The excerpt from Jonathan Schell‘s 1982 book The Fate of the Earth is the nineteenth chapter of The Power of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of Peace . This dialogue continues the Post-Vietnam to the Present (1975- ) section of the book. The essay centers on Schell’s lifelong quest to abolish nuclear weapons. The Fate of the Earth is based on a series of essays that Schell wrote for The New Yorker in the early 1980s. It won the Los Angeles Times Book prize.
Sadly, despite the fall of the Soviet Union, Schell’s arguments for the only path to a safe world still hold. He sees nuclear weapons as the greatest “predicament” that mankind has faced. With the benefit of current knowledge, I would argue that global climate change has overtaken nuclear weapons as humankind’s worst self-imposed threat. Yet even at number two, the abolition of nuclear weapons must be accomplished for our survival. I would also argue that the two are intertwined under former US President Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex.”
Schell does not seek to define a political program to abolish nuclear weapons, instead he seeks to outline the problem so that a an agreed starting point can be used by all to work toward a solution. He defines war as the political act of using violence to exhaust the opposing sides resources.
Schell argues that nuclear weapons make war infinitely more dangerous by divorcing it from politics. The only way to save the world is to first “shape a world politics that does not rely on violence” which he defines as “complete disarmament” and second create a way to make political decisions that were previous made through war.
Schell calls for us to turn the M.A.D. (Mutual Assured Destruction) policy on its head. He argues that nuclear weapons are no longer weapons to be used, they have become merely weapons of fear, of the mind. He calls for nuclear weapons to become “wholly cerebral” by destroying them. The fear of extinction from using the nuclear weapons would then become the fear of extinction from -re-arming with nuclear weapons. he argues that would stop all nations from creating them. “Knowledge is the deterrent.” As Schell writes:
In a disarmed world, we would not have eliminated the peril of human extinction from the human scene — it is not in our power to do so — but we would have pitted our whole strength against it.
Schell summarizes where our current thinking lies and where it needs to be to avoid extinction:
The “realistic” school of political thinking, on which the present system of deterrence is based, teaches that men, on the whole, pursue their own interests and act according to the law of fear. The “idealistic” school looks on human ability to show regard for others as fundamental, and is based on what Gandhi called the law of love.
Schell argues that the realism of fear and the idealism of love lead to the same conclusion: nuclear weapons must be abolished. He summarizes thus: “It is not more realistic than idealistic to destroy the world.”
Ultimately nor nuclear disarmament to work, Schell finds that humans must find a way to settle all disputes peaceably which means that conventional armaments must also be abolished. Warning against politics becoming the center of our attention, Schell states that ” The point is not to turn life into a scene of protest; life is the point.” that would mean that the starting point for of humanity to agree that “the species survive.”
Reading this essay, I worried that Shell was making nuclear disarmament an all or nothing proposal. He is not. He called for an immediate freeze on nuclear weapons as a minimum first action. He then ups the ante and asks for the first step to be a reduction of nuclear weapons.
Schell stresses that the methods of this movement must be nonviolent to meet its nonviolent aims. Nonviolence is not only a physical posture; it is also a state of mind. He quotes Gandhi that “In the dictionary of nonviolence, there is no such thing as an ‘external enemy.'”
Schell exhorts us all need to overcome our inertia and move toward each other:
E.M. Forster told us: ‘Only connect!’ Let us connect. Aden told us, ‘We must love one another or die.’ Let us love one another — in the present and across divides of death and birth. Christ said, ‘I come not to judge the world bu to save it.’ Let us, also, not judge the world but save the world.