Acceptance speech – Hans-Peter Dürr

Peace in its real sense can never be achieved by military measures or technical fixes... It is high time for us to focus our attention on the real problems which are threatening all of us...


As a scientist I am here to argue against the terrible misuse of science. Not only huge sums of money but also an increasing part of our intellectual resources are wasted today in designing more sophisticated, more insidious, more powerful weapons and counter weapons. And not only that. While trying to curb or halt this fatal military build-up, even more of our best scientists and our highly motivated people are being drawn into the military machinery although their original motivation was just the opposite, namely to keep out of it. They often find themselves in the awkward position of being forced to participate in a game they do not want to play at all.

Many of us, for example, were involved and are still involved in the debate on the Strategic Defense Initiative SDI, in particular concerning its technical feasibility, its stability, and its political implications. Our efforts, as far as we can see, unfortunately have done nothing to stop the project. On the contrary sometimes it appears that they have even stimulated its advocates and their well-paid experts to suggest new and improved proposals. Or sometimes one gets the impression that such phantoms are merely created to keep us busy and to divert our attention and the attention of the public from even nastier developments. For my part, I hate to be misused in this way.

Surely we all have more important and more reasonable things to do than to argue against these crazy and dangerous projects. We certainly all would prefer to use our precious time and energy on something constructive, something which will contribute to foster cooperation, compassion and friendliness among its people, and to preserving the life-sustaining capacity and the beauty of the earth.

Of course, I realize that we cannot abandon military questions altogether since the most acute threat to peace at the moment would seem to be the mad and accelerating arms race and the resultant destabilization of the world military situation. The most likely cause of a nuclear war, it appears, is not the failure of mutual deterrence – what sane person who desires his own survival and that of his species would willingly start a nuclear war? – The most likely cause of a nuclear war will be the inability of military-technical structures to handle political crisis. The weapon arsenals of East and West are like closely linked parts of a single huge nuclear reactor. Contrary, however, to our so-called “safe”civilian reactors, this weapon reactor is constructed in such a way that in case of failure it does not switch off but will escalate to full destruction.

Therefore, unfortunately, we must continue to pay careful attention to military technical developments. We have to make great efforts to break the dynamics of the arms race and to find ways to improve crisis stability generally. We have to realize that this cannot be achieved by a straight-forward approach. The arms race is not simply caused by some vicious people – although I know, of course, that there are such people and even very powerful ones – but is predominantly the result of an eigen dynamics which strongly constraints the system of armaments to its present pernicious course.

Our inability to stop the arms race is partly connected to our lack of understanding of the dynamics of the process. We are used to looking at phenomena as static and do not give enough attention to their development in time as it results from their integration into a more general causal structure. In particular strong feed-back mechanisms cause the system to get out of control and to proceed on its own destructive path – much as a microphone – loudspeaker system starts shrieking if the amplifier is turned up too much. Static considerations dominate our thinking and are in many instances the basis of our decisions. And this has its reasons: In the case of closed systems or approximately decoupled systems static thinking allows us – by using our past experience – to anticipate and to predict the future behaviour of the system to a certain extent, and in this way also offers the means to control and regulate the system. For open systems or systems strongly coupled to their surroundings, this is no longer possible. These systems will not respond easily to exterior controls but are predominately regulated by inner constraints.

Static thinking, for example may prompt us, as in the case of SDI, to construct a huge defense system in outer space a few hundred kilometers away from the earth’s surface to destroy all attacking missiles or their warheads on their trajectories just as we would try to avert the strokes of an opponent’s sword by means of a sturdy shield. Dynamical thinking will teach us, however, that the construction of such a defense system in space will necessarily generate countermeasures from the opponent which may completely defeat its original purpose. In judging the ultimate effectiveness of a defense system as envisaged by SDI it does not suffice to consider the technical feasibility of any particular lay-out of such a system but to take fully into account all possible reactions to it. As a technical undertaking, therefore, SDI cannot be compared, for example, with the Apollo project, the landing of man on the moon, because the moon did not ward off the human effort, it did not shoot back. If we consider the extreme vulnerability of space-based sensors as required by a missile defense system and, on the other hand, the relative robustness of missiles and their nuclear warheads, we easily understand the disadvantage of the defender. Each technical break-through in constructing a tighter umbrella against nuclear missiles will at the same time provide even better means to punch holes into it. This only indicates the uselessness of SDI for the purpose for which it is advertised for the public, namely for providing protection against nuclear missiles. If this were all we could simply ignore it as a threat. The real danger of SDI, however, lies in the fact that it will bring weapons into space and therefore carry the arms race into a new dimension jeopardizing among other things the stabilizing function of satellites. In addition, the huge SDI research and development program will in its wake generate other terrible weapons.

