Archive for the 'Commentary' Category

Sustainability Requires Resistance

By Greg Mello

For the Solar Times, Fall 2016

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

(Abraham Lincoln, 1862)

And save our communities.

We aren’t doing that. What’s stopping us? In emergencies citizens usually respond rapidly, with surprising selflessness and skill. But our biggest emergencies are hidden in plain sight. Even most committed activists don’t really understand the urgency of the crises we face, or how quickly they are unraveling our communities.

The other big thing we don’t understand is our own power. We must “disenthrall ourselves” to find it.

We are taught that our main democratic power lies in voting. The truth is otherwise. Voting accounts for only a tiny fraction. Our real citizenship lies latent, for the most part.

To unlock that agency we need to summon some passion, reach out to like-minded others, develop new skills, and above all allow ourselves to act. Any action we take will provide new leadership, which is desperately needed. This will take many forms, matching personalities and circumstances. No special qualities are required, beyond putting one foot in front of the other, and keeping on. The scenery will change. We will change. Neither our communities, nor we and our families in them, are sustainable in their present form.

What’s just ahead for all of us is a very deep change indeed, a revolutionary change on par with a very great natural catastrophe or world war, which is already starting. We want to use our freedoms while we can, but regardless we are headed into a storm of crises, which are already confounding our reference frames.

It will be difficult for most people to stay fully sane, let alone understand what is happening. Our “experts” are themselves increasingly confused, since they are the ones most committed – intellectually, and in their careers – to the vanishing status quo.

Overall, our lack of resilience is dominated by a few key facts.

First, global warming and especially arctic warming, if not halted and reversed within a very few years, may enter a runaway thermal condition as vast natural stores of methane and carbon are released. Even without this ultimate catastrophe, global warming could destroy half the world’s species, render vast areas largely uninhabitable (including New Mexico), and submerge low-lying coasts and cities within living lifetimes.

Second, global industrial civilization and its growth-based financial system require not only undiminished fossil fuel consumption, but also plenty of one particular fuel: crude oil, which has to be cheap. Supplies of this fantastic substance are limited.

Cheap oil is necessary to acquire other energy resources (renewable and otherwise) and for commerce generally. For long-haul trucks, airplanes, and ships there are no scalable substitutes. Production of conventional crude oil plateaued in 2005. The world’s liquid fuel supply has since been extended by more expensive and inferior fuels, but supplies of these are now falling. “Peak oil” is in the rear-view mirror, obscured by falling demand.

What many do see (and more will, intimately), is economic and social decline. Capital – real capital, not debt and its counterpart, electronic wealth – is disappearing, right along with the cheap oil it depends upon.

The upshot is that we can’t wait for a more propitious time. There won’t be one. What were once separate problems amenable to gradual reform have converged into a “perfect storm” – political, economic, social, and environmental.

The unsustainability of our economic life may be the best climate news we have at the moment.

We who are awake to these existential dangers find we must make new commitments just to stay awake, and to be human. Knowledge without action, especially given these dangers, is a paralyzed, twilight sort of existence not useful to man, woman, or beast. There’s no dignity in it, just despair.

Even so, many of us may wonder how we, who are so small, can really act in any meaningful way in the face of such huge events. Aren’t we basically helpless?

Not at all!

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead’s statement is quoted so often it seems like a cliché, but how many of us have really tested its truth ourselves? Or tried Whitman’s on for size: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Change always begins with a small group. Conditions have to be ripe, but more often it is we who are hanging back. The usual state of affairs is the canonical, “The harvest is ready but the laborers are few.”

Are conditions ripe, then? We can’t know what is ripe until we get into the field, a fact never understood by parlor generals and sidewalk spectators.

What exactly do we have to lose by trying to saving our families and communities?

In renewable energy, the harvest is very ripe indeed. You can live on it. There are plenty of solar jobs to be had for those with the right fire in the belly.

In Henry V, Shakespeare’s Archbishop of Canterbury uses the analogy of a beehive to illustrate how an undirected diversity of actions can serve a common purpose.

Therefore doth heaven divide the state of man in diverse functions…Many things, having full reference to one consent, may work contrariously… [and] a thousand actions, once afoot, end in one purpose, and be all well borne without defeat.

For us, “one consent” refers not to a king, but to the pressing facts at hand bearing on the survival of human and natural communities. We depend on those communities, and they on us. Their survival is our first duty, quite apart from any altruistic notions. Our consent, our mature acceptance of reality and responsibility, is signaled by our “all-in” action.

We discover the community around us with this consent. It is our microcosm, with the whole world in it. To update the cliché, we think locally and globally, and we act locally and globally as the occasion arises.

Communities have conflicts. They are ideologically diverse, with plenty of ignorance, structural malformations, and the occasional sociopath. They often make bad decisions. Some, perhaps most, will fail in the coming storm.

In such a time, like-minded friends you can count on, and who can count on you – revolutionary friends, by definition – are essential. With them, great deeds are possible – and pleasant.

Forsooth, brothers, fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell: fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death: and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship’s sake that ye do them, and the life that is in it, that shall live on and on for ever, and each one of you part of it, while many a man’s life upon the earth from the earth shall wane. (William Morris, A Dream of John Ball)

We will not find this kind of fellowship within the constraints of a post-democratic consumer society, which passed its ecological and economic sell-by dates a long time ago. Consumer society, as such, is antithetical to community in any case. It requires and creates social atomization. From the beginning it evolved to maximize profit, not fellowship. Its one-way mass communication system corrodes any social contract, and undermines every tradition.

Nor can we find real fellowship in the dream of a renewably-powered consumer society. Why? Because such a society is a fantasy, an oxymoron. As discussed in the last issue of Solar Times, thermodynamics, climate science, and resource limitations will not allow it. As Gandhi understood back in the 1930s, it would take a whole other planet’s resources to reproduce worldwide even the modest prosperity of England at that time.

The illusion of a green utopia is delaying action and awareness. It is also hiding and abetting an all-too-real class war. It is postponing and distorting the transition we need. To be realized even a little, those utopian dreams must quickly mature into something far simpler, less implicitly violent in their use of resources, and more communal.

A society of “consumers” first of all needs to be replaced, in our thinking and then in reality, with producers. What we consume, in affluent countries, must drop a long way. And it sooner or later will – but when? With what wars, and with what justice, or peace?

George W. Bush was right when he said, “You are either with us or against us.” He was describing the reality of Empire. His words also fit our climate and justice situation, as it happens.

Renewal energy advocates and climate protectors are against empire and militarism. If the war-mongers and imperialists win, communities and the climate will lose. Right now, they are winning.

They think global aggression is necessary to extend the present economic and political order. The war juggernaut, ensconced at the pinnacle of U.S. power, is growing. More wars are coming. Militarism locks society into a death orientation. It will take everything if we let it, including our children’s lives. It has no political space and no financial resources to spare, least of all to prevent climate collapse or to provide a social safety net. Its energy plan is very simple: war. We know how that ends.

From here on out, sustainable communities will necessarily be communities of resistance as well as exemplary of sustainable production, consumption, and justice. “Transition,” “resistance,” and “occupation” necessarily converge, and they will. We need to discover and use coercive, nonviolent power and abandon the notion that we can buy our way to sustainability.

Summer 2016 Solar Times here

The Crisis at Hand, the Emergency Mode, and the Need for Full-Scale Mobilization

The Crisis at Hand, the Emergency Mode, and the Need for Full-Scale Mobilization

[ReBAS Clock 5 minutes pastpublished here with this fine graphic, and with a few further edits, from the Summer 2016 edition of SolarTimes, hot off the press today. It will surely appear tonight or tomorrow at the McCune Solar Works home page. This is a shortened version of a talk given by Greg Mello to the Albuquerque chapter of 350.org on June 27, 2016 (video).]

What is the purpose of our life in this world?  Why are we here?  What is the goal of our work and all our efforts?  What need does the earth have of us?  It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned with future generations.  We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity.  Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us.  The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn….our inability to think seriously about future generations is linked to our inability to broaden the scope of our present interests. (Encyclical of Pope Francis, “Laudato Si: On Care of Our Common Home”)

There are many ways to enter the healthy “emergency mode” we now need. As the old gospel song says, there are twelve – which is to say many – “gates to the City.”

We can pour efforts into building renewable infrastructure and the new or transformed institutions we need. We can educate ourselves and others. We can protect vulnerable people, species, and places. We can resist the empire of violence in all its forms, stop its predations one at a time, and in the process change ourselves and our society.

We have to do all these.

What do we mean by the “emergency mode,” and why is it essential? Why do we need “full-scale mobilization?”

The “emergency mode” is what all healthy people and groups switch into when there is a life-threatening crisis. As Margaret Salamon writes at her excellent web site, theclimatepsychologist.com/,

Emergency mode occurs when an individual or group faces an existential threat, accepts that there is a life-threatening emergency and reorients by:

  • Adjusting their hierarchy of priorities so that solving the emergency is the clear top priority;
  • Deploying a huge amount of resources toward solving the crisis; and
  • Giving little priority to personal gratification and self-esteem enhancement for their own sake, and instead seeking them through engagement with the emergency. People seek to “do their part” to solve the crisis and build their skills to contribute more effectively.

There is no greater crisis, in all of human and post-Cretaceous ecological history, than the climate crisis we face today. That crisis is wrapped up with parallel crises of capitalism, resources, and war – just to identify three strands in the Gordian knot we face. Like Alexander, we need to cut the knot, not just pick at it.

A healthy response to the emergency we face means taking appropriate action and staying connected – with reality and to each other. Dysfunctional responses include endless distractions, despair, and any of the numerous policy fantasies available to us at little cost.

What many people don’t understand is just how rewarding the emergency mode can be. Salamon quotes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who pioneered study of what he called “flow states:”

Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one…your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost…The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

When applied to our human and ecological responsibilities this experience is not some attempted transcendence out of the world, or a hobby, or a sport. It is transcendence into the world, the path of maturity and fulfillment since time immemorial.

