t see the current situation ending well. When detritus is found at the bottom of the Marianas Trench it’s clear the planet is in trouble. And the cause is us. Damn. What worries me is that the human condition is largely the cause of this… and that same condition will prevent us now co-operating wholly, generously and with good will as a species, to resolve it. I think it is within our power to do so, if only we can master our own nature as a species. The greatest challenge. Sigh…

  4. Well, life on earth survived the Chicxulub asteroid, so maybe some form of it will survive whatever nuclear or climate disaster we humans cook up. This is taking a long view from a non-human perspective. One of our problems is the assumption that everything was created or evolved for us to exploit. The idea that we, the pinnacle of creation, might blink out and vanish is simply unthinkable to some.

    1. Yes, I think life in some form will always survive here. It just won’t be our particular form. It has always seemed to me that the notion that humans are somehow the pinnacle of life here on the basis of one definition – uniqueness and supposed intellect – is rather anthropocentric. What if the definition of ‘best’ is changed to ‘ubiquitous and always able to survive despite everything’? In such an instance – which to me has to include the ‘iceball Earth’ scenario that apparently occurred a billion years ago – I suspect the crown goes to bacteria…

  5. That’s a great post, Matthew. Yes, nuclear catastrophe represents a greater threat than relatively slow climate change – the difference between banging a nail through the frog’s head and bringing a saucepan containing the frog very slowly to boiling. I’ll retweet this, if you don’t mind.

    BUT. We will never get out of this with a ‘glass half empty’ perspective. With the ingenuity of billions of people becoming aware of these existential problems, there is always the possibility that we will collectively work out ways through the apparently impossible situation we are creating.

    1. Yes I agree – we must always have hope, and the glass is at least half full. There are indeed some extremely smart and motivated people already on the job and I certainly hope that as a species, humanity can work its way through this before it’s too late to avert catastrophe. What worries me is that the way to fix the issue is already known, and all we are doing is fighting over how or even if to apply it – including, alas, the fact of anthropomorphic climate change existing at all (a kind of ostrich head-in-sand approach). I confess to having very little faith in human nature; we have a track record of destroying ourselves by in-fighting over possessing things, be it ideas, resources, status or whatever. And nobody wants to let go of what they have today on the back of our wasteful and polluting global civilisation, which they must if human-driven climate change is to be averted. Would that things were otherwise.

      1. It is certain that there will be disasters along the way, but there is room for hope for a good future for humanity as a whole.
        Meanwhile the UK is obsessed with Brexit, to the exclusion of everything else!

  6. Reblogged this on I can't believe it! and commented:
    This is a great post by Matthew Wright on the human-created problems of global warming and potential nuclear calamity. I am reblogging it with the following observation, already made in a comment:
    BUT. We will never get out of this with a ‘glass half empty’ perspective. With the ingenuity of billions of people becoming aware of these existential problems, there is always the possibility that we will collectively work out ways through the apparently impossible situation we are creating.

  7. Very well said. I have, and will remark again soon, that man just simply hasn’t made it that far out of the cave. Humans have the potential for great advancement, but the thing they are best at is killing each other. If you look at the lopsided budget of the US you’ll get the picture – most goes towards the military. The same goes for Korea. The difference between the two countries is that Korea is owned by the state, and the US is owned by corporations. In the US, most people are still eating. Korea only has one major thing to export at this point and that’s war, so it uses that as a threat to have us ship them food. How long before the US is in the same boat, I don’t know. But I do think climate change is going to accelerate the risk of war as more resources become scarce. The corporations have tried to hide their industrial pollution for decades, but that’s becoming impossible now. Mother Earth can only take so much before a major correction will occur – one that is design to rid itself of the virus we humans have become.

    1. It certainly does seem that a lot of what we do – the ‘human condition’ – is innate, and originally emerged as a survival tactic in the hunter-gatherer days. We haven’t moved from that, as a species. But everything else has changed, and that’s the problem. Back then, there was always another environment to move to when each band of about 150 individuals had ruined the one they were in. Now… um…

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