Tuesday, December 3, 2019

A Presidential Speech The World Needs To Hear

“Good evening, my fellow Americans.

I want to speak frankly with you tonight about a reality that the nuclear powers have so far refused to acknowledge as the arms race goes forward unchecked. We have arrived at a point in history when the destructive power and complexity of our weapons systems have become so overwhelming that their strategic usefulness cancels any good that they could possibly do to maintain security for our own or any other nation. We all know this. President Reagan acknowledged as much when he said back in 1984 “a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”

The clearest demonstration of this reality is contained in computer models that show how few nuclear detonations would be necessary to plunge the world into a cooling phase so widespread that agriculture would be affected for a decade—in effect, a death sentence for the planet. It would take the use of only 3 to 5 percent of existing U.S. nuclear weapons to loft into the high atmosphere enough dust and ash to circle the earth and make the growing of food impossible. Even a limited exchange between two nuclear powers would amount to planetary suicide. Retaliation, the basis of deterrence strategy, would only hasten the end of all we love.

This is a major reason why 122 non-nuclear nations have signed the United Nations treaty outlawing the manufacture and deployment of nuclear weapons. None of the nine nuclear powers have signed this treaty, because established political, military and corporate thinking asserts that the power of these weapons have been a deterrent to further global war.

People of good will may argue that the policy of deterrence has prevented apocalypse. Our challenge is that deterrence is not a steady, stable condition but instead an ever-changing unstable one. The relentless march of “we build/they build” technological competition is constantly providing new weapons delivery systems. These systems are attached to ever more complex electronic monitoring devices, and these devices are in turn attached to fallible humans, the whole enchilada subject to the unspoken paradox of deterrence: in order to never be used, the weapons must be ready for instant use.

My fellow citizens, no one has more respect than me for the professionalism of the various branches of our military. Our problem is that the prevention of an extinction event like nuclear winter is dependent upon not only our own personnel and equipment making zero mistakes, but also upon the other nuclear powers doing the same—forever.

But we must face the tragic reality that accidents and misinterpretations are not only possible with technologically complex systems—they are inevitable. This we have learned the hard way, from the Challenger disaster, from Chernobyl, from Fukushima, from the two 737 Max 8 disasters, just to name a significant few. We are caught in a pervasive illusion, a web of denial: we acknowledge that planes can crash and chemical plants can explode, but we do not seem to be able to acknowledge, because we have become so dependent upon it, that the mighty deterrence system of the existing nuclear nations itself could fail if we continue the arms race.

We need to question our most fundamental assumptions, and if they are about to lead us off a cliff, must we not turn around and begin to take steps away from that cliff?

Today I, as Commander-in-Chief, am taking the first step backward with three initiatives. First, I pledge that the United States will never under any circumstances initiate the use of nuclear weapons. Second, as a further confidence-building gesture, I am bringing back to base two of our Trident ballistic missile submarines, and I am ordering our intelligence services to be on the lookout for reciprocal gestures from the other nuclear powers. If we see clear evidence of such gestures, our nation will respond in kind, beginning, I fervently hope, a virtuous circle of military stand-downs and a consequent relaxation of tensions. Third, I am calling for an ongoing international conference of military and diplomatic leaders to share with each other the dire implications of a hair-trigger deterrence system and to come up with realistic ways to go beyond it and prevent disaster. I expect the personnel of both nuclear and non-nuclear nations to participate, given that they all have a mortal stake in a positive outcome, and also given that there are many nations who continue to assume that their self-interest and survival requires nuclearization.

Now I fully realize many citizens and strategic experts will question the usefulness or even the common sense of these proposals. Since the end of the World War Two, a war which coincided with the beginning both of the atomic age and the cold war standoff with other superpowers, the peace has been kept through overwhelming military strength. The United States will maintain this superior strength even as we explore this new landscape where strategic advantage is no longer available by way of more weapons of mass destruction. The same technology which enabled these weapons to be built will also be up to the task of verifying whether nations meet professed commitments that will allow a world free of the scourge of nuclear weapons. 

