by George Gantz, member of Promoting Enduring Peace
Are we guilty of wishful thinking in assuming that the risk of a nuclear holocaust is a thing of the past? Absolutely, according to William Perry, former Secretary of Defense. “I believe that the risk of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War – and yet our public is blissfully unaware of the new nuclear dangers they face.” (January 2016)
While our politicians are clearly not talking about it, Perry is. He wrote a book, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” and he is now teaching a free online course (MOOC) (“Living at the Nuclear Brink”) at Stanford. Those who take that course learn about the incredibly destructive power of the weapons developed since the end of World War II, and how close nuclear disaster has come in both 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and again in 1983, a period of destabilization following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the installation of nuclear missiles in Europe by NATO, and President Reagan’s surprise “Star Wars” announcement.
While the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US and its allies may have abated, the risks of technical or human error, miscalculation, and nuclear aggression have not. With the proliferation of nuclear weapon states and the recent rise in geopolitical confrontations and tensions, the risk of nuclear weapon detonation (accidental or intentional) is as high as it ever was. Yet we have mostly forgotten the catastrophic, immense destructive power of these weapons.
We all may wish this issue were just a thing of the past. In fact, it is an inextricable part of both our past and our future, according to the scientists who are tasked with tracking changes in the geological record. The geologists of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) reached a consensus that human-induced changes in the geological record require the designation of a new geological time, the Anthropocene Epoch, within the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era (the age of mammals and birds). The new epoch began in the mid-20th century, superseding the Holocene Epoch, which began roughly 12,000 years ago after the last glaciation of the Pleistocene Epoch.
The AWG proposal to recognize the Anthropocene Epoch was presented (with an affirmative vote of 34 of its 35 members) to the International Geological Congress in September and is expected to take some years to be finalized. Among the details to be worked out is the designation of the “Golden Spike” by which the Epoch can be identified in the geological record. There are many candidates for a specific identifying factor such as spikes in concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrogen; prevalence of aluminum, plastic, fly ash or isotopes of oxygen, carbon or nitrogen; clusters of extinction events; or the identification of various pollutants. The leading candidate among the preferences of the AWG is the occurrence of plutonium in the geological record (10 votes). That would make the marker year for the start of the Anthropocene Epoch to be 1964, the year of maximum fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing.
According to the geologists, nuclear weapons development and testing is the critical marker of the human impact on the natural environment.
According to Perry, our collective ignorance of the current risks from the continued development and deployment of nuclear weapons has led, and will continue to lead, to significant strategic, destabilizing mistakes. These include the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, President G. W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and President Obama’s proposed $1 trillion nuclear weapons system upgrade.
Given the destructive potential of these weapons and the catastrophic implications of any single nuclear weapon detonation, one thing is clear. If we get any of this wrong, then we may not be worrying much about how the geologists classify the Anthropocene Epoch, or about the impacts of fossil fuel combustion on climate. It’s time we all started talking about it.
Dr. William Perry, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink. Stanford University Press. 2015. http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=25448
Jerry Brown, “A Stark Nuclear Warning.” New York Times Book Review (7-14-2016).
Living at the Nuclear Brink: Yesterday and Today. Stanford University Online Course. 2016. http://online.stanford.edu/course/living-nuclear-brink-yesterday-and-today
Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) Media Notes, University of Leicester, August 2016.
Damian Carrington, “The Anthropocene Epoch.” The Guardian. 9-28-2016. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth
Organizations promoting disarmament:
Promoting Enduring Peace http://www.pepeace.org
Future of Life Institute http://futureoflife.org
Union of Concerned Scientists http://www.ucsusa.org
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons http://www.icanw.org