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British Petroluem, Imagination, and Nuclear Catastrophe

Before the catastrophic British Petroleum oil gush in the Gulf of Mexico, there were environmentalists who warned that offshore drilling was fraught with risk - risk of exactly the type of environmental damage that is occurring. They were mocked by people who chanted slogans such as "Drill, baby, drill." Now it is clear that the "Drill, baby, drill" crowd was foolish and greedy. The economic wellbeing of people in and around the Gulf coast has been badly damaged and, for some, destroyed altogether. Aquatic and estuary life, in the Gulf and beyond, has fallen victim to an environmental disaster that was foreseeable with a modicum of vision and imagination.

Albert Einstein reached the conclusion that "Imagination is more important than knowledge." He said that "knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand." Let us try applying our imaginations to nuclear weapons and nuclear war. Here are some scenarios:

Scenario 1: Al Qaeda does what most commentators believed to be impossible. They obtain nuclear materials for several nuclear weapons and hire scientists to construct crude nuclear weapons. These weapons are detonated in London, New York and Paris within hours of each other. Millions would lie dead and injured. Around the world stock markets would freefall. Before the terrorist nuclear attacks, the people who warned against such a possibility were mocked.

Scenario 2: Nuclear deterrence fails dramatically, and India and Pakistan engage in a nuclear war over Kashmir. The hundred or so nuclear warheads that detonate on Indian and Pakistani cities leave millions dead and lower global temperatures so as to significantly shrink the size of agricultural areas in which food can be grown. Crop failures leave hundreds of millions more people to starve to death. Before the war, the people who warned against such a possibility were mocked.

Scenario 3: A nuclear war begins with an accidental launch of a nuclear-armed missile by Russia, followed by a retaliatory strike by the US, which brings further retaliation from Russia, leading to still more from the US. Before the accidental launch, few people believed that such a cataclysmic accident and its retaliatory follow up were possible. In its aftermath, the scenario seems far too feasible. People now realize that the failsafe devices to prevent accidental launches could fail, but those who foresaw this danger and warned about it earlier were mocked.

Scenario 4: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il launches a nuclear attack that destroys US military bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa. He threatens to destroy the Japanese city of Kyoto and Seoul, South Korea unless he receives the development assistance he says was promised to him by the United States. Those who argued throughout the Nuclear Age that continued possession of nuclear weapons by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council would result in nuclear proliferation and the weapons falling into the hands of irrational leaders were mocked.

There are many scenarios possible for the onset of nuclear war and there remain many justifications for nuclear weapons. Leaders of nuclear weapon states argue that these weapons are only for nuclear deterrence, that is, to prevent war by threatening nuclear retaliation. They don't foresee the potential failure of nuclear deterrence, even though they recognize the cataclysmic consequences of failure. They believe that nuclear weapons bolster a country's prestige and give it greater power in the international system. They proudly display their nuclear weapons and test their missile delivery systems. Those who argue that nuclear deterrence could fail catastrophically are mocked.

Political and military leaders have failed to honor the proposition that in every complex system in which humans are involved, system failure is a possibility. They have dismissed the idea of system failure leading to nuclear annihilation. Scientists spoke out about this shortsightedness, but they were mocked. Former high-level policymakers spoke out about the dangers, and they, too, were mocked. Even some former military leaders spoke out against the dangers of reliance on nuclear weapons, and they were mocked. The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who witnessed the horrors of the atomic bombs firsthand, have told their stories in an attempt to awaken people to the danger of nuclear weapons, but their voices are soft and few people in high places have listened to them.

Civil society organizations from throughout the world have called out for a commitment to an urgent plan for the elimination of nuclear weapons, and they also have been mocked. But, like the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they continue to speak out because it is the right thing to do. Nuclear weapons can end life on Earth as we know it. They can destroy civilization. In a major nuclear war, they could bring the human species and most complex forms of life to extinction. Even in a smaller nuclear war or accident, they could destroy cities and countries.

As the oil from the British Petroleum failure in the Gulf of Mexico continues to destroy the ocean and surrounding environment, it is perhaps too late to ask ourselves whether offshore drilling is worth the risk. Clearly it is not. It is still not too late, however, to raise the question of whether continued reliance on nuclear weapons is worth the risk to humanity and to future generations.

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David Krieger

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (, an organization that has worked since 1982 to educate and advocate for a world free of nuclear weapons.  

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