Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Deterrence in an Age of Decline

There are times, and this is one of them, when I wonder if somewhere in the last few weeks we all somehow got teleported into an alternate universe where nothing works quite the same way as were used to.  That feeling may be a bit easier to understand when I mention that I’ve just been praised on the air by Glenn Beck. Yes, that Glenn Beck. He was commenting on an interview I did not long ago with Chris Martenson on his Peak Prosperity podcast, which is not a thing I’d normally expect someone like Beck to find congenial.  Oh, and Beck noted in the same broadcast that of course there are hard limits on energy and resources.

If that hasn’t set your brain spinning, dear reader, consider this.  In the midst of all the handwaving about a new age of US energy independence, the Atlantic Monthly has published an article pointing out that the United States won’t be energy independent even if we do end up producing more oil than Saudi Arabia.  Now of course anyone who’s run the numbers knows this already; for several years now, Saudi Arabia has been the second largest petroleum producer in the world, right behind Russia, and #3 has long been—drumroll, please—the United States. It’s a measure of the sheer wasteful extravagance with which we use petroleum in this country that the world’s third largest petroleum producer still has to import around 2/3 of the oil it consumes each year.

Again, this isn’t news, or it wouldn’t be if Americans were by and large interested in dealing with the real world. It’s not even out of character for the Atlantic Monthly to run an article so unsympathetic to our national delusion du jour. What makes this startling, at least to me, is that the article in question has  been splashed all over the internet.  It’s almost as though people are actually starting to grapple with the hard reality of the predicament facing industrial society—and that does rather suggest that we’ve arrived in a universe very different from the one we’ve inhabited for the last three decades.

That being the case, I’m going to take the risk of discussing a few topics that I would normally leave alone, even though they have a great deal of relevance to the overall project of this blog and to the specific project of the last year or so of posts here on The Archdruid Report, the end of America’s age of empire.  This isn’t because I have nothing to say about them; quite the contrary.  It’s because they are the sort of hot-button topics that reliably make otherwise sane people go barking mad.

You’ll understand this a little beter when I mention that the first of these topics, the one I mean to discuss this week, is the role of nuclear weapons in the decline and fall of America’s empire, and more generally in the twilight years of industrial civilization.

Those who doubt that this is a subject that inspires raving lunacy need only recall those thrilling days of yesteryear, when crude oil was spewing from a wrecked wellhead deep under the Gulf of Mexico and the words “Deepwater Horizon” were on everyone’s lips.  On an astonishing number of internet forums, people were loudly insisting that the only way to solve the problem was to use a nuclear weapon on the well. I don’t recall anyone explaining exactly what good would be done by vaporizing the last impediments to the flow of oil and sending a fifty foot high tsunami of oily, radioactive water crashing into the shores of the Gulf.  For that matter, I don’t recall many cases in which anyone even brought up those far from minor points.

It’s remarkable how many people seem to forget that a nuclear weapon is simply an explosive.  It’s a very powerful explosive, and one that produces some dangerous residues when it blows up, but it’s still just an explosive.  It doesn’t, say, open a rift in the fabric of reality, through which inconvenient or unwanted things can be thrust out into the primal void; all it can do is blow things to smithereens, and unless your problem can be solved by blowing something to smithereens—or, please note, threatening to do so—a nuclear weapon will do you no good at all.  You’d have a hard time figuring that out from the way nuclear weapons get discussed in this country, though.  By and large, once the prospect of using a nuclear weapon enters the discussion, even the most basic sort of rational thought waves goodbye and sends back a forwarding address from another state.

Now it’s only fair to say that not all the dubious reasoning that goes on around nuclear weapons is quite so florid as the example I’ve just given. For examples of the less colorful sort of nuclear folly, I’m going to pick on two recent commenters on this blog. One of them, partway through last month’s narrative fiction about the fall of America, argued that a US president facing a Chinese military response like the one I outlined in the second episode would simply order a first strike on China’s nuclear arsenal, destroy it on the ground, and proceed to deal with the crisis in a stronger position. The other, commenting on the finished narrative, insisted that I should have left out all the military stuff since we are, she claimed, evolving beyond war; in the discussion that followed, she noted plaintively that nobody wants a nuclear war and yet we’ve got nuclear weapons, and isn’t that crazy?

Well, no, it’s not, since clearly some people—my first commenter is an example—do think that nuclear war can be a good idea. (A successful first strike with nuclear warheads on someone else’s arsenal is still a nuclear war.)  Still, let’s start with the first commenter’s suggestion, because it provides a useful example of one kind of nuclear irrationality that’s fairly common these days.

Let’s suppose that a US president, faced with a military crisis overseas, does in fact order a nuclear first strike on China’s strategic nuclear arsenal.  Let’s also suppose that, ignoring all the rules of strategy from Sun Tsu on down, the Chinese haven’t anticipated the possibility, don’t have their arsenal ready to launch, and haven’t informed the US that the bombs will go up and the boom will come down the moment an American missile crosses into Chinese airspace.  We’ll say that the US strike is enormously, unrealistically effective; of the 175 or so Chinese nuclear weapons, 174 of them are vaporized on the ground along with their launch systems, and only one missile, with a single 100-kiloton warhead on the business end,  arcs through the ionosphere and explodes in a low air burst over San Francisco.

The result? The United States has just suffered the greatest disaster in its history. The death toll from that one warhead would likely exceed the 600,000 military deaths in the Civil War, our nation’s bloodiest conflict to date.  Hundreds of billions of dollars of immediate damage would deliver a body blow to the nation’s economy, and a galaxy of long-term costs could well raise the final cost by an order of magnitude or more.  The impact of Hurricane Sandy on the east coast, or Katrina on New Orleans?  A puny fraction of what we’re discussing here.

Now ask yourself this:  what has the United States gained in exchange for those huge losses?  In the narrative under discussion, a better military position vis-a-vis the Chinese and, if all goes well, a drop in the price of oil.  That is to say, not much compared to the cost.

That’s the rarely discussed logic behind nuclear deterrence.  None of the concrete gains a nation can achieve by launching a nuclear strike on another nation comes anywhere near the scale of the costs that would be inflicted by even the feeblest nuclear response.  If the US first strike just described does not quite turn out to be quite so improbably flawless, in turn, the costs go up accordingly; ten mushroom clouds over large American cities would leave the US economy as crippled as the economies of Europe were after the Second World War, with no Marshall Plan in sight; the impact of the full Chinese arsenal, small as it is by American or Russian standards, would likely mean the end of the United States as a functioning First World nation.  Sure, much of China would be pounded into radioactive rubble; what imaginable advantage would this give to whatever was left of the United States?

This is why, in turn, the Peoples Republic of China contents itself with so small a nuclear arsenal. It doesn’t need anything bigger; all that’s necessary is that any other nuclear power that might think of launching a strike on China be faced with utterly unacceptable losses.  It’s why Israel clings so tightly to its nuclear weapons, why India and Pakistan have been so much more polite to each other since both became nuclear powers, and why Iran will inevitably join the nuclear club in the next few years—and the harder the US backs Iran into a corner, by the way, the more overwhelming the pressure on Iran’s leadership will be to assemble and test a warhead, and so provide itself with the one truly effective way of telling hostile countries to back off.

The mistake made by both my commenters can be summed up very simply;  they think that nuclear weapons exist to fight nuclear wars.  That was true of the first two fission bombs ever made, Little Boy and Fat Man, but it hasn’t been true of any nuclear weapon since that time.  They exist not to fight but to threaten. Those people who speculate about when and if nuclear weapons will be used are missing the point; they’re used all the time, with great effectiveness, by everyone who has them, to guarantee national survival and draw hard lines that other nations, and even other nuclear powers, will not cross. 

A common objection probably needs to be dealt with at this point.  This is the insistence that such logic may be all very well for ordinary leaders and ordinary countries, but what if nuclear weapons get into the hands of a mad dictator?  One commenter several posts back, in fact, insisted that the ultimate argument against my logic was contained in the words “George W. Bush.”

It was probably impolite of me to point out to him that Bush had control of the world’s most advanced nuclear arsenal for eight years, and somehow we’re still here.  I’ve already discussed, in a post four years ago, the destructive role that the pornography of political fear and hatred spread by both sides of the partisan spectrum plays in our current society, and it didn’t sink in then, either.  Still, there’s an even more precise point that can be made here, and that’s the simple fact that nuclear weapons have already fallen into the hands of mad dictators. Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong can hardly be described in any other terms; both were homicidal megalomaniacs who were directly responsible for annihilating tens of millions of the people they ruled, and both of them had nuclear weapons. Once again, we’re still here.

For that matter, let’s look at the mad dictator who comes first in almost everyone’s list, Adolf Hitler.  Hitler didn’t have nuclear weapons, but he did have the next best thing, massive stockpiles of three different, highly lethal nerve gases, and delivery systems that could readily have landed decent quantities of them on London and a variety of other military and civilian targets. He never used them, even when the Wehrmacht’s last battalions were fighting Russian troops in the suburbs of Berlin and his own death was staring him in the face.  Why?  Because the Allies also had them, and could be counted on to retaliate in kind; the military benefits of gassing London, or even the D-Day beaches, paled in contrast to the military impact of Allied nerve gas attacks, say,  against German armies on the Eastern Front.  That is to say, like most mad dictators, Hitler may have been crazy but he wasn’t stupid.

The same logic, by the way, applies to all weapons of mass destruction.  Unless you’re the only nation in a given conflict that has the power to annihilate huge numbers of people with a single weapon, it’s never worth your while to use your weapons of mass destruction, because the retaliation will cost you at least as much as, and usually more than, the use of the weapon will gain you. That’s why the plans to equip infantry divisions with truck-launched nuke-tipped rockets that filled the dreams of US military planners in the 1950s went the way of the Ford Nucleon, a 1957 concept car that was expected to be powered by a pint-sized nuclear reactor, and why the huge multimegaton bombs of the same era were quietly disassembled and replaced by much smaller warheads in the following decades. 

It’s very likely, in fact, that in the decade or two before us, an American president will earn a Nobel peace prize—as opposed to being handed one more or less at random, like the current incumbent—by completing the process, and signing a treaty with Russia scrapping most of both sides’ arsenals.  250 warheads each, say, would be more than enough to provide a deterrent against all comers, and the savings in money and resources will be considerable.  That latter may turn into a major issue in the decades to come, as the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end.

One thing about nuclear weapons that’s too rarely remembered is that they are surprisingly delicate devices, and don’t store well.  Certain components of hydrogen warheads, for example, have to be replaced every six months or so because the radioactive material in them undergoes normal decay, and enough of it changes into another element that it stops working. Other components have to be remachined at regular intervals, because plutonium is a relatively soft metal and won’t stay within the necessary ultrafine tolerances indefinitely.  The missiles and other delivery systems have maintenance issues of their own.  The science fiction cliché of abandoned nuclear missiles in forgotten silos, ready to launch far into the future, thus deserves decent burial.

As the industrial age stumbles to its end, in turn, the costs in energy, raw materials, and labor to keep existing nuclear arsenals functioning will be an increasingly large burden. To return yet again to the central theme of this blog, the Long Descent ahead of us will be driven primarily by the inability of political, social, and economic systems created during an age of cheap abundant energy to remain viable during an age of energy and resource scarcity.  As resource depletion proceeds, systems dependent on scarce supplies will be forced to compete with one another for what’s left, some will inevitably lose, and each loss marks the disintegration of some part of business as usual in the industrial world.  The elaborate arrangement that keeps nuclear weapons and their delivery systems ready for use at any moment is simply one energy- and resource-dependent system among many.

That’s one of the reasons why I confidently expect the treaty mentioned above to be signed at some point in the next couple of decades.  Applied more generally, though, the same logic makes nuclear war one of the least likely ways the industrial age could end.  As costs mount and industrial infrastructure comes apart, the challenge of maintaining a nuclear arsenal in usable condition will be balanced by the need to maintain the appearance of a credible nuclear threat.  The most likely outcome?  A strengthening of the logic of deterrence.

Think of it this way.  It’s a safe bet that as technological capabilities and access to resources decline, nations that have nuclear weapons will continue to claim that they are ready, willing, and able to blow their adversaries to kingdom come.  It’s an equally safe bet in an age of continuing decline that, given the increasingly harsh limits on resources and technology, the ability of any given nation to make good on those threats will fail to keep up with the appearances it projects to the rest of the world. The problem is that, barring a really spectacular intelligence failure, nobody will know just how wide the gap has become in any given case.

Sixty years from now, as a result, the United States (or whatever successor nations inherit a share of its nuclear weapons) will doubtless still appear to have a substantial nuclear arsenal.  Just how many of its missiles and bombs can still be counted on to follow gravity’s rainbow and ignite a second sun over an overseas target, though, will be one of the most closely guarded of the nation’s secrets.  The same will be true of every other nuclear power.  As the industrial age winds down, it’s very likely that we will reach a point when no nation on Earth still has the effective means to wage nuclear war, but every significant power still claims that capacity, and nobody can be quite sure that everyone else is bluffing—after all, what if the other side has managed to maintain a small arsenal in working order?

Now of course it’s entirely possible that a few nuclear weapons will end up being used over the decades ahead.  There’s always the risk that terrorists will seize or manufacture one and blow it up somewhere—though it’s only fair to note that most terrorist organizations depend on covert support from nation-states, who are generally not interested in supporting any operation for which the blowback arrives on the business end of an ICBM. (If the people responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US had used a stolen nuclear weapon rather than hijacked aircraft, for example, there’s a significant chance that the blowback might have included the instant thermonuclear annihilation of the city of Kabul; this was presumably not a risk the Taliban would have wanted to run.)

It’s also possible that some conventional war or political crisis might trigger a series of miscalculations that could go nuclear, as (for example) a hypothetical Sino-Japanese war did in one of my earlier bits of post-peak oil fiction. Accidents happen and mistakes are made. Still, that doesn’t justify the repeated insistence in various corners of the internet that a nuclear war has to happen sometime soon—an insistence driven, once you get past the surface layer of rationalization, by the same logic that leads so many true believers to insist that history must shortly end via the catastrophe of their choice.

End of the World of the Week #48

What could be more convincing than a book giving 88 different reasons why the world is going to come to an end on your preferred date?  That’s apparently what Edgar Whisenant thought when he published 88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will Be In 1988, which was briefly one of the hottest sellers in the evangelical Christian book field. Whisenant was a retired NASA engineer and a longtime bible student, and insisted that only if the Bible was wrong would the world continue to exist after September 13, 1988. It’s ironic, to use no stronger word, that he failed to take his own logic seriously; when 1988 came and went without benefit of Rapture, Whisenant went on to issue further books, making Rapture predictions for 1989 and 1993, and then predicting global catastrophe via nuclear war in 1994.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


Hidden Author said...

