Extinction politics revisited

Published in SANA Update (Scientists Against Nuclear Arms Newsletter), number 21, October 1984, pp. 15-16
pdf of published article

This article follows on from "Extinction politics".


Brian Martin 

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Barrie Pittock[1] has criticized my views on the potential dangers of beliefs in nuclear doomsday for peace movement strategy.[2] His criticism is most welcome, since one of my aims has been to generate thought and discussion about issues which are mostly taken for granted within the peace movement.[3] Here I will address some of the themes raised by Barrie by looking first at the strategy of the peace movement and then at the bias of science.

At the outset I would like to emphasize that I greatly respect Barrie's sincerity, commitment and efforts towards the cause of peace. But that does not mean we have to agree about strategy.

Peace movement strategy

How precisely do members of the peace movement expect to prevent or abolish war, or restrict its occurrence or consequences? Many people do not sit down to analyze this. They simply assume that when more and more people are concerned and speak up for peace, then somehow it will come about.

In Australia some of the principal goals of the peace movement are removal of US military bases, stopping uranium mining, establishing a nuclear-free zone in the region, and moving to a neutral and independent foreign policy. But how are these goals to be achieved? As I have analysed it,[4] most peace movement activities towards such goals are based on influencing elites, either by the power of rationality, by political pressure or by taking direct action.

My argument is that it is futile to expect appeals to elites to have any significant effect. For many decades the efforts of peace movements around the world have been oriented towards elites. They have consistently failed. For example, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s built its strategy around influencing the Labour Party. This had no lasting effect on the Labour Party defence policy, but had disastrous effects on CND.

Will the argument that nuclear war may cause human extinction have any significant effect on elite decision-making on these issues? There is no solid evidence that it will. After all, state elites believe that what they are doing is the best thing to do to preserve world order and peace. They are sincere, just as peace activists are sincere. Why then should an argument about the dangers of nuclear war change the minds of elites? They already know it is dangerous.

This conclusion is supported by the document Uranium, the joint facilities, disarmament and peace, authorised by the Minister for Foreign Affairs.[5] In it the Australian government accepts the possibility that the world may be destroyed by nuclear war. It concludes that it should continue to mine uranium and host the US military bases. Indeed, it uses the nuclear winter arguments to justify maintaining the US bases. This shows that acceptance of the possibility or likelihood of nuclear extinction does not of itself lead to any specific conclusion about what to do about it.

Barrie writes that the possibility of extinction "makes the risks inherent in nuclear deterrence unacceptable to rational human beings".[1] I disagree. 'Rationality' does not lead to a particular political conclusion, since there is no universal agreement about the appropriate means to achieve even those ends which are agreed upon.

My view is that elite-oriented approaches need to be supplemented by grassroots campaigns which challenge the institutional roots of war and create alternatives. Some promising campaign focuses are social defence, peace conversion and self-management. Some of the institutions which need to be challenged are the state, bureaucracy, the military and patriarchy.[6]

Those who believe that a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere would almost inevitably lead to nuclear winter extending to Australia, leading to death of most or all the world's population, might well conclude that nothing done in Australia to remove bases or ban visiting vessels would have any real effect. Australians would be totally at the mercy of state and military elites in the United States and the Soviet Union. The most obvious way to intervene would be diplomatically via the Australian government. This leads then to a policy of influencing Australian elites, who then in turn are expected to influence foreign elites. But as I have argued before, depending on the elites is a prescription for failure.

There are other ill effects of dependence on arguments that nuclear war may lead to extinction. Because of the complexity of the physical processes involved in nuclear winter, the debate over extinction is put at the level of experts. Secondly, there is the danger that the case against nuclear war may come to depend too much on extinction, the possibility of which might later be found to have been overestimated. It is politically sounder to rely on the unassailable claim that nuclear war would be a major human disaster with many millions of people killed.

The bias of science

It is straightforward to apply my analysis of the bias of science[7] to disputes about the effects of nuclear war. Barrie assumes that it is sufficient to show that extinction cannot be excluded as a significant possibility. He then draws the political conclusion from this that "Even the most politically conservative person must be brought to realize that no cause and no ideal can be served by clinging to reliance on nuclear weapons".[8]

In contrast, I am concerned about the preparedness of peace movements for the political consequences of nuclear crisis or nuclear war. Therefore for my purposes it is sufficient to show that extinction is not a necessary consequence of nuclear war.

Most of Barrie's comments on my views do not address our fundamental political disagreement, but focus on technical points about the effects of nuclear war. These are secondary in my opinion.

Barrie proceeds in the normal scientific pattern of presenting what he considers to be the 'objective' facts, and then drawing political conclusions from them. Apparently he does not consider that my analysis of scientific objectivity[7] - in which I argue that claims to objectivity can be a way of masking underlying value assumptions - applies to his own arguments.

The political values underlying claims by scientists about the 'objective' facts about doomsdays have been nicely spelled out by Alan Roberts.[9] The political implications of doomsdayism for the peace movement in the late 1950s were spelled out at the time by Vernon Richards.[10]

By contrast to Barrie, I proceed by spelling out a political concern, namely that peace movement strategies do not take into account the possibility of social action during or after a nuclear crisis or war. Even without a nuclear war, a nuclear crisis could result in the imposition of repressive military or civilian rule in many parts of the world, with disastrous effects for the peace and other social movements.[3] I then muster evidence to show that nuclear crisis, limited nuclear war, or major nuclear war well short of causing extinction cannot be excluded by the evidence.


Nuclear war would be a terrible disaster, but the political implications of this are by no means so clear. Emphasising the possibility of human extinction from nuclear war - whatever is one's assessment of the likelihood of that happening - is not necessarily the most productive path for antiwar activists. Indeed, I argue that nuclear doomsdayism has many negative consequences. Appeals to scientific fact to back the case for nuclear extinction miss the point that different value assumptions underlie the political conclusions reached.[11]


1 A. Barrie Pittock, 'Comment on Brian Martin's "Extinction politics"', SANA Update, number 20, September 1984, pages 13-14.

2 Brian Martin, 'Extinction politics', SANA Update, number 16, May 1984, pages 5-6.

3 On my views see also Brian Martin, 'Critique of nuclear extinction', Journal of Peace Research, volume 19, number 4, 1982, pages 287-300; Brian Martin, 'How the peace movement should be preparing for nuclear war', Bulletin of Peace Proposals, volume 13, number 2, June 1982, pages 149-159.

4 Brian Martin, 'Mobilising against nuclear war: the insufficiency of knowledge and logic', Social Alternatives, volume 1, numbers 6/7, June 1980, pages 6-11.

5 Uranium, the Joint Facilities, Disarmament and Peace (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1984).

6 Brian Martin, Uprooting War (London: Freedom Press, 1984).

7 Brian Martin, The Bias of Science (Canberra: Society for Social Responsibility in Science (ACT), 1979).

8 Barrie Pittock, 'Nuclear winter: its basis & implications', SANA Update, number 16, May 1984, pages 2-4. See also A. Barrie Pittock, 'Nuclear winter and its implications for Australia' (Submission to the Subcommittee on Disarmament and Arms Control, Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence), 1984. A similar view is presented by Paul Ehrlich, earlier a prominent prophet of doom from overpopulation: 'Nuclear winter: the inside story', CoEvolution Quarterly, number 42, Summer 1984, pages 88-94 (see page 94).

9 Alan Roberts, The Self-managing Environment (London: Allison and Busby, 1979), chapter 1.

10 Vernon Richards, Protest Without Illusions (London: Freedom Press, 1981), especially pages 7-11.

11 My thanks to Mark Diesendorf for useful comments on a draft of this reply.