By FRANCES LAMBERTS
In a 1956 essay in “The Points of My Compass,” author E. B. White pondered Man’s contamination of the planet. This included discharging chemical and industrial poisons into the air and rivers and – worst among the pollutants for causing genetic damage and disease – adding radioactive elements, like strontium, to the soil and the human body, through fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.
As for these, test detonations in the air was terminated by the major nuclear powers in 1963, following a treaty. The tests moving underground – to Nevada in the U.S. – the administration of Bush the Elder agreed to end weapons testing in 1992, part of the Comprehensive Weapons Ban treaty, which was formally adopted by the United Nations in 1996.
White didn’t live to see that treaty, but the American Public Health Associated praised it for cessation of nuclear testing, “whether conducted in the atmosphere or underground.” It urged total abolition of nuclear weapons, and disarmament, “as the world’s only option.”
As to their meaning for national security, White held nuclear weapons to be an effective deterrent to war but in practice unusable, since they “would leave the world uninhabitable.”
Could the trillions we and other nations spend on weapons which cannot be used be put to better effect?
In an essay titled “Hope and Survival,” pediatrician Dr. Helen Caldicott states many benign and needful applications if economies were converted to peaceful uses, as America did after World War II, instead of continuing the arms race.
For one, the world urgently needs adequate production and equitable distribution of food, Caldicott notes, and of medicines and effective vaccines for infectious diseases. Greater distribution of birth control techniques could help prevent further increases in world population – of many additional mouths which climate challenged lands cannot feed. Reforesting many areas of the world needs to be given high priority, as trees recycle carbon and help fight climate change. Millions of people still have to be delivered from situations of illiteracy and poverty. The world’s natural resources must be shared and used for the benefit of all the family of man, not wasted on production of weapons.
When White wrote about the horrors of nuclear war, only the “little, A-bomb brother” of the bombs in today’s nuclear arsenals had been used, killing about a hundred thousand people in Hiroshima and leaving many more to die of cancers later.
He saw hope in the fact that the modern, far deadlier hydrogen bombs, through universal fear of them were uniting people in a “common drive for salvation.” Aware of their grave risk in potentially bringing “millenniums of oblivion” to earth’s biological life, he saw people beginning to “face it with united action” for disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons.
“The correct amount of strontium to impregnate the soil is no strontium,” White demanded. Similarly and rightly, the “correct” way to solve international tensions is through ardent and polite diplomacy, not war nor threatening it, nor “usable” bombs in our and the world’s deadly nuclear arsenals.