As Salamon rightly says, people very much like being “’in the zone,’ utilizing their entire capacity, whether they are playing sports, performing musically, studying intensely, or responding to an emergency.” “It is,” someone said, “the church of what is happening now.” Nanao Sakaki sings,

Farming the ancient way/Singing with coyotes/Singing against nuclear war—/I’ll never be tired of life.[1]

Salamon points out that the “emergency mode,” like the normal mode, is contagious. “We must,” she points out,

exit normal mode and abandon the gradual policy advocacies and enervated emotional states that accompany it. Instead, we must seek to restore a safe climate at emergency speed. To accomplish this, the climate movement must lead the public into emergency mode. First we must go into emergency mode ourselves, and then communicate about the climate emergency and need for mobilization with clarity, dedication, and escalating assertiveness….

In order to lead people into emergency mode, it is critical that the emergency threat is paired with an emergency solution (whenever it is available). First and easiest, the climate movement must fully adopt the language of immediate crisis and existential danger. We must talk about climate change as threatening to cause the collapse of civilization, killing billions of people, and millions of species. These horrific outcomes await us during this century, possibly even in the first half of it if things truly slip out of control. This is not a matter of “protecting the planet for future generations” but protecting our own lives and those of the people we care about. We are in danger now and in coming years and decades. The climate crisis is, far and away, our top national security threat, top public health threat, and top threat to the global economy.

As if this weren’t enough, there are even more reasons to “get with the program.”

As it turns out, the very gradual reform of our present energy-hogging, climate-destroying arrangements is not just an “enervated” approach that won’t work. It is also not possible. It won’t happen. We are not just facing a climate crisis, by itself. We are facing a multifaceted environmental and social crisis, a crisis in war and peace, a crisis in democracy, and more. There are thresholds in all these we do not want to pass, thresholds after which recovery could be difficult – and full-scale energy transition, impossible. We must therefore mobilize while we can, before the emergency comes to us as an overpowering storm.

One critical aspect of our predicament involves oil. Just by itself, without considering other problems, our oil dependence is bringing an early end to “business as usual.”

No, we are not running out of oil. That’s not the problem. We are running out of oil acquired cheaply enough in terms of net useful energy. Our economy grows on energetically-cheap oil. This kind of oil is now in the rear-view mirror, a momentous fact. It means real economic growth is over.

The extra catch is that our economy as it is currently organized must grow in order to function at all, because of its massive, pervasive debts. Without unending growth, much of this debt cannot be repaid.

Only a fraction of the energy in each barrel of oil does useful work for society as a whole. Still less of it supports new investment. A large and increasing fraction of each barrel goes to maintaining the oil industry, including for finding and producing more oil and providing everything employees need. Without paying all those bills, the oil industry would cannibalize itself. It is starting to do that right now.

Another significant fraction of each barrel is wasted as heat. Mr. Carnot, in 1820, told us the theoretical maximum efficiency we could achieve in any engine.

The rest of the barrel – if anything is left – supports growth and productive, new, non-oil investment. We are scraping the bottom of the net, useful oil barrel.

Any complex oil-based capitalist economy needs to be supplied with oil obtained very efficiently. That isn’t happening, and it will never happen again. We have pretty much run through all the “easy” oil.[2] Tight “oil” produced by fracking (mostly it is too light to be called “oil” at all, sensu stricta), and bitumen from oil sands, really don’t pay for themselves in a complex society such as ours. The rest of society in effect subsidizes these parts of the oil industry, in net useful energy terms, not even considering their horrible environmental impacts.

The upshot, first of all, is that we have to leave oil before it leaves us, and that moment is already at hand. Second, we can’t count on economic health henceforth, dependent as it is on real growth.

We certainly can’t tolerate the vast misallocations of money, energy and attention embodied in our militarized global empire, not even considering all its other risks and costs. Military expenditures on that empire currently cost in the neighborhood of $5,000 per U.S. household per year. What fraction of that should we bill to the oil industry? Quite a lot, in fact.

Neither do we have the luxury to gradually build out solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal generation facilities until we have substituted all these more or less “cleaner” energy sources for the dirty ones we have, from either the climate or the oil perspectives. We don’t have time, we don’t have the resources, and the underlying society we would power has been structured by cheap oil for the past century or so. We can’t just plug in different energy sources.

There’s also another problem. It takes energy – in our case mostly fossil fuel energy – to transform infrastructure. It takes energy to make renewable energy hardware and to install it. The faster we go and the greater the scale of transformation, the more greenhouse gases we spew.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t undertake the transition! We must do so, and as quickly as possible! But at the same time we must simplify our society’s wants, and not just our own, so as to complete the necessary transition as soon as possible. This is a political problem, not one we can solve simply by changing our own habits.

In this transition we must protect those who, even now, are being thrown under the bus. “Will this help the poor?” is the first test of any sound policy, as Gandhi taught us, for very sound public reasons which the climate activist community should learn. Regressive policies — like cap-and-trade, or a gasoline tax without rebate that falls more heavily on the rural poor — will not be politically practical for environmentalists. In a democracy, or as a revolutionary principle where democracy is absent, the thirst for justice generates political capital; planned injustice destroys it.

To make the thermodynamic problem of transition concrete, consider photovoltaic (PV) systems. The energy return on energy invested (EROEI) for PV installations has been estimated variously but appears to lie in the general vicinity of 10, omitting soft costs.[3] Assuming this figure, to produce 25 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity over the life of a system requires investing roughly 2.5 kWh of energy up front to make, transport, and install the system’s components. Supposing a system life of 25 years, that lifetime 25 kWh of PV electricity will come in at an average rate of 1 kWh per year. But the system will cost 2.5 kWh of energy in the year it is manufactured and installed. Of this, roughly 2 kWh will be fossil fuel energy. Thus in its first year of operation we get 1 kWh of renewable energy, costing 2 kWh of fossil fuel energy the previous year, omitting soft costs. Under these optimistic assumptions we don’t break even until the end of the second year of operation. (If soft costs are included, up-front energy costs more than double for U.S. residential PV installations. Soft costs diminish greatly with scale.)

Suppose we double PV installations each year, the kind of rapid build-out we need to address climate change. We end up increasing greenhouse emissions every year during the transition. Net progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions only starts when rapid build-out ends.

This “front-end problem” applies to all aspects of renewable energy and energy efficiency transition. Electric cars? They’re a net energy and climate sink for the first years of use because of their tremendous embedded costs. Electric cars can’t be, and won’t be, the future standard transportation for our society, though we will need some. Electric bikes, which use 1% of the resources of cars, might be. That’s the direction we are headed, like it or not. Small remains beautiful.

Does it need to be said that nuclear energy, with its great dangers and tremendous embedded fossil fuel costs and greenhouse gas commitments, provides no magical solution either? That is the kind of information its huge price tag is whispering to us, if we would only listen.

We just can’t replace all the fossil fuel sources we have now with renewable energy, and we are not in charge of the timing. We can replace some of them, a small fraction as it turns out, and that will have to be enough. If we do not get on this path very soon, we may never manage any of it. We’ve already used up our safe allowance of greenhouse gases, and we’ve used up the cheap oil. The arctic is melting and its ocean absorbing more heat from the sun; our forests are succumbing to beetles and fires and releasing their stored carbon; in a dozen other ways the capacity of earth’s ecosystems to buffer and absorb our pollution has been exhausted.

And we are at war, and planning yet other wars, to sustain that which is unsustainable. Ugo Bardi quotes Seneca, “It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”

For our own well-being and dignity then, let’s work together and build a truly just, sustainable future, while we can.

[1] Nanao Sakaki, “Break the Mirror.”

[2] To read more about this “thermodynamic trap,” see Louis Arnoux, “Some Reflections on the Twilight of the Oil Age,” at http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.it/2016/07/some-reflections-on-twilight-of-oil-age.html.

[3] Charles Hall estimated “2.5” in 2008 (which included the total installation but is seven years old and therefore too low, given how costs and therefore energy investment per watt have dropped); see http://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-05-27/the-real-eroi-of-photovoltaic-systems-professor-hall-weighs-in. Bhandari et. al. got “11-12” in his review of 232 studies, apparently for panels and inverters only and not installation and other soft costs; see http://astro1.panet.utoledo.edu/~relling2/PDF/pubs/life_cycle_assesment_ellingson_apul_(2015)_ren_and_sustain._energy_revs.pdf.

For diplomats and international disarmament campaigners: “framework” approaches to nuclear disarmament are pernicious

Yesterday I sent the following message to a large number of international disarmament campaigners and a few others. I am posting it here for the sake of wider accessibility and for the record. For background see also:

Subject: “Framework” approaches are pernicious

It was wonderful to see some of you in Geneva and to see the wonderful progress that was made at the May meeting of the 2016 Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG). There is now considerable momentum among the world’s states toward a ban treaty.

Of course there are going to be efforts to diffuse and/or re-direct this momentum.

Some states and some NGOs want to harness the OEWG to provide support for disarmament “approaches” (using that word loosely) which require good faith involvement of the nuclear weapon states (NWSs).

Those approaches will not work because the NWSs do not want to disarm. They first have to be made to want to disarm, by a sufficient combination of forces they cannot control. Disarmament commitments of any kind whatsoever are not something NWSs can be persuaded to want, let alone to achieve, by any kind of multilateral negotiation or discussion. Powerful internal factions in these states prevent that. NWSs first must be presented with a fait accompli, with new fact, [namely] a ban treaty. Only then can “good faith” disarmament efforts begin to grow.

A ban treaty would be effective because it is coercive — not specifically coercive, but generally coercive. A ban treaty would strip some power — illegitimate power, but very real power — from NWSs. The “biggest loser” by far would be the U.S. One of the beautiful aspects of a ban treaty is that, being voluntary, it imposes nothing specific on non-signatory states, while it strips away, immediately, the claimed legitimacy of state-sponsored nuclear terrorism.

In other words, a ban says the nuclear emperor has no clothes. An emperor with no clothes is not an emperor at all. That’s the end of him as an emperor. It’s the beginning of him as a mortal human being, the beginning of his humanity. The nuclear emperor will never negotiate anything — any “framework” for example — that includes the fact of his nakedness. That fact must first be established for all the world to see. It will be a process. The beginning of the process is a ban treaty in which each state party affirms that nuclear weapons are illegitimate — that the nuclear emperor has no clothes. Then the nuclear emperor will negotiate, sooner or later, and from a much weaker but more humane position. It is [a] fact-establishing process and a coercive process we are engaged in. There is not going to be any “convergence” with the NWSs in that process. They will howl.

