By Donella Meadows
–November 26, 1987–
You could welcome the Reagan-Gorbachev summit as a historic breakthrough. The Intermediate Nuclear Force agreement, the first ever to reduce the nuclear arsenal, may mark a permanent reversal of the arms race, the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.
Or you could say that the whole business is just a show, a meaningless reduction of a few percent in a hideously enormous nuclear force. The Soviets are still in Afghanistan. The Americans are still pursuing Star Wars. Nothing has changed. This is a summit staged by a fading President and a reformist Party Secretary to create one politically strategic burst of glory before the superpowers go back to weapons-building as usual.
I suspect that neither of those conclusions is justified. The future of disarmament is not settled. Not even Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev know whether this summit is the first or the last step toward reducing nuclear weapons. Which it is depends on what they do next, and on what we do next.
The summit is an opening, an opportunity. It’s a shift in the belligerent rhetoric of the superpowers. The leaders are talking just a little differently; they’re beginning to admit, hesitantly, with many caveats and reversals, that it might be a good idea to rid the earth of nuclear weapons, and it might even be possible.
That’s a small but significant crack in the nuclear mindset. Only the constantly-repeated rhetoric of the leaders could ever get a populace to believe that nuclear weapons enhance security or have moral legitimacy. And only the belief and support of the people allow nuclear weapons to exist.
Any child is instinctively horrified by the thought of weapons that can end all human civilization. Any adult who focuses on the actuality of those weapons realizes that no possible threat from any enemy could be equal to their threat. But now there is a whole generation, submerged from babyhood in endless repetitions of the nuclear mindset, that has been convinced to doubt its own common sense and decency.
I’m part of that generation. All my life I have been told that nuclear weapons are necessary to ensure peace and freedom, that the people in charge of them know what they’re doing, that the genie is out of the bottle and can never be put back, that the consequences of disarmament are too terrible to imagine. I have been led to believe that although both sides have more than enough power to blow up the world, it’s still important for my side to be ahead. It has been made clear to me that I can never be informed enough to question the existence, planning, or deployment of these weapons. If I do, I must be hopelessly idealistic, or unpatriotic, or even traitorous.
But I still have a voice inside me that whispers, “these weapons are insane.” I keep on thinking that to “protect our freedom” those weapons have already destroyed much of our freedom. The materials from which they are made contaminate our environment and will do so for tens of thousands of years. The money to pay for them is taken straight out of our pockets. For the sake of nuclear “security” our government keeps secrets from us and lies to us. And wherever the missiles are pointed, they can destroy me and all that is dear to me.
Even at the time of this hopeful summit it takes courage to say out loud, regularly, in public places, “these weapons are insane”. Try it sometime. The accusations and rationalizations that come back at you will be a measure of the strength of the mindset.
You will be told what the Russians intend to do if we show any sign of weakness. You will hear how many other nations have secretly stockpiled nuclear weapons. You will be told to fear and mistrust our enemies, but not to fear the weapons themselves or to mistrust the people in charge of them.
If you ask how anyone KNOWS what the Russians will do, or whom to trust, or what to fear, you will be ostracized as one of those lunatics who refuses to fit in with civilized society, where we know things simply because we’ve heard them all our lives.
The opportunity now is to drive a deeper wedge into the nuclear mindset by saying our inner thoughts out loud. It’s not easy to voice one’s sense of truth in the presence of an overbearing and contradictory social mindset. But it’s much, much harder to live, or die, with the consequences when a whole generation suppresses its deepest moral sensibility and keeps silent.
George Kennan, former U.S. Ambassador to the USSR, once said, “It would take a very strong voice, indeed a powerful chorus of voices…to say to the decision makers of the two superpowers what should be said to them:
For the love of God, of your children, and of the civilization to which you belong, cease this madness. You have a duty not just to the generation of the present — you have a duty to civilization’s past, which you threaten to render nonexistent. You are mortal men. You are capable of error. You have no right to hold in your hands — there is no one wise enough and strong enough to hold in his hands — destructive powers sufficient to put an end to civilized life on a great portion of our planet. No one should wish to hold such powers. Thrust them from you. The risks you might thereby assume are not greater — could not be greater — than those which you are now incurring for us all.”
Reagan and Gorbachev have created an opening for us to say such things. If this summit is to be the beginning of real nuclear disarmament, it’s up to us to say them.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987