by Dr Sue Wareham, President, MAPW (Australia)
Firstly I’d like to say that I am very honoured to be speaking at this forum in honour of someone who has contributed so much to science in Australia and globally. Professor Fenner was closely associated with one of science’s and indeed humanity’s finest achievements, the total eradication of the scourge of smallpox. Most of us can’t hope to match that contribution to human welfare, but each of us has a responsibility to make whatever contribution we can, so it is a great pleasure to be part of this forum.
I’m going to start with a demonstration of one of the scientific achievements of the 20th century…..the 1st sound you will hear represents all the explosives used in WW11, including the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki……….the 2nd sound represents all the explosive power in the world’s nuclear arsenals today………..
Congratulations homo sapiens.
Given that, it seems a little presumptuous of us to call ourselves homo sapiens.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in 1943, in an essay called “An outline of intellectual rubbish”, “Man is a rational animal — so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life I have looked diligently for evidence in favour of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents.” Certainly 1943 was not a good time to be seeking evidence of mankind acting rationally, and, in more optimistic passages, Lord Russell does point to mankind’s ascent to his present dominant position through the use our one advantage, intelligence, which has enabled the development of language, agriculture, communications, mathematics, the building of great palaces and pyramids, exploration of the world, cures for disease, and a host of other achievements; and in many of these science has played a leading role.
So, we can choose to emphasise what we will from mankind’s mixed history. Despite my own comment about homo not appearing very sapiens, I’m going to balance that also by saying that I believe humanity actually has an abundance of rational thought, and an abundance of wisdom, and we don’t have to look far to see it. As one example, only nine nations in the world have developed and maintain nuclear weapons. Over 180 nations have not done so. We should not lose sight of that reality. What a lot of people lack is hope that the problems humanity is creating can be averted, and this lack of hope is paralysing. People switch off because it’s all too hard. The challenge for us is to provide hope, and to provide alternatives to ensure that the wisdom that exists does in fact prevail.
Most of my talk will be about warfare and particularly nuclear weapons, but I hope that the thoughts I present will be more widely applicable.
First some general comments about science and warfare. We live in an age when we rely heavily on science to save us from all sorts of perils or perceived perils, especially the peril of other people. During the Cold War, military budgets soared so that scientists in both East and West could guarantee the destruction of the enemy (and much of our planet). In the so-called “war on terror” it is our superior technology which enables the killing of large numbers of people, generally from a relatively safe distance. We are told that science, in the form of missile defence, will save us from the world’s worst weapons, despite the fact that these weapons can be delivered by much more sneaky ways than a missile. [SLIDE] Having got rid of smallpox, we are now afflicted with Pox Americana, the search for violent and technological solutions to profound political problems, and this affliction of course goes far beyond the USA. While militarism is about much more than just science, the lure of new weapons distracts us from thinking about the real challenge of learning to live with one another.
And in relation to energy policy, we are told that nuclear waste is no barrier to greatly expanding the nuclear industry because science will look after the problem, despite the lack of evidence for this claim.
Global military expenditures for 2003 were approximately $956 billion, with the US contributing nearly 50% of this. If just 10% of this amount were diverted annually until 2015, the Millenium Development Goals of universal access to clean water, universal primary education and drastic reduction of infant mortality would be achieved. [SLIDE]
We are told that these days that science is in fact making weapons more precise and wars much cleaner, so that only bad people get killed. But there is no evidence for this. [SLIDES] Perhaps cleaner for the aggressors, but not for the victims. Thanks to technology, weapons can be launched from vast distances, so that the human suffering is conveniently hidden from our view.
And war is certainly not becoming cleaner for the environment. The environmental effects of warfare are severe, and relate to a number of factors including:
- the enormous consumption of fossil fuels in both training for and conducting modern warfare
- defoliants and a vast array of other chemicals used
- radioactivity from nuclear weapons development
- hundreds of tonnes of uranium munitions; and many others.
In short the world’s armed forces are among the largest polluters on earth.
Thus, even so-called “conventional’ warfare is one of the greatest assaults on human and environmental health, and much of it would not be possible without the misuse of science. But conventional warfare alone is unlikely to destroy humanity. The potential of warfare to destroy civilisation as we know it came with the advent of nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons are the true weapons of mass destruction. They have the capacity to destroy not only cities but whole regions of the globe in an instant and to threaten our biosphere. Even biological and chemical weapons cannot do this. In the words of the International Court of Justice in 1996, which delivered its advisory opinion that nuclear weapons are generally illegal, “They have the potential to destroy all civilisation and the entire ecosystem of the planet.”
