Thinking About the Unthinkable

Photograph Source: Rennett Stowe – CC BY 2.0

I’ve been darkly amused by the large number of people I’ve seen and heard dismissing the possibility of nuclear World War III emerging from the Ukraine War: “That’s unthinkable, it would never happen.” So I have been told both by blue and yellow flag-waving Ukraine fans demanding a recklessly provocative US/NATO No-Fly Zone over Ukraine and by “left” Putinists who see the Russian invasion of Ukraine as part of noble Eurasian-geopolitical resistance to US global hegemony.

“One Minute to Midnight”

I doubt the people saying “stop worrying about WWIII” have any idea how close the world came to nuclear winter in October of 1962, when John Fitzgerald Kennedy decided to turn Soviet missiles sent to protect socialist Cuba from further U.S. invasions into a game of nuclear chicken. On October 27, 1962, Soviet submarine Second Captain Vasily Arkhipov’s refusal to agree with his Captain’s decision to assemble and launch a nuclear torpedo at US destroyers in the Saragossa Sea may well have saved humanity from annihilation. At the time, one-third of the United States’ nuclear bomb-carrying Air Force fleet was in the air at “Defcon 2,” the highest U.S. nuclear alert short of launch. Each of the B-52s in the sky could have set off terminal human catastrophe with or without direction from US Strategic Air Command (SAC).

It was “one minute to midnight” because Washington the US was willing to risk global annihilation to uphold the principle of no Soviet interference in Western hemispheric affairs.

October 1962 was hardly the last close call. As the world’s leading intellectual Noam Chomsky observed in a reflection marking the Cuban Missile Crisis’s 50-year anniversary:

‘Ten years later, during the 1973 Israel-Arab war, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger called a high-level nuclear alert (DEFCON 3) to warn the Russians to keep their hands off while he was secretly authorizing Israel to violate the cease-fire imposed by the U.S. and Russia. When Reagan came into office a few years later, the U.S. launched operations probing Russian defenses and simulating air and naval attacks, while placing Pershing missiles in Germany with a five-minute flight time to Russian targets, providing what the CIA called a “super-sudden first strike” capability. Naturally this caused great alarm in Russia, which unlike the U.S. has repeatedly been invaded and virtually destroyed. That led to a major war scare in 1983. There have been hundreds of cases when human intervention aborted a first strike minutes before launch, after automated systems gave false alarms. We don’t have Russian records, but there’s no doubt that their systems are far more accident-prone.’

Note the reference to false alarms and accident-prone automated systems – a problem even before the age of cyberwarfare. The most likely scenarios for nuclear war today have to do with technical frailty, bad information, and/or mistaken reads of sound information related to shortened time frames in the heat of crisis and the fog of war.

WWIII, Please: A Weakened “Nuclear Taboo” Amidst Calls to “Close the Sky”

Meanwhile, Putin has openly used the threat of nuclear war to provide cover for his invasion of Ukraine. Russian military legitimizes the use of nuclear weapons and Russia has declared its readiness to use such weapons if “necessary” to maintain the integrity of the Russian state. The war that Putin has launched in Ukraine has provoked a massive influx of effective, high-tech NATO weaponry and historically unprecedented US-Western economic sanctions on Russia help raise Kremlin fears of state collapse.

Ominously enough, the invasion has not followed the smooth path of conquest Putin anticipated, upping his strongman frustration and fueling US-NATO dreams of “cancelling Mother Russia” once and for all. The war has placed both US and Russian nuclear forces on heightened alert, shortening time frames for decision-making amidst the fog of emotionally potent bloodshed.

An errant Russian missile landing in NATO territory could spark deadly escalation. The No-Fly Zone that Zelensky and other “Close the Sky” fans have recklessly called for would produce direct military confrontations between US-NATO forces and Russian forces within and beyond Ukraine and just hours from Moscow. A No-Fly Zone over Ukraine would very possibly “close the sky” for all living things. So could the US honoring Zelensky’s insistent calls for Western fighter jets to be deployed in Ukraine.

To make matters scarier, both Russia and the US now deploy smaller scale nuclear weapons that make nuclear attacks seem more “thinkable.” Some experts think they could spark a holocaust. As the New York Times reported four days ago:

‘The case against these arms is that they undermine the nuclear taboo and make crisis situations even more dangerous. Their less destructive nature, critics say, can feed the illusion of atomic control when in fact their use can suddenly flare into a full-blown nuclear war. A simulation devised by experts at Princeton University starts with Moscow firing a nuclear warning shot; NATO responds with a small strike, and the ensuing war yields more than 90 million casualties in its first few hours.’

