I'm going to lay out a series of fascinating facts and let you decide whether the world is likely to end within, say, 100 years.
The first thing to know is that the power of a nuclear bomb is greater than what most people imagine. One American B53 bomb generates 425 times more energy than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII. There are 10,000+ warheads in the world today. Source.
The second thing to understand is the nuclear pressure cooker:
In August 2022, the U.N. Secretary-General summarized it:
“Humanity is just one misunderstanding—one miscalculation—away from nuclear annihilation... [We're in a] time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War." Source.
Before I continue, I can tell you if this post is for you—since I've received extensive feedback on it:
Strap yourself in.
To better appreciate the threat of nuclear war, you must understand why a single warhead could end the world.
It's due to a military policy you've likely heard of called mutually assured destruction (MAD). In short, nuclear powers are on permanent alert to retaliate if they detect incoming warheads. They're outspoken about this policy because they want to signal that an attack on them ensures their enemy's destruction too.
The previous quote from the U.N. Secretary-General—that we're "one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation"—therefore hinges on two factors:
Let me show you why this is.
Russia, as one example, is working on small nuclear submarine drones that rest deep underwater off the coast of enemy territories. They rest completely motionless and virtually undetectable. Russia calls these Poseidons.
If Russia feels provoked, they want to be able to launch hundreds of these within minutes. But here's the twist: Poseidons don't actually launch warheads at enemy land.
Guess what they do instead.
They launch warheads underwater to create tidal waves possibly the size of Mount Everest that crash onto enemy territory. When this much weight crashes inland, it obliterates cities with incomparable force.
But that's not the really scary part.
Poseidons also infuse their waves with radioactive cobalt. Meaning, once these super-giant floods hit New York City, for example, they leave behind radioactive waste that makes the city's soil forever uninhabitable. Not uninhabitable for fifty years—but forever. Imagine Chernobyl multiplied by 1,000—but everywhere.
Russia could theoretically destroy every coastal city around the world within minutes, and make those areas forever unlivable. Poseidons don't require in-submarine personnel, so Russia wants to manufacture and station many.
Russia is public about all this—because they don't want you to fuck with them.
Back to the argument at-hand: Poseidon reveals how militaries can easily circumvent missile defense technology. These aren't airborne missiles we shoot out of the sky. And even modern airborne missiles are a huge challenge: hypersonic warheads move twice as fast as bullets from an AR-15. We cannot defend against an onslaught of these.
If you believe I'm exaggerating any of this, by the way, here's a video on Poseidon:
America knows about this threat, which means only one radioactive wave needs to be detected to potentially trigger mutually assured destruction.
When this happens, the domino effect of nuclear launches likely leads to the world's end. This conclusion comes straight from extensive simulations run by the U.S. military:
"Proud Prophet was a series of war games played out by various American military officials. The simulation revealed MAD made the use of nuclear weapons virtually impossible without total nuclear annihilation... These results essentially ruled out the possibility of a limited nuclear strike, as every time this was attempted, it resulted in a complete expenditure of nuclear weapons by both the United States and USSR.... The outcome of an all-out nuclear war is the total destruction of both sides involved, and a death toll nearly reaching half a billion with the remaining dying from starvation or lethal doses of radiation." Source.
So, what do we do about this type of danger?
You probably think I'll advocate for denuclearization. Sure, that'd be great. But it seems delusional. No major power will give up its nukes knowing its enemies will lie about having given up theirs. Especially not after the Ukraine war.
So this brings us to our second argument: the world frequently comes close to armageddon, and we can't roll the dice many more times.
These anecdotes are scarier than Poseidon.
Most people think the world's nuclear confrontations entail World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, North Korea's threats, and... that's it.
Nope, there's a long list of events haunting our militaries. Take the 1983 Soviet nuclear incident, as our first example: everyone on Earth—your parents and loved ones—were minutes away from nuclear annihilation.
An alarm was raised on a Russian military radar: American missiles were incoming! The chain of command was escalated according to protocol: Russian generals were expected to launch a full-scale counter-attack. Source.
Then something human happened.
A lone Russian colonel, named Stanislav Petrov, commanded his comrades to halt. His intuition told him the radar alert must be a glitch: the small number of incoming missiles, the lack of supporting data—it didn’t feel like a coordinated, intentional attack.
So he went rogue and chose not to send the orders up the chain of command.
