By Donella Meadows
–June 9, 1988–
Given what’s at stake, the world’s people can be grateful for a summit at which superpower leaders practice politeness with one another, even if no other progress is made. But as the recent summit was taking place, I happened to pick up a small journal called “Nuclear Concerns and Humankind”, which reminded me that we who still live in the presence of 50,000 cocked and ready nuclear weapons (even after the INF agreement) have a right to, and an aching desire for, and an urgent need for more than polite talk.
The journal quoted two conversations that simply showed what we are doing to our children by bringing them into a world of nuclear weapons.
One conversation, between Dr. Jeffrey C. Hindman and his five-year-old son, was originally reported in the “Physicians for Social Responsibility Newsletter”:
“Daddy, I can’t sleep.”
“Why do the Russians want to throw bombs at us?”
“I don’t think they want to, Jeffrey.”
“But will they?”
“I hope not.”
“Why doesn’t someone talk to them?”
“Well, we’re trying. But we’re afraid of them and they’re afraid of us.”
“What can we do, Dad?”
“You’re a smart boy. Maybe when you grow up you can help us find a way out of this trap we’re in.”
“I know. We’ll just throw away our bombs and they’ll throw away their bombs and we can be friends.”
“Our governments find that very difficult, Jeffrey. They don’t trust each other enough to take risks for peace. Instead of reducing our weapons and trying to cooperate, we build bigger bombs and more accurate missiles, hoping that will make us stronger and safer.”
“Daddy, I don’t get it.”
“Well, if they throw bombs at us, where can we go?”
“Nowhere, Jeffrey. There’s nowhere to hide, no place to be safe.”
A minute passed while he considered this morbid reality. Then his eyes opened wide and the tears began to flow as he reached out for me.
“Daddy, will you always be my daddy?”
The child asks naturally what can we do? Children assume that something can be done. They’re right, of course, but grownups reply with the classic copout — someday you’ll grow up and solve this. We dump the responsibility onto the five-year-old and never even assure him that he has in fact seen the only possible solution. We’ll just throw away the bombs and be friends.
You have to be very young to be in complete touch with your fear and grief and common sense. You have to be unencumbered by the rationalizations and pretensions of the adult world. Adults can’t bring themselves to describe problems and solutions simply. They have to use foreign words like detente and glasnost, and acronyms like SALT and START. They spend years of negotiating and posturing and summiting before they can come close to the idea of throwing away the bombs and being friends.
The second conversation is quoted from Ron Sider’s book Christ and Violence. It took place while he was driving in his car with his eleven year old son:
“Ted asked what the chance of nuclear war was. I decided he deserved an honest answer. So I explained that responsible scientists believe that there is at least a 50 percent chance of nuclear war by the time he reaches the age of 25.”
“He became very quiet and serious and then asked, ‘Do you mean there is a 50 percent chance that I will die before I am twenty-five?’ When I said, ‘Yes,’ he started to cry quietly and so did I. With tears in my eyes, I tried to say how terrible I felt that he lived in that kind of world. I wanted to take him in my arms and comfort him, but I was driving and he seemed to want to be alone with his thoughts.”
“After awhile when we started talking again, he asked me why I continued to do the things I am doing if I think everything may blow up so soon.” The child zeroes in on the critical question — how can you live a life of triviality when there’s an enormity hanging over your head? It takes years of social conditioning to stop worrying about that question.
In the story about the emperor’s new clothes the child spoke the truth, and then the grownups saw it and spoke it too. It doesn’t seem to work like that in our world. One by one, the children speak the truth to us. One by one we see it as clearly as they do and weep with them and try to comfort them. Then we cover over our sadness and outrage and go on with our lives, still pretending that the emperor has clothes, that the world makes sense, that the summits mark progress, that our leaders can just take their time about nuclear disarmament.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988