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True self-interest

A talk at the Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club, Maine, USA (illustrated from the original at

Vasili Archipov was an officer on a Soviet submarine near Cuba during the missile crisis of October 1962. American ships were dropping signaling mines on the sub, trying to get it to surface. The Soviets found themselves at too great a depth to communicate with Moscow. They suspected that war might have already broken out. Two officers aboard the sub urged the firing of a nuclear torpedo at the nearby American fleet, which included ten destroyers and an aircraft carrier.

Soviet naval regulations required the full agreement of all three commanding officers to go nuclear. Archipov said no. So here we are, 57 years later, possibly owing our very existence to an almost forgotten moment of stupendous restraint.

At this point you may be wishing you had invited me to talk about bicycling in Tuscany! But I’m here on the basis of a little book I wrote that was published back in 2009. The book chronicles the working methods of a group of dedicated volunteers who participated in a non-political movement called Beyond War. We did important work in the United States, Canada, and the former Soviet Union for about ten years, starting in the early 1980s. Our mission was to educate people on the obsolescence of war as a solution to conflict in the nuclear age.

The book’s cover depicts an atomic explosion turning into a tree. At the time we designed the cover we were simply thinking of the bomb as death and the tree as life. In the last few decades anxieties about nuclear war have decreased as anxieties about the environment have increased.

A nuclear explosion changing into a tree suggests a connection between these two overarching issues, the prevention of global war and the achievement of environmental sustainability.

It can feel like the skunk at a garden party to bring up once again the nuclear sword that hangs over us still. Because I taught his children, I knew the publisher of the newspaper that printed my first op-ed piece on nuclear war in the early 1980s. He groused that if people like me didn’t keep bringing it up, nobody would worry about it. This kind of absurd no-nothingism—from a newspaper publisher no less!—made me want to write yet another editorial, and I haven’t stopped since.

Jonas Salk said that our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors. Now that I have five grandchildren and one on the way, they have become my deepest motivation for writing and speaking.

The nuclear weapons issue and the climate issue have been linked from the beginning. Even the very first test of a nuclear bomb contained a climate aspect: some of the Los Alamos physicists were concerned that the first test could actually ignite the entire atmosphere of the earth. Nevertheless, they persisted.

Then we have the possibility of nuclear winter, the total overlap of the nuclear and climate issues. If one nuclear nation launched an attack of sufficient size to cause nuclear winter, as few as one hundred detonations according to computer models, the attackers themselves would effectively be committing suicide. Retaliation would only double the fatal effects already in play.

Even conventional war poses grave dangers. A global firestorm would probably begin with a small brushfire—like the Kashmir conflict on the border of India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed nations, or recent events in the Gulf of Oman.

A Trident sub contains 24 multiple warhead nuclear missiles with a greater combined firepower than all the ordnance detonated in both world wars. It could cause nuclear winter all by itself.

I had a yachting friend, a successful businessman named Jack Lund, who owned a Concordia yawl with varnished topsides. When Jack showed up at one of our seminars, he said he wasn’t worried about nuclear war. He’d simply drive down to South Dartmouth where he kept his boat, and sail off into the sunset. After we sadly set him straight that he would never reach the coast because both he and his beautiful boat would be toast, he thought about it, and became a generous supporter of our organization.

If nuclear war is nuts, deterrence, in the form of the Trident submarine for example, has been our go-to preventive strategy. People say deterrence has prevented World War 3. But it may be more accurate to say deterrence has prevented world war 3 so far. Deterrence seems reliable, but it is a devil’s bargain, because of two serious flaws. The first is familiar: the arms race is inherently unstable. Rivals are always competing in a childish game of catch-up. The beat goes on. Various nations are developing hypersonic missiles that can travel halfway around the world in fifteen minutes, or drones capable of tracking down and killing an individual using the location of his cell phone.

The second flaw in deterrence is its fatal contradiction: in order that they never be used, everyone’s weapons must be kept ready for instant use. No errors, misinterpretations, or computer hacks can be tolerated. Forever.

We have to pretend that events like the failure of the Challenger, Chernobyl, crashes like the two Boeing 737-max 8s, or the Cuban missile crisis itself—never happened and never could.

And it rarely occurs to us that our security interdependence with our fellow nuclear powers like Russia or Pakistan or North Korea means that we are only as secure as their screening out of psychopaths, the reliability of the safety devices on their weapons, the willingness of their soldiers to sequester warheads from theft by non-state actors.

