With increasing distance, conscience looses its sharpness

Presentation by former Swiss Federal Minister Moritz Leuenberger at the opening of the symposium « Human Rights, Future Generations and Crimes in the Nuclear Age »

About the difficulty of planning

Planning private life: The quality of a commander, a politician, a manager or a houseman is usually valued by the farsightedness of his (or her) planning. However, life is not a plain as the latin origin of the word « plan » means and neither « a long quiet river » as the french like to express it. Even the simplest planning tasks, as the one necessary for given personal decisions, may frequently be unreliable: we are not “flat as a plain”. We like to adapt our convictions and opinions, in which we strongly believe, to new circumstances. We change course because we reach new conclusions, the same way as a sailing boat, which also has to adapt its course according to the wind directions or the waves. Even more: we may not only change the course, but may decide to steer towards new shores, because our own will flutters in the wind of our changing moods. How many have sworn themselves never to get married yet later decided otherwise, even swearing eternal fidelity to their partners. Yet, in the end things changed again: More than 40000 times Swiss couples get married every year, but later more than 20000 times Swiss tribunals facilitate divorces….  Planning together with a given « you » requires consensus, a dimension more difficult than any planning for myself alone.

Political Planning: Even more challenging than any relation among two people it becomes in politics. In this third dimension it is required to involve parties i.e. people, which we do not even know. Or we need to deal with events in nature, which we cannot even predict. Most complex, finally, is the planning for communities. The changing conditions within or outside of them are difficult to calculate. The history of earlier expectations or visions, which have been overtaken by reality or even proved to be false, shows us he difficulty of long-term planning.

As an example take the current discussions on earlier investments in nuclear power plants: today with the price for electricity being very low, the bosses of electric utilities call for state support, when before they used to sing the song of private independence and enterprise. They make us believe, that they have never chosen a wrong strategy, but rather “the development was different and not in line with their original strategic planning. Indeed, a rather incredible argument!

Scientific and technological predictions: Neither is science able to have a clearer view of the future: Take the history of the predictions for population growth: It is full of erroneous statements, which should make us a bit more cautious with our predictions of today: Montesquieu was of the opinion that the earth population in antiquity was ten times as great as in his presence. From this he concluded that the development in the next two centuries would turn the earth into a desert: „Voila, mon cher Usbeck, la plus terrible catastrophe qui soit jamais arrivée dans le monde!“.- Another example : The Swiss Federal Statistical Office concluded 75 years ago that the population of Switzerland would still grow to a maximum of 4.2 million and then decline slowly. And in one study for Europe a population of 421 million was given as a maximum for 1960 and from that time onwards it would gradually diminish, when indeed in 2015 the European population was 743 millions.

In the 19th century it was predicted, that the rapid growth of traffic would lead to a situation, where cities would be clogged by horse manure. Thanks to the invention of railways and trams in the cities this could luckily be averted. But instead, a serious discussion followed on the health-effects of trains, which would run at a “very unnatural speed” of more than 35 kms/h… And who remembers today, that there were plans for a subterranean nuclear power plant in the heart of Berne, right under the parliament square. Or the plans for a nuclear powered car, a „nucleo-mobile « proudly » made in Switzerland!

Humans are mostly unaware of future discoveries in technology they are so convinced of today. Take the use of DDT or x-rays as examples: luckily today we know much more of the different aspects of this substance, compared to the euphoric times when DDT first was synthetized and today we do not use it any longer. Or take Asbestos: would we long ago have known more on this dangerous mineral, a majority of industrial and business decision makers would not have believed blindly in such a substance and invested in its technology. Today we also know very little on the Nano-technology, or on non-ionizing radiations and on some poisons contained in our nourishments.

The same is true for nuclear energy and ionizing radiation. Inspite of their discovery by the astute William Conrad Röntgen and the benefit of x-rays for diagnostic work in medicine, we now more about them including their risks and use them very carefully. This, however, is not easily understood by some, as the episode of former Swiss Minister for Energy Adolf Ogi recalls. When he in a meeting expressed to French President Francois Mitterand his concerns on Nuclear Power Plants close to the Swiss borders, the latter answered: « Do you doubt the French technology? » which quickly ended the discussion.

