Dr. George Wald is, professionally, a biologist — and he is also one of the most outspoken scientists in America. “Have I left my field?” he asks in the middle of this address. “Not on your life. I’m right squarely in my field. This is biology with a vengeance.”
Wald spoke last February 5 at North Carolina State University in Raleigh as part of a symposium called “1984, Fact or Fiction?”
Currently professor emeritus of biology at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1934, Wald won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, in 1967.
Our thanks to Shannon Gardner, a graduate student at NCSU who coordinated the symposium, and to Kevin Vaughn, former NCSU graduate student who brought Wald’s speech to our attention. Thanks also to Amy Spanel, for transcribing the tapes.
It’s a strange thing that both the Western and Eastern mythologies picture human history as a constant downhill process. In the Western mythology, the Greco-Roman mythology begins with the Golden Age, and then goes to the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and that’s our age. Strangely enough, in the Hindu mythology, one again divides the history of humankind into four ages — the so-called yugas. They start with the kriya yuga, which is perfection. Then they begin to come down. Roughly in the year 3000 B.C., one reaches the fourth of those yugas, the kali yuga, the yuga of kali, the goddess of destruction.
Survival is what I’d like to talk with you about. Some of my physicist friends are starry-eyed about the prospect of coming into radio communication with what they speak of as more advanced technological societies in outer space. They’ve been listening for a generation now without hearing anything meaningful. And the thought is beginning to grow: perhaps there aren’t any more advanced technological societies in outer space. Perhaps they self-destruct, wipe themselves out when they reach about our stage, as we are now threatening to do. I reject every thought that there is some kind of natural law operating here with its implication of inevitability. But, it’s altogether human, and altogether a product of our particular social structure.
In 1976 our nation celebrated the 200th anniversary of its independence. Well, that independence was an interesting event. But it was a lot less important even to us than another thing that was happening at the same time. That’s the industrial revolution. That industrial revolution for a time promised humanity endless leisure and abundance. But a while back it turned life-threatening, life-threatening on the grand scale. Now, killing and destruction is the biggest business in our world. Military expenditures of 1977 were 340 billion dollars. I haven’t yet seen the figures for 1978 — they’re bound to run well over 400 billion dollars.
That industrial revolution put us on the exponential curve — a curve that rises constantly. Horizontally, on the bottom one writes the years — though the way things have gone we hardly need to pay attention to anything that happened over a century ago. And up vertically one writes a great many things — population, industrial pollution, use of fossil fuels, the exhaustion of many other irreplaceable resources, armaments and something that rather interests people like us: information. We’re living in an information explosion, for many of us that’s as uncomfortable as any of these other things. And all of those exponential curves are reaching for the moon at just about the same time. That’s the year 2000. I wish we saw some way of escaping from such a dreadful thought, but I’m one of those scientists who can hardly see how the human race is to get itself much past the year 2000.
I want to talk about this exponential phenomenon in somewhat homelier terms. Two hundred years ago the industrial use of coal was just in its beginnings. The petroleum industry is hardly 100 years old. Ladies and gentlemen I’m about to say something that may startle some of you. I am as old as the use of gasoline. For the first 25 years of the petroleum industry, gasoline was looked upon as a useless and dangerous by-product. The only question was how do you get rid of that stuff before it blows you up. And then Henry Ford made a popular car. That marked the first industrial use of gasoline. Now the world is full of people who can hardly imagine how to go on with civilization without gasoline. Yet I was born, I assure you, into a civilized world. If anything it’s deteriorated since.
Now we’re being told we can’t live without nuclear power. The reality is, we can’t live with nuclear power.
I see our history in a rather long perspective. Twenty billion years of this universe. Six billion years of the solar system. Four and seven-tenths billion years of the earth. Three billion years of life on earth. Three million years of human life. Ten thousand years of civilization. And then a trivial two hundred years of the Industrial Revolution to bring us to the edge of self-extinction.