My final point is that not only we have been overtaken by inconvenient nuclear realities, but also America must lead in the redirection of the immense resources we have been pouring into nuclear weapons and their delivery systems.  The very survival of the planet demands that we transform our own so-called military-industrial complex—and incentivize other advanced into doing the same—into a global powerhouse that will provide sustainable energy and prevent rising temperatures from rendering vast reaches of the planet uninhabitable. We have no other choice but to thread the needle between potential global cooling by nuclear winter and the climate emergency of excess carbon dioxide.

God bless the United States of America, and equally bless the other nations of the world as we work together to move in the direction of a planet that works for all.”

Saturday, August 17, 2019

A Context for American Renewal

 "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today."
                                                                   —Abraham Lincoln

What’s next for our nation? What kind of shared vision can we the people build? Here are six lenses or “levels” that it may be useful to acknowledge in order to ask such questions, each lens taking in a wider view than the one before, beginning with you and me, and moving outward to domestic politics in the near term, further out to the possibilities of structural reform built upon our founding documents, further still to our nation’s place alongside the 200 or so other political entities on the planet, then to the shared challenges all those countries face together, and finally to the widest lens of all, our place in the unfolding story of history over the long term.

The first level is you and me. Each citizen of a democracy is a walking civic question mark. How open are our minds and hearts to opposing views? We all have biases worth rigorous examination, very much including the writer. How active can we be in fulfilling our basic citizenship responsibilities? Do we believe that individual citizens can make a difference? What is it exactly that makes us Americans? Too many of us have to work more than one job just to make ends meet, and our civic relationship with our country may be limited to voting. Others may have the time to volunteer their services on town boards or commissions. Others may be citizen leaders working on statewide issues or even seeking elected office.

Our own community may feel strong and prosperous, or fraying, or unsafe, or deprived. It is through that lens that we look up from our daily routine and local environment at what might constitute positive change. An immigrant who achieves citizenship in America may feel deeply grateful, in spite of our country’s faults, to be in a place where he is free to work hard to achieve his chosen ends. Minority groups may feel that the deck is stacked and that we still have a long way to go to achieve equality of opportunity. Where we stand as individuals depends upon where we sit.

A second level concerns national current events. Speaking of minorities, our country is in the middle of a crucial demographic change, where whites, hitherto privileged by numbers and racial advantage, are themselves headed toward becoming a minority. Minorities becoming majorities, though a sad sliver of us are fearful enough of this to indulge in murderous rampage, could spark a cultural and political renaissance. Our nation began in slavery. The effort to leave that horrific legacy behind continues to be a major energizer of democratic fairness.

In 2016 we elected a supposedly populist president who tends to shoot from the hip and use racial and ethnic divisions to his own partisan advantage. Is he a one-time phenomenon or a symptom of deeper fault lines in our culture, including corrosive divisions of class?

Stepping back further still, we can assess our institutions through the lens of changes that might vitalize our civic culture. Examples include the issue of money in politics. The Citizens United case legitimized money as a form of speech, giving corporations what some perceive as undue influence. Many think that repeal is necessary to restore one-person-one-vote equity. There is also the issue of the public funding of elections along with shortening the length of active campaigns. And the possible obsolescence of the Electoral College, given that some candidates have achieved the presidency without winning the popular vote.  Ranked choice voting is being tried in a number of states, increasing the civility with which candidates debate each other and strengthening tendencies toward moderation. There is also the possibility, difficult as it may be, of enacting constitutional amendments even on issues as divisive as guns. A minority of our population own millions of assault rifles, a condition that the founding fathers could not have anticipated.

Widening the lens another click, in our brief history the U.S. has rapidly become overwhelmingly powerful in spite of our youthfulness. Our national immaturity has meant we have come to terms neither with our relationship to the indigenous peoples that were here before “us,” nor with our origin story in slavery and racism, the effects of which sadly persist. We have carried this unresolved racism with us into our foreign wars.