Meanwhile nuclear deterrence doesn’t deter conventional war or acts of terror. Nuclear deterrence didn’t deter 9-11. Russian nukes didn’t deter NATO from moving eastward and trying to recruit countries like Georgia in the Russian sphere of interest. American nukes didn’t deter Putin from moving into Crimea. And many leaders have seriously contemplated the first use of nuclear weapons, as Nixon did when we were losing in Vietnam, or even Britain in the Falklands Islands conflict.

The word “security” contains within it the word “cure,” but there is no cure for nuclear war. There is only prevention.

A further illusion that perpetuates our paralysis is the sense that all this seems far too big to do anything about.

In the early 1980s, NATO and the Soviet bloc were both deploying short and medium range nuclear missiles in Europe. Military personnel were going to have to make fateful tactical decisions within ridiculously short time frames, minutes at most.

My organization refused to tolerate these hair-trigger conditions. Using State Department connections, we reached out to counterparts in the Soviet Union and organized a seminar for high-level Soviet and American scientific experts.

The Wall Street Journal wrote a scathing op-ed asserting that Beyond War was a naive dupe of the KGB. Nevertheless, we persisted. The scientists from the two superpowers hammered out a series of papers together on accidental nuclear war that became “Breakthrough,” the first book published simultaneously in U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Because one of the Soviet scientists became a Gorbachev advisor, Gorbachev himself read the book.

Reagan and Gorbachev went on to sign the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, greatly reducing East-West tensions in Europe—the same treaty which Washington and Moscow are now sadly in the process of abolishing.

Did “Breakthrough” play a role in ending the cold war? Most people would find the book itself rather dry and boring. What did make a difference was the warm and lasting relationships built among those Soviet and American scientists as they worked together on a shared challenge.

In 1989 Beyond War gave its prestigious yearly award to Reagan and Gorbachev for improving the relationship between the superpowers.It was the one peace award Reagan ever accepted, and he was only willing to receive it in the privacy of the oval office. The award to Reagan cost Beyond War significant financial support from the progressive left, but Reagan deserved it.

Thirteen years after the Wall Street Journal mocked Beyond War’s initiatives, they published an op-ed written by Kissinger, Shultz, Nunn and Perry, not exactly your average peaceniks, advocating for the strategic uselessness of nuclear weapons and for their total abolition. In 2017, 122 nations endorsed a U.N. treaty outlawing all nuclear weapons. None of the nine nuclear powers have signed.

Sensible international policy would convene generals and diplomats from these nine nations to begin permanent talks, because the issue is not bad North Korean nuclear weapons versus good American nuclear weapons.

The weapons themselves are the real enemy. Nuclear winter would make an excellent conversation-starter for the assembled military leaders.

Former Secretary of Defense Perry even argues that we would be more, not less, secure if we completely eliminated one whole leg of our nuclear triad—the antiquated missiles in silos in the Midwest. If that sounds imprudent, see if you can guess whose obituary this comes from:

“As the Soviet Union imploded, the Nuclear Threat Reduction Program provided millions of American tax dollars to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and related technology inherited by the former soviet states of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. More than 7,500 strategic nuclear warheads were deactivated, and more than 1,400 ballistic missiles that could be launched by land or submarine were destroyed.This reduced the chances that terrorists could buy or steal a weapon and provided jobs for soviet nuclear scientists who otherwise might have gone to work for Iran or another state eager to develop a nuclear program.”

This is from an obituary for Richard Lugar, Republican senator from Indiana. With Sam Nunn he sponsored the Nunn-Lugar Nuclear Threat Reduction Program. Nunn-Lugar is what authentic peace looks like—actively, doggedly pursuing better alternatives than war. Richard Lugar demonstrated in hard-nosed practical terms the reversibility of the arms race.

The ultimate model for this kind of enlightened self-interest was of course the Marshall Plan to restore the European economy after the devastation of World War 2.

The bank which makes it possible for Germany today to undertake its aggressive conversion to renewable energy was modeled on FDR’s Reinvestment Finance Corporation, which enabled most of the New Deal’s major projects. The German bank’s initial capital was financed by—the Marshall Plan.

What if the U.S. had thought in Marshall Plan terms right after 9-11? Suppose we had kept our heads—for sure, very difficult to do under such horrific circumstances—and instead of giving in to a crude impulse for vengeance, we pledged to do something to directly lessen the suffering and chaos in the Middle East?

