On Preventing the Worst from Happening

The following is offered as a very small and personal side commentary, on the occasion of the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea meeting in Singapore.

Have you met the Ploughshares Fund? If you’re not anxious to see the planet blown away in a thermonuclear flash, the Ploughshares folks are good people to know.

nuclear-bomb-explosion2

by Snoron.com

Ploughshares was founded in 1981 by the indomitable sculptor/activist Sally Lilienthal, who was also a friend of my good husband. When I met her, soon after arriving in San Francisco in 1992, I became an instant fan.

1981 was the height of the Cold War, and Russia and the U.S. were on the brink of thermonuclear confrontation – each having enough nuclear weapons to obliterate this beautiful planet. Ploughshares set about the work of reducing those dangerous threats and has been remarkably successful. Stockpiles have been dramatically reduced – we’re down from the nearly 55,000 worldwide total in 1980 to the current figure of approximately 15,000. Over 90% are in the US and Russia; the rest are in China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. There may be fewer nuclear weapons, but there are plenty around to destroy life as we know it.

Which is why the world watched with some apprehension as two of perhaps the most erratic and unpredictable leaders of all time met to – we hope – find a way to avoid nuclear war.

Fran w Joe Cirincione 6.4.18

With Joe Cirincione

I was privileged to hear Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione and Executive Director/Chief Operating Officer Philip Yun talk about the situation in general and North Korea in particular recently with a group of longtime supporters.

“We have a very simple philosophy,” Cirincione says: “prevent the worst from happening.” Re North Korea and the recent summit, “There might be some surprises. Trump could stumble into a good deal.” Pointing out that “we support policies, not presidents,” he said Donald Trump “could give North Korea something that Democratic presidents could not.”

This group, progressives to the core, swallowed hard. If you want not to see the planet wiped out in a thermonuclear frenzy, keeping North Korea from starting such an event trumps all distaste for our president.

Yun offered some history lessons and insight; he is a scholar of Korean affairs who has long been involved in U.S./N.Korea negotiations. “The North Koreans like symmetry,” he said. Any movement toward denuclearization “is going to have to be phased. (But) there are a lot of moving parts that could make us safer right now.”

Those were just several snippets of a conversation that was wide-ranging and in many ways encouraging. The fact that the Ploughshares people, and the people with organizations it funds, are working every day to keep the worst from happening is encouragement enough for now.dove of peace

So this writer, who watches in horror the environmental destruction and loss of human rights going on every day thanks to the policies of our current administration, swallowed hard and wished Mr. Trump & Mr. Kim every success in avoiding a thermonuclear planetary disaster.

Russia — and Nuclear Arms Racing

moscow-cathedral

Russia occupies a soft spot in my heart.

It grew out of the boundless enthusiasm for everything Slavic exuded by my Russian-major college roommate – or may have been seeded earlier by the cloth-covered storybooks full of babushkas, snow-covered cottages and deep forests that I so loved as a child. It expanded through and beyond the one time I was lucky enough to visit the country. I love the vastness of its countryside, the majesty of its ancient cathedrals, the intriguing complexity of its history, the wonder of its literature, the no-nonsense hospitality of its people.

I especially love every single one of those non-English-speaking Russians who helped me find the Dostoesvsky Museum in St. Petersberg one day, as I wandered a very long boulevard, counting canals, clutching my map and repeatedly smiling at perfect strangers, pointing to the spot and saying “Dostoevsky Musee?” More than a dozen of them patiently took turns guiding me along. The last took me by the arm and walked me several blocks and down the steps to the obscure doorway through which I entered the last apartment inhabited by one of my literary heroes. (I would never have found it!)

Dostoevsky Museum.jpg

Many friends and strangers across the U.S. share this affection. Much travelled scientist/author Jo Anne Valentine Simson writes in her small, lovely new book Russia Revisited: Come Take a Tour with Me that it “is one of my favorite countries in the world – huge and beautiful, with a complex and tortured history and a culture to match.”

But we do not love Mr. Putin. From this vantage point, he is among a handful of dangerous tyrants determined to centralize power and increasingly restrict the freedom of ordinary citizens. Simson puts it this way: “Unfortunately, in 2016 the political power seems to be devolving once again into a form of aristocracy, with Vladimir Putin behaving like an autocrat.”