Petrov was right. It turned out the alert was triggered by a rare alignment of the sun above high altitude clouds, causing a glitch.
Colonel Petrov is a hero deserving of a Nobel peace prize. He never got it. He wasn’t even nominated. And he dies in relative obscurity.
Something eerily similar happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis: warheads aimed at the U.S. were minutes away from launch by Russian submarines, but "a guy called Vasily Arkhipov saved the world," recounts Thomas Blanton, director of the American National Security Archive. Source. The end of the world was called for by the submarine officer: "We're going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all. We will not disgrace our navy." But his co-officer Arkhipov refused the orders.
As with Petrov, his intuition told him the data was misleading. He was right.
To put it bluntly, Petrov and Arkhipov are why America still exists.
Next, one of the zanier nuclear accidents is the Tybee Island mid-air collision. During flight, a 7,000-pound bomb loosened, falling into the swamp waters of the American state of Georgia. Source. The U.S. Military still can't find the bomb, so today Georgians live with it laying next to them. I wonder how many know this.
Similarly, in the 1961 Goldsboro B-52 incident, the U.S. dropped two 3-megaton nuclear bombs on its state of North Carolina. Each had the power of 250 Hiroshimas. Declassified intel from 2013 showed that one of them nearly detonated upon impact. Source. Thankfully, they weren't properly armed and they failed to ignite.
After the military removed the warheads, what's left is this inauspicious road sign:
It's reasonable to assume that I'm cherry-picking examples to make nuclear accidents seem worse than they are. Well, you don't need to take it from me. There are 12+ more examples listed on Wikipedia and this Chatham House report lists more. Those are just the declassified ones. Imagine how many the military is too embarrassed to share.
Like the Able Archer 83 incident.
During Able Archer, the world's nuclear powers collaborated on military drills. Partway through, Russia became paranoid that the U.S. was using the drills as cover to launch a real nuclear attack against them. So Russia placed their nuclear forces on high alert and began loading warheads into their combat planes.
In 2021, declassified documents led some scholars to believe that Able Archer 83 was the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Russia eventually de-escalated once the U.S. tempered down its activity.) Source.
I'll wrap with a final example: In March, 2022, India accidentally fired a missile into Pakistan’s Mian Channu city. (These two countries have been stockpiling weapons and warring for years.) India blamed the accident on a technical malfunction from "routine maintenance." Source.
Let's step back. Do you see the pattern yet?
Just like your local power company suffers from poor engineering, maintenance, and management, leading to grid failures, the world's militaries periodically fail too. They're not paragons of operational excellence; they're old government bureaucracies held together by duct tape.
The leaders of these militaries—people we rarely democratically elect—hold the world's entire fate in their hands. With this in mind, let's return to the quote from the U.N. Secretary-General:
“Humanity is just one misunderstanding—one miscalculation—away from nuclear annihilation... [We're in a] time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War." Source.
Here's how these pieces fit together:
There are enough nuclear powers with enough weapons being manufactured, transported, upgraded, and armed every week that it's presumably just a matter of time before one of these warheads drops near enemy territory and triggers mutually assured destruction.
Or perhaps a military general thinks a bird is a warhead and retaliates based on nothing.
From talking through this concern with others, I know that at this point in the argument some people think all this is too unlikely to happen: they say there are military procedures to prevent unilateral, unjustified attacks. They say that checks and balances and cooler heads will always prevail—because no one is suicidal enough to ensure the world's destruction.
This is delusional, and it's important that I break down why.
Let's start with the Russian President. He or she can unilaterally launch a warhead within 15 minutes of making the decision to. Once they’ve done this, not a single politician has the power to slow or veto the launch. There's no parliament or congressional approval needed—because that would slow down the retaliatory response to incoming missiles, thus neutralizing mutually assured destruction.
Actually, I just tricked you.
It's not the Russian president that can launch a nuclear warhead within 15 minutes with zero government pushback. It's actually the United States. The American president can launch a warhead whenever he or she wants with zero congressional oversight whatsoever. Not one executive has the authority to stop them. Source.
Perhaps this doesn't worry you if you believe that no leader would be irrational enough to risk the destruction of their country—or that no soldiers given the orders would launch a questionable nuclear strike.
But that's precisely the delusion I speak of. It's called the typical mind fallacy, which is when you think that other people reason through the world the same as you do.