Surely the most important event in the whole evolution of life on this planet was the development of photosynthesis. Life apparently rose in the sea, which had been accumulating over the ages organic molecules formed in the upper atmosphere. Over the ages those organic molecules kept being dissolved in the seas so that the seas became a more and more concentrated and complicated organic soup. Then sometime somewhere, perhaps several times in several places, an aggregate of organic molecules in sea water reached the point that we would concede as being alive. That happened some three billion years ago.
But how were those first living organisms supposed to live? Only by turning about and devouring the organic molecules about them accumulated over the ages in the seas? Obviously, that process must have eventually come to an end when they would have cleaned the seas out of their organic molecules, just as we are now threatening to finish using up, devouring, our age-long heritage of fossil fuels. But fortunately for us, before that happened, photosynthesis was developed. The process by which using the energy of sunlight living organisms could use their own organic molecules. The whole of life on this earth runs on sunlight, through that process.
As I go from place to place, and see the anti-nuclear power movement cooking, I’ve asked myself,
“What are these people trying to say?”
. . . I think they’re trying to say,
“This country is our home, not your business.”
Now, our industrial revolution has accomplished a violence, a counter-evolutionary violence, that’s really fantastic and that is the new agriculture, based on petroleum, based on fossil-organic molecules. Our own agriculture in the United States at present uses thirty billion gallons of gasoline per year and it’s a bad bargain because the food that brings to the table has only one-fifth the energy content of the fossil fuels that go into producing it. This is the heart of agribusiness, of the mechanized agriculture, of the so-called green revolution. The green revolution is already bankrupt. It absolutely depends upon these huge supplies of fossil fuels to run its machinery and to provide the enormous amounts of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that alone will keep it going. That was all right as long as fossil fuels were cheap. But since 1973 they’ve been very expensive, and that’s the end of that.
And yet agriculture is being mechanized increasingly all over the world, and that has strange consequences. Because you see, it’s a very effective way of producing large amounts of food. But you see, agriculture used to be done primarily with the work of human muscles. It’s all being done now increasingly by machine, and the people who might therefore live upon that food that the mechanized agriculture produces have been thrown out of work by the mechanization. They’re being driven off the land in hordes all over the world. I suppose that you must realize that in our own country the family farms almost disappeared, they’re almost gone. And all over the world, people who used to make their livings farming are being driven off the land into the cities. The whole world is becoming urbanized and no one, no human being, can be more helpless than an urban worker out of a job. But it’s even worse than that.
Robert McNamara, former Ford executive, former secretary of defense, kicked upstairs by Lyndon Johnson to be president of The World Bank which is what he now is, in his report to The World Bank of 1970 spoke of what he called marginal men. He meant of course marginal persons, a little bit of sexist terminology. A marginal person is someone who’s not just unemployed, but for whom there is no further use in the market economy, neither as producer nor as customer. Such persons are just in the way. They’re not wanted, there’s no use for them, they’re an embarrassment, one just wishes they weren’t there.
MacNamara estimated in 1970 that there were already 500 million such persons in the world, twice the population of the United States, and estimated by 1980 there would be a billion, and by 1990, two billion. That would be roughly half the world’s population. You know, there’s something strange. Enough grain is now being grown in the world to feed 15 billion persons. The world population is 4 billion. Why is it that most of the people of the world regularly go hungry and many of them are starving?
Well, there is that curious thing called distribution. You see, food is delivered where it’s profitable to deliver it, not because people are hungry, but because it’s profitable to bring them food. That leaves an awful lot of people in this world out. And there is another strange development, that’s almost entirely the product of the last 10 to 15 years, and that is a sudden explosive increase in the demand for meat, particularly beef. Beef has become the index of the standard of living in the affluent countries. The more beef you consume, the better off you are. All the countries that can afford it are just crying for more and more beef. Pork less so, mutton less so, but those meats too. I was in Japan maybe twelve years ago, and then six years later. The whole diet there had changed. The first time I was there, you very rarely saw meat — fish, yes, meat very rarely. Second time I was there, they were very proud to have gone on to a Western diet. And that’s a bad bargain, too, because it takes eight pounds of grain to make one pound of meat. The grain that is grown and that might go to feed hungry and starving workers and peasants is going instead to feed cattle and pigs and sheep to supply this increase in demand for meat.