Similarly, a nuclear test stop appears to change very little from a static point of view because it will not reduce the nuclear arsenals nor prevent their further increase. A comprehensive nuclear test ban would, however, constitute a clear signal that both sides do not intend to base their security forever on deterrence and the principle of mutual assured destruction. The test ban therefore would start a process in which all parties have to think about new and better ways of stabilizing the military situation.

The idea of military equilibrium in the sense of exact parity of the weapon arsenals is another example of the inadequacy of static thinking. Because of the basic asymmetries in the opponents situations, the continuous development of weapon technology, deficient perception of the opponents strength and intentions and the ambivalence of weapons regarding their defensive and offensive use, each side will only feel safe if it actually is stronger than the other side, a situation which will necessarily lead to an arms race. One way to break up this vicious circle would be to restructure one’s defense forces in such a way as to make them incapable of attack – without diminishing their effectiveness in defense. Sufficient defense combined with structural inability for attack, a non-offensive defense posture, appears to be a salient stability principle on the level of conventional arms.

The military on both sides are doubtful about the possibility of a reliable non-offensive defense because in many instances attack is still assumed to be the best defense. There are some indications, however, that these doubts are being slowly eroded, as reflected in official statements in East and West during the last year. Many people quite naturally do not like the idea of restructuring military forces. They clearly prefer disarmament. So do I. The question is how to achieve disarmament and whether it is possible to go directly from the arms race dynamics to a disarmament dynamics without certain transition stages, as for example, transarmament. In considering non-offensive defense as a transition posture one should not underrate the psychological factor: The general atmosphere in which negotiations proceed is dramatically improved if the potential opponents do not limit the discussion merely to establishing some parity in their over-kill arsenals but begin considering ways and means to reduce their mutually perceived threat.

All this work on military-political and military-technical problems, I wish to stress again, is, I believe, extremely important and will, unfortunately, also require the active participation of scientists and technicians to some extent, but it is also evident: Peace in its real sense can never be achieved by military measures or technical fixes. Military-technical measures at best will only lengthen the fuse: They may stretch the time for solving the underlying basic problems, or better: they may provide the time necessary for a learning process which directs our attention towards these problems. But lengthening the fuse only helps if the time gained is used to disarm the charge. It is, indeed, high time that we focus our attention on the real problems which are threatening all of us, in fact, life itself on this planet.

What are the real global challenges we are facing? We may give them different priorities, but we all recognize the following urgent problems:

  • How can we harmonize a rapidly growing industrialization with our vulnerable environment on which we vitally depend. I.e.: How can we sufficiently reduce the pollution of air, waters and soil, how avert dramatic chemical changes in our atmosphere and minimize radiation damage resulting from radioactive fallout.
  • How can we secure in the long run our energy needs without threatening present and future generations with deadly risks. Or more generally: How can we retard or even stop the depletion of non-renewable resources.
  • How can we prevent that, despite increasing productivity, a growing part of a rapidly growing human population is harassed by poverty, hunger and disease.
  • How can we achieve more justice on earth? How can we reorganize the world economy that the ample fruits of the earth and the abundant goods of human production do not accumulate where there is affluence but go there where they are really needed?
  • How can we prevent the suppression of individual freedom and development by dictatorial power and narrow-minded bureaucracies? What must we do to assure that human rights, in the wake of poverty, hunger and unemployment, do not in fact degenerate to the privilege of only a few.

All these problems, as we know, can develop into world-wide catastrophes soon if we do not address them resolutely. They all will jeopardize our security. They all will lead to unrest, uprisings and wars. And war in our time can mean homicide. It does not suffice to prevent wars but, to prepare for a lasting peace, we have to do much more: We have to approach and tackle all the urgent problems and this without delay. Why don’t we all – East and West, North and South – join hands to meet the great challenges confronting humankind? Because these problems concern us all and equally. Why should it not be possible to make these really urgent global problems of our time for once the main focus of a comprehensive research and development program, the object of a global challenges initiative? And this directly and explicitly instead of hoping that their solution will more or less accidentally occur as a by-product or spin-off of a military-technical super-project like SDI.

Of course, I realize that such an undertaking would be colossal and extremely complicated, its goal is utopian. But should we therefore discard it as a goal? Is the goal envisaged by SDI not totally utopian, too, and aren’t there some people, in fact, who pride themselves on being particularly realistic and pragmatic – who seriously intend to realize it? And this just with SDI which obviously only constitutes another step lip in the arms race. Of course, I realize that SDI was proposed by the President of the USA and, most important, quite a lot of money was announced. It may also be that the task of an initiative which tries to solve the urgent global problems is even more complicated than SDI because these global problems are not only of a scientific-technical nature. But such an initiative would be so much more worth-while, so much more reasonable and so much more suitable for general consensus. The brightest and most enlightened people in all fields, on all levels of society, and from all geographical areas should be persuaded to join this effort – and I believe they also could be persuaded and motivated if they are approached in an appropriate way. Many are waiting to be asked.

