As I write, a plume of crude oil from the Deepwater Horizon explosion is moving toward Cuba, our purported enemy – but an enemy surrounded by the healthiest coral reefs in the Caribbean, a breeding ground for fish that eventually come to populate vast reaches of the single interconnected ocean that surrounds all continents.
It is hard not to think, during these tense weeks of waiting and hoping for the capping of the well, about human technological hubris in all its brightness and darkness.
The engineers who designed and built that oil rig must have taken great pride in the remarkable achievement of successfully pumping oil from such an incredible depth.
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And, yet, at the same time that our great deeds amaze us, our total technological infrastructure has become larger than us. We, or it, can unleash powers that can affect the earth on a geophysical scale.
There was a moment back in 1945 when physicists were preparing for the first test of an atomic weapon at Los Alamos. A few scientists predicted that there was a tiny chance that the bomb could actually light the atmosphere on fire and incinerate the planet. We went ahead regardless.
Hundreds of tests by a number of nations later, we still have our atmosphere, but the very cells of every living thing, including us, are permeated with subtle radioactive compounds. We went ahead regardless.
The pervasive illusion was that the humans who are in charge of oil rigs would never let an accident of this magnitude happen. But it did.
The pervasive illusion is that the humans who are in charge of nuclear weapons will not let an accident happen. But it may.
Because our minds are currently focused upon the possibility of a terrorist getting hold of one nuclear weapon, we do not give much thought to the 10,000-odd weapons in the charge of fallible human citizens from nine nuclear nations.
For everything nuclear to continue “fail-safe” down through the decades ahead, every one of those thousands of humans must never, not once, misinterpret a mistaken signal coming in from another nation as a sign of actual hostility. All the electronics connected to the weapons must function perfectly. Is that realistic? Is that possible?
What do we do? First, we tell it like it is. There is a difference between, say, upping the threat level against the government of Iran to try to get them to behave in a certain way – and admitting that all nations have the nuclear problem in common. This problem will not only not be solved by more nations possessing nuclear weapons; it will not even be fully solved even when all nations have abolished nuclear weapons. Why? Because weapons can be rebuilt and the whole spiral toward Armageddon can begin again. We have changed the conditions for our survival – forever – and our minds and hearts must change in response.
We are a remarkable species. If we have the engineering capacity to go to the moon or build a space station or pull oil from below the ocean floor, surely, we have the capacity to look down the time stream and take humble and prudent action to prevent catastrophe.
We need a much deeper, more pervasive realization that we are radically interdependent, that we are all in this together, not only all human “allies” and “enemies,” but also coral reefs and infant fish. It hardly matters whether the momentum of our technological advance is driven by wonder, possibility and the thrill of risk, or by greed and fear, or a mix of all these. Absent a deep ethical reorientation toward what is best for the whole planet, that momentum will – will, not may – end in disaster. When might this realization begin to influence decisions taken by corporate boards, or supreme courts, or adversarial diplomats jockeying for national advantage?