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Chomsky writes: "A central conclusion is that the U.S. must maintain the right of a nuclear first strike, even against non-nuclear states."

Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky of MIT. (photo: EPA)
Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky of MIT. (photo: EPA)

The Dimming Prospects for Human Survival

By Noam Chomsky, AlterNet

02 April 14


From nuclear war to the destruction of the environment, humanity is steering the wrong course.

previous article I wrote explored how security is a high priority for government planners: security, that is, for state power and its primary constituency, concentrated private power - all of which entails that official policy must be protected from public scrutiny.

In these terms, government actions fall in place as quite rational, including the rationality of collective suicide. Even instant destruction by nuclear weapons has never ranked high among the concerns of state authorities.

To cite an example from the late Cold War: In November 1983 the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization launched a military exercise designed to probe Russian air defenses, simulating air and naval attacks and even a nuclear alert.

These actions were undertaken at a very tense moment. Pershing II strategic missiles were being deployed in Europe. President Reagan, fresh from the "Evil Empire" speech, had announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed "Star Wars," which the Russians understood to be effectively a first-strike weapon - a standard interpretation of missile defense on all sides.

Naturally these actions caused great alarm in Russia, which, unlike the U.S., was quite vulnerable and had repeatedly been invaded.

Newly released archives reveal that the danger was even more severe than historians had previously assumed. The NATO exercise "almost became a prelude to a preventative (Russian) nuclear strike," according to an account last year by Dmitry Adamsky in the Journal of Strategic Studies .

Nor was this the only close call. In September 1983, Russia's early-warning systems registered an incoming missile strike from the United States and sent the highest-level alert. The Soviet military protocol was to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.

The Soviet officer on duty, Stanislav Petrov, intuiting a false alarm, decided not to report the warnings to his superiors. Thanks to his dereliction of duty, we're alive to talk about the incident.

Security of the population was no more a high priority for Reagan planners than for their predecessors. Such heedlessness continues to the present, even putting aside the numerous near-catastrophic accidents, reviewed in a chilling new book, "Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety," by Eric Schlosser.

It's hard to contest the conclusion of the last commander of the Strategic Air Command, Gen . Lee Butler, that humanity has so far survived the nuclear age "by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion."

The government's regular, easy acceptance of threats to survival is almost too extraordinary to capture in words.

In 1995, well after the Soviet Union had collapsed, the U.S. Strategic Command, or Stratcom, which is in charge of nuclear weapons, published a study, "Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence."

A central conclusion is that the U.S. must maintain the right of a nuclear first strike, even against non-nuclear states. Furthermore, nuclear weapons must always be available, because they "cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict."

Thus nuclear weapons are always used, just as you use a gun if you aim it but don't fire when robbing a store - a point that Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, has repeatedly stressed.

Stratcom goes on to advise that "planners should not be too rational about determining ... what an adversary values," all of which must be targeted. "[I]t hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. . That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries."

It is "beneficial [for ...our strategic posture] that some elements may appear to be potentially'out of control'" - and thus posing a constant threat of nuclear attack.

Not much in this document pertains to the obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to make "good faith" efforts to eliminate the nuclear-weapon scourge from the earth. What resounds, rather, is an adaptation of Hilaire Belloc's famous 1898 couplet about the Maxim gun:

Whatever happens we have got,

The Atom Bomb and they have not.

Plans for the future are hardly promising. In December the Congressional Budget Office reported that the U.S. nuclear arsenal will cost $355 billion over the next decade. In January the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimated that the U.S. would spend $1 trillion on the nuclear arsenal in the next 30 years.

And of course the United States is not alone in the arms race. As Butler observed, it is a near miracle that we have escaped destruction so far. The longer we tempt fate, the less likely it is that we can hope for divine intervention to perpetuate the miracle.

In the case of nuclear weapons, at least we know in principle how to overcome the threat of apocalypse: Eliminate them.

But another dire peril casts its shadow over any contemplation of the future - environmental disaster. It's not clear that there even is an escape, though the longer we delay, the more severe the threat becomes - and not in the distant future. The commitment of governments to the security of their populations is therefore clearly exhibited by how they address this issue.

Today the United States is crowing about "100 years of energy independence" as the country becomes "the Saudi Arabia of the next century" - very likely the final century of human civilization if current policies persist.

One might even take a speech of President Obama's two years ago in the oil town of Cushing, Okla., to be an eloquent death-knell for the species.

He proclaimed with pride, to ample applause, that "Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That's important to know. Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some."

The applause also reveals something about government commitment to security. Industry profits are sure to be secured as "producing more oil and gas here at home" will continue to be "a critical part" of energy strategy, as the president promised.

The corporate sector is carrying out major propaganda campaigns to convince the public that climate change, if happening at all, does not result from human activity. These efforts are aimed at overcoming the excessive rationality of the public, which continues to be concerned about the threats that scientists overwhelmingly regard as near-certain and ominous.

To put it bluntly, in the moral calculus of today's capitalism, a bigger bonus tomorrow outweighs the fate of one's grandchildren.

What are the prospects for survival then? They are not bright. But the achievements of those who have struggled for centuries for greater freedom and justice leave a legacy that can be taken up and carried forward - and must be, and soon, if hopes for decent survival are to be sustained. And nothing can tell us more eloquently what kind of creatures we are.

