Kenneth Boulding Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

National Security through Stable Peace: Conversation with Kenneth Boulding, University Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Colorado; March 16, 1987, by Harry Kreisler.

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The Power of the Imagination

When one looks at your writing on these issues, the importance of images seem very important to your understanding of the situation and how the situation could be changed. Could you explain that for us?

Well, let me put it this way. The critical question now is, how do we learn not to fall over a cliff without falling over it? There is a cliff in front of us, and we're galloping toward this, almost. And that's the imagination, isn't it? The only way you can do this is by knowing, imaging, this in your mind and turning away from it when you're going toward it.

One of the great problems is that most people in political power today are still -- well some of them, I won't say any names -- about my age, and we of my generation are sort of obsessed by the Second World War and the First World War, for instance. Now the world is different. It's a very different situation, and we've moved into what I've called a new region of time, where the system has changed. It's almost like going from the land into the sea. When you go from the land into the sea, you find remarkably few elephants. The whole system is different. That's what's happened with the nuclear weapons. But we haven't realized this, we're still living in the world that has passed away.

So what is the key to changing this consciousness, to seeing the cliff differently or avoiding it?

It's learning. How do you create a learning society? This is a very deep responsibility, not only of the educational institutions. We should be teaching this in the high schools, shouldn't we, and also in the grade schools. The media also have a great responsibility here, newspapers and television and so on. And just the individual citizen who gets concerned and tries to learn about these things and forms little groups to study it, and so on. This almost has to begin at the grassroots, I think.

You were talking about a leap of the imagination, which one will find in a creative genius such as yourself, but we're talking now about popularizing that insight. In popularizing it, you have the resistance of the institutions in place that have a commitment to the ongoing image. What do you do about that struggle? It's not an easy thing.

No it isn't. The only thing to do is to work at it.

See, I'm a great believer in what I sometimes call "Nag's Law": all good things come by nagging. You just have to nag and nag. I think people are realizing this. It's rather interesting, my wife was on the congressional commission that recommended setting up what is now called the National Peace Institute, and they held hearings all around the country.

She said that the most supportive hearings were in the War Colleges, because there are a lot of bright people in the War Colleges after all, and in a sense they realize that the jig's up, that war has come to an end from any reasonable and practical point of view, just as dueling came to an end after we went to pistols. It just stopped, like that, in the middle of the nineteenth century, because with pistols, you both got killed. When you both got killed, if somebody challenged you to a duel, you'd say, "Ahh, we don't do that anymore." It's same with war: we'll both get killed. So if somebody says, "have a war," we would say "oh no no no, we don't do that anymore."

You mentioned earlier in [telling about] your life, the delegitimation that came after the experience of World War I. And then, obviously, science has a role that you've described. Looking over the long term of your life, are you more hopeful about the way things are going now in terms of a general consciousness of these insights?

Well I sometimes say, I'm a little bit of a pessimist here, but I'm an optimist too, you see.

You'll have to explain that.

I still have this feeling that the capacity of human beings for learning is a very long way from being exhausted. Once we realize that things have changed, then we will change them. It may take some catastrophe to make us realize this, like Chernobyl, to warn people of the dangers of nuclear power. Chernobyl was designed not to go off, you know. Nuclear weapons are designed to go off. The probability of an accidental beginning of a nuclear war is quite real. We need to do much more in the way of defending ourselves against accidents, and then against responses to accidents. Suppose that Cleveland suddenly disappeared, what would we do? Or suppose one of ours goes off and Kiev disappears, what are they going to do?

Somebody watching [this interview] might say, "This is all very interesting and very ivory tower-ish, but the Soviet Union is an empire that doesn't want to give up controls of people ... " on and on, ad infinitum. Let's apply your insights to U.S. - Soviet relations. What specifically should be done that might move that relationship to a more stable peace?

Leadership. If the American president made a strong statement that national defense has broken down for both of us, and there was no security ... what I want is national security, you see. I'm very much interested in national security. I don't want a world state. I want variety, I want a lot of variety. This is the ideology that can help to save us.

There's a delight in variety. Saying, "you're different, how interesting," instead of "you're different, how frightening." And peace is a very important part of this. Just for love of a planet, just for love of this incredibly beautiful, marvelous world. I think everybody has a sense of this, and you can appeal to this. I think we've seen something like this almost happening in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev: I'm no expert on this, but my impression is that he's different, that it's a new age there, and that he's opened a window. Everybody says, "Oh, there's a window open, slam it shut." That's what we've been doing, but that's so crazy, you see. There's an open window, let's go through it.

Isn't the enemy to everything that you're proposing really power, existing power relations within countries, between countries?

Power is a very tricky thing. What do you really have the power to do? I sometimes say that 99 percent of power is illusion. The 1 percent that isn't is important. We put 8 percent of our economy into the war industry, what kind of power does it give us? I would say: practically none. It gave us the power to conquer Granada; well, that seems expensive, doesn't it? It gives us extraordinarily little power in the world. You wonder, are we any more secure, do we have any more power than Costa Ricans do? I think we're much less secure. I don't think we have much more power, it's just an illusion that we're a very great power.

What is the individual to do, to accomplish, toward achieving the ideal that you're talking about?

To think about it and read about it and talk about it, and get together with other people. To think about it, really. When you think, you realize that the world is very different from what it used to be, and you must ask, how is it different? We should just ask ourselves, what has really happened? People can do that. We often get obsessed by the past, in a sense, and the older of us have been traumatized by Hitler and the Second World War. But Gorbachev isn't Hitler -- not at all like Hitler. And that was a very improbable event that happened, a thousand-year political flood, I've called it.

One final question requiring a brief answer. In the span of your life, what is the insight that has most impressed you about these issues, that you have acquired in the course of your intellectual odyssey?

It is the insight that the world changes. You have to learn about this, and learn pretty fast, sometimes, and you must adjust to it. The other insight is that the world is worth loving, and unless we love it, what's the point of living in it?

On that very positive note, Professor Boulding, thank you very much for joining us today. And thank you very much for joining us for this "Conversation on a Stable Peace."

You're very welcome indeed, it's been a great pleasure.

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