We are in the season of Hiroshima, having just passed the 52nd anniversary of the bombing of that city by a single nuclear weapon. On the day the bomb was dropped, August 6, 1945, there was a tear in the fabric of the world. It became clear that a chasm had opened between our technological capabilities for destruction and our spiritual/moral precepts of respect for the dignity and sacredness of human life. Of course, war itself has been a breeding ground for undermining respect for the value of human life. But nuclear weapons brought our destructive capabilities to new heights. Albert Einstein, the great scientist who conceived of the theory of relativity, gave voice to the problem confronting humanity when he said, “The splitting of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
The “unparalleled catastrophe” Einstein spoke of included the end of human civilization and the destruction of most life on Earth. During the Cold War each side pursued a strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction and built up arsenals capable of destroying the other side many times over, despite the knowledge that use of these terrible weapons would entail their own destruction as well as the destruction of most life on Earth. This strategy, which has the acronym MAD, is based upon calculations of human rationality. Yet, as we all know, humans act irrationally for many reasons, not least of which are fear, anger, jealousy, hatred, and mistrust. Humans also make mistakes because they lack pertinent information, misinterpret the information they do have, misconstrue the intentions of other humans, or miscalculate their own capabilities or those of others. The strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction was and remains truly MAD.
The Nuclear Age demands greater efforts to achieve peace and a world free of the threat of nuclear annihilation. The great challenge of our time is to end the threat of nuclear annihilation. The end of the Cold War has made this possible, but entrenched ways of thinking have made it difficult. Even after the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the nuclear weapons states are still relying upon their nuclear arsenals to provide security. But security from whom? Security against what? We need a new kind of security that does not place the human future in jeopardy. We need to learn to think and act in new ways.
Let me suggest some elements of this new way of thinking.
1. Think indigenous. Think like a person whose feet touch the land, like one who loves and respects the Earth and all its creatures. Think seven generations. Recognize that all acts have consequences. Protect the Earth that sustains you. Ask yourself what are the consequences for the Earth of each act you take. Corbin Harney, spiritual leader of the Western Shoshone, has reminded us that we have only “One Earth, one air, one water.” Chief Seattle is reported to have said:
The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites our family. If we kill snakes, the field mice will multiply and destroy our corn. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth, befalls the sons and daughters of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
2. Think like an astronaut. Keep a broad perspective. See the world as one. Recognize that all borders are manmade. They may exist on maps, but they do not really exist on Earth. That is what the astronauts discovered when they went into space and looked back at our small fragile planet that floats in an immensely vast universe. Astronaut Salman Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia described his experience travelling in space with other astronauts:
The first day, we pointed to our countries. The third day, we pointed to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.
3. The late Carl Sagan, a space scientist and author of Cosmos and Contact, described the Earth as a “pale blue dot”. He wrote:
After Voyager 2 passed Neptune, I got a chance to do something I had wanted to do for many years: turn the cameras around and photograph the distant Earth…
I look at that picture and I see a pale blue dot. One pixel, one picture element, just a dot. I think, that’s us. That’s our home world. Everybody you know, everybody you love, everybody you’ve ever heard of, everybody who ever lived, every human being in the history of the universe lived on that blue dot. Every hopeful child, every couple in love, every prince and pauper, every revered religious leader, every corrupt politician, every ethnocentrist and xenophobe, all of them there on that little dot.
It speaks to me of fragility and vulnerability, not for the planet, but for the species that imagines itself the dominant organism living as part of a thin film of life that covers the dot. It seems to me that this perspective carries with it, as does so much else we know, an obligation to care for and cherish that blue dot, the only home our species has ever known.
4. Think with your heart. Learn to stand in the other person’s shoes. Ask yourself how you would feel if you were in that other person’s shoes. Act with compassion. Follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Don’t be stopped or molded by so-called enemies. Look into the faces, the eyes, the hearts of those who are labeled enemies. Find their humanity. In doing so, you will also find your own.
5. Think peace. Peace is a process. It requires constant effort to maintain a dynamic balance. I define peace in this way: Peace is a dynamic process of nonviolent social interaction that results in security for all members of a society. Thus, peace is more than the absence of war. Without security, there is no peace.
6. Think like a seed. Recognize that you have the inherent power of growth. You are not static. A tiny seed may become a majestic tree.
Potential is realized in many ways, in the seemingly small decisions that one makes each day. When Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, refused to give up her seat in the front of a public bus to a white man, she was realizing her potential. Her simple act of courage, which caused her to be arrested, led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the modern civil rights movement. When Daniel Ellsberg, a Defense Department analyst, risked imprisonment by turning over the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, thus exposing secret reports on the Vietnam War to the American people, he was realizing his potential as a human being.
