[Lightly edited from 2009 blog]
Nuclear weapons, or ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as they are also called today, are very interesting things, not so much for the astounding technology that makes them possible but because of what they tell us about the people that develop and keep them. They illuminate wonderfully a clash between two mindsets, the oil and water of near-term global geopolitics and long-term environmental and human advocacy. Let’s examine these two worldviews in succession.
To political/military leaders weapons of mass destruction are absolutely essential, provided that We have them (and ideally no one else). In the arms race of the last 10,000 years they are the biggest gun to date. They are fearsome and can act to deter aggression from enemies merely due to their known existence. No premier wants his or her nation to be without them if any one else has them. They are possibly the best tool of hard diplomacy ever developed. Some would say their threat has ensured a relatively peaceful last 70 years on a planet overflowing with both people and munitions.
Virtually no government will voluntarily give up nuclear weapons, because they feel they cannot trust other governments, whether enemy or ally. To voluntarily surrender what some would crudely view as their greatest asset is tantamount to surrender in the video game of global power politics. This explains why even after the Cold War was over and nuclear development was sometimes blamed for the fall of one of the largest centrally-run political units in the history of the world (the U.S.S.R.), negotiated nuclear disarmament was merely a token action, meant to quell doves and some pragmatic fiscalites. Stocks have remained in the thousands, an essentially infinite number for a weapon the existence of a single one of which could spell global disaster. It does not matter if a hostage-taker has one bullet or 4000 in his gun – the effect is the same.
The second worldview, anti-nuke, sees the development and stockpiling of these arms as absolutely ludicrous. There is a qualitative difference between a sword or other weapon that kills individuals at hand and a missile that exterminates millions from great distances, perhaps even from orbiting satellites. The purpose and honor of close-quarters battle such as in World War I is lost when a General issues a command to eliminate an enemy city of blameless civilians from the map.
Much more significant than this, though, is the fact that the launching of a single nuclear warhead anywhere in the world can, before the next meal, result in the death of nearly every human being on the planet. Deterrence will eventually fail in practice. It did for the machine gun, the inventor of which thought it would end all war. It is my belief that, as I have been saying for years, “Put enough people in a room with guns and someone’s going to get shot.” Even if deterrence does work an astounding 99% of the time, the final 1% will kill us – the continued existence of nuclear weapons ensures their eventual uncontrolled use. And when this occurs ‘all hell will break loose,’ and hell is just what the thriving Earth will become: a global graveyard survived only by cockroaches and a few other organisms. This is not merely to speak of humans, though, as we represent a miniscule fraction of life on this planet. Millions of entirely innocent species will go up in flames, throwing out the maternity ward with the bathwater.
There is an added social problem of nuclear weapons today, though: by 1968 agreement, only certain militaries are allowed to have them. The rationale for this is that only the United States, France, etc. are trustworthy enough to use them (or not use them) responsibly. Other governments are barred from buying or developing nuclear weapons. This is a classic case of hypocrisy, a double standard the more developed countries have put over on the rest of the world. This in addition to the fact that this greatest of liabilities was developed by Western powers (one of which is the only state to use them in war), the same ones that now claim moral higher ground in deciding who should be allowed to possess them.
Nuclear weapons can undermine life on Earth much faster than ecological damage, yet are paid very little attention. Perhaps this is because environmental damage is easier to see, more predictable, and incremental. Nuclear armament is a huge ‘wild card,’ as decades of calm have the potential to convert with almost no warning into nuclear holocaust. The full spectrum of possibility is open to us each and every day, the opposite of the stepwise day-in-day-out regress of ecological destruction.
The possibility of global nuclear apocalypse is not theoretical or a future ‘what if’ scenario. Every organism on this planet, including you and I, lives every day under the impending threat of nuclear destruction. Citizens of the West knew this a generation ago, and felt the cold shadow. And though we’ve been lulled to sleep by governmental supplications and lack of recent nuclear war, the threat is still there. Every day of every year our leaders play Russian roulette with all of us as collateral. Eventually there will indeed be a bullet in the chamber, and everything ends, shamefully. Such an event would be suicide for the leaders, homicide of all other people, and ecocide of the rest of the natural world. All for short-term geopolitical advantage. Quite the tradeoff.
I stand with those opposed to nuclear weapons. The development and maintenance of them makes perfect sense to governmental decision-makers and many of their constituents, yet shows a lack of vision, a manifest inclination to cash in the future for the present. This is emblematic of the mentality (discussed in the Cultural Disease entry) that leads to ecological destruction. Such a worldview patently lacks wisdom, which I defining what to do when. Wise leadership would recognize the infinite threat nuclear weapons put the entire planet under and make a mature decision to bow out of the arms race, for the good of all. This will take courage and will be a difficult sell to both powerful individuals and regular citizens accustomed to the ideas of complete control and unbounded military, but wisdom and reason bid it a necessity. The potential blood of all will no longer be on their hands. May we rediscover wisdom before it is too late…