There are now approximately 28,000 nuclear weapons in the world, 96% being in two countries, Russia and the USA. Each of these nations has approximately 2,500 of their weapons on “launch-on warning” status, ready to be launched at minutes’ notice, either accidentally or by design. [SLIDE 4 ] The 5-yearly Review Conference of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is currently taking place at the UN in New York. Parties to the Treaty promise not to acquire nuclear weapons, or, in the case of the nuclear weapons states, to get rid of them. There are fears that the NPT could fail because of the continued refusal of the nuclear weapons states to disarm.
Nuclear weapons bring a renewed sense of urgency to the need to address the role of warfare in human affairs, and the role of scientists in preparing for warfare. This statement might seem unduly alarmist, as nuclear weapons have not been used, except as political tools, for nearly 60 years. However 60 years is but the twinkling of an eye in human history, and the nuclear weapons age brings with it several certainties.
One of the certainties is that nuclear weapons will be used again if they are not eliminated. We don’t know when, but we know it’s just a matter of time. The Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons reported in 1996 that “The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used — accidentally or by decision — defies credibility”. The second certainty is that any further use of nuclear weapons will be catastrophic.
A third certainty is that, in the event of further use of nuclear weapons, there will be very little, if anything, my profession will have to offer. [SLIDE ] Our sophisticated system of medical care that has developed over many centuries, will be erased.
So, what are the ethical responsibilities for all of us, and especially for scientists, in these matters? Is any damage to civilian infrastructure or the environment justified if we are fighting an evil force such as terrorism or fascism? When do our actions in warfare, and the weapons we use or threaten to use, begin to resemble the evil we confront? Are scientists in part responsible for the use and the effects of weapons they have created, or can they claim that developing weapons is a very different thing from using them?
I’m not going to answer all these questions fully, but I am going to proceed on the basis that scientists have an overwhelmingly important role to play in the ethical dimensions of weapon research. To me, this belief appears self-evident, because surely ethics should be at the basis of all human activity, and while it may not be so to all scientists, I’m assuming by your presence here that most of the audience share this belief to at least some extent.
It’s helpful to remind ourselves of the lives of some of the outstanding scientists in the last century who have led the way by example in defining the ethical responsibilities of scientists.
Probably the most famous scientist of all time is Albert Einstein, who was born in Germany in 1879. His work dramatically advanced the world’s understanding of space, time and energy and eventually laid the foundations for the development of the atomic bomb. However he was also a political activist, and campaigned for international cooperation, disarmament and non-violent conflict resolution. In fact he made no secret of his contempt for things military, remarking on one occasion, “He who joyfully marches to music rank and file, has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice”.
In 1932 Einstein left Germany for a position at Princeton University, and from there signed a letter he later came to deeply regret. Fellow scientist Leo Szilard urged him to write to President Roosevelt warning that the US must develop the atomic bomb before Hitler did. Roosevelt acted on his advice. Einstein later summarised his feelings on the nuclear age: “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker”.
Following the war, Einstein became even more ardent in his work for peace. In 1955, and in the prevailing climate of fear concerning atomic weapons, he joined with Bertrand Russell and other prominent scientists in issuing the Russell-Einstein manifesto. The Manifesto presented the following challenge: “Shall we put an end to the human race, or shall mankind renounce war?” And it finished with a plea to all people: “We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity and forget the rest”.
Einstein was not the only eminent scientist for whom the Manhattan Project and the first atomic bombings were a profound turning point.
Joseph Rotblat, physicist, worked on the Manhattan Project for only one reason. He believed that, if Hitler had an atomic bomb, he would not use it if there was the risk of nuclear retaliation. His intention was that nuclear weapons never be used. After Rotblat was told in early 1944 by General Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, “You realise of course that the main purpose of the project is to subdue the Russians”, he resigned from the project. He was the only scientist to do so. Rotblat’s life since 1945 has been dominated by his work for the abolition of the nuclear weapons. He founded the Pugwash movement of scientists, which remains very active today, and in 1995 received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.
