Thursday, March 19, 2015

Existential Threats (19 Sept. 2014)

            An existential threat to the human species is a large-ish asteroid or middling-size comet hitting the Earth, or a mega-super-volcanic event — a Yellowstone eruption, say, as the start of a series of super eruptions — or a full-out thermonuclear war bringing on nuclear winter.
            There are things we can do about cosmic and geologic threats, but they're mostly long-haul strategies and desperate stabs at survival. We need better inventories of asteroids and planetoids and planetesimals and all, and much better understanding of geophysics generally and volcanoes in particular. So governments should be doing more of what they should be doing anyway in financing scientific research. We also need to expand programs with the "Noah's Arc" approach, preserving plant seeds and other preservable genomes, plus some human beings: shelters on Earth for the very long term, plus, as soon as affordable, colonies and the Moon and nearby planets so we do not have all the human eggs in one basket, all our genes and cultures on one vulnerable planet.
            A whole lot simpler and cheaper is a crash program for what we should be doing anyway: immediately cutting back Russian, US, and Chinese nuclear weapons to where we have enough to destroy one another only a couple times over, but (probably) too few to trigger climate disaster. And after that exercise has concentrated our figurative minds, all the countries with nukes — I'm look at you Israel, Pakistan, and India — all those with nukes can move rapidly to reduce nuclear arsenals to the handful of atomic bombs (not hydrogen) quite sufficient to deter attack.
            And then, with the human-controlled existential threat removed, we can consider working on the merely horrendous, horrific, and horrible threat of small-scale nuclear warfare or large-scale conventional wars.
            Before another politician, pundit, or other propagandizer uses the phrase "existential threat," I'd like them to consider the factoid that from 1900 C.E. to 1950, despite two world wars, the human population rose from about 1.65 billion to about 2.52 billion. They should consider the fact that the USSR suffered some 20 million deaths in World War II, and numerous other casualties, and survived as a state and society. Germany and Japan lost entire cities and had regimes toppled but still survived as societies and were again thriving countries again — West Germany, anyway — within two generations.
            So please get this straight: ISIS and terrorists and terrorism as such are not existential threats to the United States, not directly. The United States as a state, society, and people can absorb even the atomic destruction of a city or two, to say nothing of casualties in numbers well below those killed each years in gun deaths or highway accidents or from cigarettes.
            ISIS and terrorists and terrorism as such are not a direct threat to America at all — not as a state and society — but to Americans, which is different, and lesser threats to us individual Americans than tobacco, alcohol, fire-arms, reckless drivers, and the other sources of "mortality and morbidity" that are part of everyday life.
            To repeat the point, what terrorists threaten isn't America and not even many Americans but the American Republic.
            As a candidate for the US presidency, John Kerry learned that politicians commit a serious gaffe when they are (gasp!) insensitive enough to slip and allow the fact that terrorism, in geo-political terms, is a "nuisance" — a fact that can lead to the nastily pragmatic thought that one does what one can against terrorists and then, as a society, suck up the occasional losses. Terrorism has been a documented tactic since at least the time Judah Maccabee's freedom fighters were killing off Seleucids and Jewish collaborators in the victorious guerilla war commemorated each year at Hanukkah. Terrorism is a tactic; it is a tactic that can work: from time to time, it will be used.
            The Republic is at risk because we Americans can get rather extreme in our reluctance to die and overly hypocritical in talking about "bearing any cost" and using clichés like "freedom isn't free" without adding that we usually want somebody else paying for it. The threat of ISIS and terrorism and all is that the third or fourth time some Mall of America is bombed or machine-gunned by (non-White/Christian) terrorists, most Americans will be sufficiently terrorized to demand moving beyond "The National Security State" to a downright police state, where they will feel, and probably be, safer.
            We Americans don't do risk assessment very well, and for all our glorification of heroes and entrepreneurs and all, most of us are really risk-averse for ourselves and those we love — as we understand risks, which is often poorly.
            You want to reduce an existential threat? Work for rapid and radical reduction in the number of nuclear weapons in the world, starting with a risk-free, and money-saving, unilateral reduction in US nuclear weaponry. Beyond that, join the fight against language inflation and manipulation through fear. Threats can be serious without being "existential" or sensational. Global warming is not an existential threat to the human species or to the United States, but it does threaten an ironic combination of flooding and desiccation to where I live, and serious harm to millions (eventually billions?) of others who live on a coast and/or where it's hot and dry — or where it used to be cold. A group like ISIS causes great local misery and may spark a Sunni v. Shi'a (etc.!) civil war and another round of global terrorism.
            Such risks are bad enough without hyperbole.

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