A contribution to an exchange on Nuclear Abolition: The Road from Armageddon to Transformation
I appreciated David Krieger’s timely article about nuclear disarmament and the many thoughtful responses.
Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has been clear to thoughtful people that nuclear weapons constitute an existential threat to human civilization. Earlier atrocities in World War II, such as the rape of Nanking, the London blitz, and the fire-bombing of Dresden were symptoms of an era in which mass murder of innocent civilians was seen by the military and politicians as legitimate means to their ends. The atomic bomb increased by orders of magnitude the scale of mass murder which was possible. The subsequent development of fusion weapons gave the power-crazed the capacity to murder millions and raised the specter of destroying human society. We had the terrifying notion of Mutually Assured Destruction and military thinking that bordered on the clinically insane. I recall one vivid example from a 1980s visit to the USA, where I saw a newspaper front-page headline, “We’re ready for World War Four”. Moving beyond the obvious reaction of wondering whether there had been a dramatic event while I was asleep, I read the article with mounting disbelief. The US military had apparently been worried that a full-scale nuclear war might leave them without any weapons of mass destruction. So it had decided to station permanently under the polar ice cap a submarine armed with hundreds of nuclear missiles. One senior military figure cheerfully expressed the thinking behind this move. Even after a total nuclear war in which every missile silo had been exhausted, every bomb at the disposal of the Strategic Air Command had been dropped, and every nuclear submarine in the Atlantic had fired all its missiles, he said, “We would still be able to make the rubble bounce a bit.”
As a young physicist, I naively accepted the assurances of my senior colleagues that it would be possible to harness “the peaceful atom”—nuclear power and medical isotopes—without the risk of nuclear war. That was always a dishonest claim. Nuclear power in the USA was a by-product of the weapons program. The then USSR was primarily interested in nuclear technology to counter what it saw as the threat from US weapons. The first nuclear power delivered to the UK electricity system by the Calder Hall reactor, switched on by the young Queen Elizabeth II, was a public relations stunt to draw attention away from the reactor’s real purpose, to produce plutonium for the British bomb. The head of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission in the 1960s was a shameless proponent of the idea that Australia should use its one research reactor to produce nuclear weapons, arguing that it was the best way to protect our large landmass from potential invaders. Like Paul Raskin, I was by the 1960s sufficiently alarmed to be campaigning for elimination of nuclear weapons. The UK, France, and China had joined the arms race, and it was reasonable to conclude that the development and deployment of nuclear weapons would almost certainly mean that some future leader would be sufficiently mad or desperate enough to use them.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was a beacon of hope. The five nations with nuclear weapons agreed to take positive steps to disarm, while, in return, the rest of the world agreed not to develop those weapons. It has since been clear that the nations with nuclear weapons never had any intention of dismantling their stocks. Indeed, several decades later, they are still developing and testing more sophisticated nuclear weapons. The consequence has been inevitable: other nations have used what was ostensibly peaceful technology to develop their own weapons, making it more likely that they will eventually be used. The events of the last decade have sent a clear message to the leaders of small nations. If you don’t have weapons of mass destruction that allow you to threaten potential enemies, you can be ruthlessly overthrown, as Saddam Hussein was in Iraq. If you have nuclear weapons, as the DPRK now has, your potential enemies have to negotiate respectfully with you. So we can expect other nations to join India, Pakistan, Israel, and the DPRK by developing nuclear weapons if current trends continue. And that means that such intractable disputes as those in the Middle East, or about the future of Kashmir, are always likely to turn into nuclear war, with unthinkable consequences.
How did we get into this mess? Our evolution as a species allowed us to use physical force to eliminate other hominids. Since we have been the dominant predator on the planet, individuals and societies have used male violence to obtain food, other resources, and mates. For small-scale societies with primitive weapons, it was a successful strategy. When the society reached the limits of its own resources, the older males in power would send the young men out to wage war. It was a win-win approach; if they prevailed, extra resources became available, and if they were defeated, there were fewer mouths to feed. The planet was gradually dominated by those societies which were most ruthlessly violent. Nuclear weapons mean the continued application of this approach certainly risks the survival of human civilization and possibly risks the survival of our species, so we can no longer afford to allow primitive male attitudes to violence to prevail. Of course, it is hard to dismantle the structures that have been erected to formalize violence. An extreme example is the apparent impossibility to curb access to paramilitary weapons in the USA, even when children are massacred on a depressingly regular basis.
The global political problem is that we have no acceptable way of resolving disputes between nations. The UN was a significant step forward from the League of Nations, but it has two fundamental shortcomings. As the governing body, the General Assembly gives equal representation to each nation state, whether they are globally dominant superpowers or small island states with tiny populations. Secondly, the veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council means that the UN can never resolve any dispute that involves one of those nations. Witness the inability to respond to Russia, the USA, or China throwing their weight around. Even when a dispute does not directly involve any of the permanent members, one or more of them will usually see political advantage in a particular outcome. So what are ostensibly civil wars in Syria and Yemen rage without any effective international action. Several years ago, the British writer George Monbiot proposed reforming the UN by establishing a global parliament with representation based on population. I think that the maximum size for an effective assembly is probably six or seven hundred, like the British House of Commons, so the assembly would need to have one member for each ten million people. So China and India would each elect about 120 members, the US about 30, and so on. In this model, the General Assembly could act as an upper house on the same basis as the Senates in the US and Australia, where the equal representation for each state is seen as a bulwark against the domination of politics by crude population numbers. The veto powers of the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK would be removed, and the global parliament could coordinate action on global problems such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity, as well as being able in principle to resolve disputes.
At this point, I imagine most readers have thrown up their hands in disbelief, unable to conceive of the possibility that those who have prospered under our existing system would relinquish any of their existing privileges. The glimmer of hope is that the European Union shows that a perception of shared self-interest can persuade politicians to cede some of their powers to a larger unit. Of course, the counter-argument is that the rank and dishonest populism of Brexit, “Make America Great,” or Putin’s approach in Russia demonstrates how easy it is to derail the cooperation agenda. The only reason to have cautious optimism is that global communications systems now make it possible for determined activists to shift the political agenda. The Great Transition Initiative would not have been possible a hundred years ago, when we would have waited months for a letter to arrive, or even thirty years ago before the Internet and email became widely available. As David Krieger argued, our chance of survival now requires us to work with other interest groups such as environmental organizations, women’s associations, the progressive sections of religious organizations, and so on. We don’t have to agree with everything for which the Catholic Church stands to applaud the principles of Laudato Si’ and work with those who support its approach.
As a final point, I think we need to engage actively with the anti-growth movement. We have known for 45 years, since the release of The Limits to Growth, that the mindless pursuit of growth is likely to lead to social, economic and environmental collapse in the next few decades. As long as leaders see continuing growth as an imperative on our finite planet, conflict over its limited resources will be inevitable and the risk of nuclear war will always be there. We desperately need to achieve a peaceful transition from the widespread assumption that unlimited growth is not just possible, but even desirable, for us to have any chance of a peaceful future. Nuclear weapons are simply the latest and most egregious consequence of this misguided belief.
Cite as Ian Lowe, "Contribution to Roundtable on How to Ban the Bomb," Great Transition Initiative (August 2018), https://www.greattransition.org/roundtable/nuclear-abolition-ian-lowe.
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