All this seems too elementary to repeat, but again and again (and since getting home from Geneva) I see what look to me like desperate proposals from some NGOs for some kind of “framework agreement” that would “build engagement with nuclear-armed states” — as if that were even possible or a good idea, or for a “framework” which would provide only political rather than legal commitments.

Such “political commitments” are just fantasies and they don’t meet the central OEWG mandate for effective legal measures. They wouldn’t provide anything more than the “Thirteen Steps” of the 2000 NPT RevCon or the 2010 RevCon’s “Action Plan” did, both of which resulted in no action at all. They weren’t agreed to in good faith and they weren’t commitments. They were “promises” meant to be broken — lies. That is the best the NWSs can offer. It is pure folly to seek for more.

We also see proposals from NGOs for a series of “summits,” as if “summits” were effective legal measures. Anything but a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, apparently!

I could go on in greater detail and hope to do so in early June, after taking care of other work here. It seems incredibly important at this juncture to restrain the strange desire for “convergence” with NWSs and nuclear-dependent states, wherever and whenever possible.

If there is going to be any effective legal measure for nuclear disarmament, it is going to have to be negotiated — up to and including entry into force — by non-nuclear weapon states (NNWSs). The NWSs will do everything they can to prevent any disarmament treaty.

I don’t see how anyone with any experience at all could come to the conclusion that “bridges should be built” (or any other such language) with the NWSs. Yet this seems to be the sine qua non of the “framework” approach.

Pretending that all states want a “world without nuclear weapons,” which I heard repeated often in Geneva by diplomats as well as NGOs as a kind of mantra, was bizarre. None of the NWSs want a “nuclear weapons free world”, not in any meaningful way, and not yet. If they did, they’d act differently. Sure, politicians may say this or that, but why in the world should their claims be credenced, when the opposite is being done?

So I think the “framework” approach is very pernicious, because a “framework” implies something negotiated with NWSs (they have the weapons, after all). A “framework” without NWS participation boils down to a ban treaty. A “framework” approach that seeks NWSs concurrence would burn up years we do not have. You can see just how that would work by looking at the Conference on Disarmament.

The NNWS cannot achieve more than a ban treaty, since they do not have the weapons, and they cannot achieve less, if they would be effective.

The glory of the OEWG and of General Assembly procedures is that consensus cannot be used to suppress the aspirations of NNWSs for true collective security.

It seems almost too elementary to repeat, but we have to protect the power and agency of NNWSs as we go forward. If we can do that, and move with all due speed, a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons is the natural outcome.

Stewards of the Apocalypse: an abridged history of U.S. nuclear weapons labs since 1989

What follows is a short and very abridged history of these labs since the Cold War, which will help us understand the political dynamics these labs operate in, how they attained their present grand scale – and what we can do about it. It is adapted from a talk I gave at the New York Academy of Medicine in February 2015 at a symposium sponsored by the Helen Caldicott Foundation entitled “The Dynamics of Possible Nuclear Extinction.”

I tried to tell this story through distinguishable time periods, over the course of which there were about five separate “breakouts,” in which the labs escaped democratic control a bit more each time. In the process there were two major “deals” made with the arms control community, both under Democratic Party presidents. These deals failed to achieve their stated goals and facilitated breakout.

The most significant disarmament occurred during the presidencies of G. H. W. Bush and that of his son G. W. Bush, both Republicans. Obama has done the least for disarmament and the most for modernization.

Administrations change, with apparent novelty and some new slogans. Contractors change occasionally. But at the nuclear labs, there’s enormous continuity as well as change. Beneath the surface, the institutional DNA of the nuclear weapons labs has remained remarkably constant, for decades.

Finally, one cannot understand these laboratories in isolation from related issues. To understand the resurgence of nuclear weapons programs and spending today, it is also necessary to recount the general outline of U.S.-Russian relations in the post- Cold War period. I do that here, in italics. Basically, the neocons made a very successful end-run around nuclear arms control. The extent to which arms control advocates are victims of anti-Russian propaganda is still not much understood in Washington.

Stewards of the Apocalypse: an abridged history of U.S. nuclear weapons labs since 1989

1989-1994: Uncertainty and then downsizing (or “right-sizing”) at the labs. Rocky Flats shutdown and elimination of the Berlin Wall (both 1989). Reciprocal stockpile reductions (to about half of before), bomber de-alerting. Successive failures of DOE plans for a renewed weapons complex. Production site closures (about 80% of facilities). Staff declines (about 1/3 of weapons designers). End of nuclear weapons production after Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM) workaround. Nuclear test moratorium from 9/92, extended under Sec. O’Leary in 1993 after collapse of stated testing rationales and notional commitment to what became Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship (SBSS). Eileen Welsome Pulitzer-prize reporting on human radiation experiments, O’Leary press conference (12/93). Initiation of the ambitious SBSS program (milestone JASON SBBS report, 11/94); aggressive programs for new nuclear weapons at labs continue to press upwards but fail.

During this period, Cold War triumphalism, which meant more to some factions than others. Leaked Wolfowitz draft Strategic Planning Guidance (1992), at the time seemingly dead in the water. Yeltsin era begins in 1991 (through 1999). Dismantling and collapse of Soviet Union; terrible hardship. Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II) signed (1993), ratified by Russia in 2000 under Putin, including the condition that U.S. must remain within the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

*

1994-1996: Stabilization and groundwork for growth; new powers to the labs; many new weapons proposed, first new bomb built (B61-11). SBSS begins, the precursor of the broader Stockpile Stewardship and Management (SSM) program. SBSS the result of a political deal for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) (“Deal #1”). The Galvin Panel threat to the labs (especially to LLNL and NIF) fended off. Clinton Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) fails under Ash Carter (1994), endorses status quo. SSM Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for weapons complex renewal. Comprehensive JASON 1995 study of stockpile: performance margins for fission primaries are all high enough and can be made higher; JASON issues strong warning against changes. Major effort to include disarmament provisions in Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) led by 120 countries of Non-Aligned Movement nations (NAM) fails in 1995 due to opposition from nuclear weapon states and U.S. arms control funders and NGOs; “Abolition Caucus” of NGOs formed in response. “Stockpile Confidence Symposium” hosted by STRATCOM later in 1995; new weapon candidates briefed to military by labs. First “Submarine Warhead Protection Program” (SWPP) meeting (1995), eventually leading to significant upgrade of W76 fuzing in what is now the W76-1 Life Extension Program (LEP), which as of Feb. 2015 was a little more than half completed. CTBT signed, new “Safeguards” in place with annual warhead certification requirement initiated which gave considerable power, really blackmail power as some understand it, to lab directors. With these changes a new era for labs begins. B61-11 earth-penetrator rapidly created by a field modification (1996) after years of study; it is the first “new” post-nuclear-testing warhead or bomb.

*

1995-2004: Decade of large real annual increases in warhead and lab spending, fully-supported by arms control community as part of CTBT ratification “deal.”

During this period, initial rise of the neocons. Project for a New American Century (PNAC) begins (1997); “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” (2000). Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard (1997). Clinton turns right on NATO, nukes. Lewinsky scandal, impeachment, Kosovo war (all 1998). NATO expansions (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999; Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania in 2004); other Russian border states put in NATO “vestibule” pending membership.

*

1997 or 1998: National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) “reforms” give additional new powers to lab directors and other weapons complex and STRATCOM leaders. Lab directors, who are contractors, now cannot be fired for opinions about stockpile, etc. “Project Sand Dune” (1997), part of stage-setting for new weapons in next administration (a repeating pattern).

*

1999-2000: “Lab Breakout” I, when CTBT ratification (“Deal #1”) fails. The labs just renege on the deal. Wen Ho Lee scandal. Foster Panel reports (these continue through 2003) promoting labs. NNSA created, largely to provide freedom from DOE oversight. PNAC nuclear policy study, which becomes blueprint for initial G. W. Bush nuclear policy.

*

2001-2005: Neocons in power, unprecedented warhead budgets (Breakout II, attempted but only partially successful); plan to make over or replace the entire arsenal in Bush NPR (fails but is successfully reinstated under Obama); Modern Pit Facility (MPF) proposed but fails. This breakout was checked in part by lack of sound purpose, by bipartisan congressional and NGO opposition, and florid, poor management. Half-year LANL security and safety shutdown (2004).

During this period, beginning of continuous global “liquid war” and resulting growing chaos (aka “War on Terror”). U.S. withdrawal from ABM treaty (2002), triggering end of START II (2002). The weak but surprisingly effective Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) signed (2002).

*

2005: Breakout III: physics lab privatization decision (LANS 2006, LLNS 2007). Bechtel-led consortia with only minor corporate differences take over both labs. Lab directors are now interest-conflicted corporate presidents and CEOs. Previous contractor (University of California) was not using the latent power of labs sufficiently. Privatization causes significant reductions in force and lays groundwork for defined-benefit pension crisis in the present decade. Warhead budgets begin falling in real terms as the cost of new wars weighs down the military budget and tax cuts are enacted. Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) proposed.

During this year (2005): Peak conventional (i.e. cheap) oil appears, in the form of an “undulating plateau” of production. Net oil exports peak worldwide, peak oil per capita and peak oil per dollar GDP all pass into history, initiating a new era of incipient scarcity. Oil and gas geopolitics in all their forms enter a fraught new period, with Russia near or at the top of oil export rankings and Europe highly and increasingly dependent on Russian gas.

*

2006-2008: Relative stability at the labs amid the growing turmoil about performance; budgets sag in real terms and operational costs soar. RRW dies. New plans laid; but global financial crisis. GW Bush retires half of nuclear arsenal (2007), fulfilling SORT commitment 5 years early.

During this period, Putin speech in Munich reviews history of arms control, drawing line, halting Russian weakness toward U.S. and NATO (Feb. 2007). Russo-Georgia war (2008).

*

2009-2010: Breakout IV: the “Prague Deception,” Nobel rumors (in February), then the Prague speech in April, then the prize. December 2009 love-fest with lab directors at White House; administration commits to wider role for nuclear labs in homeland security, intelligence and DoD, later visible in interagency charter of July 2010 immediately preceding New START endorsement by lab directors, plus also $1 trillion comprehensive DoD/DOE nuclear modernization commitment, plus also a New START without significant disarmament (with more warheads at higher readiness in the reserve arsenal than before). Vague NPR issued with differing interpretations. This whole package is “Deal #2.”

