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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Rejecting Global Devastation
distributed 8/7/15 - ©2015

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Becky Beilschmidt of Fulton, Missouri, in honor of Rev. Annabel Clark (who celebrates her 92nd birthday this month!). Becky's generous support helps make this publication possible.

This week marks the 70th anniversary of atomic blasts above Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is striking to me that we mark that historical event at the very same time that there is heated international debate about how best to contain the spread of nuclear weapons to Iran.

A look at the nuclear history since World War II provides warnings, lessons and some hope for how we might deal with the accelerating crisis of global climate change.

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The nuclear age has been filled with contrasts.

  • The prospect of global war presented us with the first real prospect of total annihilation. The nuclear arms race and strategic brinksmanship created a situation where average citizens could imagine an all-out war that would devastate the entire planet, and bring an end to civilization. Books like A Canticle for Leibowitz explored the possibility of a rebuilt culture, and wondered if we'd be able to learn a lesson from the devastation. Psychologists observed extreme anxiety in children and youth, who lost hope in the future and dreamt of death. (That anxiety is mirrored in youth and adults today who fear the devastation of climate change.)

  • But the very horrors of nuclear weapons have saved us from their use. The example of two Japanese cities obliterated in fireballs, and the reality of massively larger bombs in astronomical numbers, led to a situation where it has become irrational to contemplate nuclear war. The doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD) takes away any advantage to a nuclear first strike. The consequences are so awful that the nuclear nations -- so far -- have avoided the detonation of these most powerful weapons.

Through the last 70 years, as the nuclear club of nations has grown to nine, and as the number of weapons grew to several times what would destroy the planet (and has now declined substantially), we have held off another instance of nuclear war. The strategy of MAD remains in place, though, with the United States and Russia maintaining more than 800 warheads on high alert, ready to launch within minutes.

The all-too-imaginable catastrophe of nuclear war is what has prevented that war from happening, although the threat remains very real. The extreme anxiety about Iran's nuclear program stems from a fear that Iran would not be "rational" in decisions about using or sharing those weapons.

The recognition that nuclear war can't work has led to the long negotiations with Iran, has driven the arms reduction of the superpowers, and has inspired several countries that were developing weapons to shut down those preparations.

The world has worked hard to avoid the use of atomic weapons. 70 years without any of that enormous stockpile being used is a remarkable success. International negotiations can work, even between bitter enemies that don't trust each other. We now live in a world where going nuclear would only result from a catastrophic failure of brinksmanship, from sort of accident, or from a rogue or irrational actor.

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The "Doomsday Clock" of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was created to convey how close we are to destroying our civilization with nuclear weapons. It started in 1947 with a 7 minutes to midnight warning. In 1953, the development of hydrogen bombs pushed the clock to 2 minutes to midnight. They wrote, "Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization."

Since then, the clock has backed off as far as 17 minutes to midnight (1991, with the end of the cold war and arms reduction). In 2007 (5 minutes to midnight), the atomic scientists expanded the range of threats, taking into account other "dangerous technologies of our own making", and the reality of climate change. The clock now puts us at 3 minutes to midnight, "because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty -- ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization."

Both nuclear weapons and climate change threaten human civilization. But this week's anniversary of the WWII bombings and the questions of how to constrain Iran remind me, once again, of the absolute difference between those two global threats.

Nuclear war will happen only through an accident or an irrational act. Climate change is happening every day as the perfectly normal consequence of our global culture.

Military strategists and world leaders have recognized that nothing is to be gained with nuclear war. We still have to learn that lesson with the slow-motion annihilation of global climate destruction.

What is needed today is harder than avoiding an accident. We need to stop doing what we've considered good and essential. We need to turn away from the seductively cheap and powerful energy that comes from fossil fuels, and we need to re-imagine a global society that is both just and sustainable.

Perhaps the global powers are starting to make that change. There are some hopeful signs of real shifts within the past year.

Global heating is still the path of "business as usual", but there is a growing awareness that we're headed toward a future that is as unacceptable as a nuclear holocaust. After decades of stalled climate negotiations, we're starting to see a recognition that we just can't go to a world with runaway heating and climate chaos.

Far more needs to happen, and it needs to happen very quickly. But I do find hope that the rejection of horrendous outcomes has created 70 years without nuclear war.

The turning from fossil fuels and the diminishing of global heating will not come easily. To bring about that turning, we all need to engage in political activism, theological and ethical dialogue, public witness, and the transformation of both personal identities and social structures.

It is hard and urgent work. May we be energized and sustained in that work with the hope, informed by nuclear restraint, that change to avoid catastrophe is both good and possible.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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