Consider this: Do you view the world the same way a religious extremist does? Do you view the world the same way a spoiled dictator's son does—one who rose to power to command his country's army? Or how about a sociopathic warlord who performs a coup d'état and has only ever known war?
Do you think these people reason through nuclear risk the same way you would—especially when their backs and egos are against the wall?
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, intel surfaced that Cuban president Fidel Castro was in favor of nuclear retaliation against the U.S. even if “it would’ve led to the complete annihilation of Cuba.” There's your answer. Source.
Counterintuitively, some people are willing to lose half the world if it means they can boast about defeating their enemy or being the one left standing. Some leaders may even look forward to the afterlife more than this life (thus devaluing this one). And there's a large portion of the world who believes whatever happens happens—because it's God's will. So there's no need to fight it. Or they believe God wouldn’t let armageddon happen, so there’s nothing to worry about in the first place.
Remember, nuclear war is more than just the U.S. versus Russia today. It's also Iran, France, China, North Korea, Pakistan, India, Israel, and the United Kingdom. The presidents and military leaders in those regions don't see the world the same way.
Even if they did all think the same—if we're all good, rational human beings at our core—there's still indoctrination, which can affect everyone. Take Nazi Germany for example. People as normal as your nextdoor neighbor were indoctrinated into experimentally torturing and burning child prisoners in front of their parents. As their 9 to 5 job.
This is why it's unreasonable to assume that soldiers across the world can always be relied on to defy misguided launch orders. You don't know what differing worldviews, cult programming, or blind loyalty every soldier has.
So here's where I think this leaves us:
Every day, our existence hinges on each nuclear power being in a clear, rational state of mind. If a president loses their wits in a drunken, Ambien-fueled stupor and hits the red button, that's it. Or if a dementia-suffering, deathbed-ridden president decides to go out with a bang by ordering his military to launch their warheads—as a final fuck you to his enemies—that's it. We're done. Remember, MAD is designed to ensure leaders can't be stopped from launching warheads quickly if they feel threatened.
As Winston Churchill warned:
"The [nuclear] deterrent does not cover the case of lunatics or dictators in the mood of Hitler when he found himself in his final dugout." —Winston Churchill. Source.
As I'm writing this, the threat multiplies. More countries are building their responses to Poseidon. North Korea, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, France, and the United Kingdom have weapons of their own. Further, the nuclear progress of other countries might go undetected if they follow North Korea's playbook: build weapons underground where satellites can’t monitor you. This is what Iran is reportedly doing now. Source.
North Korea has become a role model for emerging militaries. They've shown the world's 195 countries that if you build a nuclear bomb, major powers—even the 10,000x more powerful U.S.—cannot risk attacking you. Thanks to MAD.
Further, these leaders have witnessed what happened to Ukraine: Ukraine didn't have nukes and got invaded. And the U.S. won't invade Russia because they do have nukes. Whether that's over-simplified or not, the nuclear logic is clear.
So, what on Earth do we do about all this?
"For Mutually Assured Destruction (or MAD) to work, all parties have to first understand Assured Destruction." —Eric Weinstein
Let's summarize the overall threat so far:
We're periodically experiencing nuclear mishaps that can trigger MAD. This problem multiplies each decade as (1) more Poseidon-like weapons are built and stationed and (2) more nuclear powers emerge. The emerging leaders don't necessarily think like we do. And they often have no political restraints on their power. Can we roll the dice for another 100 years and expect to survive?
To survive long-term, we need to attack root causes. I believe a significant root cause is strong tribalism. Whereas a little bit of tribalism creates social bonds, which are important, a lot of tribalism happens when group members stop thinking for themselves and defer to groupthink plus selfish, zero sum strategies. Think of a sports fan's loyalty to their favorite team. That's the dynamic at play—but with warheads.
Tribalism exists at every level of abstraction: countries, states, political parties, and governing bodies like the G7 and WHO. When overtaken by strong tribalism, zero sum thinking emerges: instead of doing what helps them and other groups succeed (expand the pie mentality), they do what's good for them often at the expense of others. That's how strong tribalism can cause wars: nations fight for limited resources instead of collaborating to expand resources for all.