During this period, Albania and Croatia join NATO (2009).

*

2011-2013: Modernization falters. Flagship project Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) paused by litigation then fails from lack of need, wasting $500 million; fiasco continues to now [2016]. Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12 site in Oak Ridge stumbles and is dramatically downsized and redesigned, also wasting a half-billion or more dollars. At this point, every large NNSA and DOE project is in trouble. Budget Control Act (BCA) sequestration limits modernization “takeoff,” given the highly wasteful institutional environment.

During this period, direct U.S. involvement in U.S.-abetted and U.S.-ally-funded Syria war, sought by neocons since 2003 and before, averted at last minute (2013). Pentagon approves possible nuclear reduction of one-third, which isn’t implemented in part due to political conditions associated with Deal #2. Yalta (Crimea) conference about the (European) future of Ukraine and Crimea, including both Clintons and former DOE Sec. Richardson, who promises that fracking will provide natural gas independence for Ukraine from Russia.

*

2014: Breakout V: massive warhead budget liftoff at last, Obama disarmament hopes ended. But also some significant retrenchment and delays in stockpile management goals. Nuclear moderate Asst. DoD Sec. Andrew Weber fired by Obama; nuclear war-fighting mentality slips the leash. Old-fashioned “public service” fee model for labs floated by NNSA given poor performance under profit motive. “Interoperable” warhead delayed indefinitely at end of year or beginning of 2015, effectively ending (lab-written) “3 + 2” stockpile plan in all but name, but LRSO schedule moved up 3 years. LANL idiocy shuts down WIPP indefinitely due to scientific, management error incurring $500+ million in costs. DOE withholds all LANL fee, shortens contract by two years. Latest reform committees stumble forward fecklessly. NNSA called “failed experiment” but nothing is done.

During this period, U.S.- and other launch violent “color revolution” (“Maidan” coup d’etat), to bring Ukraine into the Western economic and political orbit which would drastically weaken Russia and seize Russia’s warm-water Black Sea port of Sevastopol, culturally and militarily part of Russia since Catherine the Great.. The new Ukraine government initiates civil war. Neo-Nazi violence grows. Russia accepts Crimea back after fair, highly-lopsided vote, without violence, frustrating neocon plan. Economic sanctions against Russia, plus a currency attack. And so arms reductions likely end under Obama before they begin.

*

2015-2016: continued robust budget growth, shorter warhead modernization deadlines, required design and prototyping of new warheads.

Meanwhile, Russia makes itself indispensable in Syria and as regards Iran, strengthens its military, elevates its nuclear command, establishes large, capable National Guard force, and continues nuclear modernization. Ukraine now seems a bigger problem for Europe. NATO forces strengthened dramatically across the Eastern Europe. Plans for big NATO navy base at Odessa. Cold War II well underway.

*

How shall we summarize this history of the labs? I would say:

  • There have been 25-plus years of crises and fiascos, punctuated by periods of apparent relative stability (or lack of visibility of problems). During most of this time, budgets have grown.
  • We have seen continuous active and passive support for nuclear labs by the arms control community, by Democrats as well as Republicans, right down to present day. Fantasies of “diversification,” “conversion,” and “cleanup” are used to bring in donors and Democratic Party voters. This is highly counterproductive.
  • Ever-more-sophisticated modes of public relations, political control, and propaganda are being used by these labs nationally as well as regionally. Mere existence at scale and continued funding largesse, without accountability, are now considered essential elements of the U.S. nuclear “deterrent,” independent of any products, milestones, or logic.
  • Approximately 55 studies of DOE lab reform were conducted from 1994-2014. Some are ongoing now [in 2015], all with little or no success. GAO has kept DOE and now NNSA large project management on its “high risk” list for waste, fraud, and abuse since the early 1980s. As a result of this and other factors, long survival of a functioning warhead complex is not assured. The great funding success of the warhead complex has also made it inefficient and internally weak. It is something of a stuffed goose.
  • Across this span of time the labs have gained power, but also squandered the same in poor management. Funding is higher but so are salaries; employment remains near Cold War levels.
  • A workload and mission crisis looms at LANL and LLNL especially, despite Herculean efforts by all three labs to broaden their missions. If new warheads are not funded the crisis will become general across the complex in the 2020s. New forms of hybrid war, and homeland security, have become a successful new business for SNL.

What prospect, then? Expanding our lens as at the beginning of this talk, we find ourselves in a new era, almost a discontinuity in history across many fronts. The common quality of these changes is increasing constraint on the choices available. A Churchillian “period of consequences” has begun. But please note, these constraints also act on the nuclear warhead enterprise, which faces headwinds it finds mysteriously potent.

To conclude, we face a number of risks, including:

  • Nuclear war, the risk of which is high and growing. There are already, or soon will be, fundamental material sources of conflict between nuclear armed states. By contrast the Cold War had a predominately ideological character.
  • Catastrophic climate change. Should we continue policies of nuclear deterrence on a grand scale, in a matrix of militarism sufficient to support it, we will be unlikely to address climate deterioration. Only economic collapse might save us.
  • Resource limitations, particularly of oil. These limitations are sharp and growing beneath the surface, despite apparent market gluts, themselves created by the end of growth, lack of purchasing power, debt saturation, etc. “Demand destruction” is a matter of geography and economic class. The race for resource dominance and related geopolitical position is the single most potent motivator of U.S. wars in this century.
  • Crises of capitalism, imperialism, and legitimacy of governance are now pervasive and linked. They are beginning to escape control, and as a result certain truths are no longer told in elite media. The mountain of misinformation (Robert Parry) is growing. Propaganda saturates decision-making circles, which are increasingly blind.

In such a situation we have very little to lose by boldness, and everything to lose by incrementalism. When a centrist former Secretary of Defense (William Perry) argues that the U.S. has no need for either ICBMs or new cruise missiles, we should sit up and pay attention. Why is the Air Force in the nuclear business at all? The answer to that question is not “nuclear deterrence.”

There will be no wide or deep political support for discussions of how many of our nuclear demons will fit on the head of a pin. We should be aiming at deep cuts and major changes in policy, not 10% trims. We need to advocate for slashing lab budgets and we need to attack the legitimacy of nuclear weapons themselves. This, as part of a broader turning of our society away from militarism, empire, and war, toward human solidarity and stewardship of our precious, fragile earth.

Abandon fantasies about multilateral nuclear disarmament, embrace what is possible and powerful

Last week we submitted a possible working paper (“Progress in multilateral nuclear disarmament requires a treaty prohibiting the possession, threat, or use of nuclear weapons“) to the 2016 Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) established by the United Nations this past December. The paper isn’t everything it ought to be, and there are some important issues which were not included.

One of these is the potential impact of a nuclear weapons ban on nuclear weapon state policies. By that I mostly mean U.S. policies, since that’s the only country I know well.

As I said to international colleagues in a note yesterday, perhaps something should be said about that right now, as the OEWG approaches.

There is no indication from history, or from logic, that U.S. will EVER allow multilateral disarmament negotiations to create disarmament obligations, under any treaty whatsoever. The U.S. will not participate in good faith in such negotiations. It never has and it never will. Given U.S. internal political formations, this country can’t participate in such negotiations, not for the foreseeable future — which is to say, not until sovereign non-nuclear states stand up and create an anti-nuclear weapons norm. I think this incapacity applies for most if not all nuclear weapon states.

ALL foreseeable future disarmament that might result from multilateral processes will occur indirectly, not directly from some positive disarmament treaty. Nuclear weapon states won’t negotiate or sign any such positive treaty. No “convention,” no “framework,” no “stepping stones,” no “foundation,” no whatever will EVER be signed by the U.S., let alone ratified. (And lest we forget, the ratification process for the CTBT and New START resulted in MORE, not FEWER, financial and nuclear modernization commitments.)

Hypothetical, imaginary disarmament approaches — which might work in some other more ideal universe, just not in ours — are a confusing waste of diplomatic time and attention.

The ONLY way for multilateral processes to have an impact on U.S. (or any) nuclear weapon state policies is INDIRECTLY, through international norms and laws that are set by states that actually DO want disarmament. In other words, a ban.

Trying to compare the hypothetical effectiveness of various multilateral disarmament approaches, some of which are about as possible as flying pigs, is useless. The only disarmament strategies which bear examination are those which do not require the participation of nuclear-armed states and their nuclear umbrella allies.

This is exactly the opposite of what many people think, or used to think. A lot of people may still be looking to negotiate some new positive law, that (eventually?) forces disarmament.

Since that is not going to happen, ALL multilateral “effective measures” (quoting NPT Article VI) for nuclear disarmament will be effective ONLY because of their indirect, normative effects, and need to be evaluated and compared on that basis.

Anyone who believes in civil society believes in the power of strong humanitarian norms, because that is how civil society works. Parliamentary work, for example, would benefit dramatically with a strong, fresh norm against the possession and use of nuclear weapons. We don’t have that, as the inability (or refusal) of the International Court of Justice to rule on nuclear use showed. Conferences don’t create that norm. Treaties do.

So those states which actually want disarmament, and which actually want to follow Article VI of the NPT, had better decide to do it without the “help” of the nuclear weapon states and their nuclear allies.

Occasionally we read that nuclear weapon states and nuclear umbrella states on the one hand, and non-nuclear weapon states on the other hand, are “talking past each other,” or that “gaps” between these categories of states are preventing progress. That is not the problem at all. Unity of purpose or strategy between nuclear and non-nuclear states will not be found and should not be sought.

Part of the genius of ICAN has been to leave behind the hobby-horse of “unity” and focus on what certainly COULD be done by most states in the world — and done powerfully and relatively easily, without new obligations to themselves.

We shouldn’t be looking for unity. There are two competing and opposite ideas about the legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons at work in and around the OEWG, and in diplomacy in general. One of them will win.

If nuclear weapons continue to be valued, they sooner or later will be used (again). In that case, the only “unity” we will find, now or then, with nuclear weapon advocate states is in the mushroom cloud. Then, “we will go together when we go.”

