Twin Scourges Stalk Us, Colltalers
We’re at the middle point between the anniversaries of two historical milestones: the U.S. horrific atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and the Russell-Einstein Manifest, ten years later, which decried the scarier world that emerged from its wake.
It was an early warning shot against a pervading fear that would transfix the world for half a century. But as it turned out, it soon found a companion fear, equally threatening to our very existence: the radical climate change that’s wreaking havoc with our ability to survive.
Albeit different in relevance and global impact, the two events being highlighted accurately illustrated both the atomic age’s newly revealed power to destroy mankind with unprecedented expediency, and our own ability of growing a conscience to fight against it.
The destruction of the Japanese cities 70 years ago Aug. 6 and 9, which killed about 240,000 people on impact and from the radiation that followed the bombs, is generally credited with ending WWII and thus preventing more deaths from that conflict.
But it was perhaps the single most tragic incident of instant mass murder ever perpetrated by a state, even if against a nation then bent in supporting Hitler’s cavalcade to world domination. Never before, or since, one country had the ability to deliver sheer destruction to its enemy in such a deranged practical way and with such a potential to cause even greater harm on a global scale.
The Call for Sanity document, drafted 60 years ago last July 9, by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, and signed by a roster of scientists and Nobel Prize winners, became an important step stone to mark the global reaction against the escalation of a state of permanent war in the world, signified by the ever increasing, and state-sponsored, production of weapons of mass destruction.
Many other manifests of the kind exist, but what distinguishes that one is the fact that some of its signers had contributed, in one way or another, to build the bomb in the first place, Einstein included. Remorse was evident in the central tenet of the manifest, which posits to world leaders and fellow humans: ‘Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?’
These jaded times may have us automatically strip such tone from its artificial gravitas and expose it for the rhetorical naivete that it conveys. But if then a nuclear arms race was already apace, six decades later mass-production of WMD has become the devilishly matter-of-fact reality – the banality of evil? – as we keep adding way more sophisticated civilization-ending devices to our arsenals.
Japan has recovered and thrived in the post-war years, at one point even becoming the world’s second-largest economy. And its past militaristic ambitions are mostly contained, despite a minority pushing to re-form its national army.
Nuclear power, however, and the risk of a catastrophic fallout, continue to define, and scare, the Japanese society, in what may be an arguable sign of Little Boy’s legacy and imprint on its psyche. On that, check Nuclear Disaster, Fukushima Daiichi.
No one is saying that the two themes, that of nuclear power for civilian use and uranium-enrichment to produce weapons should be conflated into one single, radioactive mess, as the agreement between Iran and six U.S.-led nations has made sufficiently clear.
Still, one can’t help but think that the world has forgotten what happened at the end of WW2, and the consequences of having the Nuke option at ready; warmongers who oppose the accord seem to believe that once one has it, one must be unburdened to use it at will.
It didn’t take long after the carnage for the Soviet Union to join the U.S. in the shameful club of nations possessing the bomb, jump starting the Cold War. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were trialled and executed in 1953 for passing the atomic secrets to the Soviets.
Since then, a few nations have also developed the bomb, either because they were at the top of the coalitions supporting the two sides, or because they simply crashed the ‘party’ and/or got help to do it. But the exact number of ‘nuclear nations’ remains elusive.
As the world will mark the date next week with the expected pomp and circumstance, the risk of one of these devices to go off for any reason and worse, setting a chain reaction throughout the planet, remains almost as critical as it was in the nuclear age’s first hours.
But, surprise, surprise, in the meantime, almost effortlessly, we have also developed other ways to exterminate life as we know it. In fact, today the ongoing impact of climate change on our chances for survival, for instance, is now considerably more burdensome than any threat of a nuclear holocaust. And that is because the disastrous consequences are already being felt and seem all but unstoppable.
That’s why the essential take of the Call for Sanity manifest remains as relevant now as it was dutifully ignored all those years ago. For understanding its call to arms, pun not intended, aided with the perspective of time, is still a precious weapon we have to reverse the current course. Almost as if we’re having to deal with the global fallout of a multi-head nuclear explosion that never went off.
There will certainly be a voice or two invoking the fact that the nuclear option is no longer allowed by the rules of contemporary conflict, whatever that means, and that is progress compared to the Cold War years of multiple nuclear missiles pointed at our heads.
But just as the meager efforts to contain the effects of rising sea levels and harsher weather on our species’ life expectancy will do little to solve the problem in a million years, we’re not nearly close at shutting completely the threat of an ‘accidental’ nuclear faceoff.
‘We have to remember that, if the issues between East and West are to be decided in any matter that can give any possible satisfaction to anybody, (…) whether Asian or European or American, whether White or Black, then these issue must not be decided by war.’
What Russell and Einstein hoped was only partly achieved 20 years ago last May, with the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Nuclear Weapons treaty, which is subscribed by 191 nations, but not by India, Israel, Pakistan, South Sudan and North Korea.
Judging by contemporary America, we’re still far from applying the same principles to race relations, or to the hardly foreseen conflicts rooted on religious differences, income distribution, egalitarian access to natural resources and so many other issues of our age.
No one is truly expecting that at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, later on this year, a document of similar reach and depth will be signed. Still the world needs, at least on writing, a greater commitment to tackle the issue, specially from the part of the U.S.
60 years back, a manifest by ‘human beings to human beings’ put it succinctly on writing: ‘remember your humanity, and forget the rest.’ It was a reaction to what its signers hoped had only been a terrible hiccup of mankind a decade before: the razing of two entire cities.
It wasn’t, of course, and there’s no redeeming factors justifying the deterioration of the environment and human relations from then on, which makes the Iran accord a possible shining exception, for all it’s worth. And we’re in need now for way more than nice words.
But it’s a necessary commitment all the same, one that each person must exercise on his or her private as well as public lives. Naive or not, we most definitely need to progress into a world without war and a future of redialing back the destruction of the environment.
Just as the brave Hiroshima and Nagasaki people have shown the world, we can’t avoid the burden or rewrite history, but we must rebuild and reengage peaceful alternatives and safer interactions with this planet. Or we won’t survive. Enjoy the rest of July. WC