Black Swan events and the new Cold War

Or, making sense of the now much more real possibility of nuclear annihilation.

I apologize for the scattered nature of this post. I’ve done as best as I can to organize it into a coherent structure, though some of the word-vomit, stream-of-thought, too-much-information style might still seep through.

Hearing the news that rocked me more than COVID did

The year so far had been pretty great. I’m financially better off than I’ve ever been in my life. I have a wonderful network of friends. I’m talking to a promising life sciences startup that wants my expertise in both bio and machine learning. I got a brand new car that I actually feel excited about owning. I also got into a pretty great exercise routine.

Generally, I was feeling like years of hard work and “hustle” were starting to more visibly pay off.

…And then I saw the news about Russia putting its Nuclear forces on a higher alert status.

My Immediate Mental state

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a news story that truly made me fear for my life like this.

I can remember my parents taking me out of school on 9/11, and me getting home to see the scene on the news. At that age, I didn’t fully understand why a plane-crash was so scary.

During college I saw the live news of the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013. While I was scared, I was also safe in Providence, RI. Even my father that lived in Watertown was travelling at the time.

Fast forward to 2020 I saw the news of COVID-19. While it was pretty scary, I was still young, I had an earthquake preparedness kit that would also be handy in this case, and I was able to confirm that my family members were safely isolating.

The prospect of a new Cold War hits much differently. I felt like I was suddenly faced with a higher-than-comfortable chance of not just dying, not just dying painfully, but my family and friends and extended social network also meeting that same fate. Intellectually, I knew that the world’s nuclear arsenals had decreased from tens of thousands down to just about a few thousand for the US and Russia, a few hundred for China, and less for the other nuclear powers. I also knew that among these were plenty of megaton-level strategic nukes, ones that would not just destroy a city, but the majority of the surrounding suburbs as well. That’s also not getting into the existence of MIRVs, which could be used to target multiple cities (such as those in the San Francisco Bay area, which was in at the end of February).

Oh, and there were also all the various descriptions of what being hit by a nuclear attack would be like (such as this 2018 video by Kursgesagt: What if we nuke a city?)

My prepping instincts kicking in

One of the first things I did was look at my stockpile of disaster-prepping materials. Seeing that it was not only partly depleted, but hadn’t really been ever designed for the event of a strategic nuke, I went on something of a shopping spree.

While I was doing this, I was also paying attention to my social media feed. This situation made it incredibly easy to get wrapped up in doomscrolling, but I sill felt like it was worth it to check on what the EA community, rationalist community, and everyone adjacent to those communities was up to.

While I usually follow Balaji Srinivasan for his crypto takes rather than his nuclear deterrence takes, I did agree that getting out of a major NATO city would at least offer me a bit more breathing room to think.

I had played around enough with NukeMap to know that in my current location, assuming it was hit with something between 800 kt (like the Topol SS-25 currently in Russia’s arsenal) and 2.42 Mt (like the R-12 SS-4’s used by the Soviets during the Cuban Missile crisis) I was most likely screwed. Even if I were to survive the blasts, I would need to find a place within the next hour to shelter from fallout for two weeks (and there’s a surprising dearth of houses with basements in the Bay Area).

and

So I decided to go and stay in an AirBnB in Sebastobol for a week.

During this week, I was able to get a little more mental clarity. Feeling embarrased and ashamed at this state of panic I was in, I decided to make a list of possible future scenarios and envision what my appropriate reactions to them should be (and whether those shoudl warrant evacuation). The result was the following document (heavily based on [Robert Wilbin’s list(https://twitter.com/robertwiblin/status/1503450564482510851) posted on Twitter):

What became my phone lock screen for several weeks

As I looked at this list I had created, as all these scenarios played out in my head, I thought more about how I wish I could be certain of my family’s safety, I scheduled a trip to Thailand to see my father with only a week’s notice.

I applied for a visa, scheduled my flight, packed my bag (with a few potassium iodide pills as well), and went to the airport with everything being approved by the Thai travel authorities only 13 hours before the flight.

And so here I find myself writing this post, in my Father’s Bankgkok apartment in the middle of the night because I’m still suffering Jet Lag.

Mental state after getting VERY far from NATO

Despite being in Thailand, I doubt that would offer much protection if the Ukrain situation escalated to nuclear war.

Mentally estimating the likelihood of someone refusing orders to launch a missile

Much of the EA community is aware of the story of Stanislav Petrov. Stanislav was a lieutenant colonel of the soviet Air Defense Forces who in 1983 correctly identified a false alarm of an incoming nuclear strike as exactly that, a false alarm. Several friends of mine have used examples like this to express optimism that humans in the loop would ultimately refuse the order to initiate a nuclear launch.

The question is, can we always count on level heads to prevail? After all, the Hawaiian nuclear attack false alarm was caused by a human resolutely following instructions based on what they saw from their machine. There have also been plenty of incidents such as Bombers accidentally being loaded with live nukes. These are also just the cases that have been either declassified, or were screw-ups on such a collosal scale that the mistake was impossible to hide.

I looked to the prediction markets. They were adjusting accordingly.

I looked for more specific estimates. In one particularly dour report, the Boston Consulting Group gave a 10% chance of a civilization-ending nuclear war over the next 12 months.

Made even more existentially terrifying by that report bringing up Brandon Carter’s Doomsday Argument, a probabilistic argument that claims to predict the future number of members in the human species given an estimate of the total number of humans born so far.

And then there were all the descriptions of previous wargames.

And the dynamics of nuclear deterrence

Of course all this prompted me to turn to the classic work on nuclear war outcomes: Herman Kahn’s 44-step escalation ladder from the RAND corporation. This is made more complicated by the fact that, in Kahn’s theory, actors do not necessarily move sequentially or steadily towards escalation; conventional warfare or even limited nuclear strikes might just as likely lead to de-escalation in specific scenarios.

Questioning the Concept of Nuclear Winter (and realizing why the alternative outcome is equally terrifying)

Here’s a TED talk from 2018 that explains how we would be killed even if we’re not in the country being nuked. In short, even a “local” nuclear war between India and Pakistan could throw up tons of ash and smoke into the atmosphere. This is a part of the atmosphere where rainclouds don’t normally form, so the smoke would be free to stay there, and reduce sunlight penetration all over the world. This is the reiteration of the concept of Nuclear Winter, which was one of the motivations behind the treaties credited with ending the cold war. After all, if the result of a nuclear winter

That being said, there’s a few groups and thinkers that have cast doubt on the concept since 1993.

How Real Is the Nuclear Winter Threat?

For example, a lot of the assumption around particles in the atmosphere is based on volcanoes. Aerosols can spread very far, but particulates can eventually fall to earth. In a nuclear war, the biggest sources of smoke would not be the initial bombs, but the resulting forest fires. If we were to look at how quickly the smoke from the Australian Forest fires cleared, it seems less plausible that the forest fire smoke alone would be able to block the sun for years. However, it wouldn’t just be the forsts that are burning, but human towns and cities with all their plastics and petrochemicals. The fear here would be that the results of such chemicals burning would persist in the atmosphere much longer. In fact, this was also a fear during the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein set fire to oil fields. Against expectations, the smoke cleared quickly once the fires were put out.

Does this make me feel better about the prospect of a thermonuclear war? Not really, especially considering that the alternative might be a nuclear summer. The fires from the US and Russia being nuked would probalbly set Global Warming forward by almost a century. Even if the smoke cleared quickly, the radioactive particles in the atmosphere would probably make the ozone hole much more global. Agriculture also wouldn’t be spared, as our modern factory farming is so dependent on fuel supply lines and large complex pieces of equipment that it would quickly disintegrate without the sun being blocked.

Reasons for Cautious optimism

Optimism about the threat of nuclear war

I’ve updated this part of the article on May 3rd, with some realizations after spending a month in Thailand. I am still terrified of nuclear war, bu

Even if we’re considering the possibility of a conflict int he Western Pacific, I’m not sure that such a conflict would catch us completely off guard. After all, due to the weather around Taiwan, it would be hard to stage an invasion outside the months of April or October.

Figuring out my life plans now

I’m not sure how much the Boston Consulting Group’s “10 percent” probability has changed since their March 4th Report. I’m not sure how much the tensions in the South China Sea factored into that. I’m also not sure where the true probability lies due to the probably enormous error bars on that prediciton.

I do know that there are various cancers that have a roughly 90% one-year survival probability. When it comes to figuring out my life plans, my closest analogy is to that of someone planning around having such a cancer. The obvious difference is that unlike with cancer, this probability is being assigned to most of my family, friends, and co-workers as well.

What if Nuclear ruin doesn’t come?

Even if nuclear war doesn’t come, this whole situation has made me realize just how many other risks we face this decade, from AI risk, to a 21st century Carrington Event.

In the end, this whole post was just about mentally dealing with an expected value tree that has a few nodes with unknown-but-seemingly-small probabilities, but wit big ol’ negative infinities slapped on their values. I’m reminded of this quote from the abstract of A Paradox of Tiny probabilities and enormous values (v2.1, June 2021)

We show that every theory of the valuue of uncertain prospects must have one of three unpalatable properties. Reckless theories recommend risking arbitrarily great gains at arbitrarily long odds for hte sake of enormous potential; timid theories permit passing up arbitrarily great gains to prevnt a tiny increase in risk; non-transitive theories deny the principle that, if A is beter than B, and B is better than C, then A must be better than C. While non-transitivity has been much discussed, we draw out the costs and benefits of recklessness and timidity when it comes to axiology, decion theory, and moral uncertainty.

While this paper was dealing with extreme probabilities in general, it seems uncomfortably relevant now, save for the fact that the probabilities we’re dealing with in real life are far more uncertain.

Additional Thoughts

A few thoughts that seemed difficult to categorize in the above

  • Crypto in its current form is definitely a scam, but it may very well be the form that can survive a thermonuclear war like the original design for Arpanet. With that in mind, I am even more bullish than I was before on my good friend Sonia Joseph’s Alexandria project.
  • I’ve gotten plenty of invites to be a sperm donor in the past. Should I lean more towards rejecting those offers on the grounds that I’m less certain of the stability of modern civilization going 10 years out? Should I lean more towards accepting those offers on the grounds that the worlds various fertility crises can get much worse, especially in the face of a global catastrophe?
  • After looking through the above, I cannot help but be reminded of this quote by “Louise Erdrich”:

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You hvae to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.

  • Louise Erdrich

Cited as:

@article{mcateer2022coldwar,
    title = "Black Swan events and the new Cold War",
    author = "McAteer, Matthew",
    journal = "matthewmcateer.me",
    year = "2022",
    url = "https://matthewmcateer.me/blog/new-cold-war-thoughts/"
}

If you notice mistakes and errors in this post, don’t hesitate to contact me at [contact at matthewmcateer dot me] and I will be very happy to correct them right away! Alternatily, you can follow me on Twitter and reach out to me there.

See you in the next post 😄

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