“We must triage the threats we face”

A year ago, during an excellent symposium (“The Dynamics of Possible Nuclear Extinction“) organized by the Helen Caldicott Foundation at the New York Academy of Medicine, Dr. Caldicott remarked that we must now “triage the threats we face,” or words to that effect.

I stumbled across those words recently, and again I thought they were good advice. Everything about us and our lives and work is finite.

The results of any such exercise will be different for each person, who is by definition unique. Each of us moves in unique circumstances. The Study Group for example has a unique role colored by our location, knowledge and experience, personal histories, and other circumstances. There are several billion unique ways to weigh a differing kaleidoscope of responsibilities and freedoms, and I don’t want to minimize that uniqueness and subjectivity one bit.

That said, all our personally-conditioned and subjective roles lie within a climatological and ecological context which is, globally, collapsing.

If that collapse continues and becomes self-sustaining as it threatens to become, there will be — one by one and bit by bit — fewer personal roles to play. Our freedoms will  diminish. They already are.

In such a case our roles will be played in an increasingly-abridged natural world, with more and more species gone, and with less and less civilization, however we may define it.

In such a case all our fine dreams, large and small, individual and collective — of justice let us say, of human rights, urban gardens and permaculture, of democracy, of college educations, jobs — will fade and finally vanish. In such a case we will move down Maslow’s heirarchy of needs. All the way down.

Drought for example will end all our dreams, should it come to stay — as it certainly will here in New Mexico if effective climate mitigation is not achieved.

There is no human “adaptation” to uncapped global warming, no happy ending, no deus ex machina. Neither is there any “adaptation” of individuals in our brother and sister species when all the habitat is gone, or unreachable.

Such finalities can and usually do happen suddenly, in large part because weather is variable. There is water and food enough — until, quite suddenly, through a statistically predictable but still somehow officially-unpredicted chain of events, there isn’t. Climate loads the weather dice, the habitat dice, the extinction dice.

We face in other words, a total crisis, a moral, political, spiritual, economic, social, and religious crisis. It involves us in every way, inside and outside (where most of our soul can be found, said Plotinus).

So stepping back and looking at the problem of triage, aiming for a large and impersonal frame of reference based on science and human values, I see our highest-priority tasks as something like these, in brutal brevity and omitting the means for the most part.

  • Rapidly mitigate global warming and prevent runaway heating
    • Rapidly choke down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activity (including CO2, CH4, and persistent GHGs, properly weighted for short-term impact, e.g. over 20 years). This means, for starters, very rapid investment in renewable energy and low-to-no-fossil-fuel transportation, a drastically lower consumption pattern across the board among so-called “developed” countries, and a halt to deforestation. This will mean economic decline at best, if not collapse. Decline is upon us in any case, for fundamental resource-limitation and thermodynamic reasons that are then refracted through our mal-investing financial and economic systems, as explained previously on this blog.
    • Transform net terrestrial CO2 flux to strong absorption and sequestration by reforestation, organic soil building, and other techniques.
    • Very rapidly protect and increase arctic albedo (ice caps, and tundra if possible). This almost certainly means active cooling. We need to gather experimental data, and have the debate.
    • Rapidly slow oceanic and terrestrial release of CH4, which is potentially catastrophic.
  • Effectively protect the diversity of life immediately
    • Establish and protect a robust diversity of habitats and migration routes on land and in fresh water
    • Protect the oceans and littoral zones
    • Protect the vulnerable species being hunted for body parts and for food, with deadly force if necessary.
  • Protect vulnerable humans. Use ancient moral codes to accept and care for the stranger where modern laws fall short. This means a dramatic simplification of wants by the relatively wealthy and the selective abandonment of excess amenities and infrastructure, and it means intensive horticulture.
  • Encourage negative population growth in most places, and overall. Without massive use of fossil fuels, the earth cannot long support its present population. Water is in critically short supply in many places and fossil fuels soon will be.  
  • Understand and accept the tragic fate that human greed, ignorance, and folly have fashioned, quite apart from the important questions of who and what are continuing to weave that fate and what to do about it. Our way of life is ending, no matter what. Embrace our duty to limit the damage and protect the vulnerable, to save what we can, while we can. This is the path of maturity, sanity, and fulfillment — perhaps the only such path at this moment in history.
  • Dismantle militarism, aggressive war, and the nuclear doomsday cult including its instruments, ideologies, and institutions. We need to express our true solidarity with other people and species and we need do so materially, in collective action and policy. To do this we need the resources now devoted to war and aggression, and we need to free ourselves — especially in this country — of the deadly addiction to war.

As for lesser priorities, which we could all name, we may or may not have time or resources for them. If they conflict with these goals or similar ones, if they distract us, we may need to let them go. That is triage, something we face in disasters and war. We’re there now. Now we can devise and carry out skillful treatments.

Who is this “we?” I think many of us, more than we see in common hours, have taken a kind of Hippocratic vow, perhaps without knowing of it. Wordsworth wrote once of a morning when “to the brim/My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows/Were then made for me…” However variously we see our priorities, we will not go far wrong if we just take ourselves out of the way, and let the sun rise.

Perspectives on the 2016 disarmament “Open-Ended Working Group, ” now beginning

The following letter was sent on January 29, 2016 to fellow campaigners working toward prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Subject: Perspectives on the 2016 Open-Ended Working Group, now beginning (background)

1. A Ban Treaty is needed for progress in multilateral disarmament diplomacy
2. A Ban Treaty would be very powerful, including in the U.S., without U.S. participation

1. A Ban Treaty is needed for progress in multilateral disarmament diplomacy

As the first session of the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) begins, I wanted to convey our profound gratitude to everyone who has helped advance the humanitarian perspective on nuclear weapons and the prospects for a treaty-based ban on (possessing, developing, manufacturing, transferring, and using) such weapons. Tremendous progress has been made.

We can’t be there but wanted to send a few perspectives about this process as it begins.

There are only 15 working days allocated for the OEWG. We can be sure that the nuclear weapon states and their weasel allies will try to de-focus, dilute, delay, distract, and divide our efforts – now, during the sessions, between the sessions, and afterwards.

Some nuclear weapon states, the U.S. in particular, will promise the moon to prevent negotiations that could lead to any effective disarmament measure, including the very dangerous ban treaty. In the 20 years since the NPT was indefinitely renewed, none of those promises has meant anything.

Empty promises flavored with delicious idealism are a specialty of this U.S. administration. “Mirages,” one author called them. “A world free of nuclear weapons” is one of these empty and dangerous platitudes.

There will be plenty of efforts to broaden the discussion, say to “the risks and challenges ahead,” or to induce irrelevant technical discussions (e.g. of verification), or to otherwise rehash terrain traversed repeatedly over past decades.

Another form of distraction is speculation about a treaty to guide the details of a hypothetical future multilateral disarmament process. Newsflash: the nuclear weapon states will not sign such a treaty — not now, or for the foreseeable future.

There surely also will be efforts, well-intentioned and otherwise, that have the effect of running down the clock.

The nuclear weapon states believe their arsenals are fully legitimate – fully supported not just by international law but also by reason, morality, and their own governments’ responsibilities to prevent war. That is how they see it. Why should there be good faith negotiations to get rid of something as legitimate and important as nuclear weapons (in their view)? So there haven’t been any such negotiations, and won’t be.

Nothing significant will be possible in disarmament diplomacy until this perceived legitimacy is removed.

The voluminous testimony, legal analysis, and activism that has been done so well since the Cold War has not accomplished this.

Facts, no matter how brilliantly they are presented, haven’t availed – and won’t.

The dictates of public conscience, no matter how voluminous, prestigious, and authentic the appeals, haven’t availed – and won’t.

Declarations by “the great and the good” haven’t availed – and won’t.

Legal decisions haven’t availed – and won’t.

Mere gestures by states which cost little and bind nobody – U.N. resolutions, for example – haven’t availed – and won’t.

Why? Because none of these excellent activities are consequential – that is, binding – decisions taken by states for the purpose of making nuclear weapons illegal.

Only states can remove the present de facto legitimacy, which is very real to the nuclear weapon states and therefore to everybody, and this can only be done by making nuclear weapons illegal.

States can only accomplish this through law, conventional law, which is to say by a treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons. By definition, there is no other way.

Nuclear weapons will be legal – de facto legal, and de jure legal as well as morally necessary in the eyes of those who possess them – until they are made illegal.

This work of delegitimation has to be done by non-nuclear weapon states, not by nuclear weapon states. The latter will resist.

Without a treaty on the table, the various well-intentioned and indeed excellent statements by diplomats are really just opinions and postures.

Given the short working time of the OEWG, I hope that all involved will make every effort to help leading states focus on negotiating, or more realistically laying the groundwork for negotiating, a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Anything else will play into the hands of the nuclear weapon states and their weasel allies – again, by de-focusing, diluting, delaying, distracting, and dividing our efforts.

If the OEWG fails to achieve a clear path to make nuclear weapons illegal, there are other ways forward.

We think the 30th anniversary of the Reykjavik summit (October 11-12, 1986) would be a good time to unveil a ban treaty for signature.

The nuclear weapon states obviously oppose prohibiting nuclear weapons and can play no constructive part in negotiations. These states have never played any constructive part in multilateral disarmament negotiations over the past 25 years, full stop. Their weasel allies generally also have opposed and will oppose practical disarmament measures, for now.

So calls to make negotiations “universal” are quite premature and misplaced.

Godspeed to everybody. Our thoughts and prayers are with those of you who are there.

2. A Ban Treaty would be very powerful, including in the U.S., without U.S. participation

A ban treaty would be the natural culmination of the decades of brilliant civil society work that have brought us to this point.

Such a treaty would be voluntary and non-coercive, yet ever more normative as more countries joined. It would grow in importance only in the most democratic manner. It would affect nuclear arsenals in an indirect and therefore flexible manner, and only according to the evolving unique security circumstances of each state. It would not conflict with any existing or future disarmament or nonproliferation agreement or treaty, but rather would support them all. It would not add new obligations for NPT non-nuclear weapon states that are not in nuclear security relationships, which is most of the countries in the world. All these states have nothing to lose in a ban — apart from whatever nasty forms of leverage some nuclear weapon states (like the U.S.) and their allies might try to apply.

A ban would stimulate and empower civil society in many countries, with benefits across humanitarian issues.