We also don’t like the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Or another dangerous arms race destined to increase the supply of nuclear weapons in the U.S., Russia and who knows where else. Which is why we find the “bring it on” tweets of our president-elect more than a little scary.

nuclear-bomb-explosion2.jpg

by Snoron.com

According to the good people of Ploughshares Fund, there are currently 15,375 nuclear weapons held by nine countries. The U.S. and Russia have 93 percent of them. That means each of us already has enough nukes to destroy the planet several times over. A small dispute between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, whom our president-elect admires but seems eager to challenge, could unleash a few and end life as we know it on this fragile planet.

A little less trash-tweeting and a little less talk about building nuclear stockpiles would be a nice Happy New Year gift for Russians and Americans alike.

Nuclear-free World? Possibly. Some Day

Aaron Lobel (r) and Philip Yun at Ploughshares event

Aaron Lobel (r) and Philip Yun at Ploughshares event

Ploughshares Fund supporters – Americans committed to reducing nuclear stockpiles, preventing new nuclear states, and increasing global security – recently got some encouraging words from a few of those on the front lines. Not that the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world is near, but that it’s a lot closer than 35 years ago.

It was 35 years ago that Ploughshares founder Sally Lilienthal, a 62-year-old sculptor, human rights activist, mother and wife, gathered a few friends in her San Francisco living room to discuss what could be done to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons here and abroad. This was the year (1981) when Ronal Reagan unveiled a “strategic modernization program” which called for – among other things nuclear – thousands of additional warheads, a significant increase in bomber forces, including 100 B-lBs and the development of stealth bombers, a new land-based 10-warhead strategic missile (the MX), and new intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe. In addition, he proposed deploying more than 3,000 air-launched cruise missiles on bombers.

There may not be a lot of peace on earth today, but there are far fewer nuclear threats to that eventual possibility and Ploughshares Fund is one key reason why.

A group of longtime Ploughshares supporters gathered recently in San Francisco to hear about ongoing work in South Asia, where India and Pakistan have a combined total of 250 nuclear weapons at the ready – enough to create a catastrophe in the area and long-term distress across the planet if that conflict were to escalate. America Abroad Media, a Ploughshares grantee, is working to prevent such a catastrophe.

Nuclear weapons test

Nuclear weapons test

AAM founder and president Aaron Lobel was interviewed by Ploughshares Executive Director and COO Philip Yun on how media fits into the complex efforts to reduce global conflict, specifically in South Asia. “You can go back to the origins of Pakistan as a Muslim state,” Lobel says, “and the question of whether India even recognizes Pakistan’s legitimacy” to get a picture of the enormity of the problem. But media in the area gets large audiences and builds human bonds. AAM works through public radio, international town halls, documentary and news programming and other avenues to build a civil society.

“We continue to believe that a civil society ultimately makes a difference,” Lobel says; “media is just one part of it.” And can such a society exist, and make a difference, in areas like South Asia today? “Absolutely yes,” says Lobel. “The lawyers’ movement in Pakistan did make a difference; and there are people in the civil society (there) involved in moving the ball forward.”

Lobel spoke at length of AAM’s work in Afghanistan, where its media following included the president of the country for at least one program. “If the president watched,” one questioner asked, “how many others actually saw the program?” “A lot,” says Lobel. “People gather around a satellite TV in the villages – this is not like having dozens of channels and TV sets in every home.”  world-peace

Ploughshares president Joseph Cirincione addressed the gathering on the broader issues, and the global outlook today. “In order for these guys (countries with smaller nuclear stockpiles) to give up nuclear weapons” Cirincione says, “they’re going to have to see the big guys doing it – and that’s not happening. We have to address the underlying issues (such as) water issues and religious issues. We also have to address the fundamental distrust. It’s important to recognize the power of media in addressing these issues to create a more peaceful world.” (“We fund the smartest people,” Yun adds, “with the best ideas.”)

Despite the discouraging prospects for global peace just now, Cirincione had a few nuggets of good news for the Ploughshares supporters:

“There were 70,000 nuclear weapons when we started,” he said; “there are 15,000 now. I believe the Iran nuclear deal has prevented war there for a generation. We can continue to work to make things better.”

Skipping towards Armageddon

Those people wandering around with giant signs proclaiming “THE END OF THE WORLD IS AT HAND!”? Sometimes you have to wonder if they’re onto something.

