Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Ernest Partridge, Research Associate
Cooperative Institute for Research  in Environmental Sciences
University of Colorado



"The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes."

Albert Einstein


The "doomsday machine" in Stanley Kubrick's classic film, "Dr. Strangelove," was designed to be triggered irrevocably by the detonation of any nuclear weapon on the face of the earth. Once detonated, the "doomsday machine" would so alter the atmosphere as to destroy all human life. The designers assumed that once the machine was deployed and "the other side" apprised of its existence both sides would see no possible rational justification for the continuance of the nuclear arms race.

According to scores of eminent scientists from the U.S., the U.S.S.R. and several other nations, we have, in effect, already built and deployed a "doomsday machine." However, the leaders of both great powers proceed as if they neither knew nor believed this. For these leaders to act as if nothing has changed, is cosmically irresponsible, for, in fact, everything has changed. With a virtual "doomsday machine" effectively in place, standard nuclear doctrine has lost its last shred of rational foundation.

The "working parts" of this "doomsday machine" are meteorological and ecological, and have come to be called "the nuclear winter." This global prospect was presented to millions by Dr. Carl Sagan on the ABC discussion which followed the filming of "The Day After" last November. For the benefit of Mr. Reagan, Mr. Weinberger, Mr. Schultz and the few others who appear not to have heard of it, here is Dr. Sagan's brief account:

The "nuclear winter" that will follow even a small nuclear war, especially if cities are targeted (as they almost certainly would be) involves a pall of dust and smoke which would reduce the temperatures . . . pretty much globally to subfreezing . . . for months. In addition, it [will be] dark [and] the radiation [will be] much more than we've been told before. . . The biologists who have been studying this think that there is a real possibility of the extinction of the human species from such a war.

Subsequent scientific studies and publications have generally tended to substantiate Prof. Sagan's assessment.

If these analyses are correct, writes Herbert Simon of Carnegie Mellon University, "then no nation can make a major nuclear attack even against an unarmed opponent without committing suicide -- without itself receiving punishment as severe as that imposed on its intended victim." Evgeny Velikhov of the Soviet Academy of Sciences concurs: "Nuclear weapons can no longer be tools of war or politics; they are only instruments of suicide... Nuclear superiority is a delusion."

While this doomsday scenario of nuclear winter should have changed everything, it has, to use Einstein's words, apparently "changed everything save our modes of thinking." In the ABC discussion which followed Dr. Sagan's depiction of the "nuclear winter" (a depiction never disputed by the panel), such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, Robert MacNamarra, Brent Scowcroft, trotted out the familiar and time-worn strategic litany of "window of vulnerability," "deterrence," "civil defense," "confrontation." All this despite repeated references by the moderator, Ted Koppel, to the scientists' projections. It was as if Dr. Sagan had not said a word. Yet Sagan's pronouncement rendered the preconceptions of the discussion participants to be at best pointless, at worst, delusive. For example:

The "window of vulnerability," (the alleged period of time during which our land-based ICBMs are said to be "vulnerable" to a first strike) can be of no conceivable advantage to the Soviets since such a strike would have to involve at least one attacking missile for each of our 1000-plus ICBMs. Therefore, even a "totally successful" strike involving no retaliation against the USSR would nevertheless utterly destroy the Soviet society. They are, in effect, equally "vulnerable" to their own "first strike." Why then do we continue to hear of this "window of vulnerability" as an advantage to the Soviets?

"Retaliation" is pointless. Once one side has set off the "doomsday machine," a massive "response" amounts to no more than a coup de grace, immediately killing much of the aggressor's population and thus sparing these individuals the agony of awaiting their certain demise in the coming "nuclear winter" -- a fate which awaits the "survivors" of both sides. Nuclear deterrence is as rational as the scene in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" where the Sheriff escapes from a mob by pointing a gun to his own head, thus "taking himself hostage."

A decision to invest in programs of "civil defense" reduces to a preference for drawn-out death by starvation, radiation or freezing over death by instant vaporization. Die now or die later. "Survival" is no longer an option. And yet, defenders of Administration nuclear policy continue to cite the Soviet civil defense system as evidence that "the other side" is preparing for a nuclear war. If, in fact, the Soviets are attempting to "defend" their civilian population, such efforts are futile. It would be folly to imitate their exercise in futility.

