Caution, Culture, and Race for Progress

Having been introduced in Weeks 1 & 2 of the course, the Basic Problem of scientific progress and its ironic propensity to increase risks while at the same time healing societal problems, is the focus of this post. To reiterate for readers, the Basic Problem as defined by Prof. Chaloupka both in class and in transcripts of speeches given in Bristol and Vienna is as follows:

“In our understanding of nature (science), and in the application of that understanding (technology), we are acquiring powers that will soon become truly god-like…. However, our ability to use this power wisely has not increased correspondingly. For the first time in human history, the capability of causing extreme harm is, or will soon be, in the hands of individuals or small groups. This is the ‘Basic Problem’.”[i]

As a class, we have seen how Richard Feynman dealt with the dilemma of the Basic Problem himself. A participant in the Manhattan project, [ii]he found himself asking the same questions that we, as a class, continue to examine today.

This leads me to the topic of this post: the relation between innovation and progress in science and the resulting inherent increase in risk to humanity. Specifically, I would like to consider selected readings from Weeks 3&4 on the Ukraine Crisis’ possible impact on nuclear non-proliferation and on Global Warming’s role today. I began thinking about the relation between the two during Week 3’s quiz section, to which both physics and social science students contributed.

The Ukraine Crisis

Current events in what has become known as the ‘Ukraine Crisis’ have been dominating headlines for almost a full month. They remind the world of a time when Russia and the West were on less than stellar terms – a time of fear, especially for western countries bordering the Iron Curtain. The Ukraine Crisis does not, however, lead immediately to consideration of its effects on global nuclear non-proliferation (or, at least this is the case for myself).  Finding the link between the two was set as a challenge by Prof. Chaloupka – and led to the learning of some very interesting learning.

At the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine had the 3rd largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Much of the USSR’s nuclear weaponry had some element of production in the Ukraine. This information was most definitely new to me. I knew, of course, of the famed Chernobyl disaster. My parents themselves have stories of Chernobyl, and how it was covered by Bulgarian media at the time. My aunt visited Ukraine on a business trip not far from Chernobyl just one week after the accident. She recalls a group tour of a zoo, where many of the animals appeared weak and sick – the tour guides did not, of course, talk about Chernobyl. Less than a year later, she had a benign tumor removed from her thyroid. Yet Chernobyl was just one of many nuclear projects in Ukraine.

On December 5, 1994, Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assistance. This agreement, which was also signed by the US and UK, stipulated security assurances against threats to territorial integrity or force against Ukraine. The Memorandum was spurred by Ukraine’s joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. As a condition of the Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to relinquish its nuclear arsenal to Russia. The nuclear weapons it had stockpiled were sent to Russia by 1996, and Ukraine was declared nuke-free.

How does this relate to the Basic Problem? It is a direct example of how “our ability to use [great] power wisely has not increased corresponding” to scientific advancements. The Ukraine Crisis, in particular, brings with it the spectre of MAD. If large, powerful nations such as Russia do not hold to their assurances on nuclear power and agreements such as the Budapest Memorandum lose validity, then what alternatives are available as preventative measures to nuclear war and devastation?

The most obvious answer to come to mind is the reinstallation of Cold War era MAD policies. If other countries considering signing the Treaty on Non-Proliferation believe that doing so will risk their territorial integrities, then they will be far less willing to join. If agreements such as the Budapest Memorandum are disregarded by larger countries, they are no longer of any political value. In such a scenario, it seems logical that small countries will not only refuse to join the Treaty on Non-Proliferation, believing that the ability to threaten nuclear retaliation may discourage large powers from breaching their sovereignty. Countries such as Iran and North Korea are particularly likely to use the Ukraine Crisis as justification for intensifying their nuclear programs.

On MAD & Global Warming

MAD policies are, by definition, based on fear tactics. As long as all actors in MAD are equally deterred by the possibility of nuclear retaliation to their actions, then nobody should step out of line.

It is interesting, then, to compare the fear tactics of MAD and the Global Warming movement.

As documented in the NY Times article “Global Warming Scare Tactics” by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, fear-based tactics have been used in attempts to raise public concern about climate change. Such tactics include linking the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters to human-caused climate change. Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, also used this method. Strangely, however, the number of Americans believing that global warming has been exaggerated the media has increased since 2006 – from 34% to 42%.

Why should fear tactics work in MAD then, if they are falling short for climate change? The answer lies in the immediacy perceived about each.

MAD is a construct left over from the Cold War. In the USA, the adults of today remember being instructed to “duck and cover” in response to the flash of nuclear detonations. Photos and accounts of the human suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki create immediate emotional responses. The public can, therefore, clearly visualize the potential risks of nuclear disaster and how they would affect everyday life. As a result, the public perceives the risks of MAD as realistic and possible.

By contrast, the effects of global warming are easy to envision for future generations, but much more difficult to envision within our own lifetimes. Despite being accelerated by human pollution, climate change is nevertheless an extremely slow process. The harmful consequences of our actions today will not come to be for generations. It is not our current society that will have to deal with the result of rising seas, intense storms, and changes in regional climates. It will be our grand- and great-grand children who will suffer the consequences of inaction today. There are no disastrous events concretely linked to climate change, so the public cannot visualize the consequences of global warming as it can for MAD. The result is that the public’s incentive for responding to fear-based global warming tactics is greatly reduced.


MAD and the global warming movement both use fear-based tactics in attempting to prevent nuclear warfare and further environmental destruction, respectively. The successes of MAD and the shortcomings of global warming each hold implications for the other.

MAD is in part useful because of the immediacy of the negative consequences if it fails to prevent nuclear warfare. It is maybe possible, then, for the global warming movement to increase its effectiveness in changing people’s behavior by finding new, more immediate ways to portray the consequences of climate change. Crucial to this will be clearly and definitively linking natural disasters and similar events to global warming. If the increasing frequency of extreme storms (ie. Hurricane Katrina) or rising water levels in Venice can be linked to climate change by basic science, skepticism about the problem should decrease.

Similarly, global warming’s failure to use fear-tactics for motivating change holds an important lesson for MAD supporters. Using catastrophic rhetoric may cause skepticism about the risks of nuclear conflict. If this happens, MAD loses much of its effectiveness as a preventative deterrent. It may be in society’s best interests to make a ‘back-up plan’ should MAD fail.

Concluding Thoughts

The readings, lectures, and discussions of Week 3&4 have made me think in more depth than ever before how science can both create problems of and solutions to Human Security issues. Scientific advancement is a double-edged sword. It is somewhat alarming that prior to this course in my 4th year of university I have not been exposed to these issues in my courses. The material taught in JSIS 216 should become part of regular curriculum in schools. Increasing awareness and understanding of the Basic Problem is the first, and most important, step in preventing disasters in the future.




[i] Vladimir Chaloupka, “Science, the Basic Problem and Human Security: or What is To Be Done?” (2008).

[ii] Vladimir Chaloupka, Common Book 2011: UW and Meaning of It All Study and Teaching Guide,” (2011).


2 thoughts on “Caution, Culture, and Race for Progress

  1. Pingback: Caution, Culture, and Race for Progress | Science and Society: Insights of a Student

  2. Pingback: Caution, Culture, and Race for Progress | Berlin 2012

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