For most of human history, we could take comfort in one simple fact. No matter how brutish, crude, or stupid we were, from burning witches to fighting wars over a stray dog, we could never screw up so badly that we would destroy our entire world. Sure, we could leave some pretty noticeable scars, but we could never outright destroy it.
That all changed on July 16, 1945 in Los Alamos, New Mexico when the first atomic bomb was detonated. It’s impossible to overstate how significant that moment was in the history of the human race and not just because it helped end World War II, thereby inspiring countless war movies for decades to come.
For the first time in the history of planet Earth, a species that had evolved to hunt, gather, and pick nuts out of elephant shit had the means to wipe itself out, along with most other life. At the height of the Cold War, there were approximately 64,500 active nuclear warheads. That’s enough destructive power to kill every person in the world, and their pets, many times over.
While the number of live nuclear warheads at the global level has decreased, they still have plenty of destructive power to both wipe out our species and render large chunks of the world uninhabitable to any species less hardy than a cockroach. These are, by and large, the most dangerous items mankind has ever created and that includes machine guns, nerve gas, and fidget spinners.
The very existence of these weapons says a lot about the state of our species and where it came from, more so than I can cover in a single blog post. However, in wake of the 35th anniversary of the day when the world, as we know it, almost ended, I think it’s worth emphasizing just how skilled/lucky/crazy we are to still live in an intact world.
Despite the undeniable danger of nuclear weapons, we don’t always treat them with the same care that we would treat the latest iPhone. Several years ago, John Oliver dedicated an entire show to highlighting the sorry state of America’s nuclear arsenal. Even if you only believe half of what a comedy news show tells you, it’s hard to take much comfort when weapons of mass destruction are involved.
What happened on September 26th, 1983 was terrifying in just how close we came to nuclear war. Many would make the argument that this incident was the closest we, as a species, came to destroying ourselves. I would tend to agree with that argument. Unfortunately, it’s one of those arguments that has an uncomfortable breadth of details.
It’s true. There have been more incidents that could’ve easily escalated to terrifying levels. Some were simple accidents that could’ve warranted far more than a demotion. Some where intense, geopolitical ordeals that went onto inspire major Hollywood movies starring Kevin Costner.
In any case, the stakes were painfully high. You literally can’t get much higher than a nuclear war that wipes out billions. We’ve managed to avoid it, but we’ve come so uncomfortably close that it’s a miracle the world is still spinning. A video from the YouTube channel AllTimeTop10s nicely documents some of these incidents. If you feel like you’re having a bad day, this should help provide some context.
I’ll give everyone a moment to catch their breath, vomit, or a combination of the two. I promise nobody would blame you. Knowing how close we came to nuclear war and how bad it could’ve been, we should all share in a collective sigh of relief every day.
However, as bad as these past cases have been, there’s no guarantee that we won’t face something similar in the future. There’s also no guarantee that there will be someone like Santislav Petrov to make the right decision when those situations come around.
That said, the situation today is very different than what it was during the Cold War. Say what you will about ongoing talking points about Russia. It’s not even in the same hemisphere at it was in the 50s and 60s when the United States and Russia seemed eager for an opportunity to go to war.
The world of geopolitics has evolved, in many ways, beyond the concept of two competing superpowers engaging in a nuclear dick-measuring contest. These days, increased globalism and a more interconnected economy makes that kind of geopolitical strategy untenable and counterproductive.
In a sense, globalization and the economic bounty that came with it made war of any kind, nuclear or otherwise, a losing endeavor. As I’ve noted before, even the most evil billionaires in the world prefer that the world remain intact so they can keep enjoying their billions. That’s just common sense and shameless self-interest.
That might offer some comfort, but there are those much smarter than I’ll ever be who still have concerns. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who have been gauging the likelihood of nuclear war for decades, we’re two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. This is their statement on the matter.
For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.
Since I’m an aspiring erotica/romance writer and not an atomic scientist, I am woefully unqualified to contest the conclusions of these individuals, let alone argue them. They cite a new wave of tensions between Russia and the United States, as well as the nuclear ambitions of North Korea. These are not the same conflicts that fueled the Cold War and that uncertainty has many understandably spooked.
Me being the optimist I am, I tend to believe that world leaders, however deranged or misguided they may be, prefer that the world remain intact. Nobody wants to be the leader of a smoldering pile of ash. There’s no way to build a palace, a harem, or a giant golden statue of themselves on a foundation of ash. That’s as good an incentive as anyone can hope for in avoiding nuclear war.
Unfortunately, human beings don’t always act rationally and are prone to making stupid decisions that change the course of history. One mistake in a situation involving nuclear weapons might be all it takes. Only time will tell, but the extent to which we’ve survived thus far should give us all reasons to be hopeful and thankful.