It used to be the commonest thing to trade cliches on the population problem, all of which were wrong. A very familiar one was, “Well, those people in the Third World, they’re so poor because they have too many children.” It’s just the opposite. They have so many children because they’re so poor. When you’re really that desperately poor, having a lot of children is a strategy for survival. You see, in all those places the infant mortality is very high and one needs to start a lot of kids to have any assurance that one or two might remain to feed one when one is old and bury one when one is dead.
The control of population, birth control, you know there’s only one way to solve that problem. It isn’t distributing or selling more contraceptives, it isn’t sterilizations of one kind or another, male and female, there’s only one way to solve that problem. That is as a quid pro quo to assure people that the children they have will survive. You give them that assurance and they’ll be very glad to have small families.
Some of you may remember what the 60s were like.
The kids were making every mistake in the book, but they were learning, and then they stopped . . .
I’m old enough to be very impatient for them to get to it again.
Strangely enough, population is coming under control better than anyone had imagined a few years ago. In fact, the last figures I’ve seen, that I hope are not over optimistic, they looked good and were to the effect that the developed nations in the world have already reached the replacement level. That is, the level in which each producing pair produces a pair of children, two children who themselves reach the age of reproduction. Where does that leave us? It leaves us with the faint hope, and it is just a faint hope, that the same replacement level might be achieved in the Third World by the year 2020. There is an approximately 80 year lag in this situation. If that faint hope is achieved, that the whole world will have reached the replacement level by the year 2020, then by 2100 we can hope to stabilize the world population at about 11 billion. It is now 4 billion and many of us are beginning to feel a little crowded. Eleven billion is the best, the outside best, we have to hope for.
I should like to speak of another matter. That is of industrial disease. It’s becoming more and more difficult to stay alive while making a living. Industry is killing its workers on the grand scale. I’m talking about such things as the black lung of the coal miners, the brown lung of the textile workers, the vinyl chloride poisoning of the plastics workers, the PCB poisoning of the electrical products workers, asbestosis, silicosis, and poisoning by an increasing number of a whole host of organic chemicals in increasing industrial use.
We now know that 70 to 90 percent, so 80 percent would be a fair figure, of all the cancer in the United States is of environmental origin and hence preventable. Of course, the major cause of lung cancer is smoking. But you can choose whether to smoke or not to smoke; but you can’t choose whether to make a living or not make a living. And roughly 40 per cent of those cancers, 40 percent of the 80 percent, so a third roughly of all the cancers in the United States, are bred in the workplaces. You must understand that this kind of stimulus to cancer is additive. For example, the cancers in asbestos workers. The statistics are entirely different for those who smoke and for those who don’t. These various stimuli add to one another.
May I say that I have followed this situation very closely for some years. And I don’t yet know of one instance in which the industry has not fought tooth and nail with all its resources against any attempt to clean up the shops, to establish standards, to have more adequate regulation, inspection. Every step of the way is fought. When all else fails, these things are brought into the courts and just kept under litigation, as long as the industry can manage.
That brings me to nuclear power. I said before, I don’t think we can live with nuclear power. Is it an issue in this part of the country? I kind of think it is, isn’t it? Up in my part of the country, I work with an organization called Clamshell. It’s gotten to be known all over the world.
Let’s talk nuclear power. I want to tell you something strange. The only effective grassroots politics that I know operating in the world today is the anti-nuclear power movement. Very strange.
I was moving around in Europe last June. Wherever I went, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, West Germany, France, wherever I went, the walls were scrawled with the graffiti of the anti-nuclear power movement. They are the graffiti of our time. In August I was invited to go to Australia, to go from city to city to talk against uranium mining, nuclear power, and nuclear weapons. Same story. In October I was invited to go to Austria which I did to help in the campaign against nuclear power. There was a referendum on November 5th, and we won that one. That’s the only time I know of that it’s happened. Austria will not have nuclear power.