Here in the U.S., a ban treaty would tremendously empower everything we are doing against nuclear weapons. I would like to explain this further because many people think that a ban would have no effect on U.S. policy, given that the U.S. won’t sign it.

Nuclear policy in the U.S. is not made in a smooth, top-down, confident manner. There are many reversals and problems. The nuclear weapons establishment has many adversaries inside government and outside, not least its own bureaucrats and fat-cat contractors, who struggle to hide the scandals and ongoing fiascos. Key mid-career people are quitting early at facilities we know from job frustration, taking their knowledge and experience with them. Retirements left one plant (Y-12) without knowledge of how to make a critical non-commercial material at industrial scale. At the only U.S. nuclear weapons assembly plant, in Texas, snakes and mice infest one or more key buildings, which date from World War II. Rain comes through the roofs and dust through the doors. In Oak Ridge, huge pieces of concrete have fallen from ceilings and deep cracks have appeared in a structural beam in a key building. All this infrastructure may, or may not be, fully replaced. It is contested in many cases, difficult, and expensive.

At Los Alamos, the main plutonium facility has been largely shut down for almost three years because of inadequate safety and staffing. Approximately seven attempts have been made since 1989 to construct a new factory complex for producing plutonium warhead cores — all have failed. It might just be that nuclear weapons production, in the final analysis, is not compatible with today’s safety and environmental expectations and laws. Transmission of nuclear weapons ideology and knowledge under these conditions is a difficult challenge.

A growing ban would reach deep into the human conscience, affecting everything, including career decisions. It would affect corporate investments as well as congressional enthusiasm for the industry. I have spoken with nuclear weapons CEOs who know it is a “sunset” field with only tenuous support in the broader Pentagon, despite all the nuclear cheer-leading we see. Modernization of the whole nuclear arsenal is very likely unaffordable, even assuming current economic conditions hold (they won’t).

A ban would also affect the funding, aims, and structure of the U.S. nonprofit universe and think-tank “ecosystem,” as well as media interest and coverage.

Beyond all this, I believe a ban would also help decrease popular support in the U.S. for war and war expenditures in general. Why? There is a tremendous war-weariness in the U.S., right alongside our (real, but also orchestrated) militarism. A growing ban on nuclear weapons would be a powerful signal to political candidates and organizations that it is politically permissible to turn away from militarism somewhat, that there is something wrong with the levels of destruction this country has amassed and brandished so wildly and with such deadly and chaotic effects. Ordinary people here in the U.S. are seeing greater and greater austerity and precarity. They work extremely hard and have less and less to show for it. Polls (decades of them) show the public has never really supported the scale of nuclear armaments we have. One 1990s poll disclosed that most Americans think we have more than ten times fewer warheads than we actually do, more like the U.K., France, and China! Our economy is in bad shape and our infrastructure is visibly declining, sometimes with fatal results. A ban could help this benighted country recognize its folly, at least to some degree. It would be a wake-up call signalling that widely-held U.S. assumptions about our place in the world might need just a teensy bit of adjustment.

I hope this helps fill in the picture somewhat for those far away who may not see why a ban would be powerful here in the U.S.

The case for such a simple, totally flexible, and powerful treaty, with relatively low diplomatic cost for most states, is to our eyes unassailable.

The New York Times gathers a “critical” mass of former insiders now dissing nuclear modernization plans

1/13/16 update: an alert reader (Steve Starr) has noticed an important factual mistake in yesterday’s post, which I have corrected. In the process I’ve added considerably to the argument. Thank you Steve.

(Note to readers: henceforth I will try to use this blog to assemble and briefly comment upon a few important news stories on a very frequent basis, daily if I can, in addition to posting what have been all-too-occasional essays. I will explain more tomorrow given the lateness of the hour today, and meanwhile jump right in.)

Today [1/12/16], on the morning of President Obama’s last State of the Union Address, the New York Times headlined quite a decent article by Bill Broad and David Sanger on the proposed B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb, the very dangerous proposed Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) cruise missile, and the Administration’s nuclear warhead modernization program generally.

The interesting video that opens the article is part of a longer video shown to guests at the Washington DC “lab day” conference in October, provided later to this organization by Sandia National Laboratories. We distributed it widely on 12/31/15.

Broad and Sanger get the evolving politics right. The Administration’s ambitious warhead modernization plan is in some trouble. That, and the NYT‘s recognition (on the front page no less), is the news. The critical views of the former Administration officials variously cited — Phil Coyle, Andy Weber, William Perry, Steve Fetter, James Cartwright — do carry real political as well as intellectual weight.

It’s better late than never. If not for the Times‘ need to remain within a very small bubble of elite insider opinion, an article making the same arguments could have been produced five years ago, before B61-12 decisions were made. The hour is now late. As one government analyst remarked to me in 2014, “Congressional opposition to the B61-12 died on the streets of Kiev.”

Not so for the LRSO. For that, design is just beginning.

Still, it should be said that despite the B61-12 decisions that have been made, there are still plenty of “off-ramps” available. There are plenty of ways this program could be set aside, and plenty of potential new reasons to do so. The immediate future of the Republic is very clouded. Black swans are filling the sky. Even if the bomb is finally built there will be plenty of excellent reasons to not deploy it outside U.S. territory. If deployed, there will be plenty of reasons to retire it.

There is always, as a Chinese sage once said in a slightly different context, “another way up.”

In the long run, the B61-12 will not last. Will we?

That said, there is an important error in this article, in the title as well as the text. It is just not right to say that the B61-12 is part of any “build-it-smaller approach.”

First, the B61-12 Life Extension Program (LEP) does not lower the maximum yield of its B61-4 “parent,” and it does not lower the selectable yields that would be available from a possible B61-4 LEP. No other planned LEP for any warhead or bomb does so either, all the way out to 2040.

Second, the claim that the B61-12 “replaces” all other deployed U.S. gravity bombs (the B61-3, B61-7, the inactive B61-10, B61-11, and the B83; see Kristensen here) does not hold water. That is what the Administration says. It should not have been repeated in this article without serious critique. This “replacement” meme is all about selling new bombs.

B83 retirement in particular is being used as a “bargaining chip” vis-a-vis Congress and future administrations. The 1.2 megaton B83 has been exiting for some time, as Kristensen notes. There is no LEP planned for it and no funds have been allocated for one. The B83 is on a glide path to retirement.

(As an aside, it would be interesting to investigate whether the more accurate, 50 kt B61-12 could accomplish the destructive missions of the B83, whatever they may be — for example, holding  deep command and control targets at risk. In the matter of creating forces on targets significantly deeper than the accuracy of the B61-12, I doubt that a bomb with only 4% of the yield can do that comparably at the relevant depth, say 100 meters, even with the B61-12’s greater accuracy. Similar questions arise for the B61-11 earth penetrator.)

We need to ask: do either the B83 or B61-11 really have a military mission today — or more rigorously, one that passes the smell test even from the military perspective?

Do any of these bombs, in fact? Upon information and belief, the B61-4 has had, at least until recently if not still also today, no military mission — no target set. We believe NATO nuclear weapons have no pre-planned targets. In the event of a crisis, they’ll think of something to bomb.

Just considering the military perspective, aren’t the missions for all nuclear gravity bombs evaporating? Aren’t all these bombs obsolete, or on the verge of becoming so? (But of course these plans, plus NATO expansion and forward basing, plus the U.S.-planned neocon coup in Ukraine, have triggered a variety of Russian reactions, including some announced this week. So the potential target set of the B61-12, in the same minds that have promoted it, may be expanding quickly.)

From this perspective isn’t the B61-12, with its new capabilities over a simpler B61-4 LEP, just keeping faith in nuclear gravity bombs alive for a new generation of delivery aircraft and a new generation of NATO leaders? Isn’t that the big secret of this bomb — that without the glitz of its new technology and its compatibility with expensive new delivery systems, the NATO nuclear mission would become visibly obsolete?

In any case, it is very far from proven that the B61-12 will “replace” these bombs, with the exception of the B61-4 from which it is to be physically made.

Third, the very idea of a “smaller” nuclear weapon is problematic from all relevant perspectives except one: nuclear war fighting. In terms of international politics, humanitarian and nonproliferation law, supporting infrastructure and program commitments, and the pork-barrel politics that so massively drive procurement decisions — which is to say, in most of the real world where politics is done and history is made — a “smaller” and “more accurate” nuclear weapon describes a distinction without a difference.

Only in weapons phenomenology, targeting, and strategy is there a difference, and that difference is less than might appear.

For example, is the risk of nuclear escalation from an “accurate” B61-12 detonation significantly and knowably different than that from detonating a B61-4? So then how is the B61-12 more usable, or more credible as a deterrent, than the B61-4 it is to replace? How is the proposed new bomb smaller, in this sense — from the point of view of prospective nuclear war?

To take another example, we say that the combination of high accuracy, stealthy delivery, forward basing, and selectable yields enables the B61-12 to address a larger target set, all of which is certainly true to some extent. But what is the actual increment of that B61-12 target set, beyond the target set of a life-extended B61-4 with the same forward basing, same stealthy delivery, and the same original selectable yields? In other words, how much of this bomb’s purported greater utility is just hype?

What about collateral damage, then? Wouldn’t that be “smaller?” Well, blast overpressure and thermal deposition from nuclear weapons scale with the 1/3 power of the yield, so the B61-12’s highest yield (50 kt) would produce a given overpressure or thermal pulse reaching to 67% the radius of the B61-3’s 170 kt explosion, or to 52% of that from the B61-7’s 360 kt. To my view, this is not an impressively “smaller” bomb in this sense either. In what important sense for civilization, or for the target country, would the detonation of a B61-12 be much “smaller” than that of any other nuclear bomb or warhead? Would a blast of more than three times the size of Hiroshima be more “acceptable?”

So I would say that Broad and Sanger have fallen into the trap of privileging the nuclear war fighting perspective. Unfortunately, most arms control discourse about this bomb does so also.

The great bulk of arguments against this weapon have rested on its novel features. The differences are real but narrow, and overall they do not touch or refute enough of the real political and strategic motives for pursuing this bomb. That is one reason they fail. You could say that we who oppose this bomb have too often confined ourselves to arguments that are so narrow that they are logically and factually flawed.

