Risking It All

CAMBRIDGE – Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret about myriad minor – or sometimes improbable – hazards: carcinogens in food, air crashes, and so forth. But we are less secure than we think. We are in denial about scenarios that could cause such devastation that even one occurrence would be too many.

Much has been written about possible ecological shocks triggered by the impact of a growing human population’s demands on the biosphere, and about the social and political tensions stemming from resource scarcity or climate change. Even more worrying are the downside risks of powerful new cyber, bio, and nanotechnologies: A few individuals, via error or terror, could ignite a societal breakdown so quickly that government responses would be overwhelmed.

The “Anthropocene” era, in which the main global threats come from humans rather than from nature, became especially risky with the mass deployment of thermonuclear weapons. Throughout the Cold War, false alarms and miscalculation by both superpowers were a constant occurrence, with several posing a serious risk of triggering nuclear Armageddon.

Those who anxiously lived through the Cuban missile crisis would have been gripped by panic had they realized just how close the world came to catastrophe. Only later did we learn that President John F. Kennedy at one stage assessed the odds of nuclear war as “somewhere between one in three and even.” And only when he was long retired did Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara, state frankly that “[w]e came within a hairbreadth of nuclear war without realizing it. It’s no credit to us that we escaped – Khrushchev and Kennedy were lucky as well as wise.”