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.