The Task Before Us
By John Scales Avery
01 July, 2013
As a result of the Fukushima catastrophe, world public opinion now increasingly rejects nuclear power generation. We can hope that the disaster will also contribute to a rejection of nuclear weapons.
We value and love our natural environment for its beauty, but we are also starting to realize how closely our lives are linked to nature. We are becoming more conscious of how human activities may damage the natural systems on which we depend for our existence. There is much worry today about climate change, but an ecological catastrophe of equal or greater magnitude could be produced by a nuclear war. One can gain a small idea of what this would be like by thinking of the radioactive contamination that has made large areas near to Chernobyl and Fukushima uninhabitable, or the testing of hydrogen bombs in the Pacific, which continues to cause leukemia and birth defects in the Marshall Islands more than half a century later.
In 1954, the United States tested a hydrogen bomb at Bikini. The bomb was 1,300 times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fallout from the bomb contaminated the island of Rongelap, one of the Marshall Islands 120 kilometers from Bikini. The islanders experienced radiation illness, and many died from cancer. Even today, half a century later, both people and animals on Rongelap and other nearby islands suffer from birth defects. The most common defects have been “jellyfish babies”, born with no bones and with transparent skin. Their brains and beating hearts can be seen. The babies usually live a day or two before they stop breathing.
A girl from Rongelap describes the situation in the following words: “I cannot have children. I have had miscarriages on seven occasions. Our culture and religion teach us that reproductive abnormalities are a sign that women have been unfaithful. For this reason, many of my friends keep quiet about the strange births that they have had. In privacy they give birth, not to children as we like to think of them, but to things we could only describe as ‘octopuses’, ‘apples’, ‘turtles’, and other things in our experience. We do not have Marshallese words for these kinds of babies, because they were never born before the radiation came.”
The environmental effects of a nuclear war would be catastrophic. It would produce radioactive contamination of the kind that we have already experienced in the areas around Chernobyl and Fukushima and in the Marshall Islands, but on an enormously increased scale. We have to remember that the total explosive power of the nuclear weapons in the world today is 500,0000 time as great as the power of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What is threatened by a nuclear war today is the complete breakdown of human civilization.
Besides spreading deadly radioactivity throughout the world, a nuclear war would inflict catastrophic damage on global agriculture. Firestorms in burning cities would produce millions of tons of black, thick, radioactive smoke. The smoke would rise to the stratosphere where it would spread around the earth and remain for a decade. Prolonged cold, decreased sunlight and rainfall, and massive increases in harmful ultraviolet light would shorten or eliminate growing seasons, producing a nuclear famine. Even a small nuclear war could endanger the lives of the billion people who today are chronically undernourished. A full-scale nuclear war would mean that most humans would die from hunger. Many animal and plant species would also be threatened with extinction.
Today, the system that is supposed to give us security is called Mutually Assured Destruction, appropriately abbreviated as MAD. It is based on the idea of deterrence, which maintains that because of the threat of massive retaliation, no sane leader would start a nuclear war.
Before discussing other defects in the concept of deterrence, it must be said very clearly that the idea of “massive nuclear retaliation” is a form of genocide and is completely unacceptable from an ethical point of view. It violates not only the principles of common human decency and common sense, but also the ethical principles of every major religion.
Having said this, we can now turn to some of the other faults in the concept of nuclear deterrence. One important defect is that nuclear war may occur through accident or miscalculation, through technical defects or human failings, or by terrorism. This possibility is made greater by the fact that despite the end of the Cold War, thousands of missiles carrying nuclear warheads are still kept on “hair-trigger alert” with a quasi-automatic reaction time measured in minutes. There is a constant danger that a nuclear war will be triggered by error in evaluating the signal on a radar screen.
Incidents in which global disaster is avoided by a hair's breadth are constantly occurring. For example, on the night of 26 September, 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, a young software engineer, was on duty at a surveillance center near Moscow. Suddenly the screen in front of him turned bright red.