And we also are unaware about which social policy developments will happen in the future: as society we are following political trends and, without noticing it, we are influ- enced by them. Nor are we aware, how much autonomy we are loosing by this process. Even less do we know, what will move those who come after us, who perhaps will be the political leaders of tomorrow and how they will think, and whole societies may act. Just recall how few half a year ago ever considered, that a candidate like Mr. Trump would ever become president of the US!  

In my resignation speech in 2010 I joked with my colleagues in the Swiss Federal council, who were mostly friendly supporting the use of nuclear energy, that as minister for traffic, environment and communications  over 10 years « I had built 115 tunnels but no nuclear power plant ». One colleague in the federal Councilor was indignant and objected. But  nobody at the time knew, that it was she, who would become my successor and who only months later would proclaim the Swiss plan for a phase-out of nuclear energy

Planning in democracy: All the mentioned observations make political planning somwhat relative, but do not substantially question it. Every form of government, including democracy and, in the case of Switzerland, also our so called “direct democracy” must and can plan.

Contrary to my colleagues in Germany and France I strongly believe, that direct democracy is better able for long range planning than any representative democracy. The people i.e. the voters form a more stable power, able to install any Government in the rhythm of succeeding parliamentary elections. Without this it likely would not have been possible to build the Gott- hard base tunnel, inaugurated last year, in the same time period and at the planned costs. Consider in this context the still unfinished tunnel Lyon / Torino or the airport Potsdam / Berlin. Political planning beyond one governmental period is less calculable in a  represent- tative democracy as compared to the direct one. A good example may be the current “energy conversion process” in Germany, which shows how difficult it is to plan a political agenda.
This is how « Nuclear Power (NP) » figured in the coalition contracts between the political parties in Germany: In 2002 during the socialist/green Govt no plans for NP phase-out were existing. Later a phase-out was decided by the socialist / conservative Govt. but the process never started. In 2009 the conservative and federal democratic Parties were in power and they even prolonged the running times of the NPP ! Finally after Fukushima the same coaltion decided for the definite phase-out and the energy conversion process (without the socialists or the greens even being involved.

Is it easier for dictators?  Political leaders, who consider themselfs like God – or for one chosen by God – plan their own kingdom for eternity.  And this kingdom only belongs to them and only to them. That is easy for them, as they are convinced of their own immortality. Pharaos had themselfs inbalmed in the pyramids and the mummy of the young Tutanchamun looks today as Michael Jackson and is even very alike the later. However, their kingdoms of a thousand years lasted a fraction of their initially planned duration and Persepolis is in ruins today.

The temporal dimension of planning

The longer the period for planning, the more difficult and uncertain the planning process undoubtedly will be. And to believe that it is possible to plan for thousand years seems somewhat absurd. Yet, regarding the topic of this meeting, highly radioactive nuclear waste should remain safe for a million of years, a period no human can imagine. And considering the completelyunknown political and social conditions, recoverability of nuclear waste after such eternities may or may not be a rational option. And obviously communication with our successors is not possible. The organisation NAGRA (National Coorporation for the safe storage of nuclear waste) has a whole library with dissertations dedicated to these problems. (In one dissertation on the title page one can read: the ink of this paper will be readable for approximately 200 years under optimal conditions). Will there be a Switzerland in a Thousand years? If we consider the displacement of many international borders within the last 1000 years, we should rather be. How shortsighted it seems if today « storage of nuclear waste » is discussed from the prespective of national or even cantonal borders.

True, there were always prophets, writers, philosophers or politicians who were correct in their predictions of coming centennial events. But percentage wise the relation of their correct to the many incorrect predictions, probably corresponds to the one seed, from which a flower grows, as compared to all the seeds which are blown away in the wind… This observation should not lead to resignation, but rather to a some modesty. Even though I appreciate the work of think-tanks, I have only moderate trust in their abilities to predict the future over a longer period better than those who read from the coffee set or the crystal ball. I rather believe, that we should consider the dimension of planning not in a quantitative way, but rather focus on its quality i.e. fill planning with content. Not the longterm nature of our options is important but the ethical dimension of our actions. 

