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Caldicott: "Save our Planet"

Shirley Farlinger — November 1983

Ms. Farlinger works for the United Church of Canada and attended the Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver during July. The following account of Dr. Helen Caldicott’s address to the assembly was excerpted with the author’s permission from a longer article in the Newsletter of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

For her address to the Sixth Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Dr. Helen Caldicott chose the title “Life, Confronting and Overcoming Death.”

“Nuclear war is the single most urgent problem facing the human family today,” she begins. “Even before it happens, the global armaments are preparing the world as a tinder box for the final conflagration, depriving two thirds of the world’s children of food, adequate clothing and shelter. Seven hundred billion dollars are spent per year on the conventional and nuclear arms race, and the wealthy western nations and the Soviet Union are peddlers of armaments and death to Third World countries. Unless we break the cycle of corporate greed manifested by the role of armaments of death, the future of the planet is in gross jeopardy.” .

Many people in the audience know first-hand about deprivation and corporate greed. One of them, Domitila de Chungara, is the wife of a tin miner in Bolivia. “Our country has great riches.” she says, but we live in appalling poverty because of our dependence on other capitalistic countries. My husband works all day with neither Saturday nor Sunday off and he can’t even cover the family’s basic needs. The workers’ demonstrations are always met with massacres, torture and armed attacks. We wish to live in a free democratic country and will not allow a dictatorship of death to return.”

In contrast to short, solid Domitila, Dr. Caldicott is tall, slim and well-dressed. Her experience as a lecturer is evident as she continues.

“The Reagan administration has postured the Soviet Union as the only evil influence in the world and the Pentagon has prepared a Five Year Defense Guidance Plan which calls for American capability to fight and win a protracted nuclear war over a six-month period. The cold war has reached a higher plateau than at any other time since the Dulles brinkmanship era. Many great scientists and statesmen in the United States now predict that we will be lucky to survive to 1990 without a nuclear war.”

Caldicott doesn’t name the scientists and statesmen, but she has regular contact with many. Her first book, Nuclear Madness, is filled with data about plutonium, the dangers of uranium mining and nuclear industrial waste and the connection with cancer.

Caldicott’s own medical training inspired her famous lecture on .the death of the planet. Describing Earth as a patient with a rapidly spreading disease of atomic devices, she predicted an early death. This lecture was captured on film, interspersed with actual shots of atomic test explosions in Nevada, scarred Hiroshima victims and clips of military personnel, and made into the film if You Love This Planet. One of the clips shows Ronald Reagan as a young obedient soldier in a 1940s propaganda movie.

Incredible as it seems, this same Reagan recently granted Caldicott over an hour of his time at the White House. She found him both uninformed and insensitive. “Most of his information was incorrect and he had to ask an aide which country in South America was which.”

At age 72 Reagan is very susceptible to strokes and should have his cortex examined every six months, Caldicott believes. The knowledge that this unfeeling, uninformed, stroke-prone man is at that very moment directing nuclear-armed ships in a ‘show of strength’ in the Caribbean is especially chilling for the WCC delegates from Central America.

Most people are in a state Caldicott calls “psychic numbing.’” It is to overcome this that she describes a nuclear scenario.

“A nuclear war would kill from blast alone within the first hour 750 million people, and would seriously injure 350 million in the northern hemisphere. Many hundreds of millions more would die from burns, radiation illness, starvation, uncontrolled epidemics of black plague, typhoid, rabies, poliomyelitis, hepatitis, encephalitis and tuberculosis. It is possible that most people in the northern hemisphere will die within several years and many millions more in the southern hemisphere from fallout, direct nuclear attack and destruction. of the global ozone layer inducing famine, blindness and severe lethal sunburn to humans exposed to the sun for one to two hours. Other global ecological effects might be the cooling of the Earth … inducing another ice age and the darkening of the planet for several months. All these effects could well induce destruction of most life on Earth.”

She continues with a quote from Einstein. “‘The splitting of the atom has changed everything save man’s mode of thinking, thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.’ The simple scientific and medical truth is that man can no longer light. We have opened Pandora’s box, relegating war to one of the anachronisms of history. If World War II had been fought in Europe with nuclear reactors everywhere, Europe would still be uninhabitable 37 years later. Conventional wars are no longer biologically acceptable because of the dangers of nuclear meltdowns in nuclear power plants.”

The problems of radioactive fallout are well-known to the WCC delegates from the South Pacific. Twice evacuated, the Marshall Islanders have returned home to a cancer-ridden life where their newborns sometimes resemble a jelly-fish or ‘a bunch of grapes.’ Beneath these actions the delegates sense the ugly white hand of racism, the white nations of France and the U.S. disregarding the concerns of powerless black nations.

Caldicott continues her speech to the delegates. “Nationalism is also anachronistic. Man must learn to live’ with man, respecting and honouring the differences, and working to make the world a place where the children are fed, clothed and educated; where the overpopulation problem is solved and where the end product of the brilliance of man’s mind — science, industry and high technology — is put towards the health and well-being of the world instead of profits, death, destruction and Armageddon. This is the ultimate moral and religious. issue of our time.” Holding out her hands, she declares “we hold God’s creation in the palm of our hand. This generation will either decide actively to save it, or, by passive complicity, to destroy it.” She receives a standing ovation.

In addition to her books, speaking engagements and visits to leaders (she will visit Andropov soon), Caldicott is going to concentrate on . what she calls the ‘gender gap.’ Is there something inherently different in males and females that makes the arms race mainly a male obsession? .

Caldicott’s search for the answers takes her back to the births of her three children. She loved bearing her children and realised one day when driving with her baby in a car that looked as though it might crash that she would gladly die to save her child. Most women would, she claims. What is it in males, she wonders, that they can passively allow the installation. of weapons which threaten the existence of all life?

“Women must let men know that the kind of man they admire is the one who has the courage to stand up for weak people, is kind and gentle, loving and caring. They are the real men,” she contends;

“What can we do?” asks a tearful mother of a ten-year-old who tells her he won’t have a chance to grow up. Caldicott says, “Get. it into your soul how. desperate the situation really is. Ask the politicians to cut off all aid to corporations who make weapons. Use the ballot box. Tap the feeling of all mothers that they would die to save their children. Become more powerful. Say to yourself: “I will save the planet!”