These are things people want to consider more deeply in a nation (the USA) where 56% of “adults” and 68% of Republican “adults” think that Biden isn’t being “tough enough” on Russia regarding Ukraine. “World War III, please!” It is very dangerous indeed to turn tens of millions of an imperial superpower’s citizens into abject morons with propagandistic war media that intersperses emotionally potent images of civilian war victims with infantilizing commercials for car insurance and fast food.

Some Other Unthinkables

People might want to get over “unthinkable” and “it can’t happen” in a more general sense. Few Westerners imagined the scale of the carnage that was carried out during World War I, which killed roughly 20 million people, half of them civilians. Or the mass slaughter that was World War II, which killed 70 to 83 million. Many if not most liberal and other intellectuals policymakers in the West thought Hitler’s rise to power, dictatorship, German re-armament, conquest of Western Europe, and Holocaust was unimaginable, unthinkable. Few US Americans can or wish to acknowledge North American and US holocausts that have already occurred in their “homeland.” Only a minority of USAers can or will wrap their minds around the genocidal Hell that their supposedly glorious nation’s march across North America was for Native Americans or around the savage racist Holocaust that was more than a two and a half centuries of Black chattel slavery in British colonial North America and the US republic from 1776 through 1865 – or around the restoration of Black cotton slavery under other white supremacist names in the long Jim Crow era. A spate of recent Amerikaner US red state laws ostensibly aimed at the “critical race theory” (supposedly being used by grade-school teachers to “traumatize” poor white children) is meant to delete these dark undersides of American history from the collective memory of future generations. They are meant to make critical parts of the American past literally unthinkable. Who ever thought such openly Orwellian white-supremacist legislation would be passed in the USA? And who before 2015 thought that a demented and malignant, openly eco-cidal, fascistic, and pandemicist lunatic and sociopathic reality television freak like Donald “I’d Like to Have Sex with my Daughter” Trump could ever be elected to the US presidency?

The Greenhouse Gas Chamber Project

Is Ecocide unthinkable? It certainly isn’t to Earth scientists who have spent decades trying to advise US and world citizens and policymakers about how the excessive extraction and burning of fossil fuels threatens to cancel all hopes for a decent human future. One of the earliest warnings came in 1959, when the acclaimed nuclear physicist Edward Teller told 300 corporate executives, government officials, and researchers gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the oil industry that CO2 blocks infrared radiation. The continued mass burning of oil, gas, and coal could “met the icecaps” and flood the world’s coastal metropolises, Teller warned. Later oil industry research at Exxon and elsewhere was consistent with the alarm, which hardly stopped fossil capital and fossil capitalism from bringing us to the present precipice of sheer catastrophe. The industry’s own climate science findings did not stop it from mounting climate denialist propaganda or from working to crush and coopt climate activism and environmental policy.

Released while news-watching eyeballs have been focused on the fossil fuel uber-oligarch Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the US-Western-NATO response, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) latest scientific report shows that (unmentionably capitalogenic) global warming is increasing so quickly as to overcome our ability to adapt unless we rapidly and massively reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Compiled by 270 researchers from 67 countries, the IPCC report is what UN Secretary General António Guterres calls “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.” It finds that nations aren’t coming remotely close to what’s required to protect cities, crops, forests, water supplies, and coastlines from record droughts, massive storms, wildfires, rising seas, and blistering heat. According to IPCC researcher and University of Texas ecologist Camille Parmesan, “we’re seeing adverse impacts that are much more widespread and much more negative than expected.” Half of humanity already faces extreme water scarcity part of each year. Climate-fueled floods, storms, and droughts displaced at least 13 million people in Asia and Africa in 2019. Rising heat is wiping out harvests and trees, spreading famine and malnutrition and bringing mosquito-borne diseases into new regions.

And this is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg of the existential menace facing humanity if carbon emissions are not drastically slashed in coming years. The worst initial effects are being suffered in the mostly nonwhite global South of the world capitalist periphery, but the rolling climate calamity will ultimately claim blue-eyed Swedes and Canadian truckers along with the rest of homo sapiens. Global fossil capitalism is turning the entire planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber – a criminal project on a scale that makes Adolph Hitler look like a small-time gangster.

Meeting the grave climate challenge, the IPCC says, requires “transformational change” in how human beings relate to each other and nature. What the IPCC can’t and won’t say is that this means rapidly and radically moving beyond capitalism, which is (a) by its very nature too anarchic, chaotic, and dependent on constant growth and expansion to be brought to environmentally sustainable heel and (b) hopelessly addicted to and invested in fossil fuels.

