Friday, April 17, 2009

Ecological vs nuclear threats

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the N-Bomb (and Start Worrying about the P-Bomb Instead)

"For many, the apocalyptic potential of our technology is concentrated in the atom bomb. I am sure that they do not exaggerate the peril. But it has one consolation: it lies in the realm of arbitrary choice. Certain acts of certain actors can bring about the catastrophe – but they can also remain undone. Nuclear weapons can be abolished without this requiring all of modern existence to change. (The prospect is admittedly small.) Anyway, decisions still play a role - and in these: fear. Not that this can be trusted; but we can, in principle, be lucky because the use is not necessary in principle, that is, not impelled by the production of the thing as such (which rather aims at obviating the necessity of its use).

"My main fear rather relates to the apocalypse threatening from the nature of the unintended dynamics of technical civilization as such, inherent in its structure, whereto it drifts willy-nilly and with exponential acceleration: the apocalypse of the 'too much', with exhaustion, pollution, desolation of the planet. Here the credible extrapolations are frightening and the calculable time spans shrink at a frenzied pace. Here averting the disaster asks for a revocation of a whole life-style, even of the very principle of the advanced industrial societies, and will hurt an endless number of interests (the habit interests of all!). It thus will be much more difficult than the prevention of nuclear destruction, which after all is possible without decisive interference with the general conditions of our technological existence. Most of all, the one apocalypse is almost bound to come by the logic of present trends that positively forge ahead toward it; the other is only a terrible contingency which may or may not happen.

"Therefore, with all respect for the threat of sudden destruction by the atom bomb, I put the threat of the slow incremental opposite, overpopulation and all the other 'too much', in the forefront of my fears. That time bomb, whose ticking so far cannot be checked, competes in destructive power, alas, with any amount of hydrogen bombs. The apocalypse which threatens here from a total development (not just a single act) seems to me not smaller than the sudden one of an atomic holocaust, its consequences possibly as irreversible, and to its coming every one of us contributes by mere membership in modern society. This apocalypse waits for our grandchildren, if we are lucky enough till then to have avoided the nuclear peril.

"Darkest of all is, of course, the possibility that one will lead to the other; that in the global mass misery of a failing biosphere where 'to have or to not have' turns into 'to be or not to be' for whole populations and 'everyone for himself' becomes the common battle cry, one or the other desperate side will, in the fight for dwindling resources, resort to the ultima ratio of atomic war - that is, will be driven to it."

-Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility:
In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age

(Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984), 202.

I think I agree with Jonas' basic differentiation between nuclear and ecological/resource threats. The former (should it occur) would be the result of a limited series of acts made by a small number of highly powerful individuals under great pressure in extreme circumstances. The latter, the result of billions of habitual actions by a huge proportion of the human population continuing business as usual. The former, even if pursued in the belief that it would somehow preserve some good, would have as an immediate aim the destruction of millions. The latter, however, would be the unintended by-product of millions pursuing the flourishing and improvement of their own lives and perhaps also even of their neighbour.


Dan Anderson said...

That's a very perceptive and disturbing quote. Particularly the final paragraph about the possibility of a resource-driven war. Not that such a thing would be particularly new, but increasingly conditions could occur in which the object of a resource-driven war would not be obtaining a hard-to-get resource, but destroying populations who compete for dwindling stocks.
Maybe the Chinese 'one child' policy was already a movement in that direction.

irith said...

nanotechnology, antibiotic resistent bacteria, gm organisms, collapsing biodiversity, disappearing water way or another, it's still gonna happen. Why have I chosen to have a child? Because in terrible times, the world will need good people, maybe I can contribute one.

byron smith said...

Dan - do you really think the one child policy is akin to nuclear holocaust? Or even a step in the same direction? Whatever the merits and demerits of the policy, to my mind the differences are not merely quantitive.

Irith - yes, the nurturing of children is always a practice of hope. Even in the midst of crises, life is still a gift and is still worth living!

byron smith said...

PS It ought to be said that population is less important than consumption, especially since the places where population is growing the fastest are where consumption is generally the smallest and the consumption of places where population is stable, slightly declining or slowly growing dwarfs the ecological effect of population growth elsewhere.