The conservative estimate of what the U.S. may already have spent on our hapless military stalemates in Iraq and Afghanistan is 5.5 trillion dollars.

Five trillion dollars is far more than enough to solve all the basic human needs challenges on earth. We could feed, educate, and provide clean water and health care to all, with plenty left over to build a 100% carbon-neutral energy system worldwide.

At my Rotary Club, we constantly hear inspiring stories from small groups of dedicated volunteers making heroic efforts to scrape together enough funds to build an orphanage in Cambodia, or a single clean water well for a hospital in Haiti. Imagine what Rotary, with 30,000 clubs in 190 countries, could do with five trillion dollars.

Nuclear weapons will do nothing to resolve either the refugee crisis, or the global climate emergency, which together will be the most probable causes of future conflict. Instead of our addiction to runaway military spending and unworkable military initiatives, what if we gave some thought to how to do Marshall Plans while skipping the war that usually comes first?

What does it mean to be adversaries on a small planet vulnerable to self-destruction by war or environmental catastrophe? The only way to break the chain of the endless arms race is to completely reverse it like Senator Lugar and use our abundant resources to work with and do good for our adversaries. What country will begin this if not our own?

War today feels like two people fighting in a building that’s on fire—or half-underwater. Iran was hit by terrible nationwide flash floods this year.

Why not use the powerful logistical capacities of the U.S. military to offer help, confounding the hard-liners in Tehran? Please don’t say we can’t afford it. We have explored the depth of the Mariana trench and the outer moons of Jupiter, but the Pentagon budget remains an impenetrable black hole.

Nations often need to pose enemies in order to feel good about themselves—we identify ourselves as righteous and exceptional, in contrast to some convenient “other,” who gets stereotyped and dehumanized, ultimately justifying war. Hard-liners in adversarial countries bring out the worst in each other, in a closed echo-chamber of threat and counter-threat.

Our experience with Beyond War confirmed that the best antidote of all to us-and-them tendencies is working with others, including adversaries—especially adversaries—toward shared goals. The mother of all shared goals is restoring and sustaining the ecological health of our small planet.

The astronomer Fred Hoyle said that once a photograph of the whole earth from outside becomes available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose. Hoyle’s idea was a way of restating in universal terms the working principle behind the Marshall Plan—the possibility of enlarging our sense of true self-interest clear out to the planetary level.

Astronauts from many nations have had their conception of self-interest mystically enlarged by viewing the earth from space. There are a couple of ways we could all replicate the rarified experience of the astronauts.

One would be if we learned that a large asteroid was on a collision course with earth. Instantly we would understand what has always been true—that we’re all in this together. Our nuclear weapons might even finally become useful to deflect such a body. A second way to rapidly expand our notion of self-interest would be if alien beings made contact with us. As with the asteroid, we would know ourselves as one human species.

Instead of Shia and Sunni, Arab and Jew, it would be instant planetary patriotism.

But there’s a third way we could become planetary citizens, and that is through what is actually happening to us right now. It’s hardly news that we’re facing a group of challenges that simply cannot be addressed by any one nation, no matter how powerful. We can each make our own list—coral dying, ocean waters rising and warming, the Gulf of Maine heating up more rapidly than anywhere else on earth, tropical rain forests decimated, whole cities flooded or whole towns burned to the ground, viruses that catch a ride between continents on airplanes, micro-plastics ingested by fish and moving up the food chain.

Many of these challenges are so interrelated that the ecophilosopher Thomas Berry argued that the planet cannot be saved in pieces. It is hard to imagine a more challenging assertion. The latest on this front is the U.N. report on biodiversity threats, which are serious and worldwide.

The ongoing extinction of many species of birds, insects and frogs is a function of total planetary change and must be addressed with a total planetary response.

The planet cannot be saved in pieces. The moribund, yet potentially indispensable, United Nations sits there, waiting to be reformed and revitalized for the transcendent levels of international cooperation that will be required.

Workers in India are suffering heatstroke merely by remaining outdoors for a few hours in temperatures above 125 degrees. To survive, the worker in Mumbai must take refuge in an air-conditioned space, and his air-conditioners are throwing carbon into the atmosphere which will in turn raise temperatures in Scottsdale, Arizona.

What is dawning on us as a species is that, like Vasili Archipov during the missile crisis, each one of us bear responsibility for the whole, not only the whole planet, but the whole planet through all future time. There’s no way not to make a difference. Just by existing we make a difference. The real question is what kind of difference do we want to make?