In his acceptance speech Rotblat referred not only to the threat posed by nuclear weapons, but also to other areas of scientific research that are harmful rather than beneficial to humanity, and whose purpose may be concealed by government or industry. He referred to the need for constant vigilance, and for the practice of “whistle-blowing” to become part of the scientific ethos. Indeed, so-called “societal verification” - the obligation for scientists or others to report clandestine activity - could be an essential element in a nuclear weapons free world. “The time has come”, he said, “to formulate guidelines for the ethical conduct of scientists”. I’ll come back to that later. And he reminded his fellow scientists of the words of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto: “Remember your humanity”.
Rotblat’s example surely goes to the heart of the matter. Scientists may choose whether their skills are used for the purposes of death and destruction or for the improvement of human welfare.
It’s important to acknowledge that a course of action such as Rotblat’s involves risk. When he announced his resignation from the Manhattan Project, Rotblat was accused of being a Soviet spy. Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli technician who disclosed Israel’s nuclear arsenal to the world, has suffered prolonged imprisonment for his action. (Remember that Vanunu was not a senior scientist; he was a technician.)
And yet there may also be a personal cost to be paid for overlooking the ethical dimensions of one’s work. In the early 1960s, the playwright Arthur Miller interviewed Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific head of the Manhattan Project, to try to investigate how the scientists involved in that project felt about the end product. Miller wrote “My questions seemed to interest him, even though he allowed himself mostly non-committal replies, except to the central one — whether we all tended to deaden our connections, and hence our psyches, to those actions we found it difficult to justify. Plainly moved,” Miller writes, “his eyes filled with what I took for vulnerability, he looked directly into my eyes and said with quiet emphasis that this was not always true. In other words, he was indeed suffering, and was not merely a man who had known power and was able to distract himself by recollecting his unique accomplishments.”
Beyond the responsibility of individual scientists to choose how and where their knowledge and skills are used, there is a further enormous task for the profession, and I want to preface this by saying that I know I am teaching my grandmother how to suck eggs, because this is already being done. But it must continue to be done, with ever greater clarity. It is simply this: the scientific community must tell humanity about the consequences of its actions. The alarm bells must be rung.
In essence this is about interpreting and presenting the evidence as best we can — be it the evidence on the full effects of warfare on our planet, the evidence on climate change, the effects of deforestation, or a host of other examples.
International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War was formed in 1980 to present the truth about nuclear weapons and how they affect human health. Although the message was chilling, it was perhaps even boring in its simplicity. It’s not rocket science, as they say, and yet there was enormous ignorance among those who should have known all the details.
General Lee Butler, who was head of the US Strategic Air Command in the early 1990s, the man who had supreme control over the most powerful nuclear force in the world, was speaking in 1999 to the Canadian Network for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons. He gave some frightening insights when he said:
“Let me begin by simply expressing my appreciation to those of you in this room who have laboured in this vineyard for so many years, most, I suspect, simply understanding intuitively what took years for those of us, presumably experts in this business, to appreciate. And that is that at the heart of the matter nuclear weapons are simply the enemy of humanity……”
On another occasion Butler stated that the President (of the USA) had ”..only a superficial understanding of what would happen in a nuclear war” and that “Congress knew even less because no lawmaker has ever had access to the war plan, and most academics could only make ill-informed guesses.” In referring to briefings of senior officials, Butler said “Generally no-one at the briefings wanted to ask questions because they didn’t want to embarrass themselves. It was about as unsatisfactory as could be imagined for that subject matter.”
This highlights the absolutely critical role of professional and other bodies in education and advocacy. We can’t necessarily rely on our governments to act in our best interests, and we can’t assume that those with power to unleash hell on earth really understand the awful nature of that power. President Gorbachev, in his book Perestroika, referred to the important role played by professional bodies. He wrote of IPPNW, “What they say and what they do is prompted by accurate knowledge and a passionate desire to warn humanity about the danger looming over it. In the light of their arguments and the strictly scientific data which they possess, there seems to be no room left for politicking. And no serious politician has the right to disregard their conclusions or neglect the ideas by which they take world public opinion a stage ahead”.
I want to emphasise again that the awareness-raising which is being done by so many scientists on matters of human and environmental survival is invaluable. I am also painfully aware of the great difficulty in getting the mass media and our political leaders to focus on the big issues. [SLIDE 6] You would all be familiar with the fact that astoundingly important news items from the most reputable of scientists or scientific organisations often get buried in the back pages of the newspaper, after the news from the important people, the celebrities. In March, MAPW and the Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament hosted a seminar at Parliament House on the urgency of achieving progress at the current NPT Review Conference. The seminar had excellent speakers and was very well attended, but received very little news coverage. While The Canberra Times ran an oped piece which began with reference to the seminar, the article was basically about a coalition backbencher’s call for consideration of nuclear power for Australia.
