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Hubris and the survival of mankind

May 18, 2011

Hubris and the survival of mankind

Lloyd J. Dumas: The technology trap. Where human error and malevolence meet powerful technologies. Praeger, 2010.

In the Greek tragedies of antiquity hubris is often seen as the most severe of human transgressions. “Hubris” is translated by Webster as “wanton insolence or arrogance resulting from excessive pride or passion.” It is often hubris which in the end causes the wrath and revenge of the gods, nemesis divina.

Carl Sagan, astronomer and famous TV personality in the 1980s, pondered upon hubris. He asked the question: Why is there no one out there in the universe who contacts us? There ought to be civilizations within surmountable distance able to send signals. We have not heard from them. This problem, the so called Fermi paradox, is evaluated in the Frank Drake equation, which is well explained in Wikipedia. Maybe any technologically advanced society by necessity carries within itself the seed of its own destruction and survives only for a short time?

For the first time in the history of mankind we have the power to annihilate ourselves. That could occur through malicious action, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s story Cat’s Cradle, by a dictator who wants us all to die with him. It could also happen by mistake, a simple human mistake.

Human mistakes have been the subject of several studies by Lloyd J. Dumas, “Jeff” to us in IPPNW who have met and learnt from him at our conferences. He is a US economist who is also trained as an engineer. His book Lethal Arrogance is a classic in the field, but now out of print. In his new book, The Technology Trap, he describes many terrifying misunderstandings and mistakes. His most important thesis is that humans will always make mistakes and it is the situation, not the error itself, which determines how serious the outcome will be. In everyday life the consequences are as a rule limited, but we make the same type of mistakes also in situations when this causes catastrophes. He lists 65 incidents with nuclear weapons in the USA and 35 in other countries. Some of these caused great dangers to humans and to the environment. In a few cases the outcome was a large catastrophe, such in Kyshtym in Southern Ural in 1957. Most of these mistakes occurred in systems where the technology was trusted to be very safe.

In recent months we have witnessed consequences of overconfidence in our ability to predict and control the technological dangers. Nuclear power plants were built in areas prone to earthquakes. The builders trusted that a tsunami would not be higher than the wall built towards the sea and for this reason saw no reason why the emergency electricity generators should be placed on high ground. Neither the earthquake nor the tsunami obeyed the rules. Here it is not a mistake made in the daily management of the reactor which caused the catastrophe, it is a excessive trust in our technological competence.

New nuclear power stations will be constructed, more secure than those of previous generations, but the greatest security risk, the human factor, cannot be secured. Nuclear power plants are today planned for countries with a culture of technological and managerial safety even lower than in Fukushima or Forsmark, Sweden. New meltdowns will occur and the local consequences will be severe. But we will get used to this. Accidents of civilian nuclear energy will not exterminate mankind. Nuclear weapons can.

There are two people in the world who can destroy mankind by pressing a button, the president of Russia and the president of the USA. The “doomsday button” is always, always at hand. In his book, Jeff Dumas makes it clear that several persons other than the presidents can fire the nuclear missiles. Bruce Blair, a military officer who once was in charge of nuclear missiles, says that he could have fired 120 land-based missiles without obtaining any code or “permissive link.” For the nuclear submarines the permissive code was set at 0000 until the middle of the 1990s. This was not known to e.g. the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, who believed a reliable code system was in place. It is scarce comfort when the most recent presidential Nuclear Posture Review assures us that measures will be taken to decrease the risk of unauthorized firing of nuclear weapons. Decrease, not eliminate.

A Russian general said once that “if a terrorist knows what I know about nuclear weap0ns he could fire missiles and start the Third World War.”

Today the danger of a global nuclear war is less than it was during the Cold War, but it is not zero. If the nuclear weapons are not abolished they will proliferate to more countries, increasing the risk of their use.

We do not know the political situation in the world a couple of centuries from now. The cold war may return. Now is the best time to agree on the abolition of all nuclear weapons within an agreed time frame.

He who suffers from hubris is, in the Greek tragedies, punished by the gods and meets a terrible fate. Our technological hubris, our belief that we can control the forces of nature and the genies we have unleashed, is the greatest threat to our survival. That we allow nuclear weapons to remain, ready for immediate firing, is the clearest evidence of our arrogance. If we cannot manage this simple task, to abolish all nuclear weapons, the chances for the survival of mankind are poor.

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