Einstein believed that knowledge is limited, but imagination is infinite.
Imagine the soul-crushing reality of a nuclear war, with billions of humans dead; in essence, a global Hiroshima, with soot from the destruction of cities blocking warming sunlight. There would be darkness everywhere, temperatures falling into a new ice age, with crop failures and mass starvation.
With nuclear weapons poised on hair-trigger alert and justified by the ever-shaky hypothesis that nuclear deterrence will be effective indefinitely, this should not be difficult to imagine.
In this sense, our imaginations can be great engines for change.
In our current world, bristling with nuclear weapons and continuous nuclear threat, we stand at the brink of the nuclear precipice. The best-case scenario from the precipice, short of beginning a process of abolishing nuclear arms, is that we have the great good fortune to avoid crossing the line into nuclear war and blindly continue to pour obscene amounts of money into modernizing nuclear arsenals, while failing to meet the basic human needs of a large portion of the world’s population.
The only way out of this dilemma is for the leaders of the world to come to their senses and agree that nuclear weapons must be abolished in order to assure that these weapons will never again be used. Given the state of the world we live in, this is more difficult to imagine.
What steps would need to be taken to realize the goal of nuclear abolition?
First, we would need a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Such a treaty was agreed to in 2017 by a majority of countries in the United Nations, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The treaty is now in the process of being ratified and will enter into force when ratified by 50 countries. Unfortunately and predictably, none of the nine nuclear-armed countries have supported the TPNW, and many have been overtly hostile to the treaty.
Second, negotiations would need to commence on nuclear disarmament by the nations of the world, including all nine of the nuclear-armed countries. The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) already obliges its parties to undertake such negotiations in good faith. Specifically, it calls for negotiations to end the nuclear arms race at an early date and to achieve complete nuclear disarmament. The nuclear-armed states parties to the NPT have failed to fulfill these obligations since 1970 when the treaty entered into force.
Third, the negotiations would need to be expanded to encompass issues of general and complete disarmament, in order not to allow nuclear abolition to lead to conventional arms races and wars. Again, the states parties to the NPT are obligated to undertake such negotiations in good faith, but have not even begun to fulfill this obligation.
If we can use our imaginations to foresee the horrors of nuclear war, we should be able to take the necessary steps to assure that such a tragedy doesn’t occur. Those steps have been set forth in the two treaties mentioned above.
What remains missing is the political will to implement the treaties. Without this political will, our imaginations notwithstanding, we will stay stuck in this place of potential nuclear catastrophe, where nuclear war can ensue due to malice, madness, miscalculation, mistake or manipulation (hacking). Imagination is necessary, but not sufficient, to overcome political will. Even treaties are not sufficient unless there is the political will to assure their provisions are implemented. To do this, imagination must be linked to action to demand a change in political will.
The time is short, the task is great, and terrible consequences are foreseeable if we continue to be stuck at the nuclear precipice.
To do nothing is simply unimaginable.
The author is a founder and president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.