You know, as I go from place to place, in all these different parts of the world and see the anti-nuclear power movement cooking, I’ve asked myself, “What are these people trying to say?’’ I think they’re always trying to say the same thing. I think it’s this. I think they’re trying to say “This country is our home, not your business.”
We now know enough to begin to cope with life-threatening problems . . . but there isn’t one of them that we can begin to cope with while maximizing profits.
A society such as ours that puts that before all other considerations, I think is doomed.
You may wonder, as I talk about these things, professionally I’m a biologist —have I left my field? Not on your life. I’m right squarely in my field. This is biology with a vengeance. When I was invited to Australia I had already promised to keynote a meeting in Wales on the origin of life. Just a week before it was to open I had these telegrams from Australia asking me to come and talk against uranium mining and nuclear power. I had a rather hard decision to make. I had been looking forward to that origin of life meeting. But you see there’s the symmetry — the origin of life the end of life — that’s where it’s at. And I can’t do a damn thing about the origin of life. But I’m doing anything I can to see that life goes on. There’s a chance that we can keep the show on the road.
Why do I say these mean things about nuclear power? The weapons I’m not talking about at all, that comes later. I’m talking about the production of electric power through nuclear reactions. Nuclear power is life-threatening in three decisive, yet quite independent ways.
First of all, there is the danger of major accident in nuclear power plants. You know, a lot of people are confused about this because they hear experts talking on both sides of issues like this. They’re quite right to be confused. That’s exactly what the experts are trying to produce, that confusion. So let me say something glaringly simple. Those superb realists, the American insurance companies, refused from the very beginning to insure nuclear power plants. As a result, starting in 1957, Congress has passed the succession of the so-called Price-Anderson Acts. It lays four-fifths of the liability, in case of accident in nuclear power plants, on the government. Ladies and gentlemen, I want to tell you a secret. Treasure it. The government has no money. You know what a cheerful thought it is, the government will pay. That’s us. We will pay. That’s the taxpayers’ money. And the taxpayers are carrying four-fifths of the liability for any accidents in nuclear power plants in this country. They’re the ones who will suffer from the accidents, and then they’ll pay themselves off.
The second life-threatening property of nuclear power is that every nuclear reactor now in existence produces plutonium 239 as a by-product. Plutonium 239 is at once perhaps the most toxic substance we know, and the most convenient stuff from which to make atom bombs. As for its toxicity, inhaling one milligram ever so much smaller than a pinhead, and one is dead from massive fibrosis of the lungs within hours. Inhaling one microgram, one thousandth of that amount, and there is a very good chance of eventual lung cancer. As for making atom bombs, the so-called trigger quantity of plutonium 239, the smallest amount from which one can make an atom bomb, is two kilograms. Four and two-fifths pounds. You can carry it in an ordinary brown paper grocery bag.
To make a Hiroshima-sized atom bomb, that takes six to seven kilograms, around fourteen pounds. You’d better use a shopping bag for that. You know, it’s for this reason that every nation that has a nuclear power plant is in the position to make atom bombs.
While I was wandering around Australia, talking from city to city against these things, the premier of Australia, Mr. Frazier, was going from city to city talking for them. The premier of Australia, you must understand. I didn’t get as deeply into political matters until roughly ten years ago. I had a very hard lesson to learn. I’ll tell you what it is. Everyone is an idealist. You know, you start with a naive idea that you and your friends are idealists and on the other side are some hard, hard-hearted conscienceless characters who don’t give a damn about anything, just wringing whatever profit they can out of their neighbors. No, it’s all wrong. Everyone is an idealist. You just have to ask them, they’ll tell you. And so, the prime minister of Australia, Mr. Frazier, is an idealist. He went all over Australia explaining that they didn’t want to mine and export the uranium in order to make money. Oh no, they wanted to do that to help The Third World. And what nations in The Third Word was he so anxious to help? Over and over and over he said the same two. They were the Philippines and Iran. I went around Australia laughing at this, saying “What in hell would Iran want with nuclear power? They’re drowning in oil!” Answer: the late Shah, who is now on vacation, with 20 billion dollars taken out with him so that he won’t go hungry, has been our best customer for so-called conventional weapons. He’s bought something like 18 billion dollars worth. That’s what made our presidents so terribly fond about him. But you see, I think the shah sort of wanted some atom bombs. The prime minister of Australia wanted very much to help that poor man get his atom bombs.
