The war in Ukraine has revived Cold War fears of civilization-ending cataclysm in the form of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres admitted this "bone-chilling" reality: "The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility." As unsettling as this development is, it presents us with an opportunity to cultivate awareness of an existential threat we continue to face.
In his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Carl Sagan wrote: "Many of the dangers we face indeed arise from science and technology – but, more fundamentally, because we have become powerful without becoming commensurately wise." Sagan understood that during the second half of the last century – which is to say, mere seconds ago in terms of humanity’s overall story – our lack of wisdom brought us perilously close to a nuclear war.
Were the United States and Russia to engage in a direct, armed conflict, it is almost certain that they would eventually resort to the use of nuclear bombs. Once begun, the likelihood of limiting such a nuclear war would be vanishingly small. The consequences of a nuclear war would be unimaginably catastrophic, far worse than most non-experts tend to assume. As Daniel Ellsberg has observed, the horrors that would be unleashed exceed our current concepts and vocabulary, for they even exceed the word "evil." If by some happy chance, a small group of us could survive, it would be in a fundamentally different world. Atmospheric temperatures would drop precipitously due to the dense clouds created by successive nuclear explosions (and resultant fires), eventually causing "a mass extinction event similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs." The world would be colder than it was during the last ice age, with consistent sub-freezing temperatures that would destroy global agriculture, leading to mass starvation and billions of deaths.
Larger animal species likely would not survive this long stretch of extreme vulnerability and precarity; it is impossible to know how this could impact whole, interconnected ecosystems, but it is near-certain that the most complex forms of life would go away. The terrifying absurdity of the situation in which human civilization finds itself is impossible to overstate: the finest scientific minds in the most technologically advanced countries in the world have designed, built, and tested – quite intentionally, using hundreds of billions of dollars – weapons powerful enough to end humanity’s story forever.
The nuclear warheads possessed by the United States and Russia today are far more powerful than the bombs the U.S. used in World War II. In the Castle Bravo test in 1954, the United States dropped a thermonuclear bomb approximately one thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. This was less than a decade after World War II. The United States infamously miscalculated the strength of the bomb, which was two and a half times stronger than expected, producing toxic radioactive clouds that contaminated about 18,000 square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of people were exposed to dangerous radiation, and untold many developed cancer. As recently as 2016, a study from Columbia University found that radiation levels in the Marshall Islands, the site of Castle Bravo and dozens of other nuclear tests, were almost two times those regarded as safe for humans. In 1961, the Soviet Union tested a weapon, nicknamed "Tsar Bomba," several thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. It was estimated that the explosion could have caused third-degree burns as far as 100 kilometers away.
Our critical thinking faculties developed for millions of years in environments where it was impossible to kill large numbers of people without sacrificing comparable numbers and investing large amounts of time. Murder was difficult and slow. Today, by contrast, an extraordinarily small group of people could cause the deaths of billions – even of the entire human race. The sobering fact is that we have empowered this small group of people in governments to decide the fate of the species. In the United States, for example, the president has the "sole authority" to launch a nuclear attack, with the ability to authorize such an attack anywhere in the world within minutes. We must begin to seriously interrogate the sanity and sustainability of such a system.
If humankind is going to continue following the suicidal path of ever more powerful nuclear bombs, we must at least understand the implications of that choice. We must be responsible to each other, to future generations, and to life on earth generally. While he appreciated that it would make most people uncomfortable, Sagan believed that an honest confrontation with the idea of total annihilation was necessary in order to avoid it. If we don’t even attempt to examine and understand the potential threats to the continuation of the human species, we virtually guarantee that we will vanish from the universe. There can be no winner in a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. Whatever our differences as people, we should not be willing to risk humanity’s future.
People in positions of leadership, particularly in the world’s most powerful countries, need to talk to one another, recognize their similarities, and ensure war policy decisions reflect clear thinking about the stakes.
David S. D’Amato is an attorney, businessman, and independent researcher. He is a Policy Advisor to both the Heartland Institute and the Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written in Newsweek, Investor’s Business Daily, RealClearPolitics, The Washington Examiner, and many other popular and scholarly publications, and his work has been cited by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, among others.