If deterrence is as efficient as you say it is, then why didn't the Taliban turn in Osama bin Laden when Bush demanded that of them?

Leo said...

yeah. Nukes are mostly political weapons and when they are used, its similar to having a giant war but all the damage is done in a couple days or weeks rather than years.

This Book,
Mentioned that Roman legions acted similarly in the near east. They'd wipe out a city and then threaten everyone. Only difference is that Roman legions were far more versatile than nuclear weapons.

It'd be an interesting political scene when the bluff of having nukes is finally called.

Note: the hyperlink needs fixing.

John Michael Greer said...

Author, they gambled -- quite correctly, as it happens -- that he wouldn't use nuclear weapons, and they were confident -- and, again, rightly so -- that they could outlast any US invasion of Afghanistan, the way Afghan governments have outlasted other invaders back to the days of Alexander the Great. Deterrence doesn't deter all hostile acts; it's a means nuclear countries use to counter existential threats.

Leo, the folks at HTMLPrimer have a good intro to hyperlinks here. I can't edit people's posts, so you'll have to resubmit if you want the link to work.

Thijs Goverde said...

arWow. The Glenn Beck thing was surreal in several ways. Hard to make heads or tails of, for the most part, and then he suddenly goes and embraces your most important recommendations - verbatim - full-on. For all the wrong reasons, I suspect, but hey - who needs the right reasons for doing the right thing? (I'm kind of teleologically inclined, ethically)

Thanks for the main body of your post, by the way. I'd never seen the maintenance of nuclear weapons brought up as a determining factor, but it stands to reason you're quite right on that score. Interesting.
Could get really interesting at the far end of the believeable nuclear threat window, when one or two states have a couple of warheads left and they are almost entirely certain that the other guys haven't...

PS that very big link halfway through your post doesn't really do anything. Seems like a HTML fail.

Joel Caris said...

Thank you for this fairly straightforward and thoughtful post, JMG. I generally haven't much feared nuclear war as it just always seemed quite unlikely to me. I think part of that was an understanding of what you describe here, the role of nuclear arms used as deterrence rather than, uh, used. But I suppose it was also just a belief that humanity wouldn't quite be that stupid, despite how much evidence there seems to be to the contrary. However, I never thought out the issue as in depth as you described here, so it's nice to see a more straightforward and logical recitation of my gut instincts. I'll be curious to see how others react.

On another note, I want to thank the commenters here for a rather stimulating and fascinating conversation in last week's post. I didn't chime in myself, but I read it all and enjoyed it greatly--it left me with much to think about. Much of that thought was rooted in my own obsession with politics from roughly 2000-2009, at which point I started farming, started getting a better engagement with the real world, and began to realize how much of a joke federal politics have become in this country.

I wrote a post about that history and my reaction to this year's election, which admittedly involved me getting a bit sucked back into the game and daring to cheer on Election Day despite knowing better. I'd just like to note that some of the reflection in that post I wrote--which I found immensely helpful on a personal level--was inspired both by your writing on politics, JMG, and on the thoughts of your readers. Hence my thanks for last week's comments in particular.

Continuing on that note, it was fascinating to go back and read "The Pornography of Political Fear" post of yours you linked to. How apropos it still is for our current times. Political pornography is raging right now amongst conservative circles, in nearly the exact way it was raging amongst liberal circles back in 2004 after Bush's reelection. I remember that time well--I was a bit heartbroken, immersed in political blogs, and pretty distraught about Bush's pending second term. (Little did I know just how badly he was about to destroy his second term with a long string of high-visibility incompetencies.) I managed to avoid becoming too crazy in my own concerns, thankfully. I never bought into the idea of Bush ending all future elections, declaring martial law, imprisoning his political opponents and so on. But I was worried, and I remember the paranoia of that time. It's very fascinating to see it reflected so well today by conservatives.

Meanwhile, the thing that should most be feared--the complete inability to confront, talk about, and attempt to deal with our many truly pressing problems as a nation--goes mostly unremarked upon. But I suppose that's not nearly so hot as the fear porn of concentration camps and martial law and stolen guns and UN control over America.

Oh well. I can't get too high on my horse. I've been in the thick of it in reverse. I'm just glad I know better now--and that I worked my way into a connected enough life as to see how pointless and deleterious such frantic paranoias are.

Thijs Goverde said...

@ Author: I'm guessing one of the reasons Bush didn't even threaten to nuke Afghanistan is that lobbing a nuclear weapon at them would have instantly made him more or less the new number one on everyones Mad Dictator List. Which would have made other countries with nuclear capability very, very nervous.

brian said...

I wouldn't be so surprised that you and Glenn Beck converged. I love reading your posts every week, and I'm a fan of Glenn Beck as well. Both of you follow a similar meme, though from different perspectives: America has hopelessly overextended herself, and we are facing difficult times ahead. Also, both of you espouse self-sufficiency and the importance of community. It's fun when divergent groups whom look at each other with disdain only to find commonality when it was assumed impossible.

Michael Elamson said...

Glenn Beck praising JMG? That is a collision of worlds with the force of a nuclear warhead.

I haven't been around long enough to comment much lately, but I enjoyed the 5-part fiction serial and the two posts that have followed.

While I thin the main thrust of this post is right on, I do wonder what will happen the first time a nuclear weapon is used anywhere in the world -- my money's on Israel to be the first, or maybe Pakistan. The reaction of the world when nuclear attack goes from theory to reality will be ... interesting.

Leo said...

Thanks, i was refering to the link to your prevous post, but that seems to be fixed so it might have just been my browser.

A sensible solution would be to actually only maintain a dozen nuclear weapons but keep all the others around as duds and move them around, minimises the threat of a first strike, further enhances uncertainty and lowers the resource costs involve greatly. It could theoritically be done now i guess.

John Michael Greer said...

Thijs, I think I've got the html fixed. As for maintenance issues with nuclear weapons, I didn't know a thing about them until I did some research for the narrative, and had a face-slap moment: well, of course a technology that demanding would be costly to maintain! Definitely something to factor in.

Joel, excellent. I didn't do any cheering on election day. I suppose it's evidence of my own marginalization that as far as I was concerned, none of the candidates for the presidency, GOP, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, or Constitution, offered anything but a "least worst choice" -- and even so it was a hard call.

andrewbwatt said...

A friend of my parents was on one of the American verification teams that visited Russian missile silos during the last big era of disarmament. He was actually a Brit, but given that he knew what a dismantled nuclear warhead was supposed to look like, he got asked to "tag along" with a bunch of political and military folks to look in on Russian silos... and then to tag along on the Russians' visits to American launch sites.

I can still hear his voice, sometime around 1990 or 1993, during a Thanksgiving dinner when I was home from college, regaling my parents and the other guests with an absolutely gruesome story: of Russian silos filled with water, missiles in utterly unlaunchable states of disrepair, core components battered out of shape, and launch crews completely untrained in how to launch their missiles — even assuming that the launch systems were capable of functioning. The breakdown of the nuclear arsenal that they were there to assure had been dismantled, had been largely completed in the ten years prior to their official visits by lack of parts and neglect.

Meanwhile, the shock and horror of the Russian visitors to American silos was complete. Given how much trouble the Russians went to, to keep even a few atomics functioning, the Slavic inspectors to these shores expected to find most American silos in a similar state of disrepair, and equally-disreputable troops standing guard over missiles that could never launch with warheads that would never explode.

Instead, said my parents' friend, the Russians were aghast to discover that the Americans were genuinely dismantling fully functional warheads and missiles as part of our peace treaty arrangements. Had the call gone out for an American launch, the deterrence you describe — one or two missiles, rather than "the whole Russian nuclear arsenal!" — would have been the likely result. Star Wars and laser-based defense systems and anti-ICBM missile systems... bah.

The downgrade to smaller weapons was inevitable, and likewise the downgrade to a smaller number of smaller weapons is equally inevitable. Even a 'top-notch' industrial superpower cannot afford to maintain such weapons forever... and both Russians and Americans learned that in the course of their disarmament talks. Reagan's "Trust but Verify" wound up inadvertently proving just how fragile a nuclear arsenal can be.

John Michael Greer said...

Brian, fascinating. I confess I'm far from familiar with Beck's views; I don't hold him in any particular disdain, but what little I know of the man's public statements did not interest me.

Michael, er, it's already happened. The word "Hiroshima" might ring a few bells.

Leo, okay, got it. As for nukes, yes, that would likely be a viable strategy, especially if the missile crews didn't know who had the duds!

Roy Smith said...

Author, the political logic of nuclear weapons makes them completely useless as a means to threaten or coerce people into complying with your demands, whether or not they have the ability to strike back with nuclear weapons. The only use of nuclear weapons that is political tenable for any leader (democratically elected or otherwise, as JMG has so clearly illustrated) is in response to another nation's nuclear attack. A nuclear first strike would transform the country that executed it into an international pariah, isolated to a degree similar to that of, say, North Korea.

JMG, this post does an excellent job of explaining how nuclear weapons are not a military weapon in any useful sense of the word, but a political tool.

A few years ago, there was an article in the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute that explained the logic of deterrence in regards to chemical weapons, and which argued that it was foolish for the U.S. to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile because then there would nothing to deter enemies of the U.S. from using them against U.S. forces, thus dramatically increasing the risk for future U.S. military operations. If I recall correctly, one of the arguments also used was that nuclear weapons were not an effective deterrence against use of chemical weapons because the response would be seen as wildly disproportionate, and thus would be a non-starter politically.

DeAnander said...

Re: Hiroshima -- and it fits JMG's theory, that any national power would only use a nuke on a country they were *sure* could not retaliate in kind.

beetleswamp said...

Thanks for this post. It was something that really concerned me before but it's good to know that a nation state is unlikely to use nukes if they don't have to. Moved around the country a lot but I've mostly lived at ground zero partly because I wanted to be the first to get vaporized if something ever went down. Would rather be a quick shadow on a wall than the slower more painful alternative.

Don't derail the discussion but after listening to the audiobook of the Ecotechnic Future I'm really hoping some day you can expand on the concept of cultural conservers. I'm living in Hawaii and have had a lot of exposure to people working hard to keep alive the traditions that had kept Pacific islanders the best navigators, healers, warriors, and practitioners of sustainable agriculture for thousands of years. Your insights have been truly appreciated so far.

Alexander said...

I've been saying for a few years now that all we'd actually need for defense is a few dozen ICBMs and a few hundred special forces guys. So far nobody I've mentioned it to has taken the idea seriously.

It would save about a trillion dollars a year. I guess the question is how much that $1,000,000,000,000 would be worth without an empire to back it up.

CGP said...

Thank you, John, for your much awaited post on nuclear deterrence in an age of decline. It is excellent; well worth the wait. The logic you have put forward seems perfectly cogent to me. I would like to ask you about this issue in relation to Iran though.

As you would know there is opposition to Iran acquiring a nuclear capability by certain nations. The argument against Iran acquiring weapons is that their leaders may not be deterred because they have apocalyptic religious fantasies. I understand there is scepticism about this notion with the counterargument being that Iranian rulers are rational, value their self-preservation and can therefore be deterred (and that opposition is really about regional dominance). However, let’s think about this argument a little more.

Perhaps the current Iranian leaders are rational. Regardless, we know that there are people who are not rational and who would welcome nuclear apocalypse. There are people willing to die for their beliefs no matter how delusional. Are we to assume that such people could never gain power over a nation or its nuclear arsenal? Are we assuming a certain level of reason or a baseline level of sanity in people in positions of power? Are we assuming that the weight of the situation would be such that a ruler, no matter how unhinged and how desperate, would not use nuclear weapons if they could?

You cite Hitler, Mao and Stalin as examples of evil dictators who were not stupid. Is it not possible to have a ruler who is stupid; someone who would use nuclear weapons not caring about or really comprehending the consequences? Or as I said above, is it not possible to have a religious zealot in charge that really believes the hype and is in such a dire situation that they truly believe there is no other way? Or perhaps someone who is exceedingly spiteful and misanthropic?

Leo said...

Just found this.

Go down to cyclic governments, the first part on Anacyclosis is an extract from your post Democracy’s arc. Your becoming more mainstream.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)
A few thoughts in response:

Fission bombs are much less powerful than fusion bombs, but they are still fearsome weapons. Since they are less complicated to build than a hydrogen bomb, may I infer that they also are easier to maintain?

If so, then the last functional atomic weapons in anyone's arsenal will be similar to the very first one detonated over a city.

Israel's atomic weapons are like the sting of a bee: usable once at the cost of the bee's life. Israel is so tiny that a suitcase nuke smuggled in through a tunnel and set off by a suicide bomber would kill most of the population and render Eretz Yisrael uninhabitable for thousands of years. Assuming the nuke was available, the only deterrent to this kind of retaliation is that Jerusalem is also a holy city to Muslims.

andrewbwatt's story was fascinating.

Many of your essays leave me depressed but this one cheered me up. Like many people my age, I expected a nuclear war to end civilization before I turned thirty. With all the other troubles coming our way, I am glad to learn that this particular kind of stupidity has an expiration date.

CGP said...

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has not deterred America from conducting missions (drone strikes, special operations etc.) in Pakistan apparently to the immense consternation of the military and the government. I realise these missions are limited in scope but still I must ask what is happening there?

CGP said...

I listened to the Glenn Beck radio segment in which he spoke about you. (I also heard the interview you gave that he referred to; it was excellent). I do not really think Glenn Beck truly understands what you are saying. When interpreting your words he made a distinction between “conservation” and “life”. So although you were mainly talking about limited resources (fossil fuels, rare earth metals etc.) his point was that people as individuals do not have limitless energy (physical, emotional etc.) and resources (money etc.). He also made an odd remark about you probably believing in the “electronic winter tree” (still trying to figure out what that actually is). However, it is certainly interesting that what you said resonated with him. The problem is that I find him extremely unclear so I don’t really know what he got out of what you were saying. To me he seems hyperpartisan and very comfortable using fear and conspiracy theories to communicate with his audience. I get the impression that he is one of those people that realises that something is wrong but cannot pinpoint what that something actually is.

Stephen Heyer said...

This is a bit scary: John has reached exactly the same conclusions about nuclear weapons, just about down to the last word, as I have and we usually see most things a bit differently.

There isn’t really much I can say, except excellent article John, but then I would say that wouldn’t I.

gregorach said...

