The threat of nuclear and climate change ‘exterminism’ – a must read article from Monthly Review

By Adrian Bailey

The latest issue of Monthly Review carries a very important article by its editor John Bellamy Foster. Entitled ‘“Notes on Exterminism” for the Twenty-First-Century Ecology and Peace Movements’ it deals with the threat from attempts by the US to achieve a nuclear war winning first strike capability and from climate change. Both these processes are identified by Foster as capable of destroying, at a minimum, the present bases of human civilization – and possibly the biological survival of humanity. That is they threaten ‘Exterminism’.

This article is essential reading for progressive activists and the facts it reviews have extremely important conclusions for socialist strategy. It can be read here. For copyright reasons it is not possible to reproduce the whole Monthly Review article here, so set out below are some key points illustrating why progressive activists are strongly urged to read the article in full.

In the article, Foster takes as his starting point the analysis made by the English historian E. P. Thompson in 1980, in his essay ‘Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization’ which primarily dealt with the threat of the extermination of civilisation due to nuclear war. Foster updates Thompson’s analysis to take account of the significant changes that have taken place since 1980 – in nuclear warfare preparations and the danger of extermination due to climate catastrophe. The latter threat was largely not understood at the time when Thompson wrote his essay. Foster explains that these are ‘dual exterminist tendencies’ – ‘planetary ecological crisis … and the growing threat of global nuclear annihilation.’

Taking first ecological exterminism, Foster cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports indicating that the degree of climate change that has already taken place will leave hundreds of millions of people across the planet exposed to extreme weather events. He writes how the levels of carbon emissions, if not radically reduced, could end the existence of humanity – ‘carbon omnicide’.

Foster gives a particularly detailed summary of the processes on climate change which have also been pointed out by some other authors, the IPCC, and other authorities. But then Foster breaks entirely new ground in any influential progressive publication in a detailed analysis of the drive in the last period by the US to acquire a first strike nuclear capacity. This threat of ‘nuclear omnicide’ has re-emerged as the war in Ukraine raises the possibility of war between the world’s two leading nuclear armed powers. Foster explains how US imperialism has intervened in Ukraine to provoke the current war and how US nuclear warfare strategy has developed since the dissolution of the USSR.

Since 1991, when the post-1945 Cold War officially ended, the US has stepped up the development of its military programme with the aim of establishing an unchallengeable ‘nuclear primacy’ over all other states. Unlike the military concept of ‘nuclear parity’, where both sides are deterred from using their nuclear weapons for fear of retaliation – often called ‘mutually assured destruction (MAD), Foster explains that:

‘Nuclear primacy, as opposed to nuclear parity, means “eliminating the possibility of a retaliatory strike,” and thus is also referred to as “first strike capability.” In this respect, it is significant that Washington’s official defense posture has consistently included the possibility of the United States carrying out a first strike nuclear attack on nuclear or non-nuclear states.’

Since 1991 the US has been modernising its nuclear weapons arsenal that can destroy its enemies’ population centres. It has also been developing a whole range of weapons, both nuclear and non-nuclear, to target its enemy’s nuclear weapons facilities so that they cannot function as an effective deterrent. The aim of all this new weaponry is to eliminate the military balance that underpins MAD and instead establish a clear US advantage because its enemies can no longer effectively retaliate after a US first strike. US strategic warfare planners call this a ‘counterforce’ strategy, in which the US has a ‘first strike’ capability to eliminate its enemy whilst surviving itself.

The US’s work on developing its ‘counterforce’ strategy started back in the 1960s. It informed the siting of US nuclear weapons in Europe in the 1980s and the subsequent development of the US’s antiballistic missile systems. After 1991 US efforts to achieve ‘nuclear primacy’ were stepped up, with the development of new weapon’s systems, the eastward expansion of NATO and the abandonment of treaties that would restrict US ‘counterforce’ development. Foster writes that:

‘With nuclear primacy as the goal set in Washington, the United States began unilaterally to withdraw from some of the main nuclear treaties established in the Cold War. In 2002, under the George W. Bush administration, the United States unilaterally withdrew from some of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In 2019, under the Donald Trump administration, Washington withdrew from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, claiming that Russia had violated the treaty. In 2020, again under Trump, the United States withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty (which placed limits on reconnaissance flights over other countries), followed by Russia’s withdrawal the following year. There is little doubt that withdrawal from these treaties was favorable to Washington in expanding its counterforce options in its quest for nuclear primacy.’