An alarm went off. It’s enormous piercing sound filled the room. A second alarm followed, and then a third, fourth and fifth. “The computer showed that the Americans had launched a strike against us”, Petrov remembered later. His orders were to pass the information up the chain of command to Secretary General Yuri Andropov. Within minutes, a nuclear counterattack would be launched. However, because of certain inconsistent features of the alarm, Petrov disobeyed orders and reported it as a computer error, which indeed it was.
Most of us probably owe our lives to his coolheaded decision and knowledge of software systems. The narrowness of this escape is compounded by the fact that Petrov was on duty only because of the illness of another officer with less knowledge of software, who would have accepted the alarm as real.
Narrow escapes such as this show us clearly that in the long run, the combination of space-age science and stone-age politics will destroy us. We urgently need new political structures and new ethics to match our advanced technology. Modern science has, for the first time in history, offered humankind the possibility of a life of comfort, free from hunger and cold, and free from the constant threat of death through infectious disease. At the same time, science has given humans the power to obliterate their civilization with nuclear weapons, or to make the earth uninhabitable through overpopulation and pollution. The question of which of these paths we choose is literally a matter of life or death for ourselves and our children.
Will we use the discoveries of modern science constructively, and thus choose the path leading towards life? Or will we use science to produce more and more lethal weapons, which sooner or later, through a technical or human failure, will result in a catastrophic nuclear war? Will we thoughtlessly destroy our beautiful planet through unlimited growth of population and industry? The choice among these alternatives is ours to make. We live at a critical moment of history, a moment of crisis for civilization.
No one alive today asked to be born at a time of crisis, but history has given each of us an enormous responsibility. Of course we have our ordinary jobs, which we need to do in order to stay alive; but besides that, each of us has a second job, the duty to devote both time and effort to solving the serious problems that face civilization during the 21st century. We cannot rely on our politicians to do this for us. Many politicians are under the influence of powerful lobbies. Others are waiting for a clear expression of popular will. It is the people of the world themselves who must choose their own future and work hard to build it. No single person can achieve the changes that we need, but together we can do it.
The problem of building a stable, just, and war-free world is difficult, but it is not impossible. The large regions of our present-day world within which war has been eliminated can serve as models. There are a number of large countries with heterogeneous populations within which it has been possible to achieve internal peace and social cohesion, and if this is possible within such extremely large regions, it must also be possible globally.
We must replace the old world of international anarchy, chronic war, and institutionalized injustice by a new world of law. The United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court are steps in the right direction. These institutions need to be greatly strengthened and reformed. We also need a new global ethic, where loyalty to one’s family and nation will be supplemented by a higher loyalty to humanity as a whole.
Tipping points in public opinion can occur suddenly. We can think, for example, of the Civil Rights Movement, or the rapid fall of the Berlin Wall, or the sudden change that turned public opinion against smoking, or the sudden movement for freedom and democracy in the Arab world. A similar sudden change can occur soon regarding war and nuclear weapons.
We know that war is madness. We know that it is responsible for much of the suffering that humans experience. We know that war pollutes our planet and that the almost unimaginable sums wasted on war prevent the happiness and prosperity of mankind. We know that nuclear weapons are insane, and that the precariously balanced deterrence system can break down at any time through human error or computer errors or through terrorist actions, and that it definitely will break down within our lifetimes unless we abolish it. We know that nuclear war threatens to destroy civilization and much of the biosphere.
The logic is there. We must translate into popular action which will put an end to the undemocratic, money-driven, power-lust-driven war machine. The peoples of the world must say very clearly that nuclear weapons are an absolute evil; that their possession does not increase anyone’s security; that their continued existence is a threat to the life of every person on the planet; and that these genocidal and potentially omnicidal weapons have no place in a civilized society.
Modern science has abolished time and distance as factors separating nations. On our shrunken globe today, there is room for one group only: the family of humankind. We must embrace all other humans as our brothers and sisters. More than that, we must feel that all of nature is part of the same sacred family; meadow flowers, blowing winds, rocks, trees, birds, animals, and other humans, all these are our brothers and sisters, deserving our care and protection. Only in this way can we survive together. Only in this way can we build a happy future.
John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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