Robert McNamara and Geoengineering

October 6, 2021 by Joshua
in Choosing/Decision-Making, Leadership

Following up my podcast episode 516: Geoengineering: Prologue or Epilogue for Humanity?, I rewatched the documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.

The movie is fascinating, relevant, and poignant to our geoengineering question, particularly Robert McNamara’s approach to major decisions he played major roles in. The big ones were firebombing Japanese cities in World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and escalating the war in Vietnam.

The movie goes into more depth, but here’s a quick quote of McNamara describing how right a decision seemed in the moment and how wrong it seems now. He is aching for people to learn from past mistakes. I see how he views those decisions as prescient to those people promoting geoengineering are making today. They believe they have found all the evidence to justify their decisions, but their models lead them to conclude so. In the case of Vietnam, that model was the Domino Theory. Today, people believe we have to put everything on the table when our backs are to the wall. They think people reject geoengineering out of ignorance or fear they won’t work.

I expect they’ll work, alright, but not at what we want. They won’t help with most of the problems, like deforestation, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, overpopulation, and a dozen other problems manifesting our values. On the problems we designed them to act on, they won’t stop at what we want them to do. They’ll act on many other things on a global level.

Geoengineering won’t change the values we are acting on. The difference between the verdant, lush, fertile Earth our ancestors lived in for 300,000 years and the polluted, increasingly toxic, monoculture one of today is the physical manifestation of our values.

McNamara’s relevant reflections

The documentary’s director chose a telling quote as McNamara’s opening lines in the movie. I hear McNamara acknowledging major mistakes he’s made that have killed hundreds of thousands of people, though suggesting anyone else would have. The stakes with our environment today are billions of human lives and the ability for Earth to sustain life for however many humans survive if our population collapses, if any do. Many species have gone extinct from overpopulation leading to collapse.

Any military commander who is honest with himself, or with those he’s speaking to, will admit that he has made mistakes in the application of military power. He’s killed people unnecessarily — his own troops or other troops — through mistakes, through errors of judgment. A hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand. But, he hasn’t destroyed nations.

And the conventional wisdom is don’t make the same mistake twice, learn from your mistakes. And we all do. Maybe we make the same mistake three times, but hopefully not four or five. They’ll be no learning period with nuclear weapons. You make one mistake and you’re going to destroy nations

While McNamara spoke of the US escalation in Vietnam, the director kept showing dominoes falling over a map of southeast Asia. McNamara gathered all the data he could. Once the Domino Theory was in place, all their decisions were already made. The data was window dressing.

Regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis, he described how lucky we were to get out alive. We were wrong about their missiles being armed, as we learned decades later. Note how even after the crisis ended, many thought we should have attacked, which Castro in 1992 told McNamara would have led to him launching his missiles, potentially killing a hundred million Americans in an hour, likely starting World War III.

In a sense, we’d won. We got the missiles out without war. My deputy and I brought the five Chiefs over and we sat down with Kennedy. And he said, “Gentlemen, we won. I don’t want you ever to say it, but you know we won, I know we won.”

And LeMay said, “Won? Hell, we lost. We should go in and wipe ’em out today.”

LeMay believed that ultimately we’re going to confront these people in a conflict with nuclear weapons. And, by God, we better do it when we have greater superiority than we will have in the future.

How close are we to repeating the error?

The movie closes with McNamara reflecting on our fallibility in times of complexity and fear on the scale of war.

We all make mistakes. We know we make mistakes. I don’t know any military commander, who is honest, who would say he has not made a mistake. There’s a wonderful phrase: “the fog of war.”

What “the fog of war” means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.

Wilson said: “We won the war to end all wars.” I’m not so na?ve or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war. We’re not going to change human nature anytime soon. It isn’t that we aren’t rational. We are rational. But reason has limits.

We are rational. But reason has limits. As I see our geoengineering situation, mental models beyond reason are guiding its proponents. I’m not so arrogant to think these principles don’t apply to me. I’m trying to challenge my models as much as prompting them challenging theirs. I believe McNamara is saying his experience in war and peace is warning us against following the path of just looking at engineering numbers.

Incidentally, much of the above applies to trying to rely on nuclear power.


Had we empathized with our enemies, as McNamara suggested we didn’t in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have escalated. Doing so might have led us to question our models or at least see them.

We can lower our consumption, birth rate, and immigration. In all the mainstream strategies I’ve seen, I almost never see anyone consider lowering the US consumption of fossil fuels. They take for granted that the population will rise to around 9 or 10 billion by 2100, as if in ignorance of societies who changed their trajectories through voluntary, noncoercive means that increase health, longevity, prosperity, and stability. We can too.

They take for granted that we won’t lower our consumption, which they confuse with our standard of living. Our standard of living kills us with addiction and its results: diabetes, heart disease (both from salt, sugar, fat, and convenience) and overdoses (from heroin, meth, and peers).

My results of lowering consumption and pollution ninety percent while improving my life should lead them to question their models and, I would hope, abandon them. Leadership and teamwork have worked and can work, I would argue better than technological fixes prompted by Domino Theory-like models.

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