America’s dominance over the international scene since the end of World War 2 has involved the exercise of our enormous power to usefully check the reach of totalitarian regimes, especially during a half-century of cold war with the now defunct Soviet Union. Perceiving the world as full of implacable enemies with ruthless ambitions to bury us has been a difficult habit to break after that cold war came to an end. It resulted in our fighting expensive wars with confused motives in Vietnam, Iraq and elsewhere. We tend to think of ourselves as the exceptional nation, but perhaps we need to take a more objective look at ourselves. The reality is that comparative statistics measuring literacy or the quality of health care demonstrate that we are actually quite far down the pecking order by any number of measures.

Meanwhile American power has projected itself into military bases all over the world—what policy makers call “full spectrum dominance,” another way of saying that the best defense is a good offense. This default assumption of the role of world policeman also came about in part because the hopes for an effective United Nations have so far gone unrealized. Autocratic governments are on the rise, encouraged by citizens uncomfortable with the mass movement of migrants. But there are counter-movements, such as the one we saw in Hong Kong in 2019, peacefully demonstrating for more robust democratic rights. Our country, which began with a radical rebellion against injustice, has been ambivalent about radical rebellion against injustice elsewhere.

Still, the birth of American democratic ideals continues to represent hope for the world. 35 countries have adopted language from our Declaration in their constitutions.

An even wider perspective becomes available by assessing some major changes over the last century that have affected not only America but the world as a whole. Humans have gone into space and brought back photographs of the earth as it looks from the moon, underlining our commonality on a small planet. Global population has risen exponentially, though the rate of rise has begun to slow. There are now 9 billion of us. Feeding everyone will tax our creative capacities to the limit.

Nuclear weapons, now possessed by nine countries, have introduced the potentiality that our species could do itself in entirely at any moment unless nations cooperate to disarm ourselves. America, along with the other nuclear powers,  relies upon a shaky system of security we call deterrence. The nuclear powers have trusted their security to a fantasy: political leaders persist in behaving as if no mistake could ever occur with all the computers and sensing devices and fallible humans attached to the 14,000 presently extant nuclear weapons, forgetting the vulnerability of complex technical systems that led to Chernobyl, Fukushima, or the Challenger disaster. But we humans created deterrence and we can change it. It is past time to get the diplomats and generals of the nine nuclear powers together to share their thoughts on this dilemma of our common global fate. Full realization of possible mass death shared by all could send nuclear weapons into the dustbin of history. The United States is strong enough to lead the way—as it is already obligated to do by non-proliferation treaties.

While there is still far too much violent conflict on earth,  analysts like Stephen Pinker have documented many trends that point to an overall lessening of war and violence. Many non-violent movements have achieved remarkable victories, going back to Gandhi’s Indian independence effort or the American civil rights movement.

Then the biggest challenge of all, the global climate emergency, looms over us, like the nuclear issue an additional reminder of our common fate as a species and requiring a degree of mutual cooperation that so far has seemed almost beyond us.

And yet humans have vastly increased our scientific knowledge. We have learned more about ourselves and our environment in the past century than we have in all previous history. The widest lens of all to examine what might be next for America is the unfolding story of the planet through thousands of years of time made available by recent scientific discovery.

Thus we must even include the perspective of deep time—the reality that over hundreds of millions of years there have been five great extinction events, where the vast majority of species on earth have been utterly swept away. Science tells us with overwhelming evidence that because our human species has been such a success in terms of sheer numbers, we are in the middle of a sixth such event. We have exhausted the soil, filled the ocean with plastics, and raised the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

Civic engagement and education for a renewed America requires a basic understanding of these six levels in their interrelationship.
If short-sighted practicality leads us to neglect wider perspectives because they appear to fly over our day-by-day lives at 30,000 feet, we run the risk of winning the battle but losing the war. We may define the battle in terms of where we are on the political spectrum at the moment and for whom we might vote in 2020, but the war as a whole is unfolding on an infinitely wider scale.

