Nuclear War: A Thought Experiment

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Russia has declassified the video footage of the largest nuclear explosion of all time, the Arctic detonation of the so-called “Tsar Bomba” in 1961.

The explosion was 1,500 times more powerful than those which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, and ten times more powerful than all munitions detonated during the entirety of World War Two. Its mushroom cloud was 42 miles high, over seven times the height of Mount Everest. It was 59 miles wide. It yielded 50 megatons, but could have been rigged to yield twice as much with technology that was available at the time.

The footage is a sight to behold, and serves as a sobering reminder that not only have we been living on the same planet as these horrible things for many generations, but the only reason any of us are still around is by sheer dumb luck. We’ve come inches away from total nuclear war not once, not twice, but many times during the last cold war due to miscommunications and technical malfunctions, which could have easily gone the other way if things had been just a tiny bit different.

And now America is heading into rapidly escalating new cold war tensions with not one but two nuclear-armed nations, and flirting with armageddon hasn’t gotten one iota safer. People like to think of nuclear standoffs as the leaders of nuclear-armed nations each hovering a finger over “the button”, but in reality there are thousands of individuals in the world who have the ability to independently start a nuclear war, any one of whom could easily do so because of confusion, miscommunication, or other unforeseen circumstances amid heightening tensions.

Nuclear brinkmanship has so very, very many moving parts, with so very, very many things that could go wrong. It’s an impossible situation to retain control of.

A 2014 report published in the journal Earth’s Future found that it would only take the detonation of 100 nuclear warheads to throw 5 teragrams of black soot into the earth’s stratosphere for decades, blocking out the sun and making the photosynthesis of plants impossible. This could easily starve every terrestrial organism to death that didn’t die of radiation or climate chaos first. China has hundreds of nuclear weapons; Russia and the United States have thousands.

We are in trouble. The only reason we don’t realize it is because Anderson Cooper and Chris Wallace aren’t telling us we’re in trouble on a daily basis like they would be doing if mainstream journalism existed. We’re in at least as much trouble as in 1961; we just think we’re safer because we got lucky during the last cold war.

In fact we are arguably in more danger, because the United States is entering post-primacy as China surges and unaligned governments continue building a world order that isn’t dependent on the US dollar or American hegemony. That reality is about to crash headlong into a prevailing Washington orthodoxy that US unipolar domination must be preserved at all cost. An inevitable dethronement meeting an ideology which asserts that dethronement must never come.

A cornered animal is dangerous, especially one with fangs and claws. A dying empire is dangerous, especially one with nuclear weapons.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer a thought experiment.

Imagine you feel a tremor right now and go to look out the window, and you see a mushroom cloud growing on the horizon.

Really try to imagine what that would be like, just for the moment.

Really put yourself there, and at your own pace go through the following questions:

What are you feeling?

Where’s the first place your mind goes?

How are you feeling about your loved ones?

Are you happy with how much time you’ve been spending with them lately?

Are you happy with how you’ve been treating them?

Are you satisfied with how you’ve been living your life?

Would you say that your priorities have been where they should have been?

Over the last month, have you been spending all your time and mental energy in a way that you now find ideal?

Have you been spending your time and mental energy in the way you would have been spending it if you’d been mindful of the fact that a nuclear war could erupt at any moment?

Because — and this is the end of the thought experiment — a nuclear war could erupt at any moment.

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It is important to reckon with this fact. Living on the same planet as armageddon weapons and a global contract of mutually assured destruction should be something that you are acutely aware of, and something you have grappled with on an existential level to the fullest extent possible. Because it threatens your life, and the life of everyone you know, in every second that ticks by.

You should be aware of this, and that awareness should change you. It should change the way you live. It should change the way you spend your time and your mental energy. Because you are not guaranteed a single second beyond the one you are reading this sentence in.

Failing to grapple with the reality that nuclear annihilation is hovering over our heads at every instant is the same as failing to grapple with the existential realities of your own mortality. It is that personally relevant to you. It’s as negligent as failing to reckon with your childhood traumas or your place in the universe. If you haven’t truly contemplated the reality of nuclear standoff even as the empire you inhabit hurls itself into new cold war escalations, you aren’t being real with yourself at all.

This is about you. Personally. As much as anything else in your life is about you. Because it has every ability to end your life and everything in it at any time.

Ignoring this reality is as absurd as ignoring a stranger following you around with a gun to your head every moment of your life. If you feel like another thought experiment, put yourself in that situation for a minute, because it’s the same as what’s happening now. Only difference is if that gun goes off, it doesn’t just kill you. It kills everyone.

Pursue a life of excellence and live each moment like it could be your last, because of course it could. And above all make sure you do everything in your power to raise awareness and oppose the insanity of the situation we now find ourselves in. If God forbid we ever do see that mushroom cloud out our window, we want to at the very least be able to say we did everything we could, and we made the most of the time we had here.

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I write about the end of illusions.

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