This is Part II of an article adapted from a lecture by Noam Chomsky on Feb. 28, sponsored by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara, Calif (Read part 1 here). your social media marketing partner


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+25 # Yakpsyche 2014-04-02 09:04
Too bad the emotional brain dominates the intellectual brain in the majority of humans.
+5 # brux 2014-04-02 13:18
Not really ... the intellectual brain when confronted at the end of WWII with the reality of the Cold War, all the leading military "intellectuals" the game theorists and generals all said that the calculation was that the US should take over the world immediately while we had the power and weapons to do so. God knows how that did not happen. The intellectual brain focuses on the the equations it knows, not what it might not know, and if there is something it knows that is of really high priority, i.e. higher than thinking further, no further thought will be devoted.
+16 # Adoregon 2014-04-02 09:58
So, boycott fossil fuels.
+23 # wrknight 2014-04-02 10:16
"It's hard to contest the conclusion of the last commander of the Strategic Air Command, Gen . Lee Butler, that humanity has so far survived the nuclear age 'by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.'"

True, but there was damned little skill involved.
+32 # universlman 2014-04-02 11:40
The issue of burning fossil fuel in the atmosphere is the first universal environmental disaster we have ever faced, although arguably Chomsky has included nuclear annihilation. People forget, but there were many in the 70s who argued for alternative energy, and even the government was involved, until the drill babies and gasholes took over the scene, rejecting alternatives.

Today we are back at the starting gate facing a refreshed and wealthy opposition. We must somehow assign liability to these deniers so that when the whole mess begins to slide, they will finally be distracted in the law and in the court of public opinion.

Only then will the value and fitness of alternatives be recognized.
+20 # Seadog 2014-04-02 12:15
By then it will be too late to do much about this whole mess. Its probably already too late given the lag times involved in all of this.
-63 # brycenuc 2014-04-02 13:15
Carbon dioxide cannot possibly cause intolerable temperature rise. Rational analysis and both near-time and long-term history prove it. The world has enough to be legitimately concerned about to worry about the manufactured global warming alarm.
-37 # Malcolm 2014-04-02 17:18
So true. And how bizarre that even Chomsky has bought into it. I'm very surprised, because he's quite a brilliant fellow. I guess if one hears the big lie often enough, he starts believing it's the truth.
+8 # wrknight 2014-04-03 08:24
Quoting Malcolm:
I guess if one hears the big lie often enough, he starts believing it's the truth.
Right on Malcolm! Maybe you should stop listening to the big lie and get yourself an education from someplace other than Rush Lamebrain and Fox News.

And regarding brycenuc's comment, I wonder where he got his scientific credentials and knowledge about the attributes of carbon dioxide. I'm surprised he knows how to spell it.
+4 # tclose 2014-04-04 13:41
So lets see, brycenuc, you have an advanced degree in climatology and have reviewed all of the scientific papers by your colleagues that show exactly the opposite. You have carried out "rational analysis" utilizing data from "near-time and long-term history" to back up your conclusion, right?

Give me a break.

Bloggers on this site tend to be rational, intelligent people, who know something of the world and its issues. You, sir, do not fit into any of these categories.
+5 # Texan 4 Peace 2014-04-04 15:29
It isn't just carbon dioxide; methane has several times the "greenhouse" effect of CO2. Assuming you even care about the science.
+2 # JJS 2014-04-04 17:52
Yes T4P,
Methane is the key. And, yes, I consider myself a scientist.
Date: November 25, 2013
Source: University of Alaska Fairbanks

The seafloor off the coast of Northern Siberia is releasing more than twice the amount of methane as previously estimated, according to new research results.
+32 # The Buffalo Guy 2014-04-02 12:11
Eat drink and be merry; for tomorrow we die.........bur ied in the ashes of human ego, greed and narcissism!
+28 # brux 2014-04-02 12:41
Most of the Cold War is to make citizens of both sides feel more invested in their side and suspicious of anything outside of that. To make them think that everything important between nations occurs on a level they know nothing about, cannot comprehend and best stay out of and just work. Most of this world is - MUST - be about tricking people into keeping their heads down and working for their masters.
+7 # Malcolm 2014-04-02 17:19
So right, Brux!
+3 # tclose 2014-04-04 14:05
Yes, very well said, brux.
+26 # turtleislander 2014-04-02 12:53
Ashes quite possibly. There is a fracking field in NW wyoming I would guess about 1 hours drive from Yellowstone - one of the worlds hugest super volcanoes. Hydraulic demolition of rocky substrate so close to the magma chamber? We know they dont care about the earth or natural beauty, but blowing yourself and everything else to hell for a little more gas to burn?
+9 # wrknight 2014-04-02 15:18
Anybody ever wonder what happened to the dinosaurs?
-18 # Malcolm 2014-04-02 17:25
I'll bite; what happened? I think the earth got hit by a comet, or astreroid, which was going opposite to the direction of earth's rotation, which increased the big guys' effective weight by reducing the so-called centripetal force. This solves the perineal problem of how they managed to support their own weight. It also explains how this humongous flying reptiles could stay aloft. Also explains the fossils of huge dragon flies.

But enough about MY. Theories; what's yours?

I suspect that someone at this site will suggest dinosaurian farting caused global warming, dooming the poor things.

Could be, could be.
0 # wrknight 2014-04-03 10:15
My suspicion is that the dinosaurs self destructed by destroying their environment just like humans are doing. They had size, we have technology.
0 # brux 2014-04-10 19:34
I don't know ... I never saw a dinosaur ... have you? ;-)
0 # hydroweb 2014-04-05 15:17
This ignores underlying infection. Religion. Accounts for war. Accounts for draining the earth of resources. God put them here for man to use. The earth will soon rid itself of the infection by ridding itself of man!
0 # hydroweb 2014-04-05 17:16
How does your body fight infection? By heating up! Voila! Now we know what the result of global warming will be.

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