As Americans determine possible reforms and institutional revisions, it is useful to keep all the levels in mind—belief in the power of individual citizens to make a real difference; equality of opportunity for individuals in communities; changes that make the system work more fairly and efficiently on the state and federal level; international initiatives that increase our security by working the diplomatic process with other nations to ramp down nuclear weapons and general military overreach, even as we ramp up what our own nation’s role might be in strengthening the health of the living system upon which all humans depend.

Modern nation states, misunderstanding the interdependence which determines their larger self-interest and unable to reconcile their politics to the unifying truths of universal religious teachings summed up in the Golden Rule, have substituted various political ideologies dependent upon enemy-imaging, reducing the “other” to less than human rather than acting upon the interdependence of all with all. Many of these ideologies have ended in genocide at worst or static totalitarianism at best. 

In terms of nuclear war and climate, narrowly self-interested nationalism has become obsolete, even if nation states have not. Nations are crucial administrative units, let alone discrete containers of priceless cultural diversity. But there are international challenges, first of all maintaining the health of the living system, the oceans and the rain forests, which simply cannot be resolved by individual countries working alone, no matter how powerful or prosperous.

International relations will inevitably have to be based more on the force of law than the law of force, accepting and even celebrating the tension between worldwide cultural diversity and our shared destiny as a species and planet. The United States, far from perfect, yet successful as a pluralistic culture, has the potential to help lead the world into a place where competitiveness will be transcended by the need to cooperate to survive. But why must America often think that in order for us to win, others must lose? Last year Iran suffered terrible flooding. What might it have done for our relationship with that country if we had offered logistical help?

A more global meaning emerges for “all men are created equal” when nations consider our profound interdependency with each other and all life, suggesting a new role for the human on Earth beyond the material consumption, growth, and competition that indeed yielded great prosperity in the now receding age of fossil fuels. Our new primary role is not just to steward, but to actively strengthen, the living systems that sustains human and all other life. Political and economic systems worldwide must bend to that imperative, no exceptions.

Young people understand this far more profoundly than those of us who grew up with the unconscious habit of assuming that nature is an infinite resource. They realize that the Earth cries out for us to end not only our wars with each other but also our war with bees and birds and whales and rain forests and coral reefs, the intricate web which has still so much to teach us and give us—if we can stop fraying it and start encouraging it to self-heal.

What will give both teeth and consensus to renewal is a different consciousness of what it means to be human at this moment in our still unfolding story. We can continue to be proud citizens of a given nation, while we also identify with the necessity for an Earth politics and an Earth economics where entrepreneurship is subject to sustaining the whole. America cannot assume it is an exception to this planetary necessity.

Present U.S. polarization, monetized and intensified by mercenary media conglomerates, is already being perceived by many of us as transparently shallow and artificial, given that we citizens share so much more than what divides us. Neither right nor left wants destruction by war or global climate instability. We are ripe for building a shared vision of where we have to go.

What will encourage the practical realization of such a vision? The best single mechanism for getting from here to there, as Thomas Jefferson argued, is education—education leading to agreements based upon principles that more truly reflect our reality as seen through these six lenses.

Will change come bottom-up or top-down? Both, interactively. The macro strength of a nation is a function of the resilience of our thousands of communities. The climate crisis is amenable to a million bottom-up initiatives that will demonstrate our ties with distant peoples like the Marshall Islanders, whose lands are disappearing as the oceans rise.  Each of us can make a difference. And all the more can servant-leaders articulating a coherent vision from their bully pulpits. Political candidates who understand the tremendous entrepreneurial potential of moving to a sustainable energy paradigm will deepen their success. To do well by doing good will be increasingly celebrated.

