Thursday, April 8, 2010

Nuclear Disarmament And The Human Future

Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have signed a nuclear disarmament pact that reduces American and Russian nuclear arsenals by 30%. This is very good news in the short term, as moves toward disarmament make our nonproliferation efforts more credible with other countries and show emerging powers that international prestige isn't about having the biggest nuclear stockpile. And it's very good news in the long term, as progress on this front makes the human race less likely to totally annihilate itself.

I'm optimistic about the future of humanity. For those of us in the developed world, living standards are way better than they were centuries ago. Over the course of the 21st century, I think we'll see people of many other regions come to enjoy the progress that Westerners have made in the 20th. The rate of technological progress is accelerating. This progress will continue until humans in the millennia to come (and possibly all sentient beings, since with our future technology we'll have the resources to undertake some really ambitious world-improving challenges) will be living lives of truly freakish awesomeness.

That is, unless humans go extinct before then. As I write this, it strikes me that there's a pretty good utilitarian case for being a single-issue nuclear disarmament voter. Millions of years of utopia are worth a lot in the calculus, and the best thing we can do to make sure we get there is to not destroy ourselves first.


chris said...

millions of years of sadism and torture is worth negative a lot, though.

low-tech cyclist said...

I think those reasons would drive me to being a single-issue voter on amelioration of global warming, which I'm pretty close to being already.

Neil Sinhababu said...

How likely is total or near-total human extinction as a result of global warming, ltc? Do the worst-case scenarios go that far?

low-tech cyclist said...

Near-total human extinction is unlikely, even in the worst-case warming scenarios. But we could easily have a sequence of crop failures that reduce the human population of the earth by billions.

Meanwhile, with nukes, it's hard to see how you get the sort of annihilation that's possible. There were always just two scenarios: (1) tensions rise between the U.S. and the USSR to the point where someone fires the first nuke, and then they all get thrown; or (2) someone else sets off a nuclear explosion that either the US or USSR is convinced that the other one is responsible for, and that sets off a nuclear war.

The USSR has shrunk to just Russia, and the reasons for the tensions that made an East-West nuclear war plausible have vanished. Meanwhile, even if al-Qaeda got hold of a backpack nuke and set it off in downtown Manhattan, we'd still suspect them before we suspected Russia.

I, too, want to see the world nuclear arsenal shrink, but come August, we'll have gone 65 years without another nuke being fired in anger, under circumstances where the possibility was far more real than it is now.

It's hard to see what set of actions could lead to the Big Nuclear Conflagration that boomers like yours truly grew up in the shadow of.

OTOH, it's easy to see how we wind up in the worst-case global warming scenario: nobody does much of anything very soon, and things get worse faster than we expect, as has happened over the past couple of decades.

Neil Sinhababu said...

That all sounds basically right to me, ltc.

I think the most likely path to human nuclear extinction would have to involve colossally irrational play by one side or another and/or some kind of computer disaster. And looking at the contemporary Republican Party, I can't feel totally safe about the former.

Helen Bushnell said...

Worst case scenarios for global warming predicts the death of every animal bigger than a rabbit.
Are you bigger than a rabbit?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Technological progress often allows us to make smaller versions of things while retaining the original functions.

Maybe that'll work in this case?