Dear David, I have long admired your dedicated and heroic life-long work for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. You did me the great honour of making me an Advisor to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF). You are both the Founder and the President of the NAPF. Could you tell us a little about your family, and your early life and education? What are the steps that led you to become one of the world’s most famous advocates of the complete abolition of nuclear weapons?
John, you have honored us by being an advisor to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. You are one of the most knowledgeable people I know on the dangers of nuclear and other technologies to the future of life on our planet, and you have written brilliantly about these threats.
Regarding my family, early life and education, I was born three years before the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by nuclear weapons. My father was a pediatrician, and my mother a housewife and hospital volunteer. Both were very peace oriented, and both rejected militarism unreservedly. I would describe my early years as largely uneventful. I attended Occidental College, where I received a good liberal arts education. After graduating from Occidental, I visited Japan, and was awakened by seeing the devastation suffered by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I realized that in the US, we viewed these bombings from above the mushroom cloud as technological achievements, while in Japan the bombings were viewed from beneath the mushroom cloud as tragic events of indiscriminate mass annihilation.
After returning from Japan, I went to graduate school at the University of Hawaii and earned a Ph.D. in political science. I was also drafted into the military, but was able to join the reserves as an alternate way of fulfilling my military obligation. Unfortunately, I was later called to active duty. In the military, I refused orders for Vietnam and filed for conscientious objector status. I believed that the Vietnam War was an illegal and immoral war, and I was unwilling as a matter of conscience to serve there. I took my case to federal court and eventually was honorably discharged from the military. My experiences in Japan and in the U.S. Army helped shape my views toward peace and nuclear weapons. I came to believe that peace was an imperative of the Nuclear Age and that nuclear weapons must be abolished.
Humanity and the biosphere are threatened by the danger of an all-destroying thermonuclear war. It could occur through a technical or human failure, or through uncontrollable escalation of a war fought with conventional weapons. Can you say something about this great danger?
There are many ways in which a nuclear war could start. I like to talk about the five “M’s.” These are: malice, madness, mistake, miscalculation and manipulation. Of these five, only malice is subject to possibly being prevented by nuclear deterrence and of this there is no certainty. But nuclear deterrence (threat of nuclear retaliation) will not be at all effective against madness, mistake, miscalculation or manipulation (hacking). As you suggest, any war in the nuclear age could escalate into a nuclear war. I believe that a nuclear war, no matter how it would start, poses the greatest danger confronting humankind, and can only be prevented by the total abolition of nuclear weapons, achieved through negotiations that are phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent.
Can you describe the effects of a nuclear war on the ozone layer, on global temperatures, and on agriculture? Could nuclear war produce a large-scale famine?
My understanding is that a nuclear war would largely destroy the ozone layer allowing extreme levels of ultraviolet radiation to reach the earth’s surface. Additionally, a nuclear war would dramatically lower temperatures, possibly throwing the planet into a new Ice Age. The effects of a nuclear war on agriculture would be very marked. Atmospheric scientists tell us that even a “small” nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which each side used 50 nuclear weapons on the other side’s cities would put enough soot into the stratosphere to block warming sunlight, shorten growing seasons, and cause mass starvation leading to some two billion human deaths. A major nuclear war would produce even more severe effects, including the possibility of destroying most complex life on the planet.
What about the effects of radiation from fallout? Can you describe the effects of the Bikini tests on the people of the Marshall Islands and other nearby islands?
Radiation fallout is one of the unique dangers of nuclear weapons. Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. conducted 67 of its nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, with the equivalent power of detonating 1.6 Hiroshima bombs daily for a twelve year period. Of these tests, 23 were conducted in the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Some of these tests contaminated islands and fishing vessels hundreds of miles away from the test sites. Some islands are still too contaminated for the residents to return. The U.S. shamefully treated the people of the Marshall Islands who suffered the effects of radioactive fallout like guinea pigs, studying them to learn more about the effects of radiation on human health.
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation cooperated with the Marshall Islands in suing all of the nations which signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and which currently possess nuclear weapons for violating Article VI of the NPT. Can you describe what has happened? The Marshall Islands’ foreign minister, Tony deBrum, received the Right Livelihood Award for his part in the lawsuit. Can you tell us something about this?
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation consulted with the Marshall Islands on their heroic lawsuits against the nine nuclear-armed countries (U.S., Russia, UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea). The lawsuits in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague were against the first five of these countries for their failure to fulfill their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for negotiations to end the nuclear arms race and achieve nuclear disarmament. The other four nuclear-armed countries, those not parties to the NPT, were sued for the same failures to negotiate, but under customary international law. The U.S. was sued additionally in U.S. federal court.