For example, we say that the B61-12 costs more than a simpler LEP. That is true. But what if spending money, hiring new weapons engineers, and supporting the labs and plants and giving them all something to do are goals, not costs? (And of course they are.) In that case the greater the cost, the better! And in comparison to the goal of keeping NATO nuclear, and Europe in the U.S. geopolitical orbit, the cost of the B61-12 is beyond trivial.

What about the increased risk of nuclear war it appears to represent? Yes, every gain in deterrent credibility is also an increase in the risk of nuclear war. But is the B61-12 really that much worse in this regard than the B61-4 or any of the other bombs it is falsely claimed to replace? Yes, perhaps it is riskier, but will this difference in risk, even if properly perceived, ever be enough to offset the political and management benefits of spending all that money, enthusing the pro-nuclear NATO military partners, and perhaps even keeping the NATO nuclear mission alive? I doubt it.

Aren’t the stronger arguments against the B61-12 the arguments against any tactical nuclear gravity bombs, against foreign basing of nuclear weapons in general, against nuclear (delivery) sharing in general, against nuclear gravity bombs altogether, and against the fiction or idiocy (take your pick) of “nuclear umbrellas” in general?  And this list could be extended.

I am not saying that cost should not be considered. I am saying it is a weak argument, and a benefit in many eyes.

The bigger issues are also the bigger motivations for this program, and they are just too often “off the table” within the bubble that is imperial Washington.

The present article, and some of our own work in the past, as well as the work of the masterful Hans Kristensen on this topic (on whom we rely for so much), just make too much of these small differences. It is an expression of the quantitative obsession that leads the arms control field to so often miss the forest for the trees. Usually this or that “tree” is “better” or “worse” in rather small ways. This distortion and denial is a defining characteristic of arms control.

Does it need to be said again that the President’s vague and aspirational 2009 Prague speech — cited in this article as if it meant something — was without disarmament content?

Phil Coyle’s wise and important remarks about production surge capacity (we don’t need it) and the unlikelihood of actually completing the modernization plan are well worth emphasizing:

But the bigger risk to the modernization plan may be its expense — upward of a trillion dollars if future presidents go the next step and order new bombers, submarines and land-based missiles, and upgrades to eight factories and laboratories.

Insiders don’t believe it will ever happen,” said Mr. Coyle, the former White House official. “It’s hard to imagine that many administrations following through.

Exactly so, and for many more reasons than can be mentioned in the New York Times.

The flip side of the article’s emphasis on former insiders and on the nuclear war-fighting perspective is its omission of any of what might be called any “left of center” — any actual disarmament oriented — critiques.  The B61-12 plan “seemed reasonable, critics said, until attention fell on the bomb’s new tail section and steerable fins.” Really? Well, the B61-12 never seemed reasonable to quite a few analysts, including me.

The Santa Fe New Mexican carried this story. I offered this comment:

This is a decent article, despite its [NYT] provenance.

Readers may wish to see this interesting testing video produced by Sandia National Laboratories, shown to guests at the Washington DC “lab day” conference in October and provided to our organization: http://www.lasg.org/videos/B61-12_SAND8928_2015.mp4. It forms the lede in the original article.

The bermed target area appears to be about 30 meters in radius, and if so this corresponds to the previously-advertised accuracy of this new bomb. The clean entry of the bomb in the earth suggests some earth-penetrating capability, which was present in earlier B61 models as well. Both enable lower yields and expand the potential target set, leading to the perceptions of greater risk discussed in the article.

The perennial problem of the arms control community, which historically has felt a need to be very close to the U.S. government for funding and “access” and remains very close today, is one of which world-ending weapons to oppose — where to draw the line — and how to do so effectively given their broad endorsement of nuclear budgets, institutions, and especially of treaties like New START, which could not be ratified without a blanket endorsement of nuclear weapons modernization. Alas, New START had no disarmament component.

All the B61-12 critics mentioned in this articles were in favor of broad-spectrum modernization of the entire triad in 2010 for the sake of New START ratification. Those then in government like Phil Coyle and Andy Weber had to hold their noses (Coyle did I am sure!), or else thought the bomb was a good idea.

These latter-day critics were however outmaneuvered and effectively neutered by the neocon coup in Ukraine and subsequent deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, passively allowed by a tragic, MIA president who is no longer in charge of his government, if he ever was.

The B61-12 program is driven by the availability of the technology, by pork-barrel politics (Udall rescued it in committee), and by a desire to keep NATO nuclearized, with forward-based bombs to be delivered by non-U.S. pilots in violation of the NPT, as part of the “glue” that keeps NATO states aligned with the U.S. instead of building ties with energy-rich, nearby Russia. It’s all about our on-going, never-ending, Cold War with Russia.

The labs of course need that war to justify their massive budgets, which now dwarf what they got during the Cold War in constant dollars. This one bomb supplied the money that allowed Sandia to hire 600 new staff. This bomb is thus a potent weapon in the never ending fight against spending for schools, sustainability, and infrastructure, and it helps keep clueless or hireling politicians in line. It is, as General Smedley Butler said so long ago, a racket, in this case dressed up in very fancy clothes but a very effective con just for that reason.

One might get the impression that this is a “smaller” yield bomb than the bomb it replaces. It is not. It is a variable-yield bomb.

I don’t want to lightly gloss over the notion of the NNSA weapons labs as rackets. I did not mean that as a figure of speech. They are indeed rackets, and as institutions they cannot be understood at all without examining them from that perspective. The U.S. warhead labs don’t just have the occasional departure from social, environmental, worker safety, or legal norms. They are fundamentally constituted outside those norms. But with that assertion, offered here for your meditation and without further explanation, these comments must close.

If you have comments, send them to me.  Thank you for your attention.

“What is to be done”

This post is a more general meditation on the famous question and continues the “What is to be done” parts of Los Alamos Study Group Bulletin 214.

Generally speaking we might say there are just four things to be done in the public realm right now.

  • we must effectively stop those who are killing the planet and destroying civilization (and they are very close to succeeding on both counts, so our actions must be swift and effective if our children are to survive);
  • we must at the same time effectively and quickly build polities, institutions, infrastructures, and characters that embrace solidarity and sustainability, and
  • we must effectively care for vulnerable people and species.

To do these positive things effectively we must negatively “do” (i.e. not do) one more thing, which will come in the right proportion if we allow it:

  • we must simplify.

To the extent we simplify we also will, in the phrase of Chuck McCune, “boycott ecocide.”

What seems complicated and overwhelming from the outside, from an alienated perspective, will not seem so complicated from the inside.

These actions come with abundant built-in rewards. We can’t lose. Everything that the dying empire offers fraudulently, the Great Transition offers authentically, and from the first step.

Our greatest barriers are perhaps twofold.

First, the public realm where we act is nearly nonexistent for all but a very few. It has to be reclaimed. To the extent it exists at all it is largely inaccessible to most people, whose lives are increasingly precarious and exhausting. Debts, for example, shackle many. But there are usually more choices available to us than may appear at first glance, and small freedoms we exercise can grow.

Cynicism is deadly.

Given this general lack of time, the result of real obligations we all have to meet, there has to be leadership and it has to be accountable.

Second (and far more serious, it appears), we who have the most freedom are generally failing to grasp, even theoretically, the gravity of the situation. We are also failing to grasp our own responsibility to set things right, and our unique and largely latent power to do so. The exercise of this responsibility, for all of us who have the freedom and understanding to read these lines, is almost the sole path of maturity in a world so existentially threatened.

Perhaps especially in the educated and politically-active professional classes, denial and hopeful fantasies are the norm. It is toward this group that the distortions and strategic silences of the elite press, and the misdirection and distancing practices that usually dominate academia, are especially aimed. We have to re-educate ourselves, and it has to be done in part bodily, through action, and socially, as well as intellectually.

Denial and distancing are to be expected in any heavily propagandized society organized largely around material possessions and the elaborate system of faith-based beliefs that supports it. Richard Norgaard identifies our dominant religion as “economism,” in a particularly cogent recent essay (“The Church of Economism and Its Discontents”).

In response to this weakening of personal relations and increasing distance from nature, economism glorifies the individual and rationalizes material greed. Economic models focus on the individual, assume utility maximization, treat society as the sum of individuals, and omit society’s influence back on the individual. Care for others and the land may give people utility, but there is no obligation to care. This view runs contrary to all major religious traditions, effectively competing with the teaching they provide. (emphasis added)

Economism, in other words, is anti-religion. This cult pervades our society’s whole mental sphere. In its practical application it is little more than the worship of money. We train our “best and brightest” to be its acolytes, its “excellent sheep.”

I qualified our basic tasks with the adjective “effective.” We all aspire to effectiveness in our political action, but the fact is that effective action is quite rare among liberals and “progressives.” They are losing, and they are taking us down with them.

Too many people want to believe – in almost anything. Technology will save us! Bernie will save us! Hillary will save us! Renewable energy will save us! Just fill in the blank. What this kind of “hopeful” ideation means is that we “hope” we will be able to remain prosperous and secure, keep on shopping, and keep taking climate-destroying vacations halfway around the world. We would be wrong in all of that.

We have a doctor friend in Santa Fe who often says by way of parting benediction, “Avoid optimism!” It is very good advice given his and our environment of pervasive “brightsiding” (see Ehrenreich, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America). In many circles, and not just those of New Age would-be magicians, “negative” thinking is not allowed. Illusions must be maintained!

We are all awash in fallacious “positive” propaganda, about our economy (which is deteriorating, not improving, and this process will continue), about climate policy (baby steps are too slow to matter, and neither the administration nor Congress has proposed even baby steps – the “Clean Power Plan” won’t help the climate), about oil and gas reserves (depleting, not increasing, with new oil increasingly unaffordable), about the U.S. role in the world (principally responsible for the wars underway today, as David Stockman recently explained), about our democracy (almost nonexistent on a national level), and so on.

It is for us, as Chris Hedges writes, “emotionally difficult” to fully grasp just how far the United States has fallen, let alone how pathetically inadequate are the ordinary liberal approaches to the crisis.

A disenfranchised white working class vents its lust for fascism at Trump campaign rallies. Naive liberals, who think they can mount effective resistance within the embrace of the Democratic Party, rally around the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who knows that the military-industrial complex is sacrosanct. Both the working class and the liberals will be sold out. Our rights and opinions do not matter. We have surrendered to our own form of [W]ehrwirtschaft [a policy of armaments and war as national economy]. We do not count within the political process.