Talk of "strategic confrontation" or "the contest" or even "the enemy" is obsolete. We and the Soviets face a common, if abstract, enemy: the consequences of our combined technological brilliance and moral incapacity. However brutal, deceitful, and godless many Soviet commissars may be, we may just have to mind our own business and leave the reformation of the Soviet government to time and the initiative of the Soviet people. (Such a laissez faire policy is deemed by the Reagan Administration to be quite appropriate with regard to some despotic regimes; e.g., those of Chile and South Africa.) Our real choice now is whether to live together or to die together on this planet.

One of the classical criteria of sanity is the capacity to alter one's perspective upon the world when faced with a stark and irrefutable dose of reality. If one's world view cannot be altered in the face of unyielding, conspicuous fact, then one has not a world-view but a fantasy. How do our leaders measure up to this test of sanity?

It has been nearly a year since "the nuclear winter" was portrayed at the Washington conference -- quite time enough for reality to seep through and for sweet reason to alter the tone and nudge the content of these apocalyptic debates. Yet Mr. Reagan still speaks of a "vulnerability gap" in our nuclear forces. But vulnerable to what. In the context of "nuclear winter," this amounts to "vulnerability" to a deliberate Soviet decision to destroy its own population and social system through the pointless act of destroying us. And if we close that alleged "gap," what do we accomplish? Our strategic forces presumably "gain" the ability to immediately "survive" that suicidal first-strike from the Soviets -- survive to "defend" a population fated to perish in the "nuclear winter" which follows. Accordingly, talk of such a "gap" is worse than false, it is absurd.

And the absurdity continues. In an interview on ABC's "Nightline," April 10, Secretary of State Weinberger was asked directly if U.S. nuclear policy made sense in view of the "nuclear winter" projections. Weinberger's reply was unresponsive (he failed even to respond to the term "nuclear winter"), indicating that he had given the matter no serious consideration.

Clearly, our "defense policy" no longer defends us. Why, then, do we persist with our senseless "strategic nuclear doctrine." Is this "doctrine," as the word suggests, an article of faith rather than a consequence of careful and informed deliberation? Is our defense policy in fact the result of technological, bureaucratic, economic, even cultural, "imperatives" --- forces that are independent not only of human compassion, aspiration and morality, but detached from compelling objective scientific evidence, simple logic and plain common sense? Who or what is in charge of our destiny? Are we guided and moved by intelligent humans and just institutions, or by blind social/cultural forces, irrational fears--- in short, unevaluated "doctrine?" "Official" responses to recent scientific warnings and to the implications thereof offer bleak assurances here.

Suppose we take the scientists' warning seriously. What decisive steps toward sanity and survival might we take? We begin by acknowledging that nuclear war is no longer a credible device of intimidation, bluff or threat by one side against the other; it is a common threat, requiring a common and coordinated solution by both parties in concert. Talk of "first strike," "civil defense," "winnable" or "containable" wars is now idle and pointless; still worse, it is a dangerous distraction from the compelling problem of accommodation. The most urgent matters of global business before us are stabilization and risk-reduction, not threat-escalation.

We are not helpless. Much can be done, both unilaterally and bilaterally, to step back from the brink. Briefly, and as a start: (a) the leaders of both great powers should publicly recognize the "doomsday scenario" reported by the Sagan/Erhlich conference, the National Academy of Sciences (forthcoming), and prominent members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. They should acknowledge that the "nuclear winter" described therein is sufficiently plausible to render a first strike an act of suicidal madness, (b) both sides should then acknowledge each other's acceptance of these facts, (c) on this basis, these heads of government should meet in open agenda, at the earliest opportunity and in the company of their scientific advisors, both to display this acknowledgment and to initiate appropriate cooperative responses, and (d) an open and permanent Scientific Institute of Global Security should be established, jointly sponsored by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Is such a course of action possible? That depends upon the willingness of our national leaders to face simple but compelling facts of meteorology and biology, and to realize that in the face of these facts, the groundwork of most conventional nuclear doctrine has been swept away. A failure to face the facts and to act appropriately amounts to a tacit declaration that science and sanity are subversive. In the past, the leaders of the great powers, comfortable with their cherished prejudices and doctrines, have often behaved as is they would rather die than reconsider those "modes of thinking" which underlie and direct their policies. But that may be precisely the choice before them -- and therefore, before all of us.


Dr. Partridge, a philosopher, is a Research Associate at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), at the University of Colorado. (September, 1984)



Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .