The Ecological Impact of a Nuclear Holocaust

A nuclear holocaust wouldn't just wipe out civilization, it would wipe out the ecological systems on which civilization depends.

| September/October 1981

  • 071 nuclear holocaust - paul ehrlich
    Anne and Paul Ehrlich warn most experts, political leaders, and commentators are vastly underestimating the effects and consequences of a nuclear holocaust.

  • 071 nuclear holocaust - paul ehrlich

One truly dangerous notion floating around in human society today is that an all-out nuclear war, although possibly "unthinkable," is nonetheless "winnable." Worse yet, if the attitude of the Soviet military is accurately interpreted by our country's Russia-watchers, that nation's generals and admirals consider such a war not only possible, but likely. No less a personage than U.S. Vice President George Bush stated, shortly before his election, his belief that a thermonuclear war could be won.

As the human population continues to expand, as our nonrenewable resources dwindle, and as nuclear weapons proliferate, the chances that World War III may be triggered increase dramatically. It's imperative, then, that the potential consequences of such a disaster be assessed very carefully and that people in all nations be thoroughly informed about them.

Incompetent Studies

The first detailed study of the subject was done by futurologist Herman Kahn and reported in his "classic" book, On Thermonuclear War. At the time, he was brutally (and, to our way of thinking, unfairly) criticized simply for writing on the subject by people who apparently thought that a nuclear holocaust would not occur if no one thought about it. Kahn's book itself, however, set a standard of incompetence that has to one degree or another characterized most subsequent studies.

Such reports generally have two weaknesses in common. First, they all rely on such jargon as "credible first-strike forces," "ideal blast waves," "prompt effects," "whole body doses," and "megadeaths." Only a discerning reader can see through the language to the picture of indescribable horror the words and phrases are actually painting.

For example, something on the order of half a billion human beings could be killed, worldwide, in a full-blown exchange of nuclear weapons between the Soviet and American blocs! According to one Department of Defense study, as many as 165 million U.S. citizens (about three-fourths of our nation's population) could die within the first 30 days after an attack. Many more would subsequently perish as a result of injuries, riots, exposure, starvation, and the lingering effects of radiation.

The prognosis for the destruction of the physical facilities that support human life, and for the disruption of society throughout North America, Europe, and Soviet Asia, is equally ghastly. Food and water supplies would be contaminated, fuel sources would be destroyed, supply systems would be severely disrupted if not altogether halted, and even able-bodied survivors would be hard put to care for themselves ...let alone aid the great numbers of injured and sick. These considerations alone clearly demonstrate that a nuclear war could possibly be considered "winnable" only if both sides exercised extreme restraint both in their choice of targets and in their response to attacks.  


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