Why the Climate Menace is Worse

How is cold extinction via nuclear winter (brought to us by rich and powerful white men) “unthinkable” when hot extinction via climate change (also brought to us by rich and powerful white men) is well underway? The second form of exterminism may well be the worst of the two great existential menaces of our time. With every passing great power “high alert” standoff that doesn’t go full thermonuclear, we’re fortunate again. The risk of nuclear war doesn’t normally rise with each passing day. It lurks in the nightmarish and Strangelovian background, rearing its head in moments of geopolitical crisis and then receding for years. By contrast, the planet’s atmosphere fills up with ever more ruinous carbon with each passing insane fossil-capitalist minute, setting off more permafrost and clathrate methane releases, turning more forests into tinderboxes, and liquifying more glaciers.

Every day we avoid WWIII we continue to be lucky. Every day we continue to avoid the problem of global warming we just dig our collective grave deeper.

The Ukraine War as Exterminist Fossil Capitalist Opportunity

Darkly enough (sorry), the current hot war that has brought us closer to cold nuclear annihilation that at any point since the Cold War is also accelerating the pace of hot carbon death. Here again some wise words from Chomsky, the Bertrand Russell (and then some) of our times:

‘In the midst of the Ukraine crisis, the IPCC released its 2022 report, by far the most dire warning it has yet produced. The report made it very clear that we must take firm measures now, with no delay, to cut back the use of fossil fuels and to move toward renewable energy. The warnings received brief notice, and then our strange species returned to devoting scarce resources to destruction and rapidly increasing its poisoning of the atmosphere, while blocking efforts for extricating itself from its suicidal path. The fossil fuel industry can scarcely suppress its joy in the new opportunities the invasion has provided to accelerate its destruction of life on earth. In the U.S., the denialist party, which has successfully blocked Biden’s limited efforts to deal with the existential crisis, is likely to be back in power soon, so that it can resume the dedication of the Trump administration to destroy everything as quickly and effectively as possible’ [1]

Indeed, fossil capital’s friends on the fossil fascist Amerikaner right – slated to regain the US Congress later this year and the White House (and thus the full federal trifecta of legislative, judicial, and executive power) – are using the Ukraine Crisis to speed up the Greenhouse Gassing Project with special new wartime verve. They claim that petroligarch Putin’s dastardly invasion is the result of the West’s weakness-inducing dependence on Russian oil and gas resulting from – get this – “the left’s” attachment to “the climate religion.” By “climate religion,” the fossil fascists mean the overwhelming consensus of climate science, supposedly being used by pupated “socialists” like the corporatist Joe Biden to allegedly block the extraction and burning of North American fossil fuels. The solution, white nationalist Fatherland (FOX) News wants its viewers to know, is to increase the pace and scale of North American fossil fuel extraction and marketing. (And also, by the way, to ramp up nuclear energy, whose grave menaces to a livable ecology and human survival are also denied on the right.)

Nothing is unthinkable under capitalism-imperialism, which is hard-wired for human extinction and faces humanity with the stark choice posited by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in 1848: “the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” or “the common ruin of all.”

Here’s something officially unthinkable worth more than just thinking about: organizing for a socialist people’s revolution against our capitalist and imperialist masters of war and ecocide.


+1. It was largely with Trump’s environmental policies in mind that Chomsky rightly described Trump as “the most dangerous criminal in human history” in early February of 2020. Curiously enough given the bodacious nature of the loudmouthed fascist Trump’s racist and sexist conduct, the Trump administration’s savagely fossil-capitalist and environmentally exterminist energy and environmental practices and policies – the most materially lethal actions of the Trump presidency – took place in relative silence and behind the scenes. For an excellent description of Trump’s comparatively quiet and stealth eco-fascism, with the nation’s environmental portfolio simply handed over to the very fossil fuel corporations dedicated to ending life on Earth, see Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism (New York: Verso, 2021), 181-206. “The more outrageous the Trump show,” Malm and the Zetkin Collective write about Trump’s “silent deregulation,” the “more spellbound the media and the less attention paid to the environment…the performance of whiteness worked as a smokescreen…The transfer of resources [and federal energy and environmental offices] to private hands came with little presidential flourish. It proceeded quietly, methodically, indicating ‘some level of preplanning – the ground prepared by [the right-wing] American Legislative Exchange Council, the [ecofascist] Heartland Institute et al. – while the racism was enacted as a spectacle on a whim.” (p. 202). Of course, none of this is meant to suggest endorsement of the Biden administration’s horrific energy practices to date.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).