How to Destroy a Planet Without Really Trying
The question is:
What are people doing about it?
None of this is a secret. Itís all perfectly
open. In fact, you have to make an effort not to see it.
There have been a range of reactions. There
are those who are trying hard to do something about these threats, and
others who are acting to escalate them. If you look at who they are,
this future historian or extraterrestrial observer would see something
Trying to mitigate or overcome these threats
are the least developed societies, the indigenous populations, or the
remnants of them, tribal societies and first nations in Canada. Theyíre
not talking about nuclear war but environmental disaster, and theyíre
really trying to do something about it.
In fact, all over the world - Australia,
India, South America - there are battles going on, sometimes wars. In
India, itís a major war over direct environmental destruction, with
tribal societies trying to resist resource extraction operations that
are extremely harmful locally, but also in their general consequences.
In societies where indigenous populations have an influence, many are
taking a strong stand.
The strongest of any country with regard to
global warming is in Bolivia, which has an indigenous majority and
constitutional requirements that protect the "rights of nature.Ē
Ecuador, which also has a large indigenous
population, is the only oil exporter I know of where the government is
seeking aid to help keep that oil in the ground, instead of producing
and exporting it - and the ground is where it ought to be.
Hugo Chavez, who died recently and
was the object of mockery, insult, and hatred throughout the Western
world, attended a session of the U.N. General Assembly a few years ago
where he elicited all sorts of ridicule for calling
George W. Bush a devil. He also
gave a speech there that was quite interesting.
Of course, Venezuela is a major oil
Oil is practically their whole gross
domestic product. In that speech, he warned of the dangers of the
overuse of fossil fuels and urged producer and consumer countries to get
together and try to work out ways to reduce fossil fuel use. That was
pretty amazing on the part of an oil producer. You know, he was part
Indian, of indigenous background. Unlike the funny things he did, this
aspect of his actions at the U.N. was never even reported.
So, at one extreme you have indigenous,
tribal societies trying to stem the race to disaster.
At the other extreme, the richest, most
powerful societies in world history, like the United States and Canada,
are racing full-speed ahead to destroy the environment as quickly as
possible. Unlike Ecuador, and indigenous societies throughout the world,
they want to extract every drop of hydrocarbons from the ground with all
Both political parties, President
the media, and the international press
seem to be looking forward with great enthusiasm to what they call "a
century of energy independence" for the United States. Energy
independence is an almost meaningless concept, but put that aside. What
they mean is: weíll have a century in which to maximize the use of
fossil fuels and contribute to destroying the world.
And thatís pretty much the case everywhere.
Admittedly, when it comes to alternative energy development, Europe is
doing something. Meanwhile, the United States, the richest and most
powerful country in world history, is the only nation among perhaps 100
relevant ones that doesnít have a national policy for restricting the
use of fossil fuels, that doesnít even have renewable energy targets.
Itís not because the population doesnít want
it. Americans are pretty close to the international norm in their
concern about global warming. Itís institutional structures that block
Business interests donít want it and theyíre
overwhelmingly powerful in determining policy, so you get a big gap
between opinion and policy on lots of issues, including this one.
So thatís what the future historian - if
there is one - would see. He might also read todayís scientific
journals. Just about every one you open has a more dire prediction than
Dangerous Moment in History"
The other issue is nuclear war.
Itís been known for a long time that if
there were to be a first strike by a major power, even with no
retaliation, it would probably destroy civilization just because of the
nuclear-winter consequences that would follow. You can read about it in
the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Itís well understood.
So the danger has always been a lot worse
than we thought it was.
Weíve just passed the 50th anniversary of
the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was called "the most dangerous moment in
history" by historian Arthur Schlesinger, President John F.
Kennedyís advisor. Which it was. It was a very close call, and not the
only time either. In some ways, however, the worst aspect of these grim
events is that the lessons havenít been learned.
What happened in the missile crisis in
October 1962 has been prettified to make it look as if acts of courage
and thoughtfulness abounded. The truth is that the whole episode was
There was a point, as the missile crisis was
reaching its peak, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wrote to
Kennedy offering to settle it by a public announcement of a withdrawal
of Russian missiles from Cuba and U.S. missiles from Turkey.
Actually, Kennedy hadnít even known
that the U.S. had missiles in Turkey at the time. They were being
withdrawn anyway, because they were being replaced by more lethal
Polaris nuclear submarines, which were invulnerable.
So that was the offer. Kennedy and his
advisors considered it - and rejected it. At the time, Kennedy himself
was estimating the likelihood of nuclear war at a third to a half.
So Kennedy was willing to accept a very high
risk of massive destruction in order to establish the principle that we
- and only we - have the right to offensive missiles beyond our borders,
in fact anywhere we like, no matter what the risk to others - and to
ourselves, if matters fall out of control. We have that right, but no
one else does.
Kennedy did, however, accept a secret
agreement to withdraw the missiles the U.S. was already withdrawing, as
long as it was never made public.
Khrushchev, in other words, had to
openly withdraw the Russian missiles while the U.S. secretly withdrew
its obsolete ones; that is, Khrushchev had to be humiliated and Kennedy
had to maintain his macho image. Heís greatly praised for this:
and coolness under threat, and so on.
The horror of his decisions is not even
mentioned - try to find it on the record.
And to add a little more, a couple of months
before the crisis blew up the United States had sent missiles with
nuclear warheads to Okinawa. These were aimed at China during a period
of great regional tension.
Well, who cares? We have the right to do
anything we want anywhere in the world. That was one grim lesson from
that era, but there were others to come.