The third life-threatening property of nuclear power involves the disposal of nuclear wastes. Nobody knows what to do with them. Every year there is at least one conference, international conference of experts, and no solution has yet come up, no solution whatsoever. Except that it’s becoming increasingly clear that if and when a solution does come up, it’s going to cost an awful lot of money.
Government and industry carry out a constant propaganda for nuclear power. Part of that propaganda, as you read your newspapers, you will be told over and over again, “Why, coal-firing is polluting, too. Oil-firing is polluting, too.” And indeed, if you come up to a power plant that’s coal-fired or oil-fired, you know, you see black smoke pouring out of a chimney, whereas if you come up to a nuclear power plant, it looks beautifully clean —no smoke, awfully clean. Of course if you go around back, you find that there is a river, and I’m not exaggerating, a river of boiling water rushing out. The one I visited at Plymouth, rushing out to sea, killing everything in its way, looked frightening. But everything else, very quiet and very clean-looking.
You see, there is a qualitative difference. The pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, it’s what you see. You deal with it; that’s over. But not so with nuclear wastes. Nuclear wastes are, in human terms, forever. You just think, the whole of human civilization is hardly ten thousand years old, the half-life of plutonium 239, just one component of the wastes, is 24,400 years. After 24,000 years, half of it is left. After 48,000 years a quarter of it is left. After 72,000 years, an eighth of it is left. And that’s still too much plutonium.
. . . the whole of human civilization is hardly 10,000 years old,
the half-life of plutonium 239, just one component of the (nuclear) wastes, is 24,400 years.
I had a visit in my office from the Royal Commission from New Zealand. We were talking about this. We got to talking about one of the ideas about how to dispose of nuclear wastes. Geologists speak of the whole surface of the earth as broken into tectonic plates, of continental size. One idea is, let’s sink those nuclear wastes at the bottom of the sea where there is a crack between tectonic plates, in the hope that they will sink further instead of coming up, they’ll go down. We were talking about that, and I pulled out a map. We were all delighted to see that by far the most convenient crack between tectonic plates runs right under New Zealand.
It couldn’t be any more an ironic joke, black humor, than offering nuclear power to a Third World country. It is an economic disaster. Because of this, the business of making nuclear power plants has collapsed. In the United States there are only four companies doing it, and 90 per cent of the whole world’s business was in the hands of two American companies. Those are Westinghouse and General Electric. In 1973, there were 35 new nuclear reactors. In 1974 there were 23. In 1975 there were four. In 1976 there were three. In 1977 there were four. In 1978, the only ones I have heard of are two orders from that brutal dictatorship, South Korea. Neither Westinghouse nor General Electric has had a new order since 1975. It takes roughly ten orders a year to keep one of those companies in that business. Westinghouse alone is said to have lost over a billion dollars. They want to get out of the business. The United States Government won’t let them. The United States Government is keeping Westinghouse and General Electric in that business with our money.
No doubt many of you have seen statements of the relative costs of producing electric power with oil, coal, and nuclear. It turns out that in most such reports I’ve seen oil is the most expensive and coal and nuclear are roughly equal. Don’t you believe a word of it. That’s pure eye-wash. All such computations are based upon taking the cost of producing nuclear power out of two things, construction costs and operation costs, the cost of the fuel. The reality is that there is a whole series of major costs that just aren’t talked about.
The old Atomic Energy Commission was supposed to supervise these matters, but instead of that became essentially a salesman for nuclear power. That old Atomic Energy Commission with that very distinguished physicist, Glen Seabourg, at its head, did something so damned stupid that you wonder how this could possibly happen. That is, the residues from the mining of the uranium, the so-called tailings, which are still highly radioactive, were sold for land fill, to make foundations for houses. There’s a whole section of Salt Lake City, which is so highly radioactive that it not only is a very serious threat to everybody living there, but something much more serious. Real estate values have gone way down. People don’t want to buy those houses. At last, Congress has just passed an act to begin to do something about this, but no one quite knows what to do since it’s going to be fantastically expensive. One ought to just dig up the whole area and move it, but move it where?