The key difficulty in addressing tribalism is that it's the domain of identity, narrative, and belonging. Facts have a hard time penetrating these shells. In fact, let me show you how useless facts are:
“'When Prophecy Fails' tells the story of a UFO cult led by a suburban Chicago housewife, Dorothy Martin. Martin had persuaded a group of people that a flood would destroy the world on Dec. 21, 1954. She also prophesied that her followers had nothing to worry about. Friendly aliens would arrive just before the flood with a flying saucer and rescue them. Martin and her followers gathered together on the doomed night. Some had given up their jobs and all their possessions... The deadline came. The deadline passed. No flood. No flying saucer. But amazingly (well, perhaps not so amazingly if you understand the theory of cognitive dissonance), Martin’s cult did not fall apart. In fact, it grew. Members were convinced that it was their own beliefs and actions—their gathering together—that had spared Earth from a catastrophe.” Source.
Add everything together, and you can understand why the dialogue between nuclear powers is often fruitless. (Among many other factors.) We evolved brains that could manufacture warheads before they could outgrow their tribal impulses. Humanity is experiencing a timing error between technology and biology.
There are other root causes beyond strong tribalism. Another is what I call precedent bias, which is the phenomenon where people are hardwired to dismiss inevitable, huge threats simply because they lack modern precedent.
Meaning, even if everyone on Earth agreed to the same set of facts—let's say they read this post and agreed on nuclear risk—we still probably wouldn't do much about anything because we haven't lived through a recent nuclear war. Only by having lived through one do we feel the emotional pain, and emotional pain is needed to take huge, tough, coordinated action. Intellectually knowing about a risk usually isn't enough to mobilize us.
As author David McRaney put it: "Disaster movies get it all wrong. When you and others are warned of danger, you don't evacuate immediately while screaming and flailing your arms." Instead, you just... kinda sit there and assume it won't really happen. And so you do nothing.
Wikipedia has some fascinating examples:
Here's a modern example: We barely reacted to COVID during a time when we possibly could have contained it, in large part because we had no precedent within recent memory for the virus’s worst case outcome: a global pandemic.
Precedent bias tells us that when we think a bad outcome is unlikely to occur because we haven't emotionally felt it, we think that to prepare is to embarrassingly or irrationally overreact.
In contrast, some countries did have a recent precedent for COVID, such as South Korea and Singapore. They had recently battled the MERS and SARS viruses. So, when COVID surfaced, they immediately recognized the pattern, understood it for what it was, wore masks, and tracked the spread faster than others.
Beyond COVID, the biggest example is felt all around us today: we're on an unavoidable path toward a 10 foot sea level rise over several decades. And we can't globally coordinate to solve this. Because when precedent bias is multiplied by strong tribalism, we cannot coordinate to save ourselves.
If you're unaware of what I'm referring to, the sea level rise is due to the melting of Antarctic glaciers such as Thwaites. As you read this, Thwaites gushes water into the ocean. Once fully melted, it alone can cause a 10 foot rise without anything else happening. That's what scientists mean by a trigger point. Climate change isn't always gradual—sometimes it's sudden.
This is not a hypothetical risk; it's easy to calculate how much the melting ice converts into global sea level rise. Governments and experts are well-aware of this risk even if much of the public dismisses it. Coastal countries like Bangladesh are re-strategizing their economic planning around how to survive it. Florida has stopped insuring some homes because of it.
To visualize a 10 foot sea level rise, by the way, imagine two people standing on top of each other. That much water will cover the world's coasts. For reference, just two feet of water looks like this:
It deeply saddens me to say goodbye to beautiful island countries. And goodbye to Tokyo. And goodbye to southern Florida and Louisiana. And goodbye Netherlands. (Here’s a coastal risk map.)
Tragically, carbon capture doesn't appear poised to save us from this. It's a technology that's still far off with no clear economical approach (I invest in these startups). It's more about mitigating the additional damage that comes after this. Nonetheless, carbon capture is extremely important to be working on and I advise many more people to.
I'm emphasizing climate risk because when people ask, "We've always had nuclear risk. Why is the existential threat greater now than the Cold War?", I tell them that it's not only because we have many more nuclear powers with erratic leaders, it's also that we have more climate risk than before. This influences war:
"[Syria] has been hit by three droughts since the 1980s... 800,000 people lost their income and 85% of the country's livestock died...1.5 million rural workers headed to the cities for work. Those who stayed were mainly impoverished farmers who became easy targets for terrorist recruiters from groups like the so-called Islamic State.” Source.
