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These days everyone worries about the dangers of technology. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine these worries have become very focused on one specific technology: nuclear weapons. Despite this danger and the other dangers technology has introduced, there are still many people who expect the exact opposite, that technology will be our salvation. I brought this dichotomy up in my very first newsletter. Looking back I might have given the mistaken impression that whichever it ends up being, salvation or destruction, that it will be simple. We will either be permanently saved or permanently destroyed.
This is not just my mistake, most people make this mistake, particularly when it comes to our current worry, nuclear war. They take a horribly complicated event and simplify it down to a single phrase: “The end of the world.” And nuclear war is not the only technological danger where this simplification happens. People often use similar language when talking about climate change.
On the other side of things, the imagined salvation is perhaps not as dramatic or as sudden, but it is imagined as being just as straightforward. Last week I attended a lecture by Steven Pinker, who made the argument that progress is continuing and things will just keep getting better, a subject he has written several books about. In support of this argument he offered numerous graphs showing that trends in everything from violence to wealth have been steadily improving for decades if not centuries. From this he asserted that there is no need to worry, just as we solved all of our past problems we will solve all of our future problems as well.
The belief in humanity’s unstoppable progress and the fear that we will annihilate ourselves in a nuclear war represent the extremes of optimism and pessimism. On the one hand is the claim that science and progress have solved or will solve all of our problems, on the other hand is the claim that if the situation in Ukraine escalates 7.9 billion people will die. Neither of these claims are true, but we have a tendency to think in extremes because they’re easier to understand.
As it turns out, even a war involving all of the nukes will not kill everyone. Recently a Reddit user put together a simulation which predicted that around 550 million people would die from the war, and the ensuing fallout and nuclear winter. That’s about 7% of everyone. Obviously the simulation could be wildly inaccurate, though it does claim to be based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN and CIA, but even if it was off by an order of magnitude that would still only be 70% or 5.5 billion people, leaving 2.4 billion people alive. An inconceivable tragedy, but not the end of the world. Also, these people might wish they were dead, because living after a nuclear war would be exceedingly difficult.
However, historically life has always been exceedingly difficult, not to mention messy. The Native Americans survived the loss of 90% of their total population. During the Black Death, Europeans survived death rates of up to 50%, with some people suggesting it was as high as 60%, very close to the extreme estimate of 70% above.
Despite this sort of messy middle being the historical default, we don’t like it. We want either the steady and implacable march of progress, or a quick end that absolves us of hard work. Even when we imagine surviving “the end”, we cut out most of the messy stuff, like raising crops, and making tools in favor of more simple apocalyptic stories, where there’s always plenty of canned food and lots of guns and ammo—even when we imagine a gigantic mess, we cut out all the truly difficult bits.
The modern world has made a lot of things easy that used to be incredibly complicated. It has made a lot of things possible that were previously impossible. In the process it has weakened our ability to deal with complicated and messy situations. We want the pandemic to go away if everyone just wears a mask, or if everyone gets vaccinated, or if we just ignore it. We want the invasion of Ukraine to stop if we implement the right level of sanctions, or institute a no fly zone, or, again, if we just ignore it. But the truth is that simplicity and ease are temporary aberrations, messiness has returned and we’d better get used to it.
You may not have realized that nuclear war would only kill 550 million people. If you feel any appreciation for this comforting fact, and would like more comforting facts in the future, consider donating.