To Preserve a World Graced by Life (Carl Sagan, 1982)


By Carl Sagan (1982)

There is no issue more important than the avoidance of nuclear war. Whatever your interest, passions or goals, they and you are threatened fundamentally by the prospect of nuclear war. We have achieved the capability for the certain destruction of our civilization and perhaps of our species as well. I find it incredible that any thinking person would not be concerned in the deepest way about this issue

In the last 20 years, the United States and the Soviet Union have accomplished something stunning and historic – the close-up examination of all those points of light, from Mercury to Saturn, that moved our ancestors to wonder and to science. Every one of these worlds is lovely and instructive, and there are premonitions and stirrings of life on Titan and Iapetus and some other worlds. But apparently life does not exist on these worlds. Something has gone wrong. Some critical step was lacking. Or perhaps life arose once and subsequently died out. The lesson we have learned is that life is a comparative rarity, that you can have 20 or 30 or 40 worlds and on only one of them does life appear and sustain itself.

What has evolved on our planet is not just life, not just grass or mice or beetles or microbes, but beings with a great intelligence, with a capacity to anticipate the future consequences of present actions, with the ability even to leave their home world and seek out life elsewhere. What a waste it would be if, after four billion years of tortuous biological evolution, the dominant organism on the planet contrived its own annihilation. No species is guaranteed its tenure on this planet. And we’ve been here for only about a million years, we, the first species that has devised the means for its self- destruction. I look at those other worlds, cratered, airless, cold, here and there coated with a hopeful stain of organic matter, and I remind myself what an astonishing thing has happened here. How privileged we are to live, to influence and control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for that life, to struggle not just for ourselves, but for all those creatures who came before us, and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after us. There is no cause more urgent, no dedication more fitting for us than to strive to eliminate the threat of nuclear war. No social convention, no political system, no economic hypothesis, no religious dogma is more important.

The dangers of nuclear war are, in a way, well- known. But in a way they are not well-known, because there is a psychological factor – psychiatrists call it denial – that makes us feel it’s so horrible that we might as well not think about it. That element of denial is, I believe, one of the most serious problems we face. If everyone had a profound and immediate sense of the actual consequences of nuclear war, we would be much more willing to confront and challenge national leaders of all nations when they present narrow and self-serving arguments for the continuation of mutual nuclear terror.

Denial, however, is remarkably strong and there are many cases in human history where, faced with the clearest signs of extreme danger, people refuse to take simple corrective measures. Some 25 years ago, a tsunami, a tidal wave in the Pacific, was approaching the Hawaiian Islands. The people there were given many hours warning to flee the lowlands and run to safety. But the idea of a great, crashing wave of water 30 feet high surging inland, inundating and washing your house out to sea was so unbelievable, so unpleasant, that many people simply ignored the warning and were killed. In fact, one school-teacher thought the report to be so interesting that she gathered up her children and took them down to the water’s edge to watch. I believe that one of the most important jobs that scientists have in this dialogue on the dangers of nuclear war is to state very clearly what the dangers are.

The evidence is compelling that weapons proliferation leads to a substantial, indeed to an exponential growth of nuclear weapons worldwide. The situation is like that of two or more coupled linear differential equations; each nation’s rate of growth of nuclear weapons is proportional to some other nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. No nation is ever satisfied that it has enough weapons. Any “improvements” by the other side force us to “improve” our weapons systems. Exponentials not only go up, they also go down, suggesting that a concerted effort to increase the nuclear weapons systems stockpiled by one nation will result in a corresponding increase by other nations. But likewise, a concerted effort by any one nuclear power to decrease its stockpile might very well have as a consequence a decline in the stockpiles of other nations, and, at least up to a point, the process can be self-sustaining. I therefore raise the question of whether the nation that first developed and used nuclear weapons on human populations has some special obligation to decelerate the nuclear arms race.

There is a wide range of possible options, including small and safe unilateral steps to test the responses of other nations, and major bilateral and multilateral efforts to negotiate substantial, verifiable force reductions.

Disarmament, done in such a way as to preserve deterrence against a nuclear attack, is in everybody’s interest. It’s only a matter of getting started. Of course there’s some risk. It takes courage. But as Einstein asked, in precisely this context, “What is the alternative?”

An extraterrestrial being coming upon the Earth might note that a few nations, one of them being the United States, actually have organizations devoted to peace as well as to war. The United States has something called the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

But its budget is less than one hundred thousandth of the budget of the Department of Defense. This is a numerical measure of the relative importance that we place on finding ways to make war and finding ways to make peace. Is it possible that the intelligence, compassion and even self-interest of the American people have been thoroughly exhausted in the pursuit of solutions to the threat of nuclear war? Or is it more likely that so little attention is given to it, so little encouragement is provided to bright young people to consider this issue, that we have not even begun to find innovative and imaginative solutions?

Through the courageous examination of these deep painful issues, and through the political process, I am convinced we can make an important contribution toward preserving and enhancing the life that has graced our small world.

Carl Sagan on GoodReads

..We now have a unique chance to halt the occurrence of what has looked like an inevitable collision (between the United States and the Soviets). What has to be done now is to… attempt to operate on a higher plane of thought, one in which the lure of cooperation is stronger than that of confrontation.”

Marshall Goldman, Associate Director Russian Research Center Harvard University February, 1983

“Every major problem that confronts us is global. Even to mitigate the problems requires the cooperation of statesmen, scientists, moral philosophers… in every country. Americans should find it easier to achieve such cooperation than did people of Old World nations, for they are the heirs and the beneficiaries of a philosophy that proclaimed that all men were created equal and endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Henry Steele Commager, Historian “Outmoded Assumptions” Atlantic, March, 1982

“Years ago we fought a war to make the world safe for democracy. In our time you and I can use our heritage of democracy to make the world safe from war.”

Thomas Watson, Jr. Chairman Emeritus, IBM Former U.S. Ambassador to the USSR Speech, 1982

“The ultimate objective is not to control weapons per se, but to control war. The public voice must continue to make itself heard.”

Barbara Tuchman, Historian Pulitzer Prize Winner, 1983



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Ruairi Wood

English Dirtbag. Read the Bread Book, Google Murray Bookchin.