The longer fantasy is substituted for reality, the faster we sleepwalk toward oblivion. There is no guarantee we will wake up. Magical thinking has gripped societies in the past. Those civilizations believed that fate, history, superior virtues or a divine force guaranteed their eternal triumph. As they collapsed, they constructed repressive dystopias. They imposed censorship and forced the unreal to be accepted as real. Those who did not conform were disappeared linguistically and then literally.

The vast disconnect between the official narrative of reality and reality itself creates an Alice-in-Wonderland experience. Propaganda is so pervasive, and truth is so rarely heard, that people do not trust their own senses. We are currently being assaulted by political campaigning that resembles the constant crusading by fascists and communists in past totalitarian societies. This campaigning, devoid of substance and subservient to the mirage of a free society, is anti-politics.

While Hedges’ fierce generalizations should not be all accepted at face value – there are some exceptions and he is implicitly challenging us to find them, or to create our own beachheads in occupied territory – he is correct in the main. Most of the so-called political activity we see around us in the U.S. will fail or has failed already, because it based on hopeful lies. This creates a political and personal crisis for us because the activity that is apparently required is not at all convenient — or so it may seem.

More of us are waking up now. Have a cup of coffee. We’ve got a job to do. It’s not that bad once you wake up. Dress warmly. Our friends are waiting. Many hands make light work.

The “Manhattan Project National Historical Park”: Moral Failure for America, Danger to This Country and the World

[This is the text of the brochure some of us will hand out in Los Alamos tomorrow, November 11, at the “Grand Opening” of the “Manhattan Project National Historical Park”.  As a rushed paper product, it has no hyperlinks except a couple at the bottom.  See here for some background, and of course the Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF), for much more.  In fact, given AHF, who needs a Park?  Their products are better than a Park, as I have told them.  But they have wanted both.]

The creation of the “Manhattan Project National Historical Park” (MPNHP) represents a triumph of parochial self-interest over the judgment of history, serious national security policy, and basic human morality. The purposeful incineration of cities was then, as it would be now, a heinous war crime. There were, and still are, no extenuating circumstances for that kind of crime, full stop. But will that be the story told at this Park? Of course not.

The Nuremberg Tribunal articulated the principle that even those in the military are required to disobey unlawful orders, in cases where moral choice exists. Of course we know the institutionalized impetus to wanton destruction can be very difficult to resist in war for everyone, military and civilian alike. So we must resist justifying it now, in peacetime.

We cannot avoid judgment just because we won the war, or hide behind a false moral relativity. It was simply a terrible mistake to build and use the bomb, a mistake in which people were swept along in a kind of enforced, but well paid, group trance.[note 1] They handed over moral agency to others above them – others who, at the very top, once Roosevelt died, were thoroughly racist, or who saw the coming victory as a great imperial opportunity. There is nothing “great” about the regimentation of thousands of technicians and divorce of science from morality, resulting in state-sponsored mass murder, with strong racist overtones that can be heard down to the present day.

The communities surrounding the three MPNHP sites have been eager for some sort of recognition and prestige to compensate for the crimes they enabled during the war – and, even more so, to vindicate themselves and their communities for creating the doomsday arsenals that still threaten the human race, from which they have profited enormously, both personally and as communities.

Politicians and businesspersons have their own very personal agendas in this matter as well.

Last week the First Committee of the United Nations passed a resolution, by a vote of 124 to 35 with 15 abstentions, affirming that “given the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, it is inconceivable that any use of nuclear weapons, irrespective of the cause, would be compatible with the requirements of international humanitarian law or international law, or the laws of morality, or the dictates of public conscience.” The resolution further states that “given their indiscriminate nature and potential to annihilate humanity, nuclear weapons are inherently immoral.”[note 2] What is there to celebrate here, until the day when the Manhattan Project finally ends in Los Alamos?

The Park Will Be Hostage to Parochial Interests

The political pressure to adopt supportive narratives regarding past and current weapons activities at two of these sites, which involve billions of dollars in appropriations annually, is already overwhelming. There is no reason whatsoever to believe the National Park Service (NPS) can or will be an objective interpreter of current national security issues – which is part of what this Park would implicitly do. NPS will need to work with the Department of Energy (DOE) – the partnership being celebrated today – as well as civic groups, local governments, businesses, donors, and volunteers. Under such conditions, objective interpretation of the Manhattan Project, which involves war crimes for which the U.S. has never apologized, is inconceivable.

The proposed Park sites are near or within active nuclear weapons design, testing, and production sites, underscoring the impossibility of any objective interpretation at these locations. Multibillion-dollar contracts and projects are at stake. This is not Manzanar.

The “significance” and continuing legacy of the Manhattan Project is politically contentious and disputed. This “significance” is central to the Park idea. The original bill (S. 507, at sec. 2(2)(A)) and SA 2492 at (a)(2)(A)) quotes a “panel of experts” who state that the “the development and use of the atomic bomb during World War II has been called ‘the single most significant event of the 20th century.’” Really.

Creating such a Park inherently endorses the Manhattan Project and its modern-day successor activities as positive national achievements. Indeed that is the purpose of the Park. Supposedly “objective” background materials supporting the Park proposal are already one-sided, significantly incomplete, and/or historically incorrect.

Bechtel National Park?

The balkanization of ownership and control of these sites between federal and powerful non-federal actors ensures, in practical terms, that NPS will be subordinate to these other actors. For example, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is operated by a for-profit consortium of contractors (Los Alamos National Security, LLC), which annually receives and spends in the neighborhood of $2.2 billion. LANS and DOE jointly control access, security, safety, and maintenance at LANL. LANS is a highly interest-conflicted party. DOE does not manage these sites.

Quite simply, this proposal aims to use NPS for propaganda purposes, for the state and for its contractors. This will be quite apparent (and jarring) to many domestic and international visitors. The propaganda aspect of the proposed Park is oddly invisible to many well-intentioned supporters.

The Park Adds No Real Value

The proposal does not involve significant natural or national resources and is therefore not harmonious with core National Park missions. The DOE properties at LANL involved in this proposal are basically worthless, ugly sheds and bunkers.

These sites will not provide a comprehensive picture of the Manhattan Project, which occurred at dozens of sites, not three.

Extensive interpretative museums concerning the Manhattan Project already exist, at Los Alamos and elsewhere. Some are taxpayer funded. Extensive resources are available on the internet for those who are interested.

Few if any of these sites will be tourist draws or provide marginal economic value to the surrounding communities. At LANL, that’s a fantasy.

Some sites are already national landmarks. It is not clear there is any added benefit to National Park status.

At Los Alamos, Park status will not add preservation value. These “assets” are already protected.

Some sites will be accessible by the public only rarely and under guard, and public access will interfere with the national security missions underway surrounding those sites. At other sites, public access may interfere with cleanup activities. Public “enjoyment” (referencing here the NPS mission) will be minimal for these locations.

The Park Will Be Costly and Hard to Administer

The cost of the proposed Park, which is not yet fully known, will compete with the massive maintenance backlog in the National Park system. Or, if borne by DOE, these additional costs will compete with other missions. DOE does not have anywhere close to enough funds to clean up its sites, or even tear down its large inventory of abandoned buildings, some of which date from the Manhattan Project.

Given the inherent management problems, it is quite likely that the cost of the proposed Park for the NPS – in dollars and otherwise – will exceed current expectations. It is also quite possible that the chronic problems at some of these sites, combined with the inherent problems in this proposal, will combine to damage the reputation of NPS, not just in this country but to some degree worldwide.

The sites are small, widely separated, have complicated ownership and boundary configurations and significant safety and security issues, will be rarely accessible to the public in some cases, and in some cases (LANL) are operated by for-profit contractors, not the federal government. As of April 2013, DOE had “not assessed the operational difficulties in terms of security and public health and safety, applicable statutory and regulatory requirements, and the potential new cost of national park designation at our sensitive national security and cleanup sites.”

At present, there are no management plans, no budgets, and no appropriations. At present the Park consists only of enabling legislation, the Memorandum of Agreement, and a map of initial DOE locations. As NPS web site says,

Details of the park interpretive themes, park facilities, visitor contact stations, park management structure, and specifics about what eligible properties outside the Department of Energy properties should be included in the park are not included in this agreement and will be identified in future planning efforts.

The Park Glorifies Nuclear Weapons, Undercutting Nonproliferation Norms – and Promoting a Militarized Society

If producing (and using) nuclear weapons was a “great” achievement for one country, why should it not be so for others, and for terrorist groups? We may believe America is “exceptional” in this way but others do not, and it is their views which are important to them, not ours. Why is it in the interest of U.S. national security to establish what amounts to a multi-site “nuclear weapons national park?” There are already other NPS-administered “parks” dating from the Cold War. Because it has the largest economy, the largest military by far, and the largest cultural influence, the U.S. is a norm-setting state. It is one thing to make terrible mistakes, even great ones; many states have done so. It is quite another to celebrate historic and continuing mistakes, as if they happened merely in the past.

The Park Suborns NPS to Serve a Militarized State

This Park is already a “disinformation machine,” obscuring present realities as much or more as past ones, thus continuing the work of the propagandists hired by the Manhattan Project in 1945. As such it harnesses NPS to a militarized and corporatized state that creates ignorance and passivity in an increasingly powerless population.

As Stewart Udall wrote in the Myths of August, the first big change of the Atomic Age was to alter the American system of government, creating new national security institutions to safeguard atomic secrets. The national security state was born.

Today that militarized security state has metastasized to a scale and degree that would be unrecognizable to the America of 1946 or 1947 in terms of cost, deployments, and in its unquestioned prominence in our society. This Park would not have been proposed or approved in a peace-oriented society. Its existence is as much part of the militarization and authoritarian shift in American life as it is an illustration of the growing moral numbness which has accompanied the application of violence by the U.S. in more and more countries around the world.

Notes:
1. In this regard see Charles Tart, quoted in Brian Davey, http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-11-04/the-attention-seeking-economy-information-and-the-manufacture-of-ignorance
2 For text, background, and votes see links in http://www.lasg.org/press/2015/press_release_06Nov2015.html