The threat of extinction that hangs over us can only be removed by abolishing war. This may take a very long time but it will never happen unless we make a start, insists Joseph Rotblat.
Whatever view we may hold about the origins of human life, we all agree that life is our most precious commodity. We do not dare think it might be brought to an end, least of all by the action of man.
Yet the continuation of the human species can no longer be taken for granted. It has been endangered since the onset of the omnicidal weapons first demonstrated in 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The destruction of these cities heralded a new age, the nuclear age, the chief characteristic of which is that for the first time it has become possible for man to destroy his own species in a single action.
When we began the work on the atom bomb we had a pretty good idea of its terrible destructive power. But we did not contemplate the ultimate catastrophe that the use of such weapons might bring. We did not envisage this because we knew that such a catstrophe would require the detonation of a very large number of weapons - perhaps 100,000. Even in our most pessimistic scenarios we did not imagine that human society would be so stupid as to accumulate such huge arsenals, for which we could see no purpose.
But within a few decades such a number of warheads were manufactured and made ready for use. On several occasions we came very near to their use. I remember, in particular, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when we were a hair's breadth away from disaster; when the future of our civilisation hung on the decision of one man, Nikita Khrushchev. Fortunately Khrushchev was a sane man, but we may not be so lucky next time.
The atom bomb was the invention of scientists. They started work on it on their own volition. Most of them were highly responsible members of the community, and their motivation was humanitarian: to prevent Hitler from using his bomb. But the initial intention of the scientists, to have the bomb so that it would not be used, failed miserably: the bomb was used; it was used as soon as it was made; it was used against civilians. It also led to the obscene accumulation of nuclear arsenals in an insane arms race, which nearly brought our civilisation to an end. Efforts are now afoot to reduce the danger by an agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons. But the knowledge of how to make them cannot be erased. Moreover, nuclear weapons may not be the only means to end the human race abruptly. Indeed, we have to assume that other means of extinguishing the human species will be invented, perhaps more readily available than nuclear weapons.
The threat of extinction hangs over our heads and we have to remove it. How can we achieve this? The obvious answer is to abolish war altogether. We must learn to resolve our disputes by means other than military confrontation. To most people, the concept of a war-free world is a fanciful idea. Even those who have come to accept the concept of a world without nuclear weapons still reject the notion of a world without national armaments as being unrealistic. This is not surprising considering that civilised society has always been governed by the Roman dictum: Si vis pacem para bellum - if you want peace prepare for war. We have heeded this motto despite the fact that throughout history preparation for war has brought not peace but war. Even now, when the erstwhile contenders in the cold war have become allies, the same attitude is maintained: the nuclear powers claiming that nuclear arsenals - albeit much smaller - are needed to prevent even a conventional war.
But the realisation that another world war is likely to bring utter catastrophe is gradually sinking in. It has already taken hold in most nations in relation to weapons of mass destruction, with 152 having signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention; 160 nations have signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention that will soon come into force. By signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty, 183 nations have renounced the right to possess nuclear weapons, although five - the ones with declared nuclear arsenals - pay only lip-service to this commitment.
Gradually, a new attitude is being adopted in relation to wars with conventional weapons. In Europe, where war has been endemic throughout history, most states, including the traditional mortal enemies in past wars, now belong to the European Union, and a military solution to a conflict between them has become inconceivable. In other parts of the world, military dictatorships have crumbled and democratic regimes have become the norm. There is a genuine desire emerging to avoid military confrontations.
But for the concept of a war-free world to become universally accepted there will have to be a new "mind-set": a conception of security in global terms. Now that military conflicts potentially carry a threat to the continued existence of the human species, we must think seriously about ways to remove this threat.
To a large extent this allegiance will come from the growing interdependence between nations, an interdependence not only in the realm of economics, but also in social and cultural matters; an interdependence brought about by the advances in science and technology. It is a remarkable fact that the same activities - science and technology - that have created the potential to destroy the human species have also provided the means for its salvation.
The fantastic progress in communication and transportation has transformed the world into an intimately interconnected community, in which all members depend on one another for their material well-being and cultural fulfilment. An increasing proportion of the world population is now acquiring the technical means to become involved in world affairs, by being able to observe instantly events in any part of the globe, and often to provide help where needed.
We have to build on the achievements of science to get people to know one another better. Access to full information will help to remove prejudices and mistrust that stem mostly from ignorance. We have to utilise the new tools for intellectual intercourse, to overcome chauvinism and xenophobia, those malevolent fomenters of war. Tremendous excitement was recently created by the discovery, not yet substantiated, of evidence of life on Mars. In the reaction to that discovery I see a manifestation of the immense reverence we all have for life.
The material from Mars may contain traces of the most primitive forms of life. How much more reverence should we have for the higher forms of life that have evolved on earth over billions of years?
A nuclear holocaust does not appear imminent. Having come close to it on several occasions we are now more cautious. But war is still an admissible social institution, and every war carries with it the potential of escalation, with fatal consequences. The elimination of war would require a radical change in our concepts of the nation-state. It would require a process of educating every individual to feel an allegiance to the world community. Like every process of education, the achievement of the objective will take a very long time, but it will never happen unless we make a start.
And a good start would be to adopt the motto si vis pacem, para pacem - if you want peace, prepare for peace.
Joseph Rotblat is a Nobel peace laureate. He was a member of the Manhattan atom bomb project in Los Alamos but resigned in 1944 for ethical reasons. This is an edited extract from his City University lecture "Preservation of the Human Species in the Nuclear Age".