No one knows what to do with nuclear wastes. At present, we’re stockpiling them where they’re produced. The National Academy of Sciences reported last year that unless a solution is soon found, thirteen of our nuclear power plants are going to have to stop operations, because they have no more place in which to store the nuclear wastes.
Do try to understand that one of the major functions of government, ours and others, is to delude the people. The same guys on Madison Avenue who sell you stuff that you not only don’t want, but shouldn’t have, make up these weird governmental pseudo-operations, the whole purpose of which is to quiet the uneasiness of the public. And so for this matter of the nuclear wastes that no one knows what to do with, a shell game has been invented. They’re going to be moved about. The people in an area who have grown uneasy will be told, “Oh, we’re moving those nuclear wastes to a temporary storage space.” So you move them. Then the people in that area will shortly be told, “Oh, don’t worry, we’re moving those nuclear wastes to a more temporary storage place.” And so moving them about, at our expense, is to quiet the uneasiness of the population.
Let’s get back to the hidden costs of nuclear power. First, a fuel needs to be enriched. All the enrichment is done by the government at the taxpayers’ expense. And the fuel is sold at bargain prices to power plants in this country and others, and sometimes given away. The U.S. Government is not only keeping Westinghouse and General Electric in this business, it’s doing everything in its power to persuade Third World governments to buy nuclear power plants, and one of the nice things is we’ll supply the fuel, the enriched fuel. We pay for all of that.
Second, the insurance I’ve already told you about, four-fifths of the liability is laid on the taxpayers. Third, surveillance: every step in the production of nuclear power needs to be policed. Any time any of this radioactive stuff is moved, it needs special policing. The nuclear power industry itself estimates that just the surveillance of nuclear power in this country will cost billions. That report said that one can’t expect to keep civil liberties as we have understood them with widespread nuclear power. Alvin Weinberg, who was the director of Oak Ridge for many years, and is very expert, very deeply into these things, in a recent statement said that the workers in nuclear power plants must not be ordinary workers, they should be what he called a dedicated priesthood. You understand the consequences of any human failure, let alone sabotage, are so tremendous that it’s not a situation one can toy with.
I’ve mentioned four hidden costs. Number five: reprocessing. The used fuel rods need reprocessing. Reprocessing, incidentally, has proved to be so technologically difficult and so expensive, that there is no commercial reprocessing now going on in this country. There was one attempt to open a reprocessing plant at West Valley, New York. It was an abysmal failure, never worked. Meanwhile West Valley is left with the biggest supply of nuclear waste, it’s leaked into the ground water there; it’s making all kinds of trouble, and in its generosity, the United States Congress has now taken over the costs. That’s us again. Taxpayers will bear the costs of dealing with all such problems.
Finally, what do you do with a nuclear power plant when it’s finished? The rated life is 30 to 40 years. What then? I’ll give you the present, technical, expert, quick and dirty answer: 500 million dollars and 100 years of surveillance. What’s the 500 million dollars for? You must understand that when a nuclear power plant has run out, it’s not just the fuel rods that are radioactive, the whole structure has become radioactive, the flow of neutrons all through the operation of the plant has turned the steel cladding, the concrete of the structure — it’s all radioactive. So what do you do? You bury the whole thing under a mountain of earth. That’s your 500 million dollars. And then stand guard over it for a hundred years.
The American government is now the oldest continuous government on the earth, 200 years old. Where did they get this number 100 years of surveillance? Why don’t they say 1,000 years? Why don’t they say 5,000 years? Makes just as much sense. You think of the stability, geological and political, that this asks for, and you think of these expenses, and you begin to understand nuclear power is an economic disaster.
