A new approach to civilization needed
Seventy-three years ago, the “father” of the nuclear bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who headed the Manhattan Project, stood before his scientific peers to give a somber farewell assessment on the nuclear Pandora’s Box they had thrown open. No one in history had better understood the possibility that a human invention could annihilate the human race. The U.S. atomic bomb team set loose upon the world blast and heat and radiation of a magnitude that dwarfed all previous weapons of war.
Living with “the bomb”
Oppenheimer told his assembled colleagues that their creation required human society to do something it had never seriously attempted before — be one — or face the consequences that they would inevitably destroy each other. “Atomic weapons are a peril that affects everyone in the world, and in that sense, a common problem. To handle this common problem, there must be a complete sense of community responsibility.”
The need for a collective response to a manmade risk
In a recent Substack article, Brett Anderson, a philosopher and doctoral candidate in evolutionary psychology offers a few exciting ideas that build on Oppenheimer’s idea. Until recently, human progress was linked to waging war. But not the way you think. Humans advanced not because of a zero-sum, “winner take all” bloodfests.
Until the advent of the atom bomb, human progess, Anderson says, was achieved by what economists call a “non-zero-sum” game where there are still human winners and losers, but civilization advances as a whole. “When human groups go to war with each other,” Anderson says, “the largest, most cohesive, most cooperative groups will tend to win.”
“Atomic weapons are a peril that affects everyone in the world, and in that sense, a common problem. To handle this common problem, there must be a complete sense of community responsibility.”
Competition between groups begets cooperation within groups. And this, in turn, spreads innovation and advancement by the conqueror. World War II was the last real war of civilizations.
But if that is now impossible because of exponential technological advancement — read nuclear weapons — how then will humans progress?
There is only one answer: to negotiate, not fight.
“We will either make it through this period of technological advancement without wiping ourselves out, or we won’t. If we make it through, we all benefit. If we don’t make it, we all lose. Either way, we are all in this together now,” writes Anderson.
Oppenheimer never achieved how to implement a collective global response that would lead to perpetual peace rather than permanent self-destruction. He agonized over this for the rest of his life. Nor does Anderson have a clear path to manage manmade existential risk.
We can illuminate approaches that probably will not work.
- A single-world government
Many fighting climate change wish for a utopian United Nations-like international government. But the risk of unintended dystopian consequences is too significant. Top-down government requires absolute authority and a global governing body with nearly unlimited policing and surveillance capabilities. The chances of Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face — forever” are too great.
- Doubling down on self-interest and nationalism
Just how crazy it is that China and the U.S. are racing to see who can organize the largest, most cohesive coalition of forces to defeat the other when the only logical conclusion of this competition is nuclear war? Or that fossil fuel companies and petrostates are exploring for new oil and gas despite overwhelming scientific evidence that this will accelerate global warming.
- Nihilistic retreat
And then there is the intense skepticism of Gen Z. Many of these 20-somethings think the best thing to do is nothing because anything we do will only worsen matters. Human advancements in knowledge, technology, science, etc., are not advancements. They simply reflect a suicidal decision to walk away from the balance, connectedness, and wisdom of being one with nature. Worse, our “progress” results from exploiting, enslaving, and destroying nature and conquering peoples who do not share our worldview.
We must take the one step we have refused to embrace — a collective global response where war is not required, but where we are bound to what Oppenheimer said was a “deep moral dependence” on each other.
Evolve to solve
These tempting detours will not solve climate change, but Anderson makes a compelling case that we are uniquely equipped to find a better path forward. “The existential risks we face,” he writes, “are exactly the kind of problems humans evolved to solve.”
And here lies our solution for living with climate change and avoiding nuclear annihilation. “We cannot forget our dependence on our fellow men,” Oppenheimer said. “These are the strongest bonds in the world, stronger than those even that bind us to one another; these are the deepest bonds — that bind us to our fellow men.”
Both would agree we have the genius within us to overcome any threat.
Talented technologists, scientists, investors, businesses, universities, philosophers and policymakers are making climate progress. “Avoiding existential threats,” says Anderson, “is “the most important positive-sum game in human history.”
And it is a game we are good at. But now we must get even better if we are to survive. We must take the one step we have refused to embrace — a collective global response where war is not required, but where we are bound to what Oppenheimer said was a “deep moral dependence” on each other.