The first step from here to there is to see, to really see the truth that challenges like omnicidal weapons and the climate emergency have radically changed humanity’s global interdependency. Hurricanes, floods and fires provide their own pressure for change. Can our simple awareness of events on all these levels educate us and our representatives to a more life-affirming redirection of our resources and toward the greater equality of opportunity that will further unleash our creativity?  These lenses through which to look at the prospects for American renewal are not answers, only the context for questions that can begin authentic dialogue.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019


The president was quick to label the latest mass shooters cowards. This seems like an oddly careless, even Orwellian, use of the word, because it implies that there is a courageous way, as opposed to a cowardly one, to act out hatred. The late cultural critic Susan Sontag rightfully got herself into hot water when she argued that the 9-11 hijackers were not cowards because they were willing to die for a cause. But killing innocent people randomly in churches, mosques, and malls or by smashing airplanes into buildings seems pretty far outside the uncertain territory between cowardice and courage that most of us occupy.

If we’re honest with ourselves, very few people have gotten through life without moments of cowardice. Even fewer know for certain how they might react in the future when extreme courage is called for. It is easy to pretend that we would rise to the occasion, but sometimes we just don’t. I was sitting in the low bleachers to the left of home plate at a Red Sox game when a foul ball came flying in the direction of myself and partner. Much as my fantasy might have been that I would gallantly interpose myself between her and the ball, I ducked.

As did the president in the aftermath of El Paso and Dayton. He was offered a ripe opportunity to stop kissing the butt of the self-important NRA and lead on the sensible gun safety reforms that more than 80% of the electorate favor. Given this perfect opportunity for a profile in courage, he punted. We got not just retreaded bromides but nauseating hypocrisy. Wasn’t the president who addressed the nation in his patently insincere teleprompter mode the same demagogue who laughed when someone in the audience at one of his rallies shouted that immigrants should be shot?

Courage can be as instinctive as cowardice, as in the case of the inhumanly heroic Kendric Castillo, who died rushing directly at the mass murderer in the Highlands Ranch school shooting.  But raw courage for most of us means being as brave as we can in spite of fear, hesitation, and ambivalence. As the painter Georgia O’Keeffe said, “Sure I’m afraid. I’m afraid all the time. I just never let it stop me.”

Our public spaces have become fearful theaters of war. Supposed leaders prefer to divide the body politic to remain in power and carry on as if prosperity equaled peace. Meanwhile we tolerate the utter shame of spooked kids having to rehearse mass shooter drills in their classrooms.

The president has to know that there are too many assault rifles that are too accessible to too many angry people, and that he himself has stoked that anger—grounds by itself for impeachment and trial. As the columnist Nick Kristof has repeatedly argued, we could make huge inroads into mass shootings if we banned such weapons, adopted universal background checks, and licensed all guns as we license the privilege of owning and driving cars. So far, Mr. McConnell and his Senate colleagues remain in servile lock-step with our boorishly maladroit leader. Their inaction drips with uncountable layers of innocent blood. Cowards.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

We Need to Talk

Big media today is all about monetizing the non-conversation of outrage and division and using them to consolidate power. The Limbaughs and Hannitys have been strategically intensifying ginned-up divisions for decades, encouraging an uncivil public square and shredding a shared vision of national purpose that might otherwise surface. Discourse is cheapened by their model of constant interruption and relentless advocacy of one side of an argument, dismissing opposing views with sneering contempt.

The president fits right in. He is unequipped to make the transition from child of the media to mature includer-in-chief. While his superstardom distracts and divides, corporate forces fueled by dark money—weapons, health insurance, big pharma, fossil fuel interests, the NRA—subvert policies that reliable statistics indicate a majority of the public wants.

Polarization within our own country echoes our fears of the “other” beyond our borders, justifying dehumanization and ultimately war itself. It’s easy to slide into mobocracy, as in the shameful recent “send her back” moment. The left is not immune from its own irrationality in its indiscriminate contempt for the “deplorable” right.