A book has just come out of the Harvard Business School, Light Water, The End of the Nuclear Dream, by Professor Buppe of the Harvard Business School, and an expert French colleague named Darien. It’s published by Basic Books and lays all this out for you, what I’ve been saying to you, if any of you are surprised or skeptical. Go get it from the Harvard Business School.
That brings me finally to nuclear weapons. Those are, of course, the immediate threat. Present stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the United States and the Soviet Union add up to the explosive equivalent of fifteen billion tons of TNT. There are four billion people on the earth. There are in addition tens of thousands of somewhat smaller, so-called tactical nuclear weapons on both sides, and material already stockpiled to make hundreds of thousands more.
Some of you may wonder what a tactical nuclear weapon is. Let me tell you. I was the American member of an international commission, back in 1977, in Japan, who worked over the information accumulated by Japanese scientists and social scientists in the previous year to come to a final evaluation of what really had happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bomb that completely wiped out the city of Hiroshima, and by the end of 1945 had killed 140,000 people, was a miserable, economy-sized 12.5 kiloton bomb. That’s what a tactical nuclear weapon is. The bomb that wiped out Hiroshima and killed 140,000 people by the end of the year — incidentally, others are still dying, I still visit them when I get to Japan — that bomb would be too small to count in the SALT talks. THE SALT talks — the term SALT means Strategic Arms Limitations Talks — pays no attention to tactical weapons, like the bomb that wiped out Hiroshima.
The bomb that wiped out Hiroshima and killed 140,000 people by the end of the year
. . . that bomb would be too small to count in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.
A half hour’s interchange between the United States and the Soviet Union would just be curtains. You know, there’s an interesting discussion going on in the pages of The Atomic Scientist Bulletin. Would any human being be left? Because the Vietnam War showed us one can accomplish genocide and ecocide, untold killing and destruction with conventional weapons, but again, there’s a qualitative difference. When you have finished using conventional weapons, you can count the dead, and you can tote up the destruction and that’s it. Not so with nuclear weapons. The fallout from nuclear weapons enters the atmosphere and the stratosphere, eventually encircles the globe, and remains life-threatening, killing, forever.
Our nation, for the last seven years at least, has been making three hydrogen warheads per day. For a while we cheered one another up, saying, “Well, no one would be so crazy as to start a nuclear war.” We were operating with the principle of mutual deterrents. There is a beautiful phrase attached to it, “Maximum Assured Destruction,” the acronym is MAD. Little bit of black humor from the Defense Department.
Yes, there’s an interesting discussion going on, “Would anyone be left?” Would there be any human beings left? After Australia I gave myself a little vacation, visiting New Guinea. Would any New Guineans be left? People who have never heard, perhaps, of such a thing as a nuclear weapon, or wouldn’t know what you meant by a nucleus, are they going to go, too?
Well, perhaps I’ve said enough. Yes, it’s the Iron Age with a vengeance. It’s that kali yuga. The dissolution, the destruction, the end of things threatening us.
Why do I talk this way? I’m a happy man. I’m a happy man contemplating doom. I’ve had my own life. But I still have a seventeen-year-old daughter and a nineteen-year-old son at home; I’m teaching magnificent young people. Why do I talk in this way? Is it to depress them? No! It’s in the hope of arousing them.
I never dreamed of finding Americans as helpless as Americans have been feeling. When I went to Australia, the American image of the Australian is tall, rangy, brown, and athletic. Not a bit. It was a big comedown. If anything, they felt more helpless than Americans.
There’s only one solution for this problem — it’s us. Those same benighted taxpayers, getting up and saying, “No! No! We’re not going down the drain.” You know, our kind of person has a solution for every problem that comes up. Do research. Do research, get out a report, one can make a fine living out of all kinds of troubles. By all means do research, research is a fine thing, we never know enough about anything. But research must not be allowed, as is regularly the case now, to become a trap, a means, an excuse, for endlessly putting off all kinds of action.
I want to tell you something. We right now know quite enough to cope, begin to cope, with every single problem I’ve mentioned. We now know enough to begin to cope with all those life-threatening problems. But there isn’t one of them that we can begin to cope with while maximizing profits. A society such as ours that puts that before all other considerations I think is doomed. Incidentally, if you go to the other side of the Iron Curtain, things are not all that different. Because a society that puts the maximization of production as its major end, ends up not very different from one that makes a shibboleth of maximizing profit.