At times the US has possibly been ‘on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy’, but both Russia and China have been trying to ensure the US does not achieve it. Foster states that:

‘Though Washington has sought so-called nuclear primacy, it has remained just beyond its grasp, given the technological prowess of the other leading nuclear powers.’

He also explains that:

‘Moreover, a nuclear arms race spurred by a counterforce strategy is fundamentally irrational, threatening a global thermonuclear conflagration with consequences far greater than even those envisioned by the MAD scenario, with its hundreds of millions of deaths on both sides. Nuclear winter means that, in a global nuclear exchange, the entire planet would be engulfed by the smoke and soot circling the stratosphere, killing off almost all of humanity.’

The gigantic human death toll has been understood by scientists since the 1980s, when scientific modelling first predicted that a nuclear exchange would dramatically effect the climate. Megafires would engulf many cities and as Foster explains:

‘Ferocious updrafts from these multiple firestorms would loft millions of tons of smoke and soot into the stratosphere, which would not be rained out and would quickly encircle the globe, forming a blanket blocking most sunlight around the earth for a decade or more. This would reduce sunlight and lower temperatures worldwide to a point that it would eliminate all harvests and starve to death—not all but nearly all—humans (and other animals that depend on vegetation for food).’

Since 1949 there have been twenty five documented occasions when the US has threatened to attack a country with its nuclear weapons. Foster points out that:

‘Development of nuclear primacy through counterforce weapons held out the possibility that such threats could once again be credibly directed even at major nuclear powers such as Russia and China.’

Foster quotes the former US strategic planner Daniel Ellsberg:

‘“The hope,” entertained by U.S. strategic planners—who alone, in their denialism and sense of approaching nuclear primacy, could envision such a possibility—of “successfully avoiding mutual annihilation by a decapitating attack has always been as ill-founded as any other. The realistic conclusion would be that a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviets[/Russians] was—and is—virtually certain to be an unmitigated catastrophe, not only for the two parties but for the world,” triggering nuclear winter and “global omnicide”.’

As Foster puts it: ‘The search for nuclear primacy, therefore, leads from MAD to madness.’

By analysing in detail the continuing US attempt to acquire a first strike nuclear capacity Foster also makes a very important contribution to socialist strategy. There is a tendency in parts of the ‘Western left’ to note the (absolutely correct) facts of relative economic decline of the US, the rise of China etc and therefore to conclude that the end of capitalism, or at least of US power, is close, that we are entering a stage of senile capitalism etc.

This is methodologically false from the point of view of analysis. As Lenin continually stressed it is an error in principle to analyse the situation only from the point of view of one class, or from the point of view of only the exploited and oppressed. It is necessary to analyse a situation from the point of view of the interrelation of all classes: ‘Tactics must be based on a sober and strictly objective appraisal of all the class forces in a particular state (and of the states that surround it, and of all states the world over)’ – as he emphasised in ‘“Left-Wing’’ Communism’.

Furthermore, as Lenin also noted: ‘Politics must take precedence over economics. To argue otherwise is to forget the ABC of Marxism.’ The ultimate core of politics is the state, whose core is the armed bodies of men and women, the military. The US is in relative economic decline but it remains by a significant margin the world’s strongest military power. The conclusion that follows from this is not that the US will accept its relative decline but that it will attempt to use its military strength to attempt to defeat opponents it is losing to in economic competition. Therefore, that we are entering not a period of the certainty of US decline but of a very dangerous period for humanity in which the US will attempt to use military power to offset economic decline. The cutting edge of this is precisely the continuing attempt of the US to acquire a first strike nuclear capability. By analysing this Foster therefore makes a major contribution not only to a specific subject but to socialist strategy as a whole.

John Bellamy Foster’s full article setting out these twin threats to human existence, climate change and nuclear war, is therefore a must read for progressive activists and is recommended in the strongest terms. It can be read here on Monthly Review.