Setting aside the refreshing vigor of the initial Democratic debates, reluctance to bring these underlying conflicts of worldview into the light of vigorous dialogue still occurs on many levels.

One under-mentioned issue is the ongoing threat of nuclear war, a topic which almost disappeared in recent presidential election cycles. Setting aside you and me talking more, why aren’t the generals of the nine nuclear powers in permanent dialogue about an arms race hell-bent for apocalypse? Instead, Russia and America are withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, an agreement that worked to greatly lessen superpower tensions.

Leaving the Paris Accords did not help our national conversation about the global climate emergency, nor does the president censoring accurate climate data from government websites.

Add Russian interference in our voting, immigration reform, the epidemics of mass shooting and opioids, the #Me too movement, and achieving health coverage for all, and we have a set of issues crying out for vital dialogue. We’re all Americans, we all want better policy outcomes, and far more unites than divides us. The discipline of inclusion, active listening, and staying open to learning something new isn’t rocket science.

If we give conservatism its due as a prudent understanding that things can always become much worse, and a consequent awareness of the delicate nature of institutions and the need for their careful preservation—including the preservation of the natural world, as in conservation—and if we give progressivism its due as the belief that institutions should be subject to periodic re-evaluation as circumstances evolve—then conservatives and progressives ought to be equally interested in how the other thinks, enabling a vital center.

Bridging the chasm becomes easier when diverse viewpoints encounter each other within a big tent of shared goals. I see this at my local Rotary Club, where men and women firmly on both sides of the political divide work harmoniously toward larger ends such as feeding the hungry or providing help to people who need a hand up to complete professional training. But even in such comfortable settings there is still some inhibition when it comes to open dialogue, a tacit agreement to leave political divergence unaddressed in the name of a brittle accord.

The times are too momentous for us to bite our tongues in the name of a veneer of civility that inhibits the constructive exchange of views. Civility, while necessary, is not sufficient. Civility is a word, like tolerance, which implies a segregated model of live-and-let-live—a kind of self-gerrymandering that foregoes encounters with difference and potential breakthroughs to commonality.

Whether we label ourselves conservative or progressive or something in between, it is hard to envision how we can continue on our present path of racism, militarism, and unsustainability.  Our largest challenges, first among equals the climate emergency, are beyond solution by individual nations. A new level of cooperation is required that requires less America first and more Earth first. Let’s talk about how we can help other nations, even adversaries, with floods or droughts or water deprivation. That kind of action could change our conversation with a country like Iran.

Our Declaration opens with the pursuit of happiness. Hannah Arendt observed that we may have misconstrued its meaning. What it seems to mean to us is shelves of self-help books about how to be happy in the silos of our private lives. What Arendt thought it meant to the founders was the happiness that wells up in society as a whole in the inclusive exercise of its collective responsibility—maybe this happiness begins in the pursuit of conversational climate change.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Rotary International—a Model for Statecraft

The established paradigm of nation-states formulating their policies on the basis of a limited vision of self-interest is dissolving on every level. Games of chicken test the limits of deterrence, any breakdown of which could be fatal in the nuclear age. Many of our challenges, the climate emergency first among equals, are no longer solvable by individual nations, no matter how powerful.

This radical interdependency points to the need for international laws which, even as they seem to challenge the sovereignty of all countries, will also strengthen the common good. Today nations go to war because we feel the menace of aggression along borders, pressure into spheres of influence, or threats against resource interests—leaving aside the many civil conflicts within nations. Tomorrow a more authentic cause for war might become a given nation failing to maintain ecological resources, like the rain forests which are the lungs of the planet, because that would become a security issue for all—though one might likely assume that a nation or nations inclined to so powerfully punish agents of climate chaos would also realize that war worsens our climate emergency and that might restrain the warmaker.

Indeed, war with such a radically different motivation could, like our ongoing wars today, end up costing more than any expected positive result. If all-out nuclear war is clearly obsolete, so is conventional war, not only because it is a step toward escalation into nuclear war, but also because the disintegration of war (viz. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen) compounds social and ecological chaos, setting up the context for further war.

