Let reason guide our actions in Atomic Age

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August 5, 2020 by John Polanyi

Normally, Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto is full on graduation day, but for its first virtual ceremony, it was empty. Our community was recognizing a looming danger.

The Enlightenment insisted on reason as the guide to action. That is what all scholars believe. This summer we rejoiced in 15,000 new graduates of this university, each a rational being.

Yesterday you were students; today you are also teachers. Among the least welcome of teachers is COVID-19. Its first lesson is passing: keep away from others. Its second lesson is lasting: steer clear of precipices.

We know just enough about COVID to avoid an uncontrolled pandemic. When we succeed, we should celebrate a triumph of reason. We need such triumphs.

For beyond this precipice lie others — climate change and nuclear war. All the precipices are adjacent, since ours is a small planet.

Fortunately, threats create opportunities. COVID is obliging us to think about a fairer world. We cannot care only for the rich.

Now the danger of climate change has came to the fore. We have been warming the world. If we continue, we invite new pandemics of drought and flood.

To counter this we depend on education. But we have only decades in which to learn. Science says we can do it, and so we must.

The third threat comes from the power of the atom. History is changing before our eyes.

When I was born there were no nuclear weapons. There was, at my future university in Manchester, England, Professor Lord Rutherford, discoverer of the atomic nucleus. He proclaimed that those who spoke of harnessing the power of the atom, were “talking moonshine.”

Then, as a school boy, on August 6, 1945, I learned of the massacre in Hiroshima by a single A-bomb. Three days later a second bomb destroyed Nagasaki.

As a student I edited a newspaper that warned of these dangers. Then in my year of graduation,1949, history changed again — the number of nuclear powers increased from one to two when the Soviet Union tested its A-bomb.

Today there are nine nuclear powers and 14,000 nuclear weapons. Each weapon is capable of destroying a medium-size city. There are more weapons than cities. Nonetheless, vast sums are being spent on making these weapons more lethal.

Why? Does each nation dream of its victory in a nuclear cataclysm? We have reason to fear so.

At best, some are unthinking. We have survived 75 years with only one recourse to nuclear slaughter, so cannot we continue? But it is unmitigated folly to believe that today’s nuclear stand-off can endure for the rest of time.

If you indeed believed that, you would be in a minority. Not one of the possessors of nuclear weapons would agree with you. They are all pursuing higher levels of nuclear readiness. None are content with the existing deterrent — all are arming, none disarming.

Yet there is a reasoned path forward. We only need the courage to take it.

Three years ago, 122 nations at the UN sponsored an agreement, the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, that would make the possession of nuclear weapons illegal. Before long, I believe that ban will become law.

Of course, it will face opposition from existing powers. Among those opposed will be Canada. But you must change that.

The basis for a nuclear ban already exists. The slaughter of non-combatants is illegal if done by chemical weapons, by biological weapons, by mines, or by cluster bombs. Missing are only nuclear weapons.

Some will say that international agreements make no difference. But if so, why are the nuclear-weapons states so adamant in opposing the ban?

Perhaps, like you, they have studied history. They remember how the ban on slavery in the 19th century became an unstoppable force.

At that time, new thinking had to be spread by petitions carried on horseback. The pro-slavery movement argued that the abolition of slavery would lead to economic collapse. Countries would fall apart. The U.S. did almost that in its terrible Civil War.

Slavery was nonetheless abolished, for “there is a tide in the affairs of men” that is not to be denied.

From time to time, there may be empty halls. But they will soon be filled again so that informed and decent views can be heard.

John Polanyi is a Nobel laureate at the University of Toronto who has written widely on the dangers of nuclear war. This article is based on his address to the combined graduating classes of 2020, at U of T’s first virtual convocation.

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