How do we want to implement this crazy plan? How can we ever hope to transform this vision into solid reality?

We find ourselves faced with the common dilemma:

  • On the one hand, the large number of closely interrelated problems requires us to step back and consider the full picture and to understand their structure and their dynamical behaviour.
  • On the other hand, our limited ability to devise solutions and to effect change by concrete actions forces us to narrow our attention and resources to a few problems at a time.

We can, however, escape this basic dilemma by proceeding on two different levels at once: a general conceptual level and a concrete practical level.

On the general conceptual level, we should identify the basic global problems and illuminate their structure, their causes, their interdependencies and their possible developments. Study projects like Global 2000 for example may give us a good start. Such a general survey will certainly leave us with a great many questions, but with very few answers.

Looking for solutions to these problems, we must consider some basic questions like:

  • How do we want to live?
  • What are our priorities in a world of limited resources?
  • What should be our means of resolving conflicts?

These are very difficult questions, questions which do not allow definite answers. In considering these questions we should not hesitate to formulate and project utopian goals to serve as general orientations for practical action. Because of the basic difference of the present historical situation past experiences will only have limited value. We should, therefore, be prepared to enter and explore completely new territory and engage in a new way of thinking.

Because of the varying cultural and intellectual backgrounds of the world’s population, these questions will obviously not receive unanimous answers. But they should be asked anyway. And this should be done not to throw up new walls between peoples but, on the contrary, to find common ground. Solutions, in general, do not require unanimity, but only compatibility. Despite the great variety in people’s opinions and life styles, we should not jump to the conclusion that there is no common ground between them. In fact:

  • We all have to proceed on the basis of a limited earth with limited resources in its accessible crust;
  • we all are convinced that every man, woman and child on this earth should have the opportunity to lead a decent life;
  • we all are vitally interested in the survival of humankind and the biosphere.

These goals should actually suffice to establish a solid basis for common actions.

The main question, of course, will be how to translate our distant and utopian goals into manageable first step actions. On the basis of our general conceptual considerations a multitude of very specific and concrete problems will emerge that could serve as starting points for practical solutions to the larger problems. These first-step problems constitute the concrete practical level. They deserve our full attention. Because the concrete problems are highly specific and vary greatly in quality, their investigation and solution require the active participation of very many people on various individual and institutional levels. Where do we find these people and groups?

I am convinced that there are many people who would be willing to participate in this effort if we only can offer them a chance. There is already a multitude of organisations and groups involved in problems connected with peace, ecology, energy and Third World. Some are frustrated by their long and seemingly unsuccessful struggle because there is barely any official support for them, to say the least, and the tasks exceed their abilities and strength. These tasks are really too difficult for all of us. It is therefore important, that we not only indicate utopian goals for orientation but that we intensively think about possible ways which may lead to them and point out the very first tiny steps which have to be taken. It will also be important to provide room for creative action for everybody who wants to get involved and wants to participate.

But how do we go about implementing these ideas?

As a first step towards this general goal some of us beginning of this year have started a network – which we called the Global Challenges Network GCN – for the purpose of tying an international net of projects and groups who will cooperate in a differentiated way in tackling the urgent global problems, the global challenges. Such an idea, of course, is not new. It has been tried in the past in various ways without ever really succeeding. It is a crazy idea, a pure utopia. In our case, at least for the moment, it shall simply serve the purpose of a general frame work in which a study group will be formed, an International Science and Technology Study Group ISAT-SG. This Study Group shall consist of competent and knowledgeable men and women from various countries and professions with theoretical and practical experience, i.e. people with so-called T-intelligence. T-intelligence here shall mean an intelligence which can best be symbolized by the capital letter “T” combining a vertical bar, indicating depth and detailed expertise, and a horizontal bar, indicating a global, holistic view and broad experience in which special knowledge is harmoniously embedded. The Study Group shall in particular have the tasks:

  • to point out the most urgent global problems,
  • to structure these problems according to
  • topics and problem areas
  • the methods of approach for implementing and solving these problems
  • the availability of material and intellectual resources for their realization
  • to break them down into smaller, simpler and more accessible sub problems and projects
  • to define selection criteria for assigning priorities to the sub problems, as for example regarding
  • their general relevance
  • their urgency
  • the feasibility of possible solutions
  • the possibility for global cooperation
  • the transferability to different geographical regions
  • the number of people involved
  • the size of the necessary financial investments
  • the time period for realization
  • their symbolic power and their novelty value
  • to figure out and to suggest practical entries to possible solutions
  • to identify world-wide scientific, technical, cultural, etc, expert-type and grassroot-type capacities on a global and local level, competent for working on detailed solutions,
  • to find sources of political and financial support.