As temperatures rise and sea levels engulf homes and crops fail, hundreds of millions lose their sustainability and net worth, their surrounding economy implodes, and a massive refugee crisis emerges. The IEP predicts 1.2 billion people could be climate refugees within 30 years. Source.
Imagine massive flooding all around you, and you're without eggs, meat, and drinkable water. You have nowhere to sleep. Your children are starving.
This is where violent choices are made.
If you haven't studied history, you may not intuit how quickly politicians escalate from tension to hostile invasion when their citizens and children are starving to death. Imagine 1.2 billion people moving inland trying to find someplace to live.
As captured by the Syria quote above, when livelihoods are stressed, strong tribalism increases. This is the world we're heading into: every decade, as climate change worsens, so do political tensions and the likelihood of MAD triggering.
Is there a way to overcome strong tribalism, precedent bias, and climate change?
To start, it appears one way to overcome tribalist gridlock is to wait for current tribe members to die. Then you prevent the next generation from being as hopeless. Physicist Max Planck explained this phenomenon as it relates to the sciences:
"An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents... A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." Source.
But who's to say the next generation is better? We're biologically and culturally bred for tribalism.
So I can't think of a realistic and holistic solution to our existential peril, and providing one is not the purpose of this post. My goal is to shock more people into thinking about what the solutions could be—and to take action when they find them. Take the baton I'm passing to you and do something with it.
No matter what, we need better politicians to care about these problems. They must recognize the problem of strong tribalism and believe that a generation of critical thinkers is a good defense against it. Better politicians must also de-escalate nuclear tension between countries and appoint leaders less likely to exacerbate tribal conflict.
Unfortunately, countries aren't talking enough today. We have a near-total absence of diplomacy between certain powers, especially with China and Russia, which leads to militaries operating more in the dark—and more opportunities for MAD.
Fixing this is supposed to be the job of federal politicians. International relations is half the reason we elect them. But they almost completely abandon this duty.
Most politicians today are truly horrendous. The capable, good-willed, and high-integrity people among us often think politics are a problem “someone else will solve," which leaves mostly charlatans and ineffective buffoons to run.
“A handful of power-hungry fools from the American B-team run every public institution, and every piece of critical public infrastructure. We can’t just ignore this anymore and hope it goes away. If we don’t get involved in the sclerotic, exhausting, incredibly unsexy world of local politics, America is over.” —Mike Solana
Worse yet, the system rewards buffoonery—poisoning even our greatest minds. So, when better politicians are in power, they will also need to fix the fundraising and incentive mechanisms. (Which is, of course, incredibly hard to do.)
To put all this in numbers, the U.S. has a population of 330,000,000 people. Of those, 19,332 are state and federal politicians. That’s 0.006% of the population bothering to run and affect our policies.
To get better politicians, we must motivate young folks to become politicians over other career paths—and to appreciate that the ROI can be worth the reputational and stress downsides.
Therefore, I propose that the influencers who children look up to today—the mega-popular YouTubers—begin making videos on how politics can be hugely empowering and rewarding. These influencers have tens of millions of intellectually curious listeners. They're among the biggest broadcast platforms in the world—sometimes with more eyeballs than the most popular TV shows. (Examples here.) It would be so high-leverage for them to de-stigmatize being a politician.
I've seen zero big influencers do this. Instead, they use their platforms to accomplish small charity wins, but nothing to move the generational needle.
It shouldn’t be that hard to get young folks to lean in:
Beyond motivating them, we must also make politics feel less closed-off. Empower people with information on how to break in and succeed. Meaning, the advice must be both motivational and actionable.
And tell them that once they're in office, they should keep in mind the 80,000 Hours advocacy organization's proposed solutions to de-escalating nuclear war:
For everyone without a public presence, what can you do?
You can get involved in local politics to see if climbing to national levels is for you. We need non-tribalist forces-of-will to run for office. Individuals who are charismatic, competent, and intellectually independent.
Of course, this is a dangerous dual-edge sword: some people are wrecking balls in the wrong direction. Let's hope the good people outweigh the bad ones.
For everyone else who doesn't have an audience and doesn't want to run: when you browse Instagram, TikTok, or YouTube, leave comments nudging the right influencers to talk about this. Whenever they advocate political positions, it's your opportunity to remind them that they could encourage better people to run in the first place.