MAfter the end of World War II, Albert Einstein gave an interview to get Americans to imagine the third. It was vital, he said, “to recognize that unless another war is prevented, it will likely lead to destruction on a scale… even today barely conceived, and that the little civilization there. would survive.
At the end of 1947, the United States was still alone in using the atomic bomb. It may still have given up on its future use and attempted to end proliferation and ban atomic weapons on the spot. But the arms race would continue headlong: soon, the United States and the Soviet Union were both conducting thermonuclear tests. In 1954, the Castle Bravo test, carried out in Bikini Atoll, produced an explosion a thousand times more powerful than that of Hiroshima.
That same year, the philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell began to write an appeal to reason. His manifesto – which was also signed by 10 atomic scientists, almost all Nobel Prize winners and Einstein – was addressed to “members of the human species, whose continued existence is in doubt.” They made a simple argument with a sweeping conclusion. Having learned how to weaponize nuclear energy, we could never unlearn it; disarmament could be successful, but we could not reinvent the bomb. Our mastery of science simply could not coexist with a tendency to wage war without – ultimately, inevitably – wiping out our species. “So here is the problem that we present to you… terrible and inescapable: will we put an end to mankind; or will mankind give up war?
To people living today, the episode may seem odd – a curiosity from the start of the Cold War. The image of crumbling humanity is on everyone’s head now, but as a vision of the climate crisis, not of war. To most people in many countries, war seems a small and peripheral concern. For generations, we have been spared an experience of general, global calamity that distorts the horizon of our normalcy. Then came the coronavirus.
About 10 weeks after the global outbreak of Covid-19, the idea began to spread that the virus might not be nature’s creation. Webs of paranoia are easily spun over our imaginations at home and fueled by the internet. Of course, Donald Trump was one of the first victims, but he was not alone. TV stations from the world’s second most populous country preceded it, as Hindus in India fueled phobias of a “corona jihad” run by Orthodox Muslims. In all the societies shocked and shut down by the virus, some people have harbored theories that so much damage could only come from human, presumably hostile designs.
Responsible voices within the scientific community and the media have denounced these theories. It’s for the best. What is not for the best, however, is to remain oblivious to what they knew in 1955: that science is arming us in new ways, at the risk of human society itself. We can reject the malicious conspiracies on Covid-19, and still see this disaster as just an illustration of what a modified pathogen could do to us.
The danger we face with bioengineered agents is probably much greater than that of the nuclear holocaust. In The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, Oxford University Fellow Toby Ord meticulously reports on various events, both natural and man-made, which present an “existential risk”. He says the risk of a nuclear war is 1 / 1,000 in the next 100 years, but the risk of an “artificial pandemic” is 1/30 – the second most likely of any disaster, beaten only by a rogue AI . “We already have past examples of biological threats reaching extreme proportions,” Ord told me over the phone from Oxford, where he works at the University’s Future of Humanity Institute. “When we go beyond natural hazards and consider that people could engineer pathogens in order to have the exact properties to do us the most damage, that’s where it gets really scary.
An artificial virus could be developed at a much lower cost or scientific capacity threshold than a nuclear bomb. Gene editing techniques are advancing at breakneck speed, and most of the data is simply shared as academic material, with little oversight given to applied nuclear physics. Advances in bioengineering, made in the most advanced laboratories a few years ago, are now being replicated by undergraduates. That’s great for research, but in terms of risk – in Ord’s expression – “democratization is proliferation”.
“It should be clarified that you are not suggesting that the coronavirus is a biological weapon,” continues Ord. “But it certainly shows the lower limit of what a major attack with biological weapons could do.”
A gloomy lesson from the 20th century is that general war legitimizes all means, even those that were once considered atrocious. (Throughout the 1930s, European powers repeatedly resolved never to use bomber planes.) While the catastrophic potential of science continues to increase, the conditions for that potential to materialize must always recede. . We really have to give up the war.
Instead, since the Covid-19 crisis, many governments have stepped up on blame games and brinkmanship. The world’s rival superpowers are negotiating denunciations, closing their consulates, and grappling with each other in the South China Sea. Hard-won arms control treaties like the Fresh Start expire instead of being extended to China. The two countries presumed to be most likely to resort to a nuclear swap are India and Pakistan. A third of their weapons could directly kill around 100 million people and precipitate a global nuclear winter. In televised debates, we watch Indian and Pakistani spokespersons shout threats to “destroy” their mutual capitals.
In 2020, biological weapons are not our biggest problem. Thanks to Covid-19, however, they are the stick that rolled between our feet from the dynamite barrel that we forgot we were sitting on. The moral argument against future war rests on the same ground as the argument against climate change. In Edward Said’s resonant phrase, the task ahead is not to separate one struggle from another, but to connect them. There are radical paths we are preparing to take to save ourselves from climate catastrophe. These paths should also lead us away from the next war, and from this bet with the future of humanity.
In previous decades, images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have prompted people around the world to never say the bomb again. For most people today, for whom the bomb is just an ironic symbol in the ‘mind is blown’ emoji, our worst impressions of the Covid-19 pandemic could be a similar caveat. . Curfews, displacement and world hunger – wealth devastated and international travel and trade network closed – deaths are increasing insanely without a shot being fired: Covid-19 is a terrible natural pandemic, but also a repetition of a sort of future war, which mobilizes not tanks or submarines but the frontiers of scientific research.
“Atomic scientists, I think, have become convinced that they cannot awaken the American people to the truths of the atomic age by logic alone,” Einstein said in The Atlantic magazine. “We must add this deep power of emotion which is a basic ingredient of religion. It is to be hoped that not only churches, but also schools, colleges and major opinion bodies, will fully fulfill their unique responsibility in this regard. We are called to attempt a cultural and moral evolution away from war. We may be too embarrassed to say this and risk appearing naive. But atomic scientists were not embarrassed, knowing the real risk before us.
• Raghu Karnad is a journalist and editor-in-chief of The Wire