To prepare the International Science and Technology Study Group about forty people from various international organisations experienced in the relevant problem areas met in Feldafing near Munich in July 1987. The task we set ourselves was to make a first review of the whole problem areas, to advance suggestions for candidates for the first round of the Study Group and to develop ideas about a data-based computer network which can facilitate the cooperation of the Study Group members and, later on, can also provide important information on projects, methods of approach, and people and groups involved.

Some people have criticized that the Study Croup has been given the name of a Science and Technology Study Group which seems to imply that we assume that all the global problems are only scientific and technical problems and therefore should be solved by scientists and technicians. This point, indeed requires some clarification. Obviously only some parts of the problems which threaten humankind are of a technical nature or are such that that we can hope to tackle them by scientific means.

In this context we should realize that the evolution of the Universe and the evolution of life on earth points in the direction of generating structures of higher and higher order in the sense that these structures get more and more divers and differentiated. This concept of order is somewhat in contrast to our everyday conception of order which considers, for example, the arrangement of atoms in a salt crystal to be more orderly than the atoms, let us say, in the DNA-double-helix, or, as another example, the Carbon atoms in a single graphite crystal more orderly than the ones spread out as printing ink of various letters in a book of poetry. These examples show that only the one who reads will be able to perceive, this lofty stage of order, this tremendous bulk of information hidden in the seemingly chaotic and arbitrary arrangement of a DNA-super molecule or a book. Due to our limited understanding of nature and the very limited ways of non-destructively manipulating her as compared to her inherent potentialities, technical developments in their effort to maximize certain preselected properties valuable to us in a certain context, automatically will sacrifice other potentialities and the flexibility in other ranges. Nature does not try to maximize certain features irrespective of others but tries to optimize their systems in a high-dimensional space of a huge number of options. The extension to higher dimensions opens up many evolutionary paths and increases stability and robustness. A DNA-super molecule with its atoms monotonously and orderly rearranged along a single line may be more easily memorized and synthetically reproduced, but such a molecule would have completely lost its property as a code for steering and controlling the growth of a particular living creature. Decentralization and differentiation of structures will avoid the dullness and inherent destructiveness of monocultures and provide the ground for the conservation and the generation of higher organisational forms.

But will the economic forces which apparently favour centralization, standardization and power accumulation not prevent any change of the present course? I do not think that this has to be so. An undertaking which tries to solve urgent global problems and to meet fundamental human needs rather than to chase continuously after new expensive techniques should actually prove more successful in a competitive situation, at least in the long run. Because all these problems will not simply die away but even get worse in time, some of them or all of them one day will stand full-size at our doorsteps and the people being prepared will have great advantages.

Perhaps the solution of the urgent global problems may not require quite such extreme technologies and high-tech as is necessary for tackling e.g. space research or SDI. Therefore some people may be afraid that these problems will not be intellectually ambitious enough to catch the imagination and the enthusiasm of our scientists and technicians, and that they are not glamorous enough to nourish their vanity. Some scientists will certainly prefer to see their name attached to a star rather than to a waste utilization plant. We should recognize, however, that in view of the increasing threats and dangers to man, and in view of the speed with which we are racing to catastrophe, many people – and in particular our young people during the last decades have become strongly motivated to devote their work and their intellectual and moral energies to real human needs.

The International Science and Technology Study Group will, so I hope, point out a large number of different ways to approach global problems. It may also name and motivate competent people and groups of people to actually tackle them. All these different project groups which, depending on their particular tasks, will be in close or loose contact with each other and appropriately will join their efforts, would become the nodes in an international network, the Global Challenges Network or whatever we may eventually call it.

The conditions for building such an international network have improved dramatically during the last year. In the Soviet Union an International Foundation for Survival and Humanity was formed at the occasion of the International Peace Forum in Moscow in February 1987 by an international initiative group. Preparations to establish similar foundations in the USA, Sweden and other countries are on the way. There are excellent prospects at the moment that all theses initiatives will eventually fuse into one global network in the very near future.

The various projects of Global challenges Network will offer an excellent chance for close cooperation between East and West, in particular if we first concentrate on the problems of ecology and energy, where both sides are “in the same boat”. Actually, a common interest exists for all our global problems, in particular also the military security problem. But the present political polarization, unfortunately, prevents many from realizing this. Therefore, attempts to fully resolve East-West problems will probably have to wait for a more auspicious political climate. This climate, however, can be greatly improved by joint ventures. We should start where we face the fewest obstacles. Cooperation in projects of common interest is the best way to build up mutual trust and confidence.

Global Challenges Network e.V.
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