A recent Commonwealth Club program brought together two men proclaiming a similar message: the potential end of the world is at hand in the stockpiles of nuclear weapons — most of them in Russia or the U.S. — around the globe. They aren’t roaming the streets with hand-lettered signs, but they have written two informative, slightly scary new books. Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione opened his talk by saying, “If you buy one book about nuclear weapons, buy this book.” He held up co-presenter Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety.  Command and Control (full disclosure, I haven’t finished all 632 pages yet) is investigative journalist (Fast Food Nation) Schlosser‘s “ground-breaking account of accidents, near-misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs.” It covers the history of nuclear weapons accumulated by the U.S. since the days of the cold war, and it will make most other problems shrink to insignificance.

Cirincione’s own new book, Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late, covers the good news — only nine states now have nuclear weapons, down from 23, and “only” 17,000 such weapons still exist — and the bad: that’s enough to destroy the planet without much trouble. (Cirincione did later hold up his own fine, smaller work with the comment, “If you buy TWO books…”)

This not-so-comforting realization of what an edge of obliteration we live on was only one effect of the discussion. The other was sheer gratitude for the planet’s survival. Standing between you and me and the edge of oblivion are fallible human beings who have, so far, been able to avoid all the happenstances, large and small, that could trigger nuclear disaster. We can all hope they continue to guard the edge, but triggers for disaster are still everywhere: aging weaponry, international angst and mistrust, and the always possible lone crazy person.

Moderator David Holloway, Professor of International History at Stanford University, asked the elephant-in-the-room question: Would the author/experts agree with General Lee Butler, former head of the Strategic Air Command, who said the avoidance of nuclear disaster was thanks to a combination of skill, luck and divine intervention?

“I would not cite divine intervention,” Schlosser replied. “But we’ve been very lucky.” Like climate change, the threat of nuclear disaster is brought about by human actions, he said, and can be corrected by the same.  Both of the experts talked of the dangers existing around the globe from having 17,000 weapons stockpiled, from the tensions between many countries, and the possibility that terrorists could get their hands on a few weapons.

But the point was driven home to this audience member when Cirincione put it this way. It all started, he explained, because we wanted to deter the Soviet Union — now, presumably Russia — from annihilating us. So how many Russian cities would we need to obliterate, he asked, for an adequate deterrance? One? Two? Say, Moscow and St. Petersburg? Maybe three? He explained further that nuclear weapons make no attempt to pinpoint military targets and avoid collateral damage. They simply demolish everything and kill everybody. To accomplish this “deterrance”, wipe Russia’s three most significant cities off the map, would require eight nuclear weapons.

We have five thousand.

I’m still not counting out divine intervention.

Faces of hope for women’s rights

The universe may, after all, be unfolding as it should (apologies to Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata.)

This could be encouraging.

Within the past several days I’ve been to a number of events concerning our rapidly disappearing reproductive rights; I’ve discussed end-of-life options with a friend newly diagnosed with ALS; and — this one puts things into a new perspective — listened to the remarkable nuclear arms experts Eric Schlosser (Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety) and Joseph Cirincione (Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late) explain how easily we could obliterate one another.

StethoscopeMore on compassionate dying and nuclear weaponry later. I just finished talking with about 40 young medical students and healthcare professionals about reproductive rights. Many are students, and members of an excellent organization, Medical Students for Choice. They are committed to protecting women’s health, educating other healthcare providers and the general public about women’s health needs, and making sure that women everywhere have access to safe, legal abortion.

These young people can make believers of you. Belief, that is, that women’s rights will indeed be protected and that lack of access will not lead again to women dying from botched abortion. The articulate president of MSFC (who bought a copy of Perilous Times and said everyone should know these stories; no wonder I’d follow him anywhere) told me he was certain that each and every member of MSFC would continue to provide safe procedures even if abortion becomes illegal again; but he also said, “I don’t believe that will ever happen.”

I wish. But even though I am a hopeless optimist I’m not optimistic about Roe v Wade staying in place once it’s challenged at the Supreme Court level, which is likely to happen soon. Many of the young healthcare professionals were also upbeat with the belief that women don’t stand to be harmed as severely as pre-Roe “because medical abortion is so simple now, and misoprostol (the abortifacient pill) so readily available.” I wish again. Many, many women today are already facing harm because they take misoprostol without proper supervision, in improper dosages or too late. But these women are — as obvious in the statements of the young professionals at this seminar — essentially invisible. They are poor, disempowered and living in remote (even not so remote any more) areas where they have no access to safe abortions. They’re not dying in droves — one of the things that prompted passage of Roe v Wade — but they are often harming themselves… or having more unwanted babies.

I’m siding with the students. Their dedication and commitment are an inspiration and their hope for the future admirable. My hope is just that they are right… and the universe will continue unfolding, with justice, as it should.