By Donella Meadows
–November 6, 1986–
With 50,000 nuclear weapons in the world, everyone is a hostage. We are innocent targets, held in constant jeopardy to prevent one group of men from forcing their will upon another group of men. Those men, the ones who control the nuclear weapons, hold not only our bodies and lives in hostage, but our civilization, all nature, all history, all the future.
It is so hard to confront that tremendous fact that we mostly forget it and go about our business pretending to be free. We do not think of ourselves as hostages, except, perhaps, on the occasions when our captors meet and negotiate.
We know only what the negotiators choose to tell us about these meetings. There have been many of them over the years, with so few results that we have stopped expecting much from them. Therefore we were astonished when, after the most recent summit in Iceland, the negotiators said they had come close to an agreement to rid the earth of nuclear weapons.
That was the first glimpse some of us have ever had of freedom. Many of us have lived our whole lives under the shadow of nuclear weapons. We have never seriously imagined what it would be like to live without the ever-present possibility of the devastation of all we know and love. Seeing that possibility as real, suddenly, for the first time, brought chills down our backs and tears to our eyes and a joy we had never before experienced.
So it was hard to believe what the negotiators told us next; that the agreement failed because of a research program called SDI.
The Americans are developing SDI in hopes that it might lead to a way of destroying incoming nuclear missiles. Given a choice between eliminating the missiles directly, or continuing an expensive, uncertain research program that might eliminate them indirectly, America’s President chose the research program. Given a choice between letting America continue seeking SDI, or abolishing all nuclear weapons, the Soviet Secretary refused to let SDI continue.
We hostages are desperately trying to understand those choices, which on the surface look insane.
Few of us believe the explanation of the U.S. President — that SDI could be an innocent Peace Shield, which could be shared with other nations, which could protect against cheating during a disarmament period, which could forestall other countries from developing nuclear missiles.
That doesn’t make sense, even to many of the scientists working on SDI. The technology is unclear and unproved. Even if it worked it could not protect against nuclear weapons delivered by bombers or cruise missiles or terrorists’ suitcases. All the negotiators in Iceland knew that.
Whatever happened there cannot be explained by the notion that either side thought SDI could work.
We have come up with many other explanations, most of them cynical. Maybe the whole event was a cruel sham, dreamed up by the Americans to influence a domestic election. Or maybe it was staged by the clever Soviet leader to make the American President look foolish and stubborn.
Maybe the Americans are trying to force the Soviets to pursue an SDI system themselves, to drain the Soviet economy and discredit its leaders.
Maybe the real powers are not the political leaders but the military leaders, on both sides, whose wealth and importance are based on nuclear arsenals. The political leaders may have been seized in Iceland by a vision of a world without nuclear threat, but the military reigned them in and will not give them so much leeway again.
Some of us think the Iceland negotiation was conducted with the same mentality that produced nuclear weapons in the first place — the desire to dominate by superior force. If SDI could protect against a fraction of ballistic missiles, and if the Soviets could be persuaded to disarm instead of building even more missiles to pierce SDI, America might gain a “first-strike capacity” that no nation would dare to provoke. Even if the missiles were bargained away, the U.S. would still have a formidable space weapon that could destroy Soviet satellites, and maybe Soviet cities.
Both leaders deny that they seek or would use a first-strike capacity, but some of us find their actions always consistent with that goal.
In the midst of all this understandable cynicism, some of us believe, or hope, that the Iceland summit was what the negotiators say it was — a breakthrough. That fantastic offer to remove all nuclear weapons from the earth might have been at least partly sincere. It might become more so. And though we are indeed hostages, we are not helpless in this matter. We are the source of the money, the power, and the legitimacy of the leaders. We create the climate of belief, pressure, approval, possibility within which the negotiators do their work.
Maybe those beleaguered men in Iceland, who, after all, are hostages too, were as exhilarated as the rest of us by their short bright glimpse of freedom. Maybe, in the contrast between that vision and the reality of an entire world held hostage, they saw, or we can help them see, that nothing — not a space-defense research program, not personal wealth or power, not the domination of any nation over any other — nothing is more worth choosing than the elimination of nuclear weapons from the earth.
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011