So, it is an uphill struggle to keep the agenda focussed on the important issues of our time, and on alternative technologies and ways of living on this planet without destroying it. But we have no choice but to continue this struggle if we want our grandchildren to have the opportunity to enjoy its infinite beauty and mystery. I don’t have time to even touch on some of the alternatives that must be promoted, but I’m sure you are familiar with many of them.
To me, one of the reasons that professional people must continue to speak the truth about the dangers that humanity faces, and to propose alternate paths, even when the words seem to fall on deaf ears, is that we must keep alive a sense of hope, especially in young people. They are the ones who will be continuing these struggles for decades to come. If we lose hope, we lose the capacity to turn things around and create a better future. [SLIDE ]
I want to emphasise also that a message of looming danger need not be presented dispassionately, even by scientific bodies. After all, this is our earth that is threatened by policies of destruction. It does not belong to an elite who have the power to kill most forms of life. In fact it does not belong to any of us, but we have the delight and the responsibility of walking this earth for our allotted years.
Dr Bernard Lown, co-founder of IPPNW, talks of “the urgency of moral outrage” on the issue of nuclear weapons. Speaking in Germany in 1986 he said, “We need to equate the possession of nuclear weapons with crimes against humanity. Would the building of thousands of gas chambers not be deemed repugnant to the laws of civilized society? It is appropriate, from this podium in Germany, to call for activation of a new war-crimes process, a new Nuremberg, to begin to examine the violation of international law implicit in the stockpiling of instruments of genocide.”
I want to add to Dr Lown’s comments. It is time to develop the concept that not only the stockpiling and possible use of weapons of mass destruction is a crime against humanity, but also the researching, developing and testing of these weapons. Such a concept involves responsibility on the part of the individual scientist as well as the nation or sub-national group he or she represents.
The adherence of scientists to an ethical code which prohibited the use of science for technologies which threaten or cause human or environmental devastation could go a long way to addressing at least some of the threats we face. Such a code, to be effective, would need to be deeply ingrained in the whole ethos of scientific training, and not simply an optional extra for those so inclined, and could be reinforced by an oath taken by all scientists upon graduation.
It is instructive to review the history of the development of ethics committees in medicine. Until the Second World War, it was generally assumed that medicine would always operate in an ethical context, with the relief or prevention of human suffering as its sole objective. Then came shocking revelations of extremely painful or lethal experiments conducted by Nazi doctors in concentration camps. Consequently, judges at the Nuremberg trials issued codes of conduct for all future medical research. Approval by ethics committees has since become standard practice for medical research. While the ethical dimensions of scientific research are I expect far more complex than those in medicine, there are some possible starting points which could be built upon. For example, we could proceed from the starting point that research related to the development of weapons of mass destruction is unethical and should be prohibited.
I’m going to summarise, and toss in a few final comments. Scientists may not be in a position to decide alone what direction humanity takes, what wars are fought, what weapons are used, and whether we continue to rely on fuels which are destroying our atmosphere. However scientists are in a position to refrain from using their skills for purposes which threaten human survival, no matter how patriotically such purposes are disguised, and scientists are in a position to sound alarm bells about the consequences of the choices that humanity makes.
Howard Zinn has written encouraging words for those engaged in activism and social movements. He reminds us that those who are in power, and who seem quite invulnerable, are in fact vulnerable. Their power depends on the obedience of others. The development and maintenance of the world’s most terrible weapons depends on the obedience of scientists.
I’m going to finish with a short anecdote to remind us again of the words of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto: Remember your humanity. Father George Zabelka was the Catholic chaplain with the US Air Force stationed on Tinian Island in the Pacific in 1945. He recounts the following episode: “I remember one young man who was engaged in the bombings of the cities of Japan. He was in the hospital on Tinian Island on the verge of a complete mental collapse. He told me that he had been on a low-level bombing mission, flying right down one of the main streets of the city, when straight ahead of him appeared a little boy, in the middle of the street, looking up at the plane in childlike wonder. The man knew that in a few seconds this child would be burned to death by the napalm which had already been released”.
It is when we see, close up, the face of those we call the enemy, that we cannot escape our common humanity.
The last word goes to Einstein: “Concern for man himself and his fate must always be the chief interest of all technical endeavours…in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”