Let me contrast this way of thinking with what I believe are the main characteristics of the old way of thinking. It is short-sighted without due regard for consequences; technology centered, seeking technological rather than human solutions to problems; high-risk, and often propelled by testosterone; rooted in secrecy, which is maintained by official classification of information in the name of national security; and often arrogant, bureaucratic, and hierarchical. In short, it is thinking and behavior which divides rather than unites, dominates rather than shares, and destroys rather than heals. This is the thinking which underlies war, nuclearism, disparity, environmental devastation, and human rights abuses.
Which kind of thinking do you choose? It is an important question because the world of tomorrow will be rooted in the thinking of today. And your thinking and your acts will help to form the world of tomorrow.
Forty years ago when Josei Toda called for the abolition of all nuclear weapons his thinking was ahead of its time. But he sowed a seed of peace that has taken root. He referred to nuclear weapons as an “absolute evil.” Nearly four decades later, the International Court of Justice issued its opinion that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be generally illegal under international law. The Court said that any threat or use of nuclear weapons would be subject to the rules of international humanitarian law. This means that nuclear weapons cannot be threatened or used if they would fail to distinguish between combatants and civilians or if they would cause unnecessary suffering to combatants. In issuing this opinion, the President of the Court, Mohammed Bedjaoui, wrote, “Atomic warfare and humanitarian law therefore appear to be mutually exclusive; the existence of the one automatically implies the non-existence of the other.” He also referred to nuclear weapons in a manner similar to the way that Josei Toda had referred to them in 1957. He called them the “ultimate evil.”
In many ways we have been too complacent in tolerating this absolute evil in our world. As citizens of the world, we must confront this evil and demand an end to the nuclear weapons era. I have the following suggestions for you:
1. Increase your awareness. Inform yourself. One place to start is the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s or other similar web sites. The Foundation’s web address is https://www.wagingpeace.org. We also have a free electronic newsletter, The Sunflower, which provides information on the abolition of nuclear weapons and other issues relating to peace in the Nuclear Age. You can sign up for this at the Foundation’s web site. We are publishing a booklet in our Waging Peace Series on Creating a Nuclear Weapons Free World, A Guide for Students and All Concerned Citizens. You can order a copy from our Foundation.
2. Exercise your citizenship. Speak out. Make your voice heard. If necessary, protest. Demand information, and fight against government secrecy. You have a democratic right to informed consent on government policies. The late ocean explorer, filmmaker and environmentalist, Jacques Cousteau, said, The time has come when speaking is not enough, applauding is not enough. We have to act. I urge you, every time you have an opportunity, make your opinions known by physical presence. Do it!
3. Sow seeds of peace. You can sow seeds of peace in many ways — by a smile or a kind word, by caring and sharing, by compassion, by demonstrating in your daily acts that life matters, that the Earth matters, that you are committed to creating a safer and saner future.
4. Support Abolition 2000. This is a worldwide network of over 700 citizen action groups around the world working for a treaty by the year 2000 that calls for the prohibition and elimination of all nuclear weapons in a timebound framework. Sign the Abolition 2000 International Petition, and help circulate it. There is also an Abolition 2000 Resolution for Municipalities and one for College Campuses. You can help in having these enacted in your municipality and on your college campus.
5. Grow to your full stature as a human being. Think about not only your rights, but your responsibilities as a human being fortunate enough to be alive at this amazing time in history. Recognize that you are a miracle, that all life is a miracle, and treat yourself and all life with the respect due a miracle. One important responsibility of each generation is to assure that the chain of life is not broken. This responsibility is heightened in the Nuclear Age, and thus more is demanded of us all. My greatest hope for each of you is that you will fulfill your promise and potential as human beings, and be a force for peace in a world that is crying out to be healed.
I would like to end with a story about sunflowers. When the former Soviet Union split apart, Ukraine was left with a large nuclear weapons arsenal. Ukraine agreed, however, to become a nuclear weapons free state, and to send all of the nuclear weapons left on its territory to Russia for dismantlement. When Ukraine completed this transfer in June 1996, the Defense Ministers of Ukraine and Russia along with the Secretary of Defense of the United States commemorated the occasion in an extraordinary way. They scattered sunflower seeds and planted sunflowers on a former Ukrainian missile base which once housed 80 SS-19 nuclear-armed missiles aimed at the United States. Secretary of Defense William Perry said, “Sunflowers instead of missiles in the soil would ensure peace for future generations.”
Of course, sunflowers alone will not be enough. But sunflowers are a great symbol of hope. They are bright and beautiful. They are hardy and healthy. They make us smile, and they can nourish us. They represent everything that missiles do not. They are life and they affirm life. Nuclear armed missiles, on the other hand, are technological instruments of genocide. They are symbols death and the mass destruction of life.
Sunflowers have become the symbol of a world free of nuclear weapons. They are a powerful symbol, but they are not enough. To achieve a world free of nuclear weapons will require a great effort of citizens united from all parts of the world, and particularly an effort by young people who will inherit tomorrow’s world. I urge you to be part of this effort, and one day we will plant sunflowers to celebrate the end of the nuclear weapons era on our planet.
*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.