Crisis and Opportunity
by David Krieger*, March 2001
In every crisis
there is opportunity. But before the crisis can be converted to
opportunity, it is necessary to recognize that the crisis exists.
If we are unaware of the crisis, assign it too low a level of
priority among our concerns, or are in denial about it, we cannot
act to prevent it or turn it to opportunity.
Humanity today faces more than one crisis. Among
these are some that are familiar -- the human population explosion,
global warming, the depletion of the ozone layer, the pollution
of our oceans and atmosphere, epidemic diseases such as AIDS,
and the deleterious effects of poverty on the health, well-being
and mortality of some one-third of the human species. Each of
these crises present major problems for humanity. Most of them
are interactive; they affect each other. If we were to address
these problems in a coordinated way, we could perhaps save millions,
perhaps billions, of lives, while creating better living conditions
for humans everywhere.
An important common characteristic of each of these
crises is that none can be solved by any one country, no matter
how rich and powerful. The most serious crises we face today are
species-wide crises. The problems cannot be contained within national
borders, nor can they be resolved without global cooperation.
National sovereignty is an obstacle to the resolution of a global
crisis. If today's crises cannot be solved at the national level,
then we must reconsider the manner of global organization that
has sustained the world for the past four centuries. One opportunity
inherent in these crises is that of shedding a rapidly deteriorating
and increasingly obsolete form of social organization, the nation-state,
a form of social organization that contributes to our malaise.
The list of crises articulated above in not complete.
There are many more. In fact, I have not yet listed what I consider
the most important crisis facing humanity: the crisis of nuclear
arms. The reason that I rank this one above all others is that
it has the potential to bring swift and universal death to humanity
and to most other forms of life. It has the potential to reverse
the evolutionary process by destroying most higher forms of life.
All of the other crises listed above, as well as others not listed,
inflict their damage more slowly, thus leaving more time to resolve
them. This does not mean, of course, that with each of these crises
there is not a point of no return, a point at which the damage
becomes irreversible. With nuclear arms, this point could be reached
at any time, and there have been a number of occasions where humanity
has nearly stumbled past the point of no return.
One evening in 1995 Boris Yeltsin, then the President
of Russia, was awakened in the middle of the night and told that
Russian radar had detected a US missile launched from Norway at
Moscow. Yeltsin was told that he had only a few minutes to decide
whether Russia should retaliate. The missile could be aimed at
destroying the Russian command and control system, and if Yeltsin
did not act quickly it might not be possible to give the order
to retaliate against the US after the nuclear detonation had occurred.
Yeltsin hesitated and deferred his decision beyond the few minutes
given him by the military command. It became clear that the missile
was not aimed at Russia, and the world was spared a nuclear exchange.
It was widely reported that Boris Yeltsin drank
too much. The evening he was awakened in the night to decide on
the fate of humanity, he might have been drunk. These are not
the best of circumstances in which to decide humanity's future.
It is worth reflecting on our current global system of nuclear
controls that would result in a man with a highly publicized drinking
problem being in charge that evening of our common future. If
Boris Yeltsin had acted more hastily and launched what he believed
was a counter-attack at the United States, the United States would
certainly have countered the Russian attack. The results are almost
too catastrophic to contemplate. Tens of millions, perhaps hundreds
of millions of people could have died that night. The survivors
might have envied the dead.
The fact that it didn't happen that night or at
any other time since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki does
not mean that it could not happen with swift and massive destruction.
That night in 1995 was not the only time that a close call with
nuclear weapons occurred. The world came even closer to all-out
nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. There
are many other documented instances when the use of nuclear weapons
has been contemplated. Today there are still some 30,000 nuclear
weapons in the world, and the United States and Russia each maintain
some 2,250 of these on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired on
a moment's notice. It is like sitting on a powder keg of dynamite
and playing with matches. We are all in danger.
Nuclear weapons pose a crisis to humanity of unprecedented
magnitude. This crisis began some five and a half decades ago
when nuclear weapons were created. In short succession nuclear
weapons were used twice at the end of a terrible war. Since then
they have been mostly sheathed, but have posed an ongoing and
unprecedented threat to humanity. Most of humanity has been complacent
in the face of this danger. This must change. We are facing an
evolutionary test. We humans have created the means of our own
demise as a species. We hold our fate in our own hands. Yet, our
fears and our social organization into nations seem to be working
against finding a solution to this test. Our first step must be
to recognize that we are facing a crisis. Then we can explore
our capacity to cooperate to find a solution - a solution that
can turn the crisis into an opportunity. We have the crisis. It
is up to us resolve it and find the opportunity inherent in it
to create a better human future.
*David Krieger is President
of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.