I do sometimes wonder how much Hollywood is to blame for the notion that there's no problem so big or complicated that it can't be fixed by nuking it... It's certainly one of the standard hack plot devices in low-budget science fiction, good for everything from destroying asteroids and invading aliens to restarting the rotation of the Earth's core.

Another interesting point on the subject of actually using nukes is that we no longer live in a world with only two nuclear powers, which inevitably complicates matters. If somebody were to launch a nuclear first strike, it's not necessarily just the target nation you have to worry about... I'm really not sure that Russia, India, and Pakistan would just stand idly by and watch as the missiles fell on China. In fact, I'm not entirely sure that they'd wait for the telemetry needed to determine the actual target before launching retaliation. I don't know anything about the details of such things, but I would assume that there must be a window of time between the point where it's known that a first strike has been launched, and the point where it's certain who the target is. You can't have a one-on-one duel in the middle of a six-way Mexican stand off.

Jim Brewster said...

I'd be more surprised by Glenn Beck's praise of JMG if I didn't know that Ann Coulter claims to be a Deadhead. Warning: reading that interview might induce vertigo! Goes to show that reality is pretty subjective.

Justin Wade said...

Forget the 88 guy, this weeks sign of the appending apocalypse should be the union of Beck and Druid. Whence the crackpots join together, the end is nigh.

I'm convinced that people like Beck, Coulter, etc. are mostly playing a role to get paid. All the people who treat them like boogeymen are helping them get their due. I doubt someone like Beck is much like his TV persona, and I'm not surprised he is changing his tune with the wind.

Justin Wade said...

Oh, JMG, I mean crackpot as a compliment!

To the point of your article, I followed the Iran nuclear stuff really intensely for awhile, if you read policy papers and transcripts of speeches that are part of the dialogue of politicians and think tanks, in other words those that are not meant for public consumption, you find out really quickly that the major concern about Iran is that it will be able to deter US or Israeli aggression. No one takes the threat of Iran attacking serious, that's just something to say in the newspapers.

some examples
The surest deterrent to American action is a functioning nuclear arsenal...

To be sure, the prospect of a nuclear Iran is a nightmare. But it is less a nightmare because of the high likelihood that Tehran would employ its weapons or pass them on to terrorist groups—although that is not beyond the realm of possibility—and more because of the constraining effect it threatens to impose upon U.S. strategy for the greater Middle East. The danger is that Iran will “extend” its deterrence, either directly or de facto, to a variety of states and other actors throughout the region.

More examples here

A nations ability to deter a U.S. military attack is one of the gravest threats to US national security.

Just Because said...

I think there is a tendency to overgeneralize government incompetence. There are things the federal government does not do well, but even with plenty of incompetence, there are things the fed does well. I would think maintaining nuclear weapons might just be one of those things. Maintaining power is, I believe, one of the top priorities for any political entity.

steve said...

@Hidden Author: Also, lest we forget: "Bush rejects Taliban offer to hand Bin Laden over"

Brian said...

As you state, the United States still pumps a great deal of oil from its territory. However, as I have to keep explaining to my aged relations (yes, some of them watch Fox), just because it's pumped here doesn't mean it stays here. Most of it winds up being exported overseas. That's because of the so-called free market. Evidently a lot of people have never thought of this.

I usually also have to inform them that the government does not normally tell private industry to whom they can sell and for how much. If it did, that would be nationalization of the industry, something my Foxy relations think they abhor. I work for a municipal government and have actually had phone calls from irate folks demanding that the mayor lower gas prices (the same folks who decry socialism, though they don't know the meaning of the word). The level of ignorance of some of our population is truly astounding.

I've had relatives tell me they hate discussing anything with me because I "know facts."

And that's why the world's the way it is.

Joe said...

Hitler, Mao and and Stalin all had one thing in common- they did not believe that when they died they would be greeted by 72 virgins. The world view held by the Mullahs who run Iran is not comparable and the possibility of treating their whole country as a giant suicide bomber by engaging in nuclear war seems like a real threat to me.

The demographic spread of islam that is now happening within Europe especially but also within India and the United States itself is something that is repeatedly ignored from all your discussion of the future. Is this something that you think will be reversed by Europe's decline or merely an irrelevance to the topics that you discuss?

JP said...

"t’s also possible that some conventional war or political crisis might trigger a series of miscalculations that could go nuclear, as (for example) a hypothetical Sino-Japanese war did in one of my earlier bits of post-peak oil fiction. Accidents happen and mistakes are made."

This is precisely the reason that Xenakis (Generational Dynamics) is predicting that the nuclear weapons will be used.

His pet theory of history is dependent on the substrate of the human life cycle and memory.

That is to say that as the generations that actually *used* the nuclear weapons/nerve gas, etc. die, the restraint that they held, as the elder elite necessarily passes away, to be replaced with more emotional, less rational generations with no experience in the stupidity and horror of mass war.

So, to the extent that he's predicting massive nuclear exchange, it's based on his belief that the younger generations will miscalculate and something will go wrong.

However, he grew up during the cold war when nuclear fear was at its maximum.

It's kind of like the Minsky model for financial markets.

They are the safest when everything is understood to be unstable, while they are the least safe after long periods of stability.

Human nature, is, after all, human nature.

RPC said...

One of the design criteria for the nuclear weapons possessed by the major powers is that they never detonate unless you really, REALLY, want them to. Specifically, they are designed so that even a direct hit by a nuclear explosion will not set them off. That said, the weapons possessed by the likes of Pakistan may not be similarly constrained. You can make a nuclear device that will last for decades without maintenance if you're willing to live with the possibility that it may go off accidentally at any time.

BruceH said...

Some years ago The Progressive magazine ran an article that described what would actually happen minute by minute after a nuclear attack. The results as you describe would not be worth the risk if even only one missile hit it's target. So what is the real purpose of possessing such arsenals?

If you look at history since the dawn of the nuclear era, I think it is more than simple deterrence. What possessing nuclear weapons actually creates is a climate of fear of the enemy that allows the leaders of these countries to control their own populations.

Our fear of the Soviets attacking and their fear of us attacking was a great boon to those powers in both countries who wished to maintain the status quo. It was a great boon to the defense industries in both countries and their respective military command hierarchies. Fear of the other has long been used to keep ones own citizens in line and fear of nuclear annihilation raised the stakes to previously unimaginable levels.

However, now that we live in an age when we have to deal with our former enemies because we need Russia to keep pumping oil onto the world market and China to manufacture cheap gadgets for Wal-Mart , fear of other nuclear armed nations is less effective for this purpose. It has instead morphed into the fear of “crazy terrorists” getting nuclear weapons that is used to maintain a new climate of fear of these now nameless, stateless others. This added uncertainty of who and where our enemy is proving to be a far superior and long lasting form of fear for population control.

Jim R said...

Would it be reasonable to replace the nuclear arsenal with balsa mockups? I mean, the savings would be ... well, you know, you could paint them an ominous gray color and they'd still be there, taking up space in the silos.

As long as you keep it a secret.

Knut Petersen said...

I spent some time at Glenn Beck's page today - for the first time, I should add. He appears to be one of those libertarians who answers any complicated question either with "Gold" or "The Constitution" or both... And for whom a UN takeover is the worst of evils. The UN, my, that toothless tiger!

Funny, though, that secession is a grand topic of his these days. He comments (rather harshly) about those tens of thousands who signed pleas for secession on the White House homepage, saying, although he generally likes the idea, the "issue has been settled by Civil War. There is no secession without war."

JMG, you and Mr. Beck are not so different after all. You are a conservationist, and he is a conversationist.

Nevertheless, I have problems with the slogan Mr. Beck brings up ("Behave like people who are determined to be free"), for what, exactly, is freedom? The absence of federal power over your life? The elusive state of not being needed by anybody?

I would rather follow the great and infamous Carlos Castaneda, who is told by his teacher: "It is all about survival. Survival in the best possible way." \|/

GHung said...

Regarding the longevity of nuclear warheads, just thought I would pass this along:
Reliable Replacement Warhead

The program was never funded and eventually killed by Obama in 2009. The consensus was that current weapons' primary longevity/functionality is 100 years or more. Most of the deterioration factors were addressed pretty early on (see "plutonium pit") by substituting with more stable compounds and components. Virtually all of today's warheads are less than 50 years old. Nice to know that MAD will be around longer than I will. Not so sure about real world deployment capabilities.

Far more concerned with the thousands of tons of nuclear waste being stored a few tens of miles upwind...

Mister Roboto said...

and #3 has long been—drumroll, please—the United States.

And right behind the USA in the number four position is Iran. I wonder how much of the recent international unpleasantness with them is explained by this fact?

Mahopa said...

Deterrence works by preventing other people from doing something i.e. turning a US city into radioactive rubble, for fear of them doing it back. Afghanistan is really close to Russia, in your scenario of threatening the Taliban unless they turn bin laden over, we did want Russia to think we we're nuking them and decide to strike back accidentally. There's a huge difference in the logic of threats and the logic of deterrence.

Ian said...

Thanks, for this post--very educational to learn about the fragility of the arsenal itself, at least qua arsenal.

Congratulations on the attention--honestly, it seems like a small good (and definitely weird!) thing. Hardly a meeting of the minds, but maybe a sidelong glancing of them.

I can't tell you how many times now I have read liberal to left sources (or friend) reporting sarcastically on conservative criticisms of this or that cherished institution only to have the response, "well, it's a good criticicm...their solution is terrible, but it's a good criticism."

(Mind you, I haven't really had that experience with Glenn Beck, but I'm not at all temperamentally suited to his kind of ranting, so it's not like I would necessarily know if he did say something along those lines...)

It's the frustrating thing about a polarized society, I guess--the rule seems to be if the you're wrong, then I must be right! Any crack in that facade seems promising.

(I see you dodged the real question, though--do you believe in the electronic winter tree? It sounds faintly threatening, like the sort of thing that might have Christ-recognition software and lasers to burn away all representation of him ;-)

Steve said...

Thanks for laying out the case so explicitly, JMG. I think a lot of Americans view nuclear weapons as some sort of totem of power. Much of our apocalyptic mythology in pop culture is wrapped up in them, and I think a lot of people assume them to be much more of a supernatural force than simply a very large, very toxic explosive. What came to mind for me during the "nuke the gulf oil well" phase was the old adage: If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

It's all related to the religion of progress, though; any problem can be solved by throwing the right technology at it. In the case of the macondo well, people were far enough out of their technological element that they went all Godwin and invoked the nukes. The points about radioactive oily tsunami and decreased resistance to oil flow are akin to arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, which is why no one brought them up.

Anyhow, thanks for another good post, and I'm looking forward to the other topics you'd normally leave alone.

p.s. 1st sentence 3rd word from last "were" = "we're"?

Nathan said...

First off, I thought that your interview with Martenson was a compelling introduction to the ideas on this blog - especially the quote about offering beer to the Four Horsemen. I hope it encourages more people to join the discussions here.

Like Brian, I am also not surprised that Beck expressed support and agreement with what you said. I don't really like him myself, but most of Beck's critics are people who don't realize that, unlike some other prominent pundits, he is not a paid shill for the Republican Party or the Koch Brothers. He might be wrong about things - or sometimes in the grips of a florid bout of mania - but he seems to tell it as he sees it. If Limbaugh, Olbermann, Hannity or Maddow goes on the air and agrees with your ideas - THAT will be shocking.

Secondly, how likely do you think it is that a nuclear power over the next century will prove their willingness to use nuclear weapons by striking a country they know is without them? I expect to see more nuclear 'tests' (aka: proving it) like those of the 50's and 60's on the downslope of industrial civilization. But I think it is also possible that a ruthless nation in the future might feel that striking a country such as Yemen or Sudan or Indonesia will make their larger enemies more fearful of them. With global trade on the decline, the power of the U.N. and other countries to deter actions like that through shame and blockades will be less effective.

Nestorian said...

I am one of the two previous posters who was singled out for mention at the start of this week's posts, and I would like to offer some brief observations in reply to this post:

1) I did not say that I morally approve of a potential nuclear first strike; I most certainly do not. But one must be aware that the viability of a nuclear first strike against both Russia and China has been seriously contemplated in recent years in US elite circles. See, for example, Keir Lieber and Daryl Press's article on US nuclear primacy in the March/April 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, the leading elite outlet for public discussion of such matters. One must reckon that this type of thing is discussed a great deal also in private.

2) It is not merely a matter of having the weapons themselves, but of intercontinental delivery systems (usually spoken of as a "triad" involving nuclear submarines, strategic bombing aircraft, and InterContinental Ballistic Missiles). In the case of the US, these have greatly improved in recent decades in terms of accuracy and reliability, whereas in the case of especially Russia, these have greatly decayed in recent decades for the very kinds of maintenance-related reasons JMG mentioned. The Yeltsin era of the 1990s was devastating for Russia in this regard.
In China's case, they effectively did not have a credible intercontinental delivery system 6 or 7 years ago at all, though this may have changed recently given China's announcement that it is launching its first nuclear submarine. We don't know whether or not the US has the capability of tracking all of this sub's international stealth movements (e.g. to just off the coast from San Francisco), but I would not be too quick to rule out the possibility that the US does have this constant tracking capability. If so, then this Chinese sub is also an easily neutralized threat.

3) In the case of the US, the Department of Energy, I believe, is the agency principally tasked with these nuclear arsenal-related maintenance tasks; in the grand scheme of things, this maintenance probably amounts to a few tens of billions of dollars a year. In relation to an overall US defense budget approaching a trillion per year, such sums will be pocket change for years and probably decades to come. Moreover, many further tens of billions likely get spent on an annual basis in not merely maintaining, but in improving both the accuracy and reliability of the US arsenal. Many other further tens of billions undoubtedly get spent on intelligence that carefully tracks progress that Russia and China may be making with their arsenals.

4) Even if the choice to launch a first strike is a foolish one from a risk/benefit standpoint, that doesn't mean that it won't get made in the future if the US position on the world stage is sufficiently desperate. There was ample reason to believe ahead of time that the Iraq invasion of 2003 was foolish also from a risk/benefit standpoint, yet it was made nevertheless.

Perhaps I will say more later, once I have fielded some replies to this post.

Alex Boland said...

I'm going to note that your point about nerve gas is re-assuring (I know, that doesn't happen much on peak-oil related blogs...)

I hadn't thought about it before. If a conflict on the scale of World War 2 can happen without those desperation moves, then even an intense World War 3 (not hoping for it) might not necessarily bring out the nukes.

Not that I'm ignoring the fact that the consequences are so great that even a small chance has a big effect (Expectation[Average[Outcome]] vs. Average[Expectation[Outcome]]; economists like to ignore that difference for some reason...)

Robert said...

