There are two problems with humanity that have become more accentuated over the millennia and today collide with potentially serious consequences for the survival and continuity of our civilization. The war against Ukraine has laid these challenges bare.
The first concerns the growing quantity of destructive energy accumulated in the hands of single individuals. Over the last ten thousand years, humanity has transitioned from small village-like settlements, which perhaps housed a few hundred, maybe thousands, of our fellow creatures, through to more urban civilizations and city states of ancient times, and then to societies which today encompass the lives of many tens of millions of people. Since the seventeenth century at least, and the emergence of the Westphalian concept of identity, we have called these entities nation-states and they occupy specific geographical boundaries.
With this growth in population, and the size of nations associated with it, has come an enormous multiplication in the power of individuals who manage them, whether that be prime ministers, presidents or monarchs.
That fact alone – an expansion in the number of people living under the watchful eyes of their leader – wouldn’t be a problem if it did not come with another development since ancient times, which one might say had a certain sort of inevitability: the increasing energy of weapons wielded by these individuals. This energy has been harnessed through the scientific, military, and administrative institutions associated with these vast nation-states.
During the last millennium, the sheer scale of energy that a leader can direct against their enemies has grown by colossal proportions. If it takes about 100 joules (a measure of energy), for an archer to draw a bow, then 10,000 archers can direct about a million joules of energy towards their foe. Today, an autocrat with access to just a single one megaton nuclear weapon (usually measured in the equivalent amount of the explosive TNT), has at their command about a billion times as much energy as those archers.
Thus, in the modern age, we find ourselves at the terrible nexus of immense state power merged with awesome destructive energies. How are we to confront this problem?
First – the weapons. We cannot “uninvent” technologies, so we must find ways to minimize their number and potential for use. The UN sought to ban nuclear weapons through its Treaty on the Prohibition of nuclear weapons and fundamentally this seems like a sensible idea. However, the problem is not specifically nuclear – it is a state’s access to any weapon with prodigious ruinous potential.
Perhaps a better palliative would be to ban any weapon over a certain energetic yield. Given that the largest conventional weapon is the MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast, although the acronym can also stand for the unsubtle “Mother of All Bombs”), with a yield of 11 tons of TNT (or 46 gigajoules), we might seek to move towards a long-term goal of a global restriction on the production of weapons with a yield of more than 50 gigajoules and lay out intermediate steps to that end.
Such a regime could likely never prevent the sequestering of powerful weapons; the vision is probably optimistic. However, as a goal it might nudge civilization towards a mentality that keeps us focused on progressive and continuous attempts to limit the uncontrolled release of physical energies by bad actors; it might encourage advancements in the technology to detect the mass construction of such devices.
If we do not have such ambitions, then we should ask ourselves: Where do we draw the line on energetic limits? Surely, we cannot long survive if we find new ways to release pulses of ever more disruptive energies in anger. If we do not attempt to impose limits on ourselves, how can we prevent a runaway expansion in the number and total energetic yield of such contraptions?
These efforts cannot circumscribe terrors like biological and chemical weapons, which have low energetic requirements. Alongside efforts to rein in cataclysmic energetic possibilities, clearly agreements must continue to limit these other weapons. It is simplistic to conceive of the growing horrors of war as merely energetic, but meliorating the latter will certainly go a long way to mitigating at least one important threat.
Alongside the growth in the energetic potentialities of malefactors, there is a second problem we face: the very little progress we have made in curbing tyrannies. We have enormously advanced the structures of the political state over centuries, from the rudimentary direct democracy of ancient Greece to the multi-layered, multi-branched governments of today.
We have learned much about how to build civil society; during the last few centuries impressive strides have been made to erect the legal and social fabric required for freedom of expression and impartial legal systems, to name just two developments. Not least, international cooperation has intensified in its reach and the number of subjects with which it concerns itself.
From the simple military alliances of yesteryear have emerged civilian organizations and agreements that are manifested in organizations like the United Nations to treaties that regulate behavior across entire continents, such as the International Antarctic Treaty. Humanity has shown itself capable of thinking not only on a planetary scale, but also, as it plans for the settlement of places like the Moon, an interplanetary one. The ancient Greeks would have been dumbfounded at the idea of a Moon treaty.
Yet despite the complex modern structure of nation states and the sophistication they have, despotic rulers around the world still behave like medieval kings and queens, acting on whimsical motives and spurious national objectives, propped up by unchallenged power and long terms of office. Here again, this matter would not be one of grave concern if it wasn’t for the fact that these primitive urges are now coupled to the capacity to wield the annihilating energies that I have mentioned.
To overcome the political weakness, we must work on controlling the executive branch of governments, ensuring maximum terms for heads of state, better checks and balances over military power, and devising better, perhaps new, political mechanisms to shackle leaders who begin to wield these promethean energetic capabilities to the great danger of humanity. In essence, we need to work hard to move beyond political systems that involve the power of the state invested in a single unelected individual.
Achieving these improvements is not only about increasing “democracy,” an oft-suggested panacea for all political ills and flavors of authoritarianism. It requires refining and fine-tuning the mutually reinforcing stabilities within the executive branches of governments that, if too weak, allow unrestrained and unpredictable, sometimes malevolent, power to access and threaten the use of the worst weapons humanity can invent.
In summary, our challenge with power is this: we must break the Gordian knot of entangled physically destructive energy and political power. To do this, we need to unravel both ends of the knot. On one end, we need to work hard to minimize, or greatly improve, the difficulty with which leaders can access and use destructive energy, not least by redoubling our efforts to set limits on weapons of destruction through international agreement. These pledges must dissolve a world in which nuclear threats become a standard method of exerting influence over other nations. During Russia’s war against Ukraine, the variety and number of threats to use nuclear weapons leaves us in no doubt that this is a terrifying reality.
From the other end, we need to bring into existence, and invent, new political methods to control the executive branch of government and its associated military. We cannot eradicate despotism; it is irredeemably welded into the human personality. However, we can get better at constructing political systems that contain the excesses of this ailment and especially its expression in war.
This is a global issue. Decoupling unrestrained political power from potent instruments of decimation is no longer simply a matter of improving the quality of life, reducing global tensions, and attempting to avert war.
The success of such a program is of existential significance. If we do not manage to untie the knot, then we will see many more instances of wars in which the brazen use of nuclear and ever more energetic weapons is threatened, with eventually disastrous results.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
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