The ethical dimension of planning

Regarding content, which long-term criteria are relevant for planning? My observation is this: our conscience looses its sharpness, its “edge” the further away we are from the effects of our actions. With increasing distance we loose responsibility. This is true in a spatial sense in the movie “the third man”: Orson Wells alias Harry Lime is committing a war crime during peace, in that he is dealing with diluted penicillin. He explains to his friend on top of the Ferris wheel in the Viennese Prater, where the two are seeing their fellow humans on the ground only as tiny dots like this: “Would you really feel pitty, if one of those dots would stop to move – stop for ever? And if I would offer you 20’000 pounds for one dot which stopped moving: would you say without hesitation that I should keep my money? Would you not rather calculate, how many dots you could stop? And this without taxes, my dear?”- And Charles Chaplin said once: if you see to people fighting each other in a total view, it may even be funny. However, seeing them close-up you start feeling pity for them. As re to Syria the pity we feel with the people there or the refugees in the camps of Turkey or Lebanon we only read about, but which we don’t see, is a lot smaller than our pity for a father, who is holding his dead son in his arms, a photograph which went around the world. Our conscience may also be weakening regarding people in other countries and continents. This could graphically be seen by the recent fact of the US leaving the Paris climate treaty on the grounds of Mr. Trumps new philosophy of « America first ». And it is seen in policy measures with refugees, when barbed wire and walls are being proposed as solutions.

Our compassion is also decreasing with increasing temporal distance: Einstein experienced the problem of closeness and distance as a personal moral dilemma. As a convinced pacifist he signed a letter to Roosevelt, promoting in it the creation of a nuclear bomb, as he was afraid, that Hitler at the time could be the first to build one himself. He felt compelled to think in strategic dimensions of power and he distanced himself from the imagination, how this bomb would kill humans. Later he regretted this letter and confessed in a Japanese news- paper the following: Killing in war, according to my understanding, is not any better than conventional murder.

“After us the deluge" is only the most extreme exaggeration of a purely natural weakening of the imagination beyond unimaginable periods of time. Who in Europe or the rest of the world remembers the cruel nuclear tests done by the Americans in the Pacific, just some 60 to 70 years ago. Not only far away but also and a while ago… but much less than an eternity! We are used to plan for our children and grandchildren, who we know and cherish. But people living in a distant place, or to people which will live centuries from now we do not relate and many of us do not feel any responsibility for them …Out of carelessness or ignorance we continue to change the world in a way, that the consequences of our actions today are beyound our imagination. Consider in this context the cutting of forests in Istria and Dalmatia by the Romans or the drying out of the Aral Lake by the Sowjets, damages which will never be repaired…

 Leaving behind debts

Paying for the debts of our generation will be an obligation for the coming generations and it will seriously limit their freedom. This is in contrary of investments for future generations, as the previously mentioned tunnel through St. Gotthard, even though 25% of it were financed through future debts, which seems legitimate, as the tunnel is also benefitting them too. Not legitimate however are accumulated debts by our generation, in order to pay for our lifestyle today, which we are not capable to pay for fully. Making debts on behalf of the next gene- rationsis just unjustified enrichment and it is analogous to a parasitic behaviour.

In this regards the resistance against pension reforms in France and in Switzerland i.e. the mechanism that pensions of todays older generations are being paid by debt financing equates to a violation of solidarity with future generations. Democracy is well capable of planning, however, it is also prone to egoistic decision-making.

At the moment these interferences cannot be made reversible, as e.g. the loss of biodiver- sity, this by nature should be prohibited. We do not have the right to create and leave problems behind us, which we consider un-managable or inacceptable for us. In this regard we cannot leave the earth to others as a mere nuclear waste repository. Our generation has to take care of waste disposal and should we not be able to do it, we have no right to accumulate waste. Furthermore, it is in my opinion ethically inacceptable, to bestow a risk to future generations, if we are not ready to accept the same risk for ourself. Future generations should need to accept only, what we would accept for us.

Solidarity among Generations

The quality of political planning thus does not only consist in planning far ahead. It should rather be characterized by some degree of modesty and humility as far as our own temporal and mental horizons are concerned. The quality is derived from the ethical and not the temporal dimension. Cicero, statesman and philosopher wrote in «De finibus bonorum et malorum» the following: „It is inhuman, even criminal to say, that after our death the « worldfire » may burn all countries. Out of this recognition it follows vice versa the obligation, that we need to provide and care also for the future generations ». Humans form a community of generations and each is responsible for the next. We should thank our ancestors for our life. Compared with the million years of the history of the earth, our short life is pure priviledge. We have a responsibility for the future generations and must leave them the earth in such a state, that they can lead their own life in liberty, just the way many of were able to do it.