By Donella Meadows
–December 11, 1986–
Since Reykjavik the superpowers have gone right on insulting each other. They have expelled each other’s diplomats. The Soviets have revoked their nuclear testing moratorium. The U.S. has violated the SALT II agreement.
Only one thing seems to have changed. Nuclear disarmament has become a legitimate subject of discussion. Both superpower leaders have endorsed it. There is a serious global discourse about the implications of large-scale nuclear cutbacks.
Public discussion may seem a puny force against the massive reality of 50,000 warheads. But talk shapes opinion. And public approval, or at least acquiescence, was necessary to build those arsenals in the first place and is necessary to maintain them.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said more than a century ago, “It is a thought that built this portentous war establishment, and a thought shall melt it away. Every nation and every man surround themselves with a material apparatus which exactly corresponds to their state of thought. The standing army, the arsenal, only serve as an index to show where man is now; what an ungoverned temper he has; what an ugly neighbor he is; how low his hope lies.” “The least change in man will change his circumstances. If, for example, he could be inspired with a tender kindness to the souls of men, the tents would be struck; the men-of-war would rot ashore; the arms rust; the cannon would become streetposts.”
The opponents of disarmament must be worried about that possibility, because their voices are loud these days, trying to sustain the thought that nuclear weapons are guarantors of security.
It is not a thought that bears up well under close examination. However, the opposite thought, that disarmament could work, is also hard to believe. Both positions are usually stated with absolute certainty, but both are based on interpretation and faith, not evidence or facts. Listen. Not for demonstrable truth or falsehood, because there is little of either in this debate. Listen, instead, for the “state of thought” and the future worlds that each side makes possible.
The Russians are ahead of us.
No they aren’t, and anyway it doesn’t matter, since both sides have so much overkill.
Nuclear weapons are necessary for the defense of Europe. Disarmament would require an expensive buildup of conventional forces, or would lead to a Soviet takeover of Europe.
The presence of nuclear weapons in Europe is a far greater threat to European security than the Soviets.
It is impossible for a nuclear weapon to be set off accidentally. The governments that brought us the Challenger and Chernobyl disasters are sure to make a 100-megaton goof someday.
These weapons will never be used. Their purpose is deterrence, not destruction. Deterrence works. In 30 years there has not been a war between the superpowers.
As the man who jumped off the 50-story building said, as he passed the 20th floor, going down, “No problem yet!”
SDI will work.
SDI is a science fiction fantasy.
The Russians will cheat. They always do. And we do not have the capability to detect cheating.
The Russians and the Americans have nearly equal records in honoring and violating treaties. Both sides are willing to set up systems to detect cheating, and such systems are technically possible.
The Soviets are an implacable enemy dedicated to the expansion of communism. Give them an inch and they’ll take the world. The Soviets are paranoid and oppressive but more interested in self-protection than in expanding their empire. They are too inefficient and bungling to take over the world.
The logical end of the arms race is the economic collapse or technical subordination or political surrender of the USSR.
The logical end of the arms race is the economic collapse of both sides, or the subordination of both sides to their own military establishments, or the explosion of nuclear weapons.
There is no rational basis for choosing sides in this argument. Each side is based not only on unsubstantiated assumptions, but on self-fulfilling assumptions that create their own reality. Yet every day, as new weapons are built, the choice is being made. And especially since Reykjavik, it is open for discussion.
To me the choice is clear. Conventional deterrence theory, the state of thought that has dominated my country for decades, feels like a trap to me. It permits no future except more weapons, more expense, more secrets, more distrust, more danger. It restricts the freedom of everyone but the military and the arms manufacturers.
The thought of disarmament opens opportunities in my mind — opportunities to scale down and to test the sincerity of the Soviets at every step; to permit Europe to take responsibility for its own defense; to think through new ways of resolving international conflict; to live in a world that is not likely to blow up at any moment.
Whatever side you choose, enter the debate, now, while it is alive. Jerome B. Wiesner, former MIT president, says, “On such critical issues as how many nuclear weapons are enough, a citizen’s judgments are as good as those of a president, perhaps even better, since the layperson is not subject to the confusing pressures on people in official positions. It is important for citizens to realize that their government has no monopoly on wisdom.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1986