Anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott launched the fifth annual "Planet in Focus" International Environmental Film and Video Festival in Toronto in September
Helen Caldicott's decades of tireless campaigning for nuclear disarmament and environmental issues have made her an icon for the peace movement. She was most recently featured as a strong-spoken, somewhat abrasive person who "tells it like it is" in the documentary Helen's War: Portrait of a Dissident, but in person she is anything but the strident and self-absorbed person that I expected. She speaks in the direct, bold and straightforward manner of somebody who is passionate about the subject at hand to the point of forgetting her shyness, simply because it is so important to her to get the message out.
Dr. Caldicott believes that although the peace and nuclear disarmament movement has gone backward since the 1980s, it is important to remember that the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall were in part a result of their efforts. She met with Ronald Reagan when he was President, apparently to no effect, but he and Gorbachev met in Reykjavik one weekend and committed to full nuclear disarmament. It eventually got derailed because Ronald Reagan didn't want to give up his Star Wars plan but other than that it would have worked and it's important to remember that it was possible. Society has become more receptive. People who used to accuse her of being a Communist when she spoke about the medical effects of nuclear war -- displaying anger even more profound than that of Americans after 9/11 -- are now prepared to listen.
She also describes how the interpersonal psychology of leaders comes into play. When the cold war ended, George Bush I unilaterally removed about 10,000 nuclear weapons to help Gorbachev with his belligerent military, but when Bill Clinton came into office, his strong need to be liked overrode his integrity and prevented him from taking a stand on the issue. He created a Nuclear Posture Review, headed by Senator Les Aspen, who suggested that they get rid of more nuclear weapons and then promptly had a heart attack and died. Ashton Carter, his successor, was trashed along with the program because many people in office didn't want their missiles to be removed. Clinton was persuaded to abandon the idea and was eventually committed to leading the world in nuclear weapons development and production, says Caldicott.
The state of the satellites used by the Soviets to detect missiles compounds the risk of nuclear war, she says, as they only work eight hours a day because they can't afford to keep them running. The Soviets' resulting edginess nearly caused a catastrophe in 1995 when one of their satellites picked up an American missile with a weather satellite on it launched from Norway. The Pentagon had warned the Kremlin about it, but the Russians had lost the data and the Russians thought they were under attack from the Americans. Yeltsin, a two-bottle of vodka a day drinker, opened the "football" containing codes for him to fire a nuclear weapon and had three minutes in which to make a decision. Some of his generals told him to press the button but he held off until, with only 10 seconds left, the missile veered off course and it became clear that it wasn't an attack after all. The incident was buried in the back pages of newspapers as if it weren't an important story.
Many people also don't know that the US was on the second highest state of nuclear alert on 9/11. Every day there are alerts set off by wildfires and other natural phenomena. Nuclear reactors are vulnerable to attack, too, and would probably all explode if there were to be a nuclear war. So, says Dr. Caldicott, "nothing's changed all these years and now we have a President in Washington who is I think the most dangerous president the world has ever had, let alone America's ever had....Reagan used to make stories up too, but this administration is far worse." Karl Rove is a "combination of Svengali and Rasputin" in his influence on Bush and Bush's latest policies greatly increase the risk of nuclear war, she believes.
Russia and the US own 97% of the 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world, yet everybody's going around looking at places like North Korea and Iran. The hunt for "weapons of mass destruction" is really the project for the new American century. Yet if a nuclear war happens, the nuclear winter will affect everybody on the planet. It seems important to Dr. Caldicott to impress upon us that if we, as Canadians, don't want that to happen, we must get out of NORAD and become nuclear-free, splitting from the US military, as we don't need them any more than they need us. New Zealand has blocked nuclear submarines from coming into their harbors; we could do the same.
Dr. Caldicott makes the interesting point that we have to psychoanalyze what's going on, both on individual and cultural levels, "from a Jungian perspective, from an Oliver Sacks perspective, from a sociobiological perspective....If we don't make this diagnosis now we might not be here much longer." "Sociobiologically speaking, when we lived in caves three million years ago, men had to be strong and had to kill; they had to kill sabre-tooth tigers, they had to kill marauding tribes, to save their genes in our babies who were at our breasts." It was a function for survival that now threatens our survival. Psychologically, why haven't we stood up to our "great southern neighbor" and become autonomous? Why have we let them take over under the Free Trade Act? Why we are indulging in the preparation of a global gas oven?
"Practicing denial is suicidal, and you have enough power in this country to put the world on a new path, and I don't care who your politicians are, because as Bush keeps talking, you are a democracy. If you have enough guts, you'll turn this country around." The Americans, she asserts, need leadership and guidance. They are completely brainwashed by their television. They "watch Fox all day, which anaesthetizes their brains." America's now building 500 new hydrogen bombs a year, in the project called the Stockpile Stewardship and Maintenance Program, funded by Bill Clinton when he tried to bribe the scientists at the nuclear weapons labs to allow the Senate to pass the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which they ended up not passing anyway. "My prognosis for the planet is 20 years max but probably 10 years if we continue going the way we're going now."
We also need to revisit the ways in which we produce and use power. Nuclear power is not clean; uranium enrichment produces 93% of CFCs released into the atmosphere. It also produces a huge amount of carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. Furthermore, every year millions of curies of radiation are released into the environment in an unregulated way. "I contend that nuclear technology threatens life on our planet with extinction. If present trends continue, the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink will soon be contaminated with enough radioactive pollution to pose a potential health hazard far greater than any plague humanity has ever experienced, and I'm talking about epidemics of cancer and genetic disease in children." Since Chernobyl, all Europe is now radioactive and diseases like thyroid cancer, once practically unheard of, have now become commonplace.
Helen Caldicott points out that Europeans use 50 percent less electricity than Americans, yet have the same standard of living, simply because they turn their lights off and hang their clothes out to dry. It isn't difficult to be that little bit more economical. Every time you use electricity, you're contributing to the death or illness of another person, she argues. We should focus on renewable sources of energy like solar, wind, tide and geothermal power. Children are very sensitive to radiation, and we must change our use and production of power for their sake. Nuclear power plants just boil water, using uranium fuel rods that become a million times more radioactive than when the uranium was first dug up. Candu reactors make pure plutonium that can be made to use nuclear bombs, so Canada must stop selling it to the world. Everybody's threatened and beginning to feel obliged to go nuclear.
America's missile defence system is geared to knock out Russian missiles midair, but if Putin launches a missile the defence will probably be a nuclear bomb going off in space, with a huge electromagnetic pulse that will knock out huge areas of the country including all the electricity and cables. Russia feels threatened and will build more bombs, as will China - that's called vertical proliferation. Then little coutries will want to join too -- lateral proliferation. These form the "nuclear cross -- vertical and lateral -- upon which we'll all be crucified."
Always the clinician, Dr. Caldicott analyzes the present state of American culture: "I'm trying to make a clinical diagnosis about why the whole of the US is close to death." She believes that the fear that Americans face every day, knowing that they could end the world at any time, is reflected in the poverty of modern art and culture. Americans desperately want to do the right thing but they don't know what it is. Canadians are more grounded and thus have a huge responsibility to provide the moral guidance that American mainstream culture is so lacking.