Tag Archives: Carol Cohn

2 brilliant articles on our SNAFU civilisation – #climate #nuclear #culture #doom

Carol Cohn (1987) Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals Signs, Vol. 12, No. 4, Within and Without: Women, Gender, and Theory. (Summer, 1987), pp. 687-718. link

Thomas Homer-Dixon, Brian Walker, Reinette Biggs, Anne-Sophie Crépin, Carl Folke, Eric F. Lambin, Garry D. Peterson , Johan Rockström, Marten Scheffer, Will Steffenand Max Troell (2015) Synchronous failure: the emerging causal architecture of global crisis Ecology and Society 20(3): 6 link

These guys have nailed it. Carol Cohn, writing in 1987 about the seductive language of nuclear war, and a gang of guys writing this year about ‘Synhcronous failure: the emerging causal architecture of global crisis‘ have nailed it. You need to read both these pieces and marvel about the stupendous power of our species – to shape its world, to toy with destroying it, and most of all, its power to delude itself and rationalise its stupidity and its death wishes.

The two articles cover the power of language to constrain thought and community, the trap of (decreasing) energy return on investment and everything else in between. They are two of the best things you will read this decade. They should also scare the crap out of you.

Cohn was able, despite being a peace-nik, to become ethnographically embedded with ‘defence (sic) intellectuals in the American nuclear war thinkingsystem in the 80s, when a nuclear war was only a few bits of bad luck and geese away. Her piece is one long series of brilliant and horrible observations. I will include only a couple –

Anyone who has seen pictures of Hiroshima burn victims or tried to imagine the pain of hundreds of glass shards blasted into flesh may find it perverse beyond imagination to hear a class of nuclear devices matter-of- factly referred to as “clean bombs.” “Clean bombs” are nuclear devices that are largely fusion rather than fission and that therefore release a higher quantity of energy, not as radiation, but as blast, as destructive explosive power.7

“Clean bombs” may provide the perfect metaphor for the language of defense analysts and arms controllers. This language has enormous destructive power, but without emotional fallout, without the emotional fallout that would result if it were clear one was talking about plans for mass murder, mangled bodies, and unspeakable human suffering.

  1. Fusion weapons’ proportionally smaller yield of radioactive fallout led Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss to announce in 1956 that hydrogen bomb tests were important “not only from a military point of view but from a humanitarian aspect.” Although the bombs being tested were 1,000 times more powerful than those that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the proportional reduction of fallout apparently qualified them as not only clean but also humanitarian. Lewis Strauss is quoted in Ralph Lapp, “The ‘Humanitarian’ H-Bomb,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 12, no. 7 (September 1956): 263.


although I was tempted to use my newly acquired proficiency in techno- strategic jargon, I vowed to speak English. I had long believed that one of the most important functions of an expert language is exclusion-the denial I wanted to see of a voice to those outside the professional community,whether a well-informed person could speak English and still carry on a knowledgeable conversation.

What I found was that no matter how well-informed or complex my questions were, if I spoke English rather than expert jargon, the men responded to me as though I were ignorant, simple-minded, or both. It did not appear to occur to anyone that I might actually be choosing not to speak their language.

A strong distaste for being patronized and dismissed made my experiment in English short-lived. I adapted my everyday speech to the vocabulary of strategic analysis. I spoke of “escalation dominance,” “preemptive strikes,” and, one of my favorites, “subholocaust engagements.” Using the right phrases opened my way into long, elaborate discussions that taught me a lot about technostrategic reasoning and how to manipulate it.

I found, however, that the better I got at engaging in this discourse, the more impossible it became for me to express my own ideas, my own values. I could adopt the language and gain a wealth of new concepts and reasoning strategies-but at the same time as the language gave me access to things I had been unable to speak about before, it radically excluded others. I could not use the language to express my concerns because it was physically impossible. This language does not allow certain questions to be asked or certain values to be expressed.

Much of their claim to legitimacy, then, is a claim to objectivity born of technical expertise and to the disciplined purging of the emotional valences that might threaten their objectivity. But if the surface of their discourse- its abstraction and technical jargon-appears at first to support these claims, a look just below the surface does not. There we find currents of homoerotic excitement, heterosexual domination, the drive toward competency and mastery, the pleasures of membership in an elite and privileged group, the ultimate importance and meaning of membership in the priesthood, and the thrilling power of becoming Death, shatterer of worlds. How is it possible to hold this up as a paragon of cool-headed objectivity?

It could usefully be read alongside Barbara Kingsolver’s corking essay “In the Belly of the Beast” on Titan missiles around Tuscon.

The 2015 article is from Ecology and Society, which does what it says on the tin. Here’s the abstract.

ABSTRACT. Recent global crises reveal an emerging pattern of causation that could increasingly characterize the birth and progress of future global crises. A conceptual framework identifies this pattern’s deep causes, intermediate processes, and ultimate outcomes.

The framework shows how multiple stresses can interact within a single social-ecological system to cause a shift in that system’s behavior, how simultaneous shifts of this kind in several largely discrete social-ecological systems can interact to cause a far larger intersystemic crisis, and how such a larger crisis can then rapidly propagate across multiple system boundaries to the global scale. Case studies of the 2008-2009 financial-energy and food-energy crises illustrate the framework. Suggestions are offered for future research to explore further the framework’s propositions.

Key Words: climate change; conventional oil; financial system; global crisis; grain supply; social-ecological system

They deliver in spades. In eleven clear and increasingly horrific pages (think Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft tripping acid mashing it up with Buzz Holling, James Hansen and Kevin Anderson) they lay out the not-very-hidden connections between our fossil fuel addiction and the multiple traps we’ve laid for ourselves. As a 2004 Harper’s article, that they don’t cite, put it – we are eating oil. (And here it is again, not behind a paywall this time)

Here’s some pretty figures.  You should get off the internet and read these articles.  Then go and have a lie down in a darkened room and commit to dance and drink and screw.  You know it makes sense. There’s nothing else to do.

figure 1

figure 2

What they have in common

  • Academic exposure of our rational irrationality, hubris, pathological technophilia
  • Humans at their best, writing about humanity at its worst.
  • There are huge slabs of quotable text, but you need to go and read these articles

What we learn from all this

  • There is no censorship of ‘secrets’ in the West worthy of the name. It is a system of soft control so beautiful that the Truth (and I don’t mean chemtrails or building 7, ffs) can be out there at the click of a mouse.
  • Our hierarchies necessarily (?) reward and promote sociopaths and psychopaths
  • Academics are capable of writing clearly about shit that matters.
  • We are fubarred.