Are there other models for strengthening security? One is the Marshall Plan. The United States had the hindsight to realize that a second world war had emerged out of our harsh treatment of Germany at the end of World War I and the foresight to obviate that with a generous peace toward Germany. Might it be in the self-interest of nations not only to talk to adversaries, but to jiu-jitsu all parties out of the paradigm of threat and counter-threat by offering Marshall Plan equivalents as a substitute for war rather than something to follow a chimerical “victory”?

Vast regions of Iran suffered major flooding back in April. How might it have changed the present dynamic of high tension if the U.S. had made aggressive offers to help rescue and feed the desperate across rural Iran? Our military represents an enormous logistical potentiality. My friend Adam Cote, a candidate for governor of Maine, managed to be a platoon leader while spearheading the "Adopt an Iraqi Village" program to distribute school supplies, kitchen and household items, toys, clothes and blankets to destitute Iraqis. Generating goodwill rather than fear changes responses, plans, and attitudes.

Another alternative is citizen initiatives. The vast majority of Iranians like and admire America, even as we continue to squeeze them mercilessly on the basis of the U.S. having bailed from a treaty the conditions of which Iran was by all accounts meeting. Iran writ large is not the Revolutionary Guard, just as the United States writ large is not the fever dreams of John Bolton. We desperately need to build relationships on the basis of common interests. It can be done. In the frigid depths of the Cold War, a small group of private citizens, working with the full knowledge of the State Department, successfully arranged a conference of leading Soviet and American scientific experts on accidental nuclear war. Much unforeseen good came out of this exercise, and it played a significant role in easing dangerous tensions.

 With the failure of our gigantic military forces to achieve the vaunted “full-spectrum dominance,” there is an urgent need to make much greater use of non-military structures to meet on-the-ground challenges like literacy, clean water, and peaceful understanding between tribal and religious adversaries. One obvious model is Rotary International.

With 30,000 clubs distributed across 190 countries, Rotary is a planet-wide network of people who are building priceless relationships of friendship and mutual understanding on the basis of six crucial areas of focus: promoting peace, fighting disease, providing clean water, sanitation and hygiene, saving mothers and children, supporting education, and growing local economies.

It has for all practical purposes achieved its current goal number one, pursued doggedly for 20 years in cooperation with the Gates Foundation and others, of eliminating polio from the entire planet. Polio is now down to a few cases in rural Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Through models like Rotary a world beyond war is assuming shape, step by slow step.

The superpowers, blessed with apparently unlimited resources to spend on ships and submarines and missiles and bases around the world, irrelevantly jostle for dominance as the planet continues to wither ecologically. Surely a question worth asking is why the United States will not take on the Rotary model as primary, allowing military force to take its place as truly a last resort. Please don’t argue that we can’t afford it. We have explored the moons of Jupiter and the deepest depths of the Pacific, but the Pentagon budget remains a black hole that sucks into itself the very light that accountants try to shine upon it. If we could rewind the tape and could choose between giving the U.S. government the 5 trillion we have spent in Iraq and Afghanistan or giving it to Rotary, I would bet the latter could have provided massively more in real security.

For thousands of years war has been rationalized as unavoidable, worth the risk, a necessary fallback if we don’t get our way or if attacked. War has been used to exploit, to dominate, to exterminate, to acquire, to defend, to expand, to impose, to preserve, to preempt, even as sages keep advocating for the realism and practicality of the golden rule. The United States is strong enough to lead the way into a new paradigm of self-interest, where dominance is replaced by a global network attuned directly to meeting human and ecosystem needs. Anything less threatens everyone’s survival. If we can offer help to our adversaries because we see it as self-interest, a different world is possible.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

True Self-Interest

A talk at the Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club
July 9, 2019

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 reached 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 bears 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 wewe as Americans, and we as one species on one planetrise to both challenges?