Of the nine countries, only the UK, India and Pakistan accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ. In these three cases the Court ruled that there was not a sufficient controversy between the parties and dismissed the cases without getting to the substance of the lawsuits. The votes of the 16 judges on the ICJ were very close; in the case of the UK the judges split 8 to 8 and the case was decided by the casting vote of the president of the Court, who was French. The case in U.S. federal court was also dismissed before getting to the merits of the case. The Marshall Islands was the only country in the world willing to challenge the nine nuclear-armed states in these lawsuits, and did so under the courageous leadership of Tony de Brum, who received many awards for his leadership on this issue. It was an honor for us to work with him on these lawsuits. Sadly, Tony passed away in 2017.
On July 7, 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was passed by an overwhelming majority by the United Nations General Assembly. This was a great victory in the struggle to rid the world of the danger of nuclear annihilation. Can you tell us something about the current status of the Treaty?
The Treaty is still in the process of attaining signatures and ratifications. It will enter into force 90 days after the 50th country deposits its ratification or accession to it. At present, 69 countries have signed and 19 have ratified or acceded to the treaty, but these numbers change frequently. ICAN and its partner organizations continue to lobby states to join the treaty.
ICAN received a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts leading to the establishment of the TPNW. The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation is one of the 468 organizations that make up ICAN, and therefore, in a sense, you have already received a Nobel Peace Prize. I have several times nominated you, personally, and the NAPF as an organization for the Nobel Peace Prize. Can you review for us the activities that might qualify you for the award?
John, you have kindly nominated me and NAPF several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, for which I deeply thank you. I would say that my greatest accomplishment has been to found and lead the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and to have worked steadily and unwaveringly for peace and the total abolition of nuclear weapons. I don’t know if this would qualify me for a Nobel Peace Prize, but it has been good and decent work that I am proud of. I also feel that our work at the Foundation, though international, focuses largely on the United States, and that is a particularly difficult country in which to make progress.
But I would say this. It has been gratifying to work for such meaningful goals for all humanity and, in doing such work, I have come across many, many dedicated people who deserve to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, including you. There are many talented and committed people in the peace and nuclear abolition movements, and I bow to them all. It is the work that is most important, not prizes, even the Nobel, although the recognition that comes with the Nobel can help with making further progress. I think this has been the case with ICAN, which we joined at the beginning and have worked closely with over the years. So, we are happy to share in this award.
Military-industrial complexes throughout the world need dangerous confrontations to justify their enormous budgets. Can you say something about the dangers of the resulting brinkmanship?
Yes, the military-industrial complexes throughout the world are extremely dangerous. It is not only their brinkmanship which is a problem, but the enormous funding they receive that takes away from social programs for health care, education, housing. and protecting the environment. The amount of funds going to the military-industrial complex in many countries, and particularly in the U.S., is obscene.
I have recently been reading a great book, titled Strength through Peace, written by Judith Eve Lipton and David P. Barash. It is a book about Costa Rica, a country that gave up its military in 1948 and has lived mostly in peace in a dangerous part of the world since then. The book’s subtitle is “How Demilitarization Led to Peace and Happiness in Costa Rica, & What the Rest of the World can Learn from a Tiny Tropical Nation.” It is a wonderful book that shows there are better ways of pursuing peace than through military strength. It turns the old Roman dictum on its head. The Romans said, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” The Costa Rican example says, “If you want peace, prepare for peace.” It is a much more sensible and decent path to peace.
Has Donald Trump’s administration contributed to the danger of nuclear war?
I think that Donald Trump himself has contributed to the danger of nuclear war. He is narcissistic, mercurial, and generally uncompromising, which is a terrible combination of traits for someone in charge of the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal. He is also surrounded by Yes men, who generally seem to tell him what he wants to hear. Further, Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the agreement with Iran, and has announced his intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. Trump’s control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal may be the most dangerous threat of nuclear war since the beginning of the Nuclear Age.
Could you say something about the current wildfires in California? Is catastrophic climate change a danger comparable to the danger of a nuclear catastrophe?
The wildfires in California have been horrendous, the worst in California history. These terrible fires are yet another manifestation of global warming, just as are the increased intensity of hurricanes, typhoons and other weather-related events. I believe that catastrophic climate change is a danger comparable to the danger of nuclear catastrophe. A nuclear catastrophe could happen at any time. With climate change we are approaching a point from which there will be no return to normalcy and our sacred earth will become uninhabitable by humans.
John Scales Avery is a theoretical chemist at the University of Copenhagen. He is noted for his books and research publications in quantum chemistry, thermodynamics, evolution, and history of science. His 2003 book Information Theory and Evolution set forth the view that the phenomenon of life, including its origin, evolution, as well as human cultural evolution, has its background situated in the fields of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and information theory. Since 1990 he has been the Chairman of the Danish National Group of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. During his tenure The Pugwash Movement won a nobel peace prize. Between 2004 and 2015 he also served as Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy. He founded the Journal of Bioenergetics and Biomembranes, and was for many years its Managing Editor. He also served as Technical Advisor to the World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988-1997).