Zero-Sum Foolery 2 of 4: Doomsday Climate Machine

by Sandwichman

Zero-Sum Foolery 2 of 4: Doomsday Climate Machine

We have met the doomsday machine and it is us.

The “doomsday machine” became a household word after Herman Kahn speculated about building such a device in his 1960 book, On Thermonuclear War. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1964), immortalized the doomsday machine in the following exchange between two Peter Sellers characters, President Merkin Muffley and Dr. Strangelove:

Muffley: Dr. Strangelove, do we have anything like that in the works?

Strangelove: A moment please, Mr. President. Under the authority granted me as director of weapons research and development, I commissioned last year a study of this project by the BLAND corporation. Based on the findings of the report, my conclusion was that this idea was not a practical deterrent, for reasons which, at this moment, must be all too obvious.

Muffley: Then you mean it is possible for them to have built such a thing?

Strangelove: Mr. President, the technology required is easily within the means of even the smallest nuclear power. It requires only the will to do so.

Muffley: But, how is it possible for this thing to be triggered automatically, and at the same time impossible to untrigger?

Strangelove: Mr. President, it is not only possible, it is essential. That is the whole idea of this machine, you know. Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the fear to attack. And so, because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying. It’s simple to understand. And completely credible, and convincing.

General Turgidson: Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines, Stainsy.

Muffley: But this is fantastic, Strangelove. How can it be triggered automatically?

Strangelove: Well, it’s remarkably simple to do that. When you merely wish to bury bombs, there is no limit to the size. After that they are connected to a gigantic complex of computers. Now then, a specific and clearly defined set of circumstances, under which the bombs are to be exploded, is programmed into a tape memory bank….

Strangelove: Yes, but the… whole point of the doomsday machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?

Also in 1964, Rapoport’s Strategy and Conscience was published.

Rapoport used a systematic exposition of decision theory to demonstrate the essential irrationality of strategic thinking, which prides itself on its supposedly rigorous rationality. Of course, the strategic thinkers missed Rapoport’s point, stayed calm and carried on thinking strategically.

It would be timely to revisit Herman Kahn’s footnote on the feasibility of a doomsday machine and ask if it doesn’t describe something that exists today and is actually in operation:

While I would not care to guess the exact form that a reasonably efficient Doomsday Machine would take, I would be willing to conjecture that if the project were started today [1960] and sufficiently well supported one could have such a machine by 1970. I would also guess that the cost would be between 10 and 100 billion dollars. … The mechanism used would most likely not involve the breaking up of the Earth, but the creation of really large amounts of radioactivity or the causing of major climatic changes or, less likely, the extreme use of thermal effects.

I have added emphasis to the phrase, “the causing of major climatic changes.” Nowadays, we refer to it simply as climate change. Anthropogenic climate change is a doomsday machine. Who would have thought?
How and why does one build such a terrible thing? Well, it turns out one doesn’t have to build it — it builds itself. All one needs to do is to keep thinking strategically and to broaden the scope of strategic thinking from brinkmanship to growthmanship.

Kubrick read a reprint of an article by Thomas Schelling, “Meteors, Mischief and War,” that had originally been published in the September 1960 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In his article, Schelling reviewed Peter George’s novel (published under the pen name of Peter Bryant), Red Alert. Kubrick tracked down the novelist and together they visited Schelling at Cambridge. The three of them concluded that the new ICBMs rendered the plot line of Red Alert no longer plausible. Dr. Stranglove was gestated in these deliberations.

A central issue Rapoport raised in Strategy and Conscience is the pressure on strategic thinkers to reduce non-zero-sum game situations to the zero-sum dimension. He stressed the  point again at a conference in Berkeley in 1964, discussing Schelling’s investigation of the role of communication in non-zero-sum games:

In this situation, the center of interest has switched to persuasive skills. If the interplay of persuasive attempts can also be cast in the form of a game of strategy, the resulting game will be viewed as a zero-sum game, since persuading the other is conceptualized in strategic thinking as a “win,” while having been  persuaded is interpreted as a “loss.” Therefore, introducing communication in this manner reduces the non-zero-sum game to a zero-sum game on another level.

There is thus a relentless pressure inherent in strategic thinking to cast conflict situations in the framework of zero-sum games, i.e., to view them as conflicts of irreconcilable interests. Schelling has said that thinking derived from game theory is trapped by the conceptualization of the zero-sum game. I heartily agree with this verdict and would amplify it by pointing out that even when situations are cast in non-zero-sum game models (of which Chicken is an example), strategic analysis, as it is usually practiced, leads toward a formulation which reintroduces the zero-sum game on another level.

Schelling’s Strategy of Conflict (1960), was ranked in 1995 by Times Literary Supplement as one of the hundred most influential books published since World War II. Reviews by James Meade and Charles McClelland discussed Schelling’s contribution in relation to Kenneth Boulding’s Conflict and Defense and Anatol Rapoport’s Fights, Games and Debates.

Boulding, Schelling and Rapoport collaborated in the Journal of Conflict Resolution in the late 1950s. But their relationship appears to have grown increasingly tense because of disagreements about the rationality and the military applications of strategic thinking.

Schelling reviewed Rapoport’s Fights, Games and Debates and Strategy and Conscience and Boulding’s Conflict and Defense. Both Boulding and Rapoport reviewed Schelling’s Strategy of Conflict. Rapoport judged the greatest value of that book was to suggest “that the very framework of thought in which the strategist must operate precludes a breakout from our present situation…” Boulding’s review was blunter, even impolite:

Schelling’s world, rational as it pretends to be, is in reality a world of rational nightmare, devoid of “mercy, pity, peace and love,” slipping into rational deceit, rational cruelty, endless and implacable rational hostility, rational despair, and rational terror. It all ends, one fears, in the rational lunacy of eventual mutual annihilation. One fears Schelling has been seduced by the RAND Corporation which he so much admires.

Paul Erickson offers a fascinating glimpse into the complicated relationships between these three men in The World the Game Theorists Made. Erickson cites reviews by Oskar Morgenstern and Martin Shubik of both Fights, Games and Debates and Strategy and Conflict, both of which are much kinder to Rapoport’s book than to Schelling’s. In his autobiography, Rapoport recalled that at first neither he nor Schelling realized that their positions were “poles apart” (Certainties and Doubts, p. 128). Perhaps it was the initial illusion of accord followed by the shock of discovering fundamental differences that stoked the apparent resentments.

Starting with his role as an adviser on environmental issues to the Carter administration, Schelling has written prolifically on the economics of global warming. In 1996, Schelling was the first to speculate about the strategic aspects of geo-engineering and ambiguously refers to himself as “perhaps” to be included among the “enthusiasts” for it.

My familiarity with Schelling’s writing on climate change is limited, but judging from this 2008 Cournot Centre forum, Economics and Climate Change: Where Do We Stand and Where Do We Go from Here?, moderated by Robert Solow, Schelling’s view of the urgency of action would appear to be more closely aligned with Martin Weitzman’s than with either William Nordhaus’s or Nicholas Stern’s.  Responding to Stern’s enthusiasm about prospective global emission reduction targets, Schelling observed that, “announcing a radical target for the future won’t be taken seriously…”

cross posted with Econospeak