Some of you may remember what the 60s were like. You know, things were moving. The kids were making every mistake in the book, but they were learning. My generation wasn’t learning, it was past learning. But they were learning, and then they stopped. I think it was a major event in human history. And I’m old enough to be very impatient, for them to get to it again. That poor guy Phil Ochs, nice person, committed suicide, Phil Ochs had that song, I’m Not Marching Anymore. A mistake. You have to keep marching. Stop marching, it’s over. A revolution that stops is lost. That goes for the American Revolution.
What keeps me happy is that I’m so angry. It’s all so meaningless, useless, and stupid. Do understand, please, what you’re up against. It isn’t the Defense Department, it isn’t the government, the government in every nation of our part of the world doesn’t really govern. It is merely the agent of large corporate and financial power. That must be becoming more evident to Americans who read their newspapers every single day. That’s exactly the way it is.
I call upon my fellow Americans, for God’s sake, be American. Stand up, take your lives in your hands. Say “No!” We’re through with this nonsense. Our representatives had better begin to represent us. Or else.” That’s the only thing that’s going to solve this situation. Please understand our power. My God, does one have to talk this way to Americans? In a democracy? There’s nothing that makes us as helpless as the realization that we don’t help ourselves.
Look at what’s just happened in Iran. That 18 billion dollars worth of American arms the Shah had bought. He had one of the cruelest, one of the most pervasive, efficient surveillance systems, the famous savak, in existence, a tremendous army, everything — and what happened? People said, “We don’t want you.” And they didn’t fight, but they were willing to face guns. They went out into the streets and marched. And they just kept marching. The oil workers went and marched. The whole population of Iran was in the streets marching. And that’s the end of the government in Iran.
We’re in a terrible, terrible crisis. It’s a crisis of pure survival. Survival of the human race and much of the rest of life on the earth. Nothing is going to save us — that holocaust could happen at any time, at any moment. Don’t kid yourselves that people wouldn’t be so stupid as to do that.
I never dreamed of finding Americans as helpless as Americans have been feeling.
I want to tell you that when I want to find some real insanity, I no longer think of going to an insane asylum. I go to the highest levels of government. Just before I left for India, Jimmy Carter announced he was going to take care of us with a civil defense program. We were going to have a plan for emptying American cities in the event of a nuclear attack. We would have had 20 to 30 minutes warning. You have to get a good distance away.
This morning I took a plane to come to Raleigh, North Carolina, but it happened to be a plane that started at half past nine; that meant I had to start before nine. That’s the rush hour in Boston. I gave myself an hour and a quarter, and needed it in order to perform what would have ordinarily been a 20 to 30 minute trip. So we’re going to empty Boston at 60 miles an hour? It is laughable. But people by now are so drugged with this kind of stupidity, they read it in their newspapers, and thank heaven that the government is concerned about us.
I wish I could believe that either the United States or the Soviet Union had the sense not to exterminate each other, and the rest of humanity, but I don’t have any such belief, because I’m following this business day by day. Right now, both sides are doing everything possible, in a neck-to-neck race, to make the first strike possible. All these weapons and things that you were reading about, mutual deterrents, the balance of terror, are already old-fashioned. It’s given up, and what we’re into now is a preparation for nuclear war.
That brings up that other insanity — limited nuclear war. You start a nuclear war, and with 9/10ths of the stockpiles still intact Mr. Brezhnev will call Jimmy Carter on the phone, and say “Uncle,” and that will be the end of that war. It won’t be the other way around, because Americans never give up.
The late senator from Georgia, Richard Russell, in a patriotic speech to the United States Senate some years ago, said “If we have to get back to Adam and Eve, I want them to be Americans. I want them on this continent, and not in Europe.” That’s real patriotism. You know, it’s good masculine macho patriotism. One pair left, one hopes a male and a female and one hopes fertile. Thank you.