Even supposing Iran really is attempting to achieve a nuclear capability the idea that Iran will attack Israel as soon as it acquires the bomb is preposterous. The risk is nearly zero.

If two states in enmity both possess nuclear arms so that state A is capable of destroying state B and vice versa, neither of them will use their bomb, knowing that if they did, they would bring their own annihilation on themselves.

US and Israeli propaganda has claimed that Iran is a suicidal nation. The rulers of the Islamic Republic the argument goes, would gladly give up their lives along with that of their nation for the joy of genocide. This nonsense is based on a flagrant disregard for the most obvious fact of Iranian society since 1979 namely that the millionaire mullahs do everything possible to hang on to power and capital. Martyrdom is not for them. Heaven they might believe in but no empirically discernable policies exist that indicate a willingness to sacrifice power, capital or earthly existence for higher ideological or religious goals. In this regard they are as rational as any other ruling class on earth.

Even if the mullahs were driven by religious fervour and considered the extermination of the Jewish state as their theological duty the third holiest site of Islam, the Al-Aqsa mosque, would perish with Israel in any successful nuclear strike, as would a major segment of the Palestinian Muslim people.

Equally absurd is the idea that the centres of power in Iran, arranged around Al-Faqih, would allow nuclear warheads to fall into the hands of terrorist organisations outside the mullahs' control.

The Iranian threat so worrying to Israel and to the US must be another. And that threat is the levelling of the imbalance of terror in the Middle East. Israel will not tolerate a situation of Mutual Assured Destruction. The strategic deadlock MAD tends to foster, the inhibitions against adventurous aggression it imposes on military planners, that is what the State of Israel fears.

There is a deep fear for the existence of Israel as a Zionist state founded on the continuous expulsion of the Palestinian people. Peres declared in July 1998 that Israel built "a nuclear option not in order to have a Hiroshima but an Oslo" In translation this means that Israel amassed the world's fourth or fifth largest arsenal of the deadliest weapons of mass destruction to ensure a balance of force in the region that enables Israel to put the occupation of Palestine on a permanent footing.

With another nuclear power in the Middle East Israel would not be able to act as ruthlessly as it has in the last half century. How could it denigrate states backing the Palestinians as unworthy of consideration when drawing up borders or dictating "peace accords" if one of them has a nuclear option? How could it casually let off missiles in Syria's direction if its ally Iran had a nuclear bomb? To have such restraint foisted on Israel would seriously undermine its military dominance of the region.

C.L. Gilbert said...

I realize that this was only a very minor throwaway point at the end of a useful discussion, but it puzzles me that you give credence to the mythology that a handful of terrorists guided by a single man in a cave in Afghanistan were responsible for the events of September 11, 2001. If you or anyone else can explain how Building 7 collapsed at free fall speed without using explosives or how flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania and left no wreckage behind I will listen with an open mind.

william fairchild said...

Mr. Greer-

Well done sir. Your post brought back the words of my Soviet-American relations teacher.

"The definition of nuclear stability is no first strike capablility and a secure second strike." -Eric Coble

So many people forget that.

blue sun said...

Your shock is pertinent to my recent shock. Mine has to do with New York City's own version of Katrina, the recent Hurricane Sandy. I commented a couple weeks ago about generators here, and the weird feeling I had like I was living in a post-peak world.

Well, in the past couple weeks I've observed changes that have shocked me. I've wanted to comment here, because I've been really surprised, but I could only speak from my limited vantage point. Just in the couple weeks since Sandy, people I know who, just a few years ago would NEVER have thought of buying a generator, have told me that they're going to get generators. Now all of a sudden, I've heard a lot of people (who I know have never even heard of peak oil) are talking about buying them! I'm floored. It's actually become a quite common conversation topic here. But I guess you don't have to understand how to world works to make a practical response to it (not that I think generators are a great solution--they contributed to the gas shortages here, which were very real to those of us who have to make a living here).

Further, just in the last two weeks I've been able to talk openly to friends about peak oil. People who never would listen to me before! The same people who wouldn't listen to my "crazy" ideas before now. So that's a silver lining of this event. Everybody's heaping equal blame on climate change (my apologies to Bill Pulliam), but they're also open to peak oil. I even feel comfortable enough to buy some of them relevant authors' books!

It's as if this region suddenly caught up, or even moved ahead, of other regions in the world, when it comes to peak oil awareness. (Maybe I'm reaching might be more accurate to say "an awareness that the status quo is not carved in stone".) Perhaps because mouthpeices such as the New York Times, etc. are located here, this contributed to making it now polite to speak about such things. We'll see if it lasts.

william fairchild said...

As a side note, this is what makes the missile defense systems (aka- Star Wars) so dangerous. The eliminate the enemy's secure second strike, making the possibility of a pre-emptive lauch during a period of crisis much more likely. If one must have missile defense, it makes more sense to deploy it as a terminal phase ABM system around ICBM sites, thus guaranteeing retaliation.

Chris Hall said...

You wrote,

"they think that nuclear weapons exist to fight nuclear wars. That was true of the first two fission bombs ever made, Little Boy and Fat Man, but it hasn’t been true of any nuclear weapon since that time. They exist not to fight but to threaten."

I don't think those two bombs were used to 'fight' exactly, at least not in the way advertised. As Gar Alperovitz pointed out in great detail in his seminal work "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth", the dropping of the bomb was all about intimidating and gaining leverage against the Soviet Union (given the talks concurrently underway about how to partition Germany), and ending the Pacific War as quickly as possible, in the hope that The Soviet Union would not acquire territorial concessions in the region. That plan failed of course, as the Soviets did in fact seize islands off of Hokkaido after the fact.

The US was well aware that Japan was thoroughly beaten by the spring of 1945, and had achieved complete air and Naval superiority over Japan in the months before the bombs were dropped. Japanese troops were thereby trapped in Manchuria and would not have been able to return to Japan to defend the homeland, most residents of which were enduring starvation. By June of 1945 the US Strategic command had largely run out of things to bomb in Japan.

The cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were left alone by the conventional bombing campaigns, partly because there were no significant military targets in those cities, but much more for the reason that dropping the A-Bombs on already-bombed out wastelands, like Tokyo and Osaka, would not have been as dramatic a demonstration of the A-bomb's potency.

There is also the political factor of the $2 billion dollar investment in the development of the devices, and those certain pressures to make the program 'pay off'.

Also not sure about your connection between the attacks of 9-11 and the Taliban. Not even remotely convinced such a connection exists.

Excellent post otherwise, and the point about the 'Pornography of Fear' is a good one, as is the maintenance cost of the atomic weapon stockpile. A visit here always provides food for thought.

Bill Pulliam said...

"Electric Winter Tree" -- code word for "The War on Christmas," what fundamentalist evangelicals see as a war against the "true meaning of christmas" making it a secular holiday. The Electric Winter Tree is a secular atheist Christmas Tree. The fact that JMG's religion has far more legitimate claims to this symbol than christianity does makes Beck's comment all the more comical.

jphilip said...

There are a number of points I would raise.

First and raised by many other people is that although the current and thermo-nuclear bombs are very expensive to maintain a dirty low yield fission device could be made which would be very low maintenance. If we assume a slow winding down of this industrial age there will be time a plenty to develop such things. so I believe, unfortunately, some form of nukes will be around for centuries.

Secondly nuclear weapons are useful against industrialised societies (where the nations resources are concentrated in big cities) but against rural societies they are pretty useless.

As de-industrialisation takes hold our societies will become more rural. (nukes may cease to be relevant in anything other than a doomsday use)

Regards your mad leaders Stalin wasn't neither was Mao (if they had been mad in the sense you mean they would never have occupied the positions they did). Hitler was but, and I can't believe no one has stated this, he was gassed in WW1 he knew exactly how those weapons worked and I suspect that was the reason they were never used. (the whole thing feels a bit strawman)

Finally for nestorian a nuclear first strike option is not an option.
A state does not need nuclear weapons to retaliate. A howitzer aimed at a spent fuel pool in many respects would be more damaging than a nuclear strike. and that's before we consider bioweapons etc., etc.
once you go down the MAD route there are many, many ways to get even. All you need is a functioning secret service.

dltrammel said...

Manhope, you forget we have a vast arsenal of smaller nuclear weapons that can be dropped via aircraft. Had we wanted to nuc Kabul a B2 would have been much easier than an ICBM.

BTW, we could do almost as much damage by using some of the very large conventional bombs, or fuel/air weapons on a relatively soft target like Kabul. It is the proportionality of the reply, and for much of the world, the level of "innocent: collateral damage that would bring up international condemnation.

When I was in the Army in the 80s, the artillery unit I was with routinely wargamed firing the small 2-5 kiloton shells we could fire, against invading Eastern Block forces.

Its those smaller tactical weapons which give people nightmares about falling into the hands of terrorists, not the megaton scale ICBM warheads.

Though a few kilos of plutonium in a dirty bomb would do quite nicely as a statement.


BTW, nice analysis of Israel's motivations Robert.


BTW2, we are aware of the Green Wizard site being down due to technical problems and are working to get it back on as soon as possible.

Molly said...

To those surprised by Beck's sudden praising of our host -

He's Mormon. I can't explain it very well past those two words, because I don't have my ex-Mormon partner here to quote. Suffice it to say that survivalism and/or preparing for the slide into decay of industrial society is kind of built into their church... and even a broken clock is right twice a day.

blue sun said...

Brian, thank you for verbalizing so eloquently what I've been trying to articulate for awhile: "It's fun when divergent groups look at each other with disdain only to find commonality when it was assumed impossible."

If you're not familiar with Glenn Beck, based on the limited references you'd pick up from the media, you'd assume he was a lunatic/extremist. It's the same with our beloved Greer, except he's not as well known to appear in the media. I've recommended Greer to some who have googled him, seen a photo of the long beard, and dismissed him as a lunatic/extremist. It's refreshing to read this blog where most of the commenters can get past secondhand impressions and appearances.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Nice essay. Nuclear weapons are much like the aircraft in a failing airline operation. In a failing airline business, it is more than likely that maintenance is either postponed or avoided in order to save costs and avoid going into administration.

Just a comment for everyone in general - think about that, the next time you decide to take a cheap flight somewhere!

A good example of this is the collapse of the Ansett Australia business in 2001 (search the Wikipedia article under "maintenance irregularities"):

Ansett Australia

Nuclear weapons are exactly the same dilemma for their operators (ie. the government). As military budgets are cut, maintenance is something that is either done as a bare minimum or skipped in the hope that in the future, the operators can catch up. Large militaries are a luxury item and often it is the visual deterrent rather than the physical capabilities that is deemed to be important. Keep up the pretence! Nuclear power stations anyone?

This is simply human nature and I see people make these same decisions with their own stuff: houses, cars - all sorts of stuff really. To invest in maintenance literally means making a decision to forego short term gains for longer term benefits.

As an interesting side note, is anyone out there aware of another Australian Airline which is struggling to make money and has been systematically cutting back on local maintenance and shipping it off to lower labour cost destinations?

People are generally reasonably poor at long term planning. Many years ago I had control of a business that was for all sorts of reasons not run on a sustainable basis. So I spent lots of personal energy sorting out its problems and even negotiating with the customers to get the business on a sustainable footing. It even produced a small surplus, then one day, much later, the owner of the business took actions to extract even more funds from the business, thus putting it back into the situation where it all began.

I learned some good lessons from this experience, but the one that I'll share here is that the economists are 100% correct in that human demands will always exceed supply (resources). This describes the basic economic problem and it is true.

Thanks for taking the time to myth-bust nuclear weapons.

I see comments concerned about issues such as nuclear war, slavery and robots (what is the singularity? Is this a space lizard people thing?). Those comments are deflection tactics for the real game in town which is: resource depletion and pollution. But this is hard for people to generally consider because it asks them to question their own resource usage, decisions and relationship with nature and they don't end up looking too good. It is much easier to worry about space lizards or slavery or some such matter.

I spent all of yesterday distributing rock quarry dust (great minerals) and compost about the orchard by hand and wheelbarrow and I'm feeling it today. It is amazing to me that some things which society considers a waste product are actually some of the most valuable! Who'd have thought it?



Kieran O'Neill said...

Wow, that Glenn Beck references is ... odd, yet oddly reassuring.

As far as I can tell, the man's work could best be described with references to bat excrement and a generally impaired mental state, in a way which wouldn't pass your moderation standards. That transcript doesn't do much to dispel that view; I'm fairly sure that you don't much care whether the city Christmas tree in Brussels will be electronic this year (an act he dubs "war on Christmas"), and I'm quite convinced that you have said nothing even remotely related to his bizarre Agenda 21 conspiracy theory, as he claims you do in your blog.

And yet, the man has quite some influence over a good many of your countryfolk, especially the right-leaning ones, and if he is speaking in support of backyard gardens and solar water heaters, it could be a greatly positive thing, especially for a demographic who may view those as being too "left".

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

The use of a nuclear weapon on the BP oil spill was inspired by the Soviet use of nuclear weapons to put out gas leaks. Here is a link to actual footage of those crazy reds nuking a blown out well. Of course you still have to drill a relief well to put the bomb in. A relief well much like the one BP used to stop the blow out or the one Pemex used for Ixtoc their offshore blowout in the Gulf of Mexico 30 years earlier.
And while we are on the topic of nuclear explosions. Here is a fun little animated map of the 2053 nuclear detonations (tests) that have happened before 1999.

1,032 by the USA
715 USSR
210 France
45 UK
45 China
4 India
2 Pakistan

A lot of talk about Iran and the bomb. Here are two fun bits by Noam Chomsky:

The U.S. and its Western allies are sure to do whatever they can to prevent authentic democracy in the Arab world. To understand why, it is only necessary to look at the studies of Arab opinion conducted by U.S. polling agencies. Though barely reported, they are certainly known to planners. They reveal that by overwhelming majorities, Arabs regard the U.S. and Israel as the major threats they face: the U.S. is so regarded by 90% of Egyptians, in the region generally by over 75%. Some Arabs regard Iran as a threat: 10%. Opposition to U.S. policy is so strong that a majority believes that security would be improved if Iran had nuclear weapons — in Egypt, 80%.

The Iranian Threat

Mister Roboto, China overtook Iran when the sanctions kicked in. China is now the 4th largest oil producer and Iran is number five.

For everyone who is wondering about the 'electronic winter tree' it refers to replacing the 'Christmas tree' with a religiously neutral holiday term. It is the exact same thing, a conical conifer with lights and decoration in the winter time near the solstice, but with a different name. Beck is using it to mean that JMG is probably part of the 'war on Christmas' If you don't know what the war on Christmas refers to Jon Stewart explains it artfully: The Gretch Who Saved the War on Christmas

Joseph Nemeth said...

