I have been working for a world free of nuclear weapons for over four decades. On occasion I am asked, “Why do you continue this struggle when change seems to come so slowly?” Here is my response.
Nuclear weapons threaten the existence of civilization and the human species. We humans cannot continue to be complacent in the face of the nuclear dangers that confront us. Too many people are complacent and too many are ignorant of the threat posed by these weapons.
Albert Einstein warned: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” The nature of the catastrophe was demonstrated first at Hiroshima and then at Nagasaki. We continue to face the possibility of a global Hiroshima.
If even a few nuclear weapons were used today, the humanitarian consequences would be beyond our capacity to cope. There would not be enough surviving medical personnel available to aid the suffering of the victims. There would not be enough hospitals or burn wards. Water supplies would be contaminated. Infrastructure would be destroyed. The damage would not be containable in either time or space.
Atmospheric scientists have modeled the effects of the use of nuclear weapons. They find that the use of only one hundred Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons in a regional war between India and Pakistan would trigger a nuclear famine that would lead to the deaths by starvation of some one billion people globally. That would be the result of a small nuclear war. How would this happen? The weapons would destroy cities, putting massive amounts of soot into the stratosphere, blocking warming sunlight, shortening growing seasons, causing crop failures and food shortages.
A large-scale nuclear war between the US and Russia would, of course, be far worse, lowering temperatures on Earth to Ice Age levels. There would be few survivors.
All this is to say that perhaps I know too much. I cannot stop struggling to end the nuclear weapons era. I am challenged to fight against ignorance and indifference. I know that this is not a problem that can be set aside with the expectation that it will take care of itself.
There has been progress. By 1986, the number of nuclear weapons in the world had ballooned to 70,000. Today, the number is around 17,000. Over 50,000 nuclear weapons have been eliminated. That is worth celebrating, but not for too long. It hasn’t changed the fundamental proposition that nuclear war could destroy most complex life on the planet, and this planet remains the only place we know of in the universe where life exists. As Carl Sagan used to remind us, we live on a “pale blue dot,” our planetary home, one which is infinitesimally small in relation to the universe, but infinitely precious.
President Obama, in a recent speech in Berlin, stated, “Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons – no matter how distant that dream may be.” Yes, we – all of us – need the security of a world without nuclear weapons, but why must the dream be distant? Why must we think of the dream as being distant? Why must President Obama frame it in this way? Is he not demonstrating a deficit of leadership in doing so? Whose interests are being served – those of corporate weapons makers or those of the people of the world?
Nuclear deterrence does not protect us. If it did, there would be no need for missile defenses. Nor would we object to other countries developing nuclear deterrent forces. And, of course, nuclear deterrence does not even apply to terrorist organizations, which have no territory to retaliate against and may be suicidal.
Nuclear weapons are actually suicidal weapons. Use them, and they will be used against you. Use them, and run the risk of nuclear famine or nuclear winter. They may also be omnicidal weapons, their use leading to the death of all.
If we want to end the insecurity of a world with nuclear weapons, we must continue the struggle for a world without them. And we must realize that the nature of the weapons require that the struggle be approached with a sense of urgency and boldness.
So, I continue the struggle – in the hope that you may join with me and many others to make the abolition of nuclear weapons an urgent – rather than distant – dream.
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