Environment and Energy

Atomic and Human Energy


The first use of the atomic bomb against a hostile population has, in spite of its stunning success as a weapon of war, brought forth expressions of guilt and horror from many parts of the world. These emotions have been felt even in the victorious nations, and even by persons who are glad on the whole that it was employed to bring the war to a quick end. They are probably less strong in the United States than in England, which has suffered the actual experience of indiscriminate devastation from the air. It is indeed difficult to justify use of an extreme form of the kind of weapon which hitherto has proved to us the cruelty of our enemies. This feeling of guilt gives poignancy to the fear that at some time in the future a more highly developed embodiment of the same awful agency may be used against ourselves, or perhaps to destroy the entire human race.

In terms of logic it is easy to answer the contention that any new weapon is so much worse than others that it ought not to be sanctioned. The individual victim is no better off if he is maimed or killed by a shell, a bullet, a bayonet, or even by a sword, an arrow, or a cavemen’s club, than if he is disintegrated or seared by an explosion of “the Manhattan engineering project.” The quantitative killing power of its single blow is indeed far greater than anything hitherto known, and yet it took tens of thousands of men many months to prepare to deliver that blow. If they had been soldiers in the armies of Caesar or Attila they might have killed as many people in the same length of time.

It is objected that such a weapon cannot be loosed without murdering thousands of non-combatants, including women and children. The same objection, however, applied with equal force to the strategic bombing of enemy cities. Ever since the days of chivalry, military men have tried to bulwark the honor of their profession by codes which impose limitations on the cruelties of war. But these limitations have never survived for long or prevented the infliction of misery and death upon hordes of innocent persons who could not fight back. When technology of war began to demand the mobilization fo whole populations and the employment of all their productive equipment, the traditions of chivalry could no longer have much practical application.

To admit all this is not to grant that the hesitations and fears about the atomic bomb are groundless. They are, however, futile as long as they are confined to an attempt to exclude some methods of warfare as opposed to others. As many have recognized, the eradication of Hiroshima is a dramatic proof, not that we must or can fail to use the utmost destructive power available to us when we wage war, but rather that mankind can no longer afford to wage war.

Efforts to keep the secret of the atomic bomb or to confine its use to purposes which are assumed to be legitimate may succeed for a short time, but are sure to break down in the end. Scientific discoveries are nobody’s secret as long as human mind can function anywhere. In the past they have frequently been made almost simultaneously by different investigators who had no aid from one another. They depend, not so much on the genius of individuals as on the advance of the total body of knowledge, which cannot be concealed. As long as a single and relatively rare raw material is needed, a few nations, or the world organization, may control access to that material, but there is no assurance that ways may not be found to derive explosive energy from other and more abundant elements. The sheer expense of the converting and manufacturing processes may temporarily debar smaller nations from making use of them, but the chief danger of war does not arise from small nations in any event. The only sure safeguard against disaster lies not in the control of the weapon, but in civilizing the human beings who may wish to sue the weapon.

President Truman has expressed the common hope that constructive uses of atomic energy may be developed which will counterbalance its destructive potentialities. The advance of the human race in ability to produce goods and raise the material level of life has been in large measure a result of gains in the harnessing of mechanical power. If at length we can master such a tremendous and ultimate source of power it may be possible to abolish material want for all men and for all time.

This hope, however, is as vulnerable to misdirection as the fear with which it is associated. The mere discovery of a new source of power cannot in itself greatly change the economic organization of a world in which mechanical power is commonplace. The cost of steam or electric energy has already been so reduced that it is a minor percentage in familiar industrial processes. A new source of power might favor the development of industry in regions which do not have easy access to coal, petroleum or water power, but it would not automatically create abundance.

Immense changes are of course set in motion by new technological processes. Nevertheless the experience of the world during the past century indicates that the practical and widespread use of a new mechanical principle is frequently delayed for many years after its discovery, and that when this use does occur, it usually creates as many problems as it solves. During the decade before the war, the more advanced industrial countries already had the technical knowledge to produce enough to abolish poverty. They did not, however, have the ability to distribute what they could produce. What we need in order to benefit from the release of atomic energy is almost exactly what we needed to benefit from internal-combustion engines and all other improvements in our production. This need was very imperfectly fulfilled by existing human institutions. The peaceful potentialities of atomic energy are therefore like its military potentialities, in that they have intensified a challenge to increase our understanding of human society and to improve its organization.

We must understand that both our fears and our hopes are centered not about the material forces of the universe, but about ourselves. The explosive energies of human personality are far greater than those of the atom, and can have a more devastating effect if released in the wrong way. The material which is studied by the physicists is neutral and impersonal. What is done with it depends upon the nature of the person under whose control it happens to fall. The science of human personality and of the society composed of human individuals has lagged far behind the science of the physical universe. Religions, philosophies, ethical systems have all striven to make their contribution, but this contribution has been inadequate to the responsibilities which our one-sided knowledge has imposed upon us. It is high time for us to concentrate our attention and our ingenuity on achieving as penetrating, as accurate, as cool and as competent a body of knowledge about how to choose our aims and how to effectuate them as we have hitherto devoted to discovering the secrets of matter.

This article originally ran in the August 27, 1945, issue of the magazine.

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