C.L.Gilbert - Whatever mythology any of us may wish to use to describe the 9/11 events (and I'm using "mythology" in the sense of a human narrative that orients us toward larger events around us, with no regard as to whether the story is "true" in any particular sense), what is certainly true is that it quickly ran down BruceH's road of fear as a way of controlling the US population.

The most obnoxious and unforgivable aspect of the Bush presidency IMO was that it turned the US into a surveillance state that is "officially" terrified of toothpaste, populated by people who are in turn more frightened of toothpaste security measures than of the toothpaste terrorists.

I was too young at the time to really know, but my sense of the Red Scare in the 50's and the fear of the Bomb in the 60's was that it was fairly real -- that is, people were actually worried about Communists in government and the nuclear threat -- and that for the most part, people figured the government was on their side in defending them against extra-national threats.

By contrast, the War on Terror has been a transparent fraud from the start.

Grey said...

Long time reader, first time commenting, if only because no one else has said it, and I feel it needs to be said:

I'm mostly liberal, but I have a great deal of exposure to conservative/Libertarian ideas and chatter.

Yes, he was fairly vague, but I really don't think Beck was talking about literal physical resources. I think he was talking about two things at once: fiscal resources of the United States, and the time, money, and energy fueling the Conservative movement. Many on the Right fear financial crisis, collapse, and the rise of dictatorship. When he was talking about taking up crafts, gardening, etc, he was probably thinking in terms of rural survivalism and dropping out to escape from the Liberal-Fascist (he openly believes Nazis were squarely liberal) GUB'MINT. He talks about conspiracy-theory 1984 nightmare scenarios like that fairly often. Sorry to disappoint.

I could be wrong of course. It could be, as another commenter said, connected to that old-school agrarian bent that Mormons do in fact have built in to their weird collective hive-mind. Beck is REALLY far to the Right, so much so he may actually be coming full circle. It might explain the blatant name-drop. It's been said before, and I've seen it before, that the further out from the center you go, eventually the fringe all starts to look the same.


Glenn said...

Not having the stomache to listen for long, I offer the following description of Glenn Beck's M.O.

Scare the bejabbers out of people, then offer to sell them gold for "security" in an insecure world. Yes, this does fit nicely into the world narrative of the Latter Day Saints, as does stockpiling in general. In some respects within the LDS, that was simply a codification of the way most rural people in the U.S. lived in the 19th century. My Mormon grandmother was raised that way on a sheep ranch in SW Utah (she had 11 brothers and sisters and 12 half-siblings, polygamy persisted for quite a while in rural areas with bad roads if the participants didn't make a big deal about it.)

Now then, I don't know if Mr. Beck's company will have Fedex deliver a box of bullion to your house, or just mail you a "receipt" for said gold. As a caveat, the LDS church, like viking age Norse, classic era Greeks and many other closed societies do not regard lying to outsiders as a sin. "The rules" only apply to one's dealings with fellow humans, "other people" are on their own.

Marrowstone Island

Nicci said...

Things are changing incredibly fast right now and more people are noticing it. I'm not sure how you could miss most of it, frankly.

Dalriada said...


Longtime reader here. Normally I agree with your evaluations, but my educational background lends me some insight here. It would be relatively easy to use such a device and perhaps not even be detected. There's a good possibility we wouldn't learn the identity of our attacker for some time, if ever. Only about 2% of the shipping containers arriving in this country are searched. A little lead concealment and the west coast is living in a nightmare. Equally simplistic, a private sailboat arriving unannounced in Chesapeake bay and the nation's primary intelligence and operational centers would be little more than radioactive fly ash. Many 2nd rate powers have diesel submarines which could land a weapon ashore, which could then readily be trucked just about anywhere in the country. Perhaps worst of all would be a low altitude detonation resulting in an EMP outage across most of the country. It could even be launched from the back of a truck over the border in Mexico or Canada. We don't possess nearly enough spare transformers for the grid- No refrigeration, no trucking = no food for hungry people, most of whom have made about zero resiliency preparations. 3 days into it we'd be tearing our selves apart, with nary a foreign foot set ashore. Such a weapon only needs to reach altitude, not be precisely targeted. Then there are small aircraft from private air strips. We have far softer an underbelly than most people realize, and I know you can appreciate that.

Hidden Author said...

steve: Oh yes, the Taliban were willing to hand Osama Bin Laden over to a neutral country to be tried in accordance with Sharia law. That's very cooperative!

JMG: So maybe the Taliban calculated that they could maintain their existence. But central to the theory of deterrence is that elites running states don't just want to live personally but also wish to maintain the life of their regime as a sovereign institution. How can a decade in hiding across the border count as maintaining their sovereignty on the part of the Taliban?

Tom Gaspick said...

Could I trouble you to post orderly links to the whole of "Adam's Story"?

latheChuck said...

I haven't the time tonight to review all comments (and if you post this one, you might omit this intro), but I heard "an energy expert" on NPR last night describe how, with so much hydrocarbons being pumped in North America now and in the near future, most mid-East oil is going to Asia, and why should WE protect the shipping lanes for the Chinese? Let them patrol the Persian Gulf to preserve the oil shipments. My thought was "it sounds like he's trying to spin a necessity into a virtue." Yes, let us INSIST that the Chinese Navy rule the Indian Ocean!

John Michael Greer said...

Andrew, I've heard similar stories, so am not surprised.

Roy, thank you. As Clausewitz pointed out, war is just an extension of politics by other means; nuclear weapons are a different extension, in a different direction, but equally political.

DeAnander, exactly!

Beetleswamp, you'll learn more by helping those people preserve cultural legacies than you will by listening to me! That said, I may return to it one of these days.

Alexander, we'd also need a well-equipped coast guard and a large national guard, but your general point seems sound.

CGP, sure, it's possible to come up with some hypothetical set of circumstances under which somebody somewhere might decide to launch a nuclear war, and proving a negative is notoriously difficult. So?

Leo, thanks for the heads up!

Unknown Deborah, er, you might want to check into the actual lethal range of nuclear weapons. A suitcase nuke -- maximum yield, a few kilotons at most -- wouldn't even kill everyone in Tel Aviv.

CGP, that's a valid question. The answer is that nukes aren't worth much unless you have a workable delivery system that can land them on your target. Pakistan has a few not very good fission bombs, and no intercontinental missiles, so the US can still act with impunity there. As for Beck, thanks for the info -- I'll probably read one of his books one of these days, since I don't find talk radio entertaining (or, for that matter, bearable).

Stephen, hmm! One of us will probably have to change his views, then. ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Gregorach, good. That's why I had Russia intervene in the US-China nuclear standoff in my fictional scenario; Russia would have much to lose from a US victory, and putting its own very large nuclear arsenal into the balance is one way to force a truce, or what have you.

Jim, I know a lot of Republicans who were hippies in their youth, and still enjoy the music.

Justin, no argument there -- and I don't object to being called a crackpot; I've been called much worse, you know.

Just Because, okay, now go back, read my post, and notice that I'm not talking about government incompetence; I'm talking about the hard limits of energy and resources that are closing in on the whole industrial world.

Brian, facts are very unpopular things these days, since they get in the way of opinions. Plato had some things to say about that, back in the day.

Joe, if the Iranians are so enamored of those 72 virgins apiece, why don't they just declare war on the US right now? They'd go to heaven promptly as martyrs for the faith, right? I'd encourage you to think a little less simplistically.

JP, that strikes me as quite an overgeneralization. Human nature doesn't lend itself to the sort of overprecise schemes Xenakis uses.

RPC, I'm not so sure of that -- radioactivity waits for no man -- but even so, would you want a bomb that might suddenly vaporize everything around it?

Bruce, I'm far from convinced. There are many cheaper methods to produce fear in a population.

Jim, quite possibly.

Bill Pulliam said...

I think "Adam's Story" would benefit from threaded links at the end of each installment (i.e. first, previous, next, last). It has come up a couple of times recently. I remember quite enjoying reading it back when you first posted it.

Home is where you plant your asparagus...

I also remember that, in 1980, if we had been told by a time traveller who claimed to be from 2012 that not a single nuclear weapon had been used in an act of war, terrorism, or even by accident in the intervening 32 years, in spite of having maintained massive arsenals and a growing list of nuclear-armed states, we would have immediately dismissed him as a fake because the very idea would have seemed ridiculous. Nuclear war was described as "The Unthinkable," but in fact most of us found the successful avoidance of nuclear war through the end of the millennium and into the next one to be even more difficult to imagine.

John Michael Greer said...

Knut, okay, you get tonight's gold star for a blast from the past. I read Castaneda back in the day, though by book #3 or so I was more or less convinced that he was one of the best fantasy novelists of the time.

GHung, the nuclear waste is another issue, and a very troubling one.

Mister R., and by the fact that the Iranians are selling their oil for euros, not dollars.

Mahopa, a nuclear attack on Kabul would have been preceded by a series of phone calls between the US president and other nuclear powers, and everyone involved, using satellites and over-the-horizon radar, would have been able to calculate the trajectory of the SLBM involved as it rose out of the Indian Ocean, arced through the upper atmosphere, deployed its MIRVs and annihilated Kabul.

Ian, I don't believe in any kind of electronic tree. As a Druid, I believe in real trees, as many of them as possible. (If Druids built a weapon of mass destruction, it would probably be a Growth Ray that causes trees to sprout everywhere, tearing up pavement and causing permanent traffic jams.)

Steve, I'm not so polite. To my mind, nuclear-tipped missiles are America's giant surrogate phalluses, promising an orgasmic eruption in which the earth really does move; we cling to them as a national equivalent of Viagra, to prop up our increasingly limp national character.

Nathan, that sort of logic will very likely lead a lot of midsized states to get a few fission bombs, and test one, as we proceed.

Nestorian, thanks for responding! I didn't think you were suggesting that a first strike was a morally good idea -- but you were quite insistent that it was the obvious US strategy against China in my scenario, and that it would work (which, as we discussed, it wouldn't -- those new solid-fueled DF-31 ICBMs, which are coming into service right now, put that option off the table.) I'll look forward to your future comments.

Alex, thank you for getting it.

Robert, exactly. The insistence that the Iranian government is a pack of mindless maniacs fits very poorly with the fact that they've been able to consolidate their power and pose a continuous and rising challenge to US hegemony in their region despite every covert trick the US has been able to throw at them.

John Michael Greer said...

CL, yes, I figured that that comment would bring a few "truthers" out of the woodwork. I'd encourage you to read my post The View From The Grassy Knoll.

William, you had a good teacher.

Chris, I'm familiar with that theory; to my mind, it doesn't hold water. My father-in-law survived to become my father-in-law because his Marine unit wasn't deployed in Operation Olympic, the amphibious invasion of Kyushu (Japan's southernmost large island), which was expected to cost up to half a million Allied dead -- and then there would have been Operation Corona, the invasion of Honshu, on an even larger scale and with an even larger body count. Convincing the Japanese to accept unconditional surrender was a valid military goal at the time, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had the effect they were intended to have.

Bill, I'm also wondering why he thought I'm a fan of the UN!

Jphilip, centuries? That seems more than a little extreme, given the level of technological decline I think is unavoidable in the years ahead.

Molly, thanks for the info -- I didn't know that about Beck.

Cherokee, I summed up the Singularity a ways back here -- might be worth a read. You're quite right, of course, that the point of such fantasies is to talk about something other than the things you can do something about.

Kieran, thank you for the most carefully worded bit of nonprofanity this blog has seen in some time!

Tim, the only "war on Christmas" of which I can be accused is a harmless but effective preemptive strike; Druids get to open their presents four days early, on the winter solstice.

Grey, fair enough. I don't claim to know the jargon.

team10tim said...

Since we are talking about nuclear war I wanted to share this: The Effects of a Global Thermonuclear War
4th edition: escalation in 1988
about an actual scenario from the cold war. It's a worst case and improbable scenario (note that it didn't happen).

But I understand that it did come close 3 times: Cuban missile crisis where we had missiles in Turkey and they had missiles in Cuba. It came to a head and we both backed down. Able Archer a war game that we were playing that the USSR thought was cover for a pre-emptive attack, soviet doctrine held that the pretence of a war game or training exercise would be great subterfuge for an actual attack. And The Norwegian rocket incident where the Scandinavian scientists notified the Russian scientists of a research launch but the message wasn't passed on to military intelligence who then got very nervous when what looked like a sub launched Trident missile was headed toward Moscow.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, interesting.

Nicci, it would help if you could give some kind of context for a statement like that, which means precisely nothing as it stands.

Dalriada, sure. You're the head of state of a medium sized country. Are you so confident of the total secrecy of your plans that you're willing to risk the sudden, total annihilation of your entire country, very much including yourself, on such a stunt? No, I didn't think so. By the way, a low altitude explosion won't produce an EMP over more than a very small area; you have to get the bomb up into the ionosphere to have a wide effect.

Author, they've been in control of significant parts of the country all along, and they'll be ruling Afghanistan again a week after the US troops leave.

Tom, sure thing.
Twilight in Learyville
Nanmin Voyages
Banners in the Wind
Tillicum River
Uncharted Waters

Chuck, funny. BTW, I can't edit comments; all I can do is put them through intact, or delete them.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, oddly enough, I'll be addressing that eagerness to think about the supposedly unthinkable shortly after Nothing Happens Day, which is coming up soon.

Tim, the earliest years were the most dangerous, when there were figures on both sides who hadn't yet figured out the advantages of mutually assured destruction, and were pushing for war. The longer we go, the safer things get.

Michael Elamson said...

Hiroshima yes, but I meant in our era when several nations have them and often shake them at each other.

CGP said...

Well then I guess you are assuming that all national leaders are going to have a baseline level of intelligence, reason and self-preservation instincts. Or maybe the idea is that it doesn't even matter because being a national leader or being a member of the ruling class offers a person such relative privileges and comforts that they would never want to let them go and would therefore never precipitate a nuclear war.

Mart said...

Everyone can play Global Thermonuclear War:
DEFCON - Everybody Dies

Jasmine said...