Technical solutions to global sustainability challenges are available and ready to scale up, including capturing carbon from the atmosphere.Yes, they will cost a boatload of money—but perhaps less than five trillion dollars.

Patti and I drove to this talk in an all-electric Chevrolet with a 300-mile range. We recharge it with the solar panels on the roof of our house. Auto manufacturers stand to make a bundle on electric cars. Far from being in conflict, sustainability and aggressive entrepreneurship await the making of vast fortunes in solar, wind, battery technology, drip irrigation agriculture, or the renewal of our railroads. But the changed context of profitability is profound: we cannot achieve a healthy economy on a withering planet.

The Ecuadorean constitution gives rights formerly restricted to human beings to rivers and mountains and wildlife, because if they don’t flourish we won’t either. If corporations can be people, why can’t rivers?

Costa Rica will be using 100% renewable energy in a few more years. The states of California and New York are heading in a similar direction. Countries like Bhutan and Belize have set aside half their land mass as natural preserves. The green party in Germany, once on the fringe, is now the dominant party there.

What feels politically, economically and technologically improbable today will transform rapidly into the inevitability of tomorrow—a tomorrow in which not only corporate charters, but every share in our equity portfolio will have a green factor built right in as its primary measure of value.

I once asked the headmaster of the elite school where I taught if I could give a course on cosmology. A few days later he told me awkwardly—and snobbishly—I’m awfully sorry but cosmetology just doesn’t quite fit in with the image of our school.

Cosmology is a hifalutin word for worldview. The consumerist and competitive cosmology of the developed world is paradoxical, because of course market systems have done enormous good, enlarging prosperity and reducing hunger and poverty. And more people reaching the middle class leads to the desirable global outcome of families having less children.

The downside is that a consumerist cosmology that measures rising aggregate prosperity only in terms of gross domestic product, leads only to more environmental degradation, and finally to less overall prosperity—unless our definition of prosperity undergoes a profound evolution.

Now that the power to blow things up has become obsolete, nations will have to measure their security and wealth by the degree of their contribution to the total well-being of the earth system. This is what Thomas Berry calls the Great Work, the great next step. This is the most crucial philosophical idea of the 21st century, because it represents both our path to survival and an optimistic redefinition of our human function in the 5 billion-year-old unfolding story of our planet.

Our primary function as humans will be to steward and celebrate the extraordinary beauty and intelligence of the natural system out of which we emerged. As we learn how to restore the planet, it’s easy enough to picture cleaner air and stabilized oceans. But it’s harder to see how we ourselves might evolve if we succeeded. Wouldn’t this strengthening of the living system also strengthen the strengtheners? Wouldn’t it give our children increased energy to tackle any challenge together?

We have been living under sentence of death for 75 years, first with the existential threat of atomic weapons and now with the gradually looming threat of climate catastrophe. We have only the vaguest idea to what extent these looming challenges have affected our individual and collective psyches, and what joy could enter our childrens’ lives if such anxieties diminished.

Learning to measure our true wealth in terms of our contribution to the health of the living system is similar to the slave-owning founding fathers daring to say out loud “all men are created equal.” They had no idea of the explosively far-reaching implications of that assertion.

Same with this new way of measuring our wealth and power. We will simply have to marinate in it and watch its implications unfold in all our institutions, our churches, our politics, our universities, our corporations.

I‘ll finish with one other little sea story.

In my work with Beyond War, I had the privilege of becoming friends with a gentle Yankee aristocrat named Albert Bigelow. Bert was a Harvard graduate, a blue water sailor and a former United States Naval Commander. In 1958, Bert and four other men tried to sail their ketch, aptly named the Golden Rule, into the U.S. Pacific proving grounds in the Marshall Islands, to witness against atmospheric nuclear testing.

They were stopped at sea not far from Honolulu and served sixty days in jail for their act of civil disobedience.

Five years later President Kennedy, Premier Khrushchev and Prime Minister Macmillan signed the atmospheric test ban treaty, since ratified by 123 nations. I mention Bert in order to make a final connection between nuclear weapons and our climate emergency. The Marshall Islands were rendered almost uninhabitable by the atomic testing that Bert was attempting to stop back in the 1950s. Now these same Marshall Islands are in danger of disappearing altogether as the Pacific gradually rises. Their people have been brought nearly to destruction first by one, and then by the other, of the two great challenges we’ve been pondering.

Will we—we as Americans, and we as one species on one planet—rise to both challenges?

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