Ten years after that, in 1973, Secretary of
Henry Kissinger called a high-level
It was his way of warning the Russians not
to interfere in the ongoing Israel-Arab war and, in particular, not to
interfere after he had informed the Israelis that they could violate a
ceasefire the U.S. and Russia had just agreed upon. Fortunately, nothing
Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan
was in office. Soon after he entered the White House, he and his
advisors had the Air Force start penetrating Russian air space to try to
elicit information about Russian warning systems,
Operation Able Archer.
Essentially, these were mock attacks. The
Russians were uncertain, some high-level officials fearing that this was
a step towards a real first strike.
Fortunately, they didnít react, though it
was a close call. And it goes on like that...
What to Make of the Iranian and North Korean Nuclear
At the moment, the nuclear issue is
regularly on front pages in the cases of North Korea and Iran.
There are ways to deal with these ongoing
crises. Maybe they wouldnít work, but at least you could try. They are,
however, not even being considered, not even reported.
the Case of Iran, which is considered
in the West - not in the Arab world, not in Asia - the gravest threat to
world peace. Itís a Western obsession, and itís interesting to look into
the reasons for it, but Iíll put that aside here.
Is there a way to deal with the supposed
gravest threat to world peace? Actually there are quite a few.
One way, a pretty sensible one, was proposed
a couple of months ago at a meeting of the non-aligned countries in
Tehran. In fact, they were just reiterating a proposal thatís been
around for decades, pressed particularly by Egypt, and has been approved
by the U.N. General Assembly.
The proposal is to move toward
establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region. That
wouldnít be the answer to everything, but it would be a pretty
significant step forward. And there were ways to proceed. Under U.N.
auspices, there was to be an international conference in Finland last
December to try to implement plans to move toward this.
What happened? You wonít read about it in the newspapers
because it wasnít reported - only in specialist journals.
November, Iran agreed to attend the meeting. A couple of days later
Obama cancelled the meeting, saying the time wasnít right. The European
Parliament issued a statement calling for it to continue, as did the
Arab states. Nothing resulted.
So weíll move toward ever-harsher sanctions
against the Iranian population - it doesnít hurt the regime - and maybe
war. Who knows what will happen?
In Northeast Asia, itís the same sort of
thing. North Korea may be the craziest country in the world. Itís
certainly a good competitor for that title. But it does make sense to
try to figure out whatís in the minds of people when theyíre acting in
Why would they behave the way they do? Just
imagine ourselves in their situation. Imagine what it meant in the
Korean War years of the early 1950s for your country to be totally
leveled, everything destroyed by a huge superpower, which furthermore
was gloating about what it was doing. Imagine the imprint that would
Bear in mind that the North Korean
leadership is likely to have read the public military journals of this
superpower at that time explaining that, since everything else in North
Korea had been destroyed, the air force was sent to destroy North
Koreaís dams, huge dams that controlled the water supply - a war crime,
by the way, for which people were hanged in Nuremberg.
And these official journals were talking
excitedly about how wonderful it was to see the water pouring down,
digging out the valleys, and the Asians scurrying around trying to
The journals were exulting in what this
meant to those "Asians,Ē horrors beyond our imagination. It meant the
destruction of their rice crop, which in turn meant starvation and
death. How magnificent! Itís not in our memory, but itís in their
Letís turn to the present. Thereís an
interesting recent history. In 1993, Israel and North Korea were moving
towards an agreement in which North Korea would stop sending any
missiles or military technology to the Middle East and Israel would
recognize that country. President Clinton intervened and blocked it.
Shortly after that, in retaliation, North
Korea carried out a minor missile test.
The U.S. and North Korea did then reach a
framework agreement in 1994 that halted its nuclear work and
was more or less honored by both sides. When
George W. Bush
came into office, North Korea had maybe one nuclear weapon and
verifiably wasnít producing any more.
Bush immediately launched his aggressive
militarism, threatening North Korea - "axis of evil" and all that - so
North Korea got back to work on its nuclear program.
By the time Bush left office, they had eight
to 10 nuclear weapons and a missile system, another great neocon
achievement. In between, other things happened.
In 2005, the U.S. and North Korea actually
reached an agreement in which North Korea was to end all nuclear weapons
and missile development. In return, the West, but mainly the United
States, was to provide a light-water reactor for its medical needs and
end aggressive statements. They would then form a nonaggression pact and
move toward accommodation.
It was pretty promising, but almost
immediately Bush undermined it. He withdrew the offer of the light-water
reactor and initiated programs to compel banks to stop handling any
North Korean transactions, even perfectly legal ones.
The North Koreans reacted by reviving their
nuclear weapons program. And thatís the way itís been going. Itís well
known. You can read it in straight, mainstream American scholarship.
What they say is: itís a pretty crazy
regime, but itís also following a kind of tit-for-tat policy. You make a
hostile gesture and weíll respond with some crazy gesture of our own.
You make an accommodating gesture and weíll reciprocate in some way.
Lately, for instance, there have been South
Korean-U.S. military exercises on the Korean peninsula which, from the
Northís point of view, have got to look threatening. Weíd think they
were threatening if they were going on in Canada and aimed at us.
In the course of these, the most advanced
bombers in history, Stealth B-2s and B-52s, are carrying out simulated
nuclear bombing attacks right on North Koreaís borders.
This surely sets off alarm bells from the
past. They remember that past, so theyíre reacting in a very aggressive,
Well, what comes to the West from all this is
how 'crazy' and
how 'awful' the North Korean leaders are.
Yes, they are. But thatís hardly
the whole story, and this is the way the world is going. Itís not that there are no alternatives. The
alternatives just arenít being taken. Thatís dangerous.
So if you ask what the world is going to
look like, itís not a pretty picture. Unless people do something about
We always can...