Dear Mr Greer
I am an avid reader of your blog and love the perspective you bring on these matters. I agree that nuclear deterrence works. Human beings have a strong survival instinct, which is shared even by evil dictators like Stalin. Self preservation is a strong motivator. However deterrence is not infallible. There were a number of occasions during the cold war when deterrence nearly failed and we came close to a nuclear war. Cuba is the most obvious example. It is easy to forget that both Kennedy and Khrushchev were under a lot of pressure to take actions that could have resulted in all out war. The instinct for self preservation managed to get us through that crisis. However there was also an element of luck. There were quite a few things that could easily have gone wrong and led to a nuclear war.
The fact that we got through the cold war without a nuclear exchange could make us complacent about nuclear deterrence and lead us to think that it is somehow infallible. This could be a dangerous way of thinking. If there is confrontation between the major powers over resources during the next 20 to 30 years, then there could be a higher risk of a nuclear war, than there was during the cold war. The Cuban crisis took place in a world were resources were cheap and plentiful and yet we came close to a nuclear war. However in a post peak oil world when we are fighting over scarce resources, any confrontation is likely to be much more desperate. The risk of a nuclear war whether due to miscalculation or accident could be higher.
Obviously as you say, resource depletion will eventually make our nuclear arsenals unusable. However we could go through a dangerous period before that happens. I still think that the scenario that you have laid out this week is the most likely outcome. But it would be danger to become complacent and think that just because nuclear deterrence worked in the past, it will work in the future.
Look forward to your next blog

jphilip said...

The Hiroshima bomb was basically a modified anti-aircraft gun that was the level of the tech (one block of uranium fired at another (bye bye city)).

How long that level of tech could last is totally dependent on the level of societal breakdown. But it wont be the costs of maintaining the nukes which finishes them.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I'm reading through the comments (not finished yet) and my mind keeps coming back to the old adage that the things that you own end up owning you (obviously, not meaning you as an individual John, but the "you" in the broader sense of society).

The core reason - in my mind anyway - that nuclear weapons are such powerful magical icons is that, well, they are used to leverage a greater quantity of resources from other parts of the globe. As other countries gain the weapons, their value as a magical icon is diminished.

One of the themes in Jared Diamonds book “Collapse” which he came back to again and again, was that in order for societies to survive crisis they have to consider and adopt new strategies and levels of wealth. Nuclear weapons, seems to me like a case of hanging onto the past for want of not knowing what else to do (or replaying the past because it worked, but this is no guarantee of future success).

I have been considering your explanation of the value and security of the monasteries since you made us aware of this. There is much to be said in favour of it.



phil harris said...

Times, they are a-changing, again. It’s taken 4 years for pennies to drop in most western MSM, but Martin Kettle, an associate editor on UK's left-leaning Guardian writes something that might be a 'first' for a popular middle-class newspaper. (The Guardian's economics editor takes a more 'normal' if Keynesian view; "it will come right eventually". While over at the Telegraph, lead commenter Evans-Pritchard though a frequent 'financial doomer', is a right-leaning monetary theory man who has recently swallowed the 'game-changer' theory of 'shale oil', and believes in the power of the US economy.)

Kettle leads with a chunky headline: "Austerity is here to stay, and we’d better get used to it”

It’s mostly about Britain but Kettle makes an interesting point that austerity suits the right wing more than the left, (and US Beck seems iconic luminary out on the bat's excrement wing) but that the left had better get real.

Justin Wade said...


I meant it as a compliment. (I've self identified since ~2004 -

I love the comments about what if a madman in power got ahold of nukes. Pretty much anyone in power is barking mad. However, they have all been screened by the logic of the power system they serve. That system is comprised by people who have bought into its logic. The best example is not GW, but Nixon, who ended up stark raving mad and agitating for nuclear weopons. Cue the tape:
President: See, the attack in the North that we have in mind, power plants, whatever's left - POL [petroleum], the docks. And, I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?
Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.
President: No, no, no, I'd rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
President: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you?...I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes

Of the opinion that Iran is trying to develop nuclear energy to service domestic energy needs at the present time. The economic logic is straightforward, use nuclear energy, export oil, use the proceeds of sale to develop the economy while their is still time in the industrial age. They've been following this logic since the 70s, when, in a bit of trivia, Dick Cheney and other future neocons argued like hell to get the Shah nuclear.

Here is a picture of an old advertisement back then. If memory serves, this came from a PR group with Cheney and Wolfowitz.

Are they developing a nuclear weapon? The logic of deterrence is straightforward, but, as this post points out, there are costs, which cuts into the economic argument spelled out above. I'd guess they will once they get the domestic tech figured out, but to date, the findings of our intelligence and the IAE monitors have found no evidence of a covert weapons program. It may also be the case that whatever the benefits of nuclear weapons, the costs at present time do not justify going forward. The best case scenario, from an Iranian pov, is to bluff the rest of the world into thinking they have deterrence without the expense of them.

Grow trees, not silos.

Robert Mathiesen said...

team10tim wrote of our coming to the brink of nuclear war:

"it did come close 3 times"

A source with whom one of my sons once worked, and who was in a position to know accurately the facts, told him that we were on the brink of a nuclear war very many more times than will ever become public knowledge, and some of those times came very much closer to a total nuclear response than the Cuban missile crisis ever did.

I think luck (or chance) has played a role here.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

I certainly hope you're right and we avoid nuclear war, JMG. I agree with your assessment that starting a nuclear war is a huge mistake strategically as well as ethically. However, I'm not convinced that we can count on all the leaders of nuclear powers to be intelligent. It's not the mad dictators that have me concerned about nuclear war but the idiots. I'm thinking of the sorts of people who thought that Fukushima could be solved by blowing it up with an atomic bomb.

The nuclear age will end eventually with the end of the industrial age, but I do think there will be a particularly risky period in between. There were only two nuclear powers during the cold war. With that number much higher now and still increasing for a while at least, that makes it more and more likely that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of someone stupid enough to start a nuclear war, especially with the stress of the effects of peak oil. Starting a nuclear war is a stupid decision, but individuals and nations have made plenty of stupid decisions before.

Joseph Nemeth said...

JMG - On 9/11 truthism as it applies to the actual TOPIC of this entry (:-)): as you point out in your well-written View from a Grassy Knoll, we will probably never know for sure what happened on September 11, 2001. But when things like this happen, it pulls back the curtain on the raging chaos behind the carefully-scripted performance that we all paid our taxes to see.

It doesn't matter whether we're talking about 9/11, or JFK, or the assassination of Giuliano de' Medici, or the court intrigues among the Roman imperials. There's always the public show, and then there is what is REALLY going on when the curtains close between scenes. These are only tenuously related. It's why historians can still write about the Romans, or the French Revolution, or the Fourth Papal Inquisition -- they can expose some more of the mechanics of the Real Story underlying the Official Story.

This disconnect between the public story and the real story is part of why history is interesting (and unpredictable), and also an inherent danger in analyses like the one you've provided regarding nuclear war.

In the public story, nuclear war is impossible because America is strong and good and would never do such a thing, and all other nations are at moderately-to-very evil and might do such a thing, but they will be deterred by our superior American Military Might. A lot of people believe this story, and it's why those people keep calling for bottomless defense spending.

That's a very shallow story, of course. When you pull back that gauze curtain, you see the face of Realpolitik, which you're describing. Balance of powers. The Game of Thrones. Tactics and strategy. But that also isn't the Truth.

Underneath the rational game are irrational humans, driven by fears and appetites, tempered to some extent by a collective and unifying in-group mythology.

What happened on 9/11 was a collective decision by some in-group -- whether in Washington, Jerusalem, Kabul, or some combination -- that convinced itself that the attack was a good idea. It surprised the heck out of some other groups, and it ripped back the curtain on the Official Story, as well as the Realpolitik curtain, and probably several other curtains. For a very brief moment, all of us saw the world as it really is: chaotic, with NO ONE in control. That was the true terror of 9/11.

The Official Story of 9/11 is artless: a tale told by an idiot. That's why the truthers are still out there. The story hasn't addressed the fear of the chaos that 9/11 itself revealed, and the truthers want a better story.

I would argue that, like terrorism, nuclear war is constrained by -- and ONLY by -- the in-group narratives that hold groups of fear- and appetite-driven individuals together. Right now, the people with their fingers on the buttons accept the Realpolitik stories. That could change.

OrwellianUK said...

I'm also wondering where you're coming from with the connection between the Taliban and 9/11 since there's no evidence that they were connected in any way, apart from the alleged presence of the alleged perpetrator in Afghanistan. Most of the alleged hijackers held Saudi passports and the planning took place mostly in Germany.

The Taliban did offer to hand bin Laden over, provided the US was forthcoming with evidence that bin Laden was implicated. Colin Powell's promise to reveal this evidence is still, to this day, unfulfilled and the FBI's several year investigation turned up "No hard evidence" that bin Laden planned the attacks, which hasn't stopped Obama recently repeating this unproven claim during his election campaign.

Contrary to your 'view from the grassy knoll' article, I'm not someone who asserts that George W planned the 9/11 attacks. Such a thing didn't take place because it didn't have to. The ambiguous relationships between the CIA, US client states such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (where most of the funding came from) and the existence of heavily penetrated, disparate groups of 'al Qaeda' fanatics, born out of the CIA backed Islamic Brigades/Mujahedeen from the Soviet/Afghan conflict of the 1980's were more than enough to get the job done.

The presence of two of Osama bin Laden's brothers in Falls Church, Virginia (just around the corner from CIA hq) where they were raising money for terrorist groups using legitimate fronts, subsequently protected from investigation by the Bush Administration, is one of many little clues that reveal how these things actually get done.

Off topic, I know.

On topic, it is in theory possible to have a limited Nuclear Exchange and such an scenario is to my mind the most likely one. A US drama "Last Resort" which has aired here in the UK recently has a scenario where the US attacks Pakistan. This as you've indicated would be unlikely since Pakistan, itself Nuclear armed, could at least do some major damage to say - Diego Garcia or other US military targets in the region. Far more likely that a Nuclear power would attack a non-nuclear power (as was the case with Japan) which is why I find the constant sabre-rattling against Iran so worrying, since Israel has them and Iran doesn't.

Hopefully, even Israel isn't 'crazy' enough to use it's Nukes. Still, I once had an email exchange with Noam Chomsky in which he pointed out that "Israel does conceive of itself as a "crazy state," tribal in character, which might decide to bring down the temple walls if crossed."

Nestorian said...

Yes, I had forgotten about the new generation Chinese ICBMs that JMG first mentioned a few weeks back; they do weaken my argument also, as does the new Chinese nuclear submarine that I happened to see an article about just the other day.

But one must distinguish two different possible propositions here that are fundamentally pertinent to the discussion, each of which needs to be debated on its own terms:

Prop 1): The US is IN FACT capable of launching a successful nuclear first strike that would militarily disable both China and Russia.

Prop 2): Even if Proposition 1 is false, the US elites BELIEVE Proposition 1) to a sufficient degree that they are likely to act on such a belief if they consider the stakes sufficiently high to warrant what they (mistakenly) regard as the limited risks involved.

Regarding Proposition 1), what would interest me is reading another article along the lines of the one I mentioned from the spring of 2006 in Foreign Affairs. I would be very interested in seeing an updated version of this argument attempted that takes into account the developments since 2006 that I am simply not in a position to evaluate factually.

As it happens, I had lunch with one of the authors of the 2006 Foreign Affairs article a year ago (October 2011), and he still maintained then that his thesis from 2006 about US nuclear primacy was fundamentally true. He also noted that people he knew within the US military and intelligence apparatus who had access to relevant classified information to which he himself was not privy, largely agreed with him. At the same time, I had the sense that he hadn’t been keeping up with the latest relevant developments (such as the new generation Chinese ICBMs JMG mentioned) as assiduously as he had in the period leading up to the publication of the original article.

Actually, some of what I just related is also relevant to Proposition 2). It implies that Proposition 1) remains widely believed in US military and foreign policy circles, particularly among those with access to pertinent classified information. The more this remains the case going forward, the more it is likely that Proposition 2) will possibly remain true, even if Proposition 1) is false. Other things that suggest the possible truth of Proposition 2) include the subsidiary argument, also advanced in the 2006 article, that placing the US in the position of unchallenged nuclear primacy had been a long-term objective of US military strategy all along.

In addition, Proposition 2) is supported by the fact that this article was part of a larger literature appearing in recent years that argues for the viability of limited nuclear war using what are referred to as tactical, rather than strategic, nuclear weapons. In essence, tactical nukes are relatively limited in their destructive potential, but are developed and deployed to be just as reliable and accurate - if not more so - than strategic nuclear weapons whose sole purpose is to promote deterrence via the classic MAD doctrine.

Last but not least (with reference to Proposition 2, if not Proposition 1), how is one best to understand the ongoing encirclement of both China and Russia with close-in military bases in Eastern Europe and Central Asia? I submit that it is best understood as reflective of the ongoing commitment by US elites to maintaining the posture of primacy that they believe they have. Decisions concerning the future exercise of this primacy will be based much less on whether this primacy is real or illusory than on whether this primacy is BELIEVED to be real by key decision makers and their underlings.

Bill Pulliam said...

Wow, John Michael, your suggestion that all-out nuclear war is not going to happen triggers more aggressive resistance than your suggestions that human population will drastically contract, the industrial economy will collapse under its own weight, and the horseless carriage will be a thing of the past. About the only thing that seems to meet a similar wall of disbelief is your suggestion that the internet will also be ephemeral. So people can't imagine living without the internet or the threat of large-scale nuclear war, but they are prepared to let go of everything else?

Most peculiar...

I expect the replies will be "we don't WANT to hold on to this fear, we just think it is more plausible than JMG says." But, ya know, when someone really honestly deeply does want a fear relieved, they generally embrace a thoughtful presentation of why the dreaded event may well be much less likely than is widely thought, and thank the person who provided this more positive outlook. They generally don't fight to prove him wrong!

Amy La Gato said...

Dear AD.

No surprise about Glen Beck, Chapter three of his "An Inconvenient Book" is all about peak oil. And that was before the 08 oil shock, and financial crash, he believes it even more now, As someone who both reads the ADR and listens to GB, it is my observation that in many aspects the two of you are actually quite simpatico.

As for the dismantling of the nuclear arsenal. As the world's energy needs become more and more difficult to maintain I wonder if disarmament will be driven by the need to make military uranium available for the production of electricity.

Of course if there is a sudden collapse how long before the world is irradiated from all those nuclear plants that are no longer being maintained?

John Michael Greer said...

Michael, that may never happen. I mean that quite seriously.

CGP, stupid people very rarely become leaders of countries, because they don't have the brains to get the job. To claw your way to the top of a country and stay there takes intelligence, ruthlessness, and a good dollop of realism. That needs to be factored into your assessment of people who control nuclear weapons.

Mart, funny.

Jasmine, there I disagree with you. Will there be struggles for resources on the way down? Of course. (We're already in the middle of them, in case you were wondering.) The factors I discussed in my post, though, make nuclear war much less likely, and so those conflicts will likely take other forms.

Jphilip, it's more likely to be the costs of maintaining the delivery systems. A viable nuke isn't much use if you don't have any way to get it to its target. Here as elsewhere, thinking in whole systems is helpful!

Cherokee, good. I think it's more that nuclear weapons, in the minds of those who have them, are talismans of invulnerability, and nobody's willing to let go of them for that reason.

Phil, fascinating.

Justin, maybe so. To my mind, though, they'd be stark staring mad not to put together a fission bomb as soon as they can, test it ostentatiously in the middle of one of their desert provinces, and then announce that they'll give up their nukes the moment Israel gives up its arsenal. Since that will never happen, it's a safe offer!

Robert, probably just as well we don't know. There's a good reason for that instant hotline between the White House and the Kremlin...

Ozark, the people who thought that Fukushima Daiichi could be fixed by nuking it will never be elected dogcatcher, much less head of state. See my comment to CGP above.

CGP said...

Bill, your response implies to me a self-assurance that you understand people's motives better than they do. Did it not occur to you that perhaps some people genuinely abhor the idea of nuclear war but are simply more pessimistic about humanity's chances of avoiding it? I cannot speak for everyone but personally I accept peak oil, I accept that there will be continued economic contraction, that the internet may very well be transient and that global population will eventually decrease quite significantly as per capita energy decreases. However, I am less optimistic about humanity's chances of avoiding nuclear war. Taken together, that is inconsistent with your hypothesis. I appreciate John's arguments and feel they are very logical. With that said, though, John's conclusions are more optimistic than mine happen to be. This is because I am taking into account different factors and/or weighting various factors differently. I am not saying I am right but I am not going to just wholly accept a set of arguments simply for the sake of comforting myself. At the end of the day these are extremely complex issues and who really knows how it is all going to turn out.

If I might speculate as to some of the resistance that is taking place here the emotional charge that you are sensing could be a frustration that so much has to go right, so many assumptions need to be met and that so many people (often objectionable) have to be relied upon to ensure that nuclear war is avoided. This gives rise to a sense of helplessness and a lack of control in turn causing anger. Perhaps this anger clouds people's judgment, perhaps it skews their arguments. My point is that this is one mechanism which could give rise to opposition to the notion that nuclear deterrence is as guaranteed as some might think instead of postulating that deep down these people long for a nuclear apocalypse (which I think was your insinuation). Please don't profess to understand other people's motives better than they do with such certainty.

John Michael Greer said...

Joseph, while there's certainly a lot of chaos and conflict in any system as disorderly as world politics, I think you're overstating things considerably. My take is that what drives the "truthers" is an attempt to deny the fact that the most technically advanced nation on Earth can be given a major black eye by a handful of imaginative men who are not afraid of death. Our national psyche is obsessed with the fiction of our own omnipotence, and the 9/11 attacks pointed up that fiction with great clarity.

Orwellian, I referenced the Taliban because (a) they provided bin Laden's people with a modest amount of support, as old allies in the Jihadi business, and (b) they were a much more politically viable target than, say, the Wahabi groups in Saudi Arabia that likely provided a lot more of the support. As for a limited nuclear war, given adequate political justification -- not necessarily an easy thing to get, since the fallout clouds would reach India -- the US could probably nuke Pakistan without any nuclear response, since Pakistani launch vehicles can't reach Diego Garcia -- it's more than 3500 km from southern Pakistan, and their longest range IRBMs only reach around 2500 km. That probably does a lot to shape current Pakistani policy toward the US.

Nestorian, I read the continuing US involvement in the Great Game in central Asia as part of an increasingly desperate struggle by the US to avoid the strategic nightmare that Halford Mackinder sketched out all those years ago -- one nation or alliance of nations having control of the Eurasian core and ready access to the world's oceans. There's a rich irony in that, since it was US stupidity in dealing with post-Soviet Russia that set that process in motion. More on this in an upcoming post.

Bill, what can I say? People love their apocalyptic fantasies!

Amy, fascinating. I may make An Inconvenient Book the book of his that I pick up one of these days. As for nuclear weapons as potential reactor fuel, that's a very likely option as things run short -- and it's entirely possible that nobody will admit that that's what's going on, even as most of the world's warheads get used up to keep the lights on a little longer.

Bill Pulliam said...

CMG -- that is a whole lot of words stuffed in my mouth. I simply note that people appear to be reluctant to release their fear of nuclear war; it is a LONG way from there to saying that people actually like the idea of it! You may protest too much, methinks. The psychology and sociology of apocalyptic beliefs has been the subject of many, many, many posts on this blog (and untold thousands of comments). The schism between utopian versus apocalyptic beliefs (with very few people in the middle) has been one of the major themes here for years. Not even gonna begin to try to summarize all of that discussion.

Personally I absolutely hated spending my entire childhood and a big chunk of my early adulthood under that fear, and was extremely relieved to cast that yoke off in the late 1980s, a time when many people for some reason seemed to feel the shadow lift (for no readily apparent reason). It's been nearly 70 years now, whole lifetimes have passed since the last use of a nuclear weapon as an act of war (and a fusion bomb has *never* been used). Sure nothing is impossible and no one knows the future. That applies to EVERYTHING.

Unrelated aside, but who is this "John" character to whom many of these comments are addressed? It's confusing.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the link to your post about Monty Python and singularity. Yes, they are both absurd, but only Monty Python is actually funny!

As an interesting side note, it was interesting reading about the thermostat example in your post from a position of hindsight. It must have influenced me whilst building as I eventually excluded a thermostat device from the heating system in favour of a simple manual system. The pump from the collector tank to the solar hot water panels is also able to be operated on a fully manual basis.

Also for your interest, being Spring, I'm sitting out in the orchard on a laptop, watching the chooks and sampling my first ever batch of mead. After careful consideration of the resources here, I've settled on making mead and vodka (lots of honey and potatoes - which have become feral here). Seems like the mead is a bit of a success and it is almost idiot proof to make, I recommend it to all. Vodka is a future activity, but next week I'm off to the home brew shop to pick up more supplies for more mead.

The only thing I'm wondering about is the yeast as my kitchen is probably infested with bakers yeast and I've never heard of anyone using the local wild yeasts. I used champagne yeast so the mead probably had an alcohol % of > 10%, but this is only a guess. I'm aware that many vegetables and fruits have their own yeasts on them, but I am still to learn about such things. So much to do and I've only just sorted the income front out after the unfortunate events of about a year ago (just before the Borders bookshops went under too for you). It has been kind of complex because I'd committed to other projects which also had to be finalised... Life can sometimes be interesting, but you keep plugging away and things get done.



trippticket said...

Howdy, JMG! So we're totally off-grid now - no electricity save a small solar fan, and no running water (at the moment), so I'm a little behind on your fictional series, but slowly adding my hash marks to your increasingly impressive tally. Have really enjoyed it so far, and just about to get back to it. However, I did read this nuclear post last night, jumping ahead, and have sent it to various friends and family who always bring up nuclear annihilation as the most likely route before us. Thanks again for the sanity.

Joseph Nemeth said...

JMG - I NEVER overstate ANYTHING. :-)

Ruben said...

@Chris re: yeast

As someone who makes cider, bread, cheese and yogurt, I have done some wondering about low-tech ways to maintain pure strains of yeasts and bacterias. I even bought a book called Yeast. Mushroom propogation currently requires a lab-quality clean room as well.

Now, bread and yogurt will take care of themselves simply through a sourdough sort of process, allowing you to develop a strong strain and keep it at a population level inhospitable to infections.

But the way to keep cheese cultures and moulds pure historically seems to be geography--keep some mountains or water bodies between you and other cheese styles. There was a fascinating article called Raw Faith in the New Yorker about ten years ago. It describes a nun who is assigned cheese by her order. She researches samples cheese caves all over the world for different cultures.

That means we can have whatever kind of cheese our cheeseworks is infected with, but probably can't make all the different cheeses in the world.

Cider seems similar. There are lots of wild yeasts on apples. The question is how they will taste, how much sugar they will ferment, and what temperature range they work at. Reliability is greatly increased by tearing open a foil sachet. Hopefully your apple press gets colonized by a robust and delicious strain.

Short of laboratory sanitization and freeze drying I am not sure how we will maintain varieties of yeasts and bacterias--it may be a driving force for a new regionalization of foodstuffs.

Yeasts seem like just the sort of esoteric knowledge JMG would have and if anybody else knows anything about this, please post some links.

jphilip said...

Regarding delivery systems. The first British nuke was let off in the hold of a ship because this was the means of delivery the British expected from the Russians (1952).

Very complex combinations of ballistic/cruise missiles and aircraft/submarines pioneered in the 1970s will probably not survive the century but the North Koreans today do not have those capabilities

The fear of their nuclear deterrent exists because everyone knows they could easily use much more primitive means of delivery.

A primitive Nuke is 4-5 tons of dead weight. Anything which can carry that uninspected will make a usable delivery system.

The costs of maintaining a delivery system (i.e. ships) will not finish them either.

What will do for them hopefully is the realisation of those in power that they cannot maintain control over their arsenals in a society breaking down. but I'm not holding my breath.

More likely in my opinion is that powerful families in the land will inherit them as the state breaks down. Then its a question of when the eldest son is mad or foolish and they get used probably against incredibly local targets. (i.e. some Missouri aristo decides he doesn't like Kansans and bye bye Wichita. (of course in that example ships may not be the best of delivery systems)).

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Bill has raised the point again that several commenters may be addressing you incorrectly.

No disrespect to either yourself or Bill, but are you OK with being addressed as "John" or is it your preference to be called, "John Michael"? Down Under, our culture precludes the usage of the second name - you just never hear it used. However, as they say, when in Rome...

By the way, I reckon that many people use the word "freedom" to mean freedom from the consequences of their actions for them. It can have many possible definitions, but I suspect that the people using that word, in that way, wouldn't actually benefit from freedom in the sense that I use the word. They would find it to be rather unpleasant!



CGP said...

Bill, there you go again, this time with that old “you doth protest too much” line. Perhaps you should consider a career in psychoanalysis since you seem so certain that you understand other people’s motives better than they do (in my humble opinion).

I am well aware of the discussion that has been taking place about the distinction between apocalyptic and utopian beliefs. Just because someone feels nuclear deterrence between nations may not be as effective as what others believe does not mean they have apocalyptic beliefs. There are other possibilities. Perhaps you are caught up in binary thinking?

I really don't know what to make of your odd question about who "John" is. Obviously "John" refers to the author of this blog but you knew that didn’t you?

trippticket said...


"Ferment and Human Nutrition" is supposed to be Bill Mollison's masterpiece. Which is saying something considering the author. Very expensive, but might be worth checking out.

Hal said...

Well, this was a lousy week for my internet to go down. Having my words ridiculed to a global audience doesn't happen every day.

Still, I thought I had explained, and you understood, that it was not my intention to call Bush evil. Rather, I was arguing that, between a demonstrated track record of making horrendous military blunders, the misguided certainly that fundamentalist religious beliefs can impart, and the pressure that such a leader would be under, it is not hard to accept that a miscalculation on the scale of that being discussed could come from some future leader with an equivalently-limited understanding of the world. It is not even my intention to argue that such a blunder is highly probably, but that is is somewhere on the order of the probability of the scenario you sketched out. It's just not that hard for me to imagine, after the recent administration, that leaders can make terribly wrong and irrational choices.

Oh, there's this:

"Steve, I'm not so polite. To my mind, nuclear-tipped missiles are America's giant surrogate phalluses, promising an orgasmic eruption in which the earth really does move; we cling to them as a national equivalent of Viagra, to prop up our increasingly limp national character."

And how does that argues against irrational use of nukes, exactly?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Ruben,

Thanks for the excellent answer.

"Short of laboratory sanitization and freeze drying I am not sure how we will maintain varieties of yeasts and bacterias--it may be a driving force for a new regionalization of foodstuffs."

You have given much to think about.



Cherokee Organics said...


I'm with Bill on this one. Self interest, greed and laziness seem to be primary drivers in people.

If I was a teacher marking humanity, I'd give a D minus and comment, "could do better".


Bill Pulliam said...

CGP -- As your reply seems to be in response to some other comment rather than the one I actually wrote, I suspect you would attempt to argue me down if I suggested the sky was blue, so I'm not going to pursue this any further.

Bill Pulliam said...

Chris -- double first names are not uncommon in the U.S. The combinations of John Michael and Jean Michel are especially common; the french version is sometimes hyphenated but often not. It's common enough that if someone presents his name as John Michael Fillintheblank , not John M. Fillintheblank, there's a good chance he goes by the double name.

And if you are in the South, especially in rural areas, you will still come across quite a few Bobby Joes, Billy Rays, etc.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, I dunno, I haven't yet been able to read one of Ray Kurzweil's books without laughing hard. As for yeasts, there's quite a bit of wild yeast used in a variety of fermented products -- most of the really good Belgian beers are fermented using wild yeasts, for example -- so there's precedent.

Trippticket, congrats!

Joseph, so noted. ;-)

Jphilip, that last paragraph has the seed of a really fascinating science fiction novel, you know. More broadly, once you lose the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons by air, they become much less useful -- how is your aristo going to send that nuke to Wichita? By oxcart? -- and the resources that could be used for that purpose are a lot more useful elsewhere. That being said, I expect that centuries from now, whatever future nations evolve out of America, Russia, etc. will have a few nuclear weapons in the basement of a castle somewhere -- nobody but a few intellectuals will have the least idea how they work, but the threat that somebody might manage a way to use them will still have power.

Cherokee, I usually go by JMG online, and by John Michael in person. Since there are several Johns who comment here, JMG's probably the best moniker to use. As for freedom -- hoo boy. I'm going to talk about that down the road a bit.

Hal, you know, when I started writing this blog six and a half years ago, I hardly thought that I would end up defending George W. Bush from partisan denunciations! The points I made in the post I cited, though, apply here as well: it's normally considered fair to judge a man by his actions, not the intentions and motives his enemies impute to him. In any case, the point I was making is that he's hardly the conclusive example you seem to have thought he was -- or maybe it's just that we don't share the partisan stance that has made him such a convenient whipping boy since 2001.

And yes, you can probably pull lots of comments of mine out of context to support pretty much any argument you like. So?

rabtter said...

That Pornography of Political Fear post is a real eye opener, I got that "who turned on the lights?" feeling from a reading. I think I see parallels outside of politics (i.e. inflicting some form of abuse while still getting to feel like a saint). If one is painted a villain in the eyes of others, they get trounced on by the blatant opportunists. I'm not well read on magic (maybe in a couple of years, working on it) but it seems to me this unfortunate quirk of human behavior could be a vector for spells of bad intent.

CGP said...

Bill, I have addressed your comments directly and clearly. Ironically it is you that has not addressed my comments adequately. For example, I suggested a possible psychological mechanism accounting for some people's concerns that nuclear deterrence between nations might not be as solid as others might think which you completely ignored. Therefore, I conclude that it is you who is not addressing the relevant arguments which looks a lot like projection to me. I haven't the slightest desire to continue this discussion with you either.

Cherokee, "self-interest, greed and laziness" can just as easily be used as an argument against the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. Since your argument is vague I can only infer what you are trying to argue. "Self-interest, greed and laziness" were not enough to stop World War 1 and 2, Hiroshima or Nagasaki so citing these alleged universal foibles is simply not enough. More broadly, I totally reject the notion that "self-interest, greed and laziness" are the "primary drivers" of all people. This applies to some people, in different combinations and to different degrees, but there are plenty of people out there who are good, diligent and act selflessly for the greater good or for the benefit of others often and reliably. Of course these people have their flaws but their "primary drivers" are much more positive and constructive than your argument suggests. Individual differences and societal influences cannot be dismissed. Misanthropic notions of humanity are like a self-fulfilling prophecy spurring humanity towards its darker potentialities. It is more accurate to say that humanity is malleable and is in large part as good or bad, selfish or unselfish, productive or destructive, as the society and culture in which it exists at a given point in time.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and Bill,

No problems. Ahh, the subtle differences in culture.

Just for your interest, did you know that the name John here would probably be changed to Johnno (pronounced John-Oh and said quite fast but with a small linger on the "Oh" part)?



beneaththesurface said...


I look forward to your post on "freedom" in the future. I may have mentioned it a few times before, but I've been contemplating the relationships between limits (particularly ecological ones) and freedom, and slowly working on some essays related to this, since I think there needs to be more literature on this subject.

The prevalent concept of freedom in our society denies limits of all kinds (or as Chris aptly says, it is "freedom from the consequences of our actions"). However, I find the process of recognizing a limit in the natural world, and internalizing such knowledge with limits in my own life, is actually a major source of freedom in my life.

For example, two years ago, I decided not to fly again, at least not for any travel on this continent, where alternative (although slower) transportation is an easy-enough option. I understand that people's circumstances and life contexts are different, and this is an easier decision for some to make than others. But, at least in my life context, I felt I could make that decision easily enough, so I felt I should. What pushed me to make that decision was a recognition of limits (limited amount of oil and other resources, limits to amounts of greenhouse gases that can be emitted to atmosphere without harmful effects, & other ecological limits). I then voluntarily imposed a limit on my own life. To many others, they may see my decision not to fly as absurd--I'm greatly restricting the "freedom" in my life. However, I feel my decision not to fly has actually made me feel freer! I'm trying to explore this new and exciting feeling of freedom, and find words to describe it, because it's such a different notion of what freedom means in our society.

This is just a personal example, but I think it can expanded to the societal level too.

I find that when I sometimes question the popular notion of "freedom" in our society, some people, without attempting to explore more deeply into what I'm thinking, jump on me and falsely think I'm advocating some totalitarian society, as if there are only two binary options to choose from.

What's ironic is that our society's concept of freedom that denies limits will ultimately take away even that kind of freedom. Our denial of the limited supply of oil and other resources, and the prevalent cultural belief that we should be "free" to consume anything and as much as we want, will destroy the freedom to consume what we want in the long run.

I sometimes wonder what cultural historians and others several centuries in the future will say about the concept of "freedom" prevalent during the fossil fuel age of human history.

Cherokee Organics said...


Quote: "Cherokee, "self-interest, greed and laziness" can just as easily be used as an argument against the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. Since your argument is vague I can only infer what you are trying to argue. "Self-interest, greed and laziness" were not enough to stop World War 1 and 2, Hiroshima or Nagasaki so citing these alleged universal foibles is simply not enough."

I never said that! In fact I reckon it may be the opposite...

Self Interest: "I'm happy to send your kids off to war as long as my own aren't sent".

Greed: "I want what you have without working for it like you did - or being fortunate in your birth place which may have more natural resources".

Laziness: "Give me what you have or I'll nuke you".

Now, those are some simple arguments that may sound familiar.

As an interesting experiment for you, I suggest you offer assistance to someone (who is not blood related) for purely altruistic motives and guage their reaction. It may surprise you.

As an interesting, thought provoking question, is conscription a form of slavery or is it a societal obligation? Dunno, just putting the question out there.

Anyway, that's enough of me for the week - I'm off to the seed savers group.



Johan said...

There are other interesting aspects of nuclear maintenance. In my field, high-performance computing, one of the major drivers of development over the last decade or so has been the need to test nuclear bombs without actually setting them off. For this reason, the US nuclear labs have been building some of the world's largest supercomputers and have been driving development of things like the software needed to use all these processors effectively. My job is subsidized by the DoD!

This will change in an energy-constrained future. Even if a few nuclear bombs can be kept in a cellar - if you can't simulate, you have to test your bombs, otherwise you don't even know yourself how many bombs might be in working order.

On deterrence: you didn't mention, and nobody over here wants to talk about it, that much of European policy over the last half-century was shaped by the nuclear umbrellas covering the continent. How much of the EU's peace powers were really due to US and Soviet nuclear weaponry? I suspect the answer is on the order of "quite a lot".

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I don't agree that mead is practically idiot proof to make. I tasted some batches of bad mead in the 1970s when some of my friends were doing the back to the land thing
in Mendocino County, California.

You may have had beginner's luck, or perhaps you read the manual.

Edward said...

On 11-15-12 at 5:40 AM Bruce H wrote:

"If you look at history since the dawn of the nuclear era, I think it is more than simple deterrence. What possessing nuclear weapons actually creates is a climate of fear of the enemy that allows the leaders of these countries to control their own populations."

On 11-12-12 at 7:53 PM JMG wrote:

"Bruce, I'm far from convinced. There are many cheaper methods to produce fear in a population."

I can't say whether the fear was intentional or not, but it was there. I remember the duck and cover drills in grade school, publications showing how to build a home fallout shelter, and some modest preparations in our own family. I was fascinated how the practical needs such as sanitation and ventilation would be met in these shelters, and I remember that our family's preparations would have been woefully inadequate in those respects. I do remember seeing some plans with fairly elaborate ventilation systems to filter out tthe radioactive dust. I also remember thinking about how boring it would be just sitting in this shelter waiting until we could come out, and what kind of world we would
come out to. Upon reflection now, it seems that perhaps the governments message was more that we could survive a nuclear attack and that we should trust that the USA would prevail. Even so, there was a deep fear that no one would talk about much. I know that my own father, a proud WW2 vet never talked about it. Perhaps he still had a deep faith in the governments proclamations. But I wonder if his half-hearted preparations in our own family shelter betrayed some doubts.

Edward said...

That discussion of missles as phallic symbols explains why people were so concerned about who had a bigger missle.

Bill Pulliam said...

CGP -- I addressed your comments fully by stating that you were putting words in my mouth and were extrapolating motives and intentions beyond what I actually wrote. I did and will not bother with your lengthy rebuttals to arguments that I never actually made.

Jeannette Sage said...

For those who fear the end of the world on December 21st: there is an idyllic little village in the south of France that will be saved -- according to Internet rumors. See
Bugarach: the French village destined to survive the Mayan apocalypse.

Bill Pulliam said...

Deborah --

Re: Mead, agree! I have had much wonderful homemade mead over the decades but I have also come across some that was undrinkable. Though the flop rate does seem to be much higher with beer and wine -- one friend brewed a batch of beer we dubbed "Puppy Breath" and deemed it fit only for the dogs, and homemade wine has a strong desire to turn itself into vinegar if given the slightest opportunity

Bill Pulliam said...

About yeasts -- wild yeasts (and bacteria) have been the basis of fermentation for millenia in many places. Standardized cultures are an industrial product. If you do fermentation or breadmaking in the same facility, selecting for the batches that show the desired results, you populate the area with the spores of the microbes you want and they will colonize any suitable culture medium (e.g. bread dough, fruit juice, warm milk, etc.) you expose to it. There are also wild yeasts that naturally live on the surfaces of fruit which are adapted to metabolize the sugars and starches of that particular type of fruit; if you don't pasteurize your culture it will be inoculated by them. I've heard folks talking about how in order to make your own (intentional) vinegar from wine at home you have to spend money to get a "mother," the scum of acetobacter that grows on top of the wine and does the ethanol - acetate conversion. Well, actually, if you leave your wine uncovered for even a short while, the vinegar flies will find it and inoculate it with the abundance of acetobacter that live on their feet (the bacteria's natural dispersal mechanism). Only if you live in someplace like Antarctica where there are no vinegar flies will this method not work. Give it a little time, and you will find your own homegrown mother spreading over your wine. Select a mother that gives results you especially like, and use that one to inoculate future batches without having to enlist the help of the flies any more.

Like so many things, these technologies are ancient, prehistoric even. Industrialization has attempted to hijack them and make them specialized techniques for which money must be paid, but this is an aberration, not the norm. The reason that cheeses, wines, etc. are named after places is that they are the products of microbes that were originally domesticated in these places in the preindustrial era, working on the plant and animal crops produced in those region, adapted to that particular combination of environment and agricultural practices.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of species of microbes (perhaps millions) within a few meters of where you sit, waiting for you to give them the right food and environment to produce just the biochemical transformations you desire.

I am not speaking just from theory here; I have fermented juice with wild yeast, and made vinegar with wild mother generously provided by wild vinegar flies. It works! You have to keep a sharp and ruthless nose for something "off" (meaning the microbes might not be catalyzing the reactions you want), but this is going to be true of just about everything in coming centuries, as it was for eons before now.

obody said...

The real nuclear threat- spent nuclear fuel. What will happen to it in a post industrial world with tight resources?

A perfectly reasonable scenario- financial crash puts many companies making nuclear industry parts out of business.

The reactor was lost for want of a common valve, or relay- because the part wasn't available, because the company making it went out of business.

This is far more frightening than nuclear war.

JP said...

I found a reverse globalization article.

Bill Pulliam said...

While we meander off-topic, I was wondering, JMG... is there a specific reason you know of that John Michael and Jean-Michel are popular choices for compound first names? Is there something scriptural or in church history? Or is it just that they are already two of the most popular male first names (and have been for over a millenium) so they naturally wind up linked?

As the possessor of what has been another of the most popular first names in english ever since 1066, and one of those names with many, many derivatives (you NEVER know what to call someone whose given name is William unless you ask!), I find these things interesting.

dltrammel said...

I know John you prefer not to get into politics, but with the mention of Glenn Beck, this post had me rolling in my seat laughing.

I doubt "the powers that be" will heed the suggestions but it does speak to reawakening many so called conservatives may be going thru. We can only hope that conservation and sustainability will resurface with similar strength.

gwizard43 said...

"As the industrial age winds down, it’s very likely that we will reach a point when no nation on Earth still has the effective means to wage nuclear war"

Seems like this could also be read:

"As the industrial age winds down, it’s very likely that we will reach a point when no nation on Earth still has the effective means to keep their nuclear reactors under control"

Frankly, my concern isn't nuclear war - it's nuclear meltdown of the existing 104 or so reactors in America. If we as a nation were in fact facing reality, we'd be busy working out decommissioning schedules to follow for the next century. The fact that we are not and that I think we'll keep insisting right up until the end that things will shortly return to 'normal' means a high likelihood of ignoring that particular problem until it becomes impossible to ignore.

latheChuck said...

Re: the long-term safety of nuclear reactors (and their spent fuel), we may not need for unreplaceable parts to wear out. According to the February 2012 issue of IEEE Spectrum (a professional journal for Electrical and Electronics Engineers), there's a 1/100 chance each year of a solar flare which would burn out many of the high-voltage transmission line transformers of the world. (The simple way to prevent damage is to open the circuit breakers first, but that takes an alert system operator with the fortitude to initiate a regional blackout "just in case".) After a week without grid power, the backup generators run out of fuel, the water circulating pumps shut down, and both reactor cores and spent-fuel pools overheat. Worst case: Fukushima x 400.

Richard Larson said...

Ha! For most of the read I was thinking you have become an optimist - that nothing bad was with nuclear weapons. Your last two paragraphs cleared that up.

Chris Hall said...


in response to your reply to my comment, in which you mentioned operation Olympic as a case in point as to why the 'theory' I mentioned 'didn't hold water"...

That operation, part of Operation Downfall, was planned a fair while in advance. Based on intelligence available *early* in 1945, the operational assumptions included the following (from the Wiki article):

"That operations in this area will be opposed not only by the available organized military forces of the Empire, but also by a fanatically hostile population."
"That approximately three (3) hostile divisions will be disposed in Southern Kyushu and an additional three (3) in Northern Kyushu at initiation of the OLYMPIC operation."
"That total hostile forces committed against Kyushu operations will not exceed eight (8) to ten (10) divisions and that this level will be speedily attained."
"That approximately twenty-one (21) hostile divisions, including depot divisions, will be on Honshu at initiation of [Coronet] and that fourteen (14) of these divisions may be employed in the KANTO PLAIN area."
"That the enemy may withdraw his land-based air forces to the Asiatic Mainland for protection from our neutralizing attacks. That under such circumstances he can possibly amass from 2,000 to 2,500 planes in that area by exercise of rigid economy, and that this force can operate against Kyushu landings by staging through homeland fields."

The problem with all those above planning assumptions, and the casualties associated to them, was that the US gained Naval control of the waters around Japan by spring of that year, and thus all those estimates of Japanese homeland troop reinforcements from mainland China were inapplicable. The US's own Strategic Assessment of land invasion casualties, taken in early summer of 1945, according to Alperovitz's research, was on the order of 35,000~45,000 casualties. Hardly the "millions" that gets quoted with frequency as a justification for dropping those weapons.

Truman's own speaking tour after the war had ended, as Alperovitz notes, stated initially with mentions of a casualty estimate of "50,000" and he gradually increased the number over the ensuing months to 100,000, then 250,000, then "half a million lives". Nothing theoretical - the record speaks for itself.

I would encourage you to read Alperovitz's work to see how theoretical it is - it's grounded in hard research over a 40 year period.

chad said...

Wait, don't you mean George W. Bush when you say "the people responsible for 9/11"?????

"If the people responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US had used a stolen nuclear weapon rather than hijacked aircraft, for example, there’s a significant chance that the blowback might have included the instant thermonuclear annihilation of the city of Kabul; this was presumably not a risk the Taliban would have wanted to run.)"