Learning from the past to build a better future

We live in complex times, with a lot of history. We must remember how far we’ve come, and not forget how far we can still yet go. 

Virgin Atlantic was launched in 1984, in the midst of the Cold War. Thousands of nuclear missiles were ready to launch at a moment’s notice, ready to strike almost every corner of the planet. We all lived under the dark shadow of imminent annihilation and global nuclear winter that would starve any survivors.

Today, there are still almost 15,000 nuclear weapons around the world - with a single large modern warhead containing more explosive power than all the conventional bombs dropped in World War 2.  

VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceplane, recently completed a successful supersonic test flight, and edged ever closer to space. I was reminded that some of humanity’s most beautiful achievements and some of its most terrible nightmares often share the same origins. 

The space race of the 60s was propelled by Cold War tensions and the development of missile technology. Even the Voyager space probes, on course to explore the universe beyond our solar system, were launched on Titan rocket boosters – originally developed to serve as intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Then there’s the International Space Station. When it passes over on a clear evening after sunset, it is the brightest object in the night sky. A glowing, golden symbol of collaboration between former adversaries: exploring new frontiers, and gaining new perspectives.

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung once noted that ‘no tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell’. The proximity between creation and destruction in human endeavours is a sobering reminder to be ever so mindful of our history. One often remembers the sacrifices of past generations, why we are here – and why, despite it not lasting forever, we cherish life, companions, love, music and so much else that we all hold dear.  

Some wars and conflicts seem unavoidable, but many can, and must, be avoided. A war between nuclear powers is, as Carl Sagan put it, the equivalent to both sides standing knee-deep in gasoline. The only difference is the number of matches each side holds – and even at this point in time, we still have far too many nuclear matchsticks.

I wish there was more of a focus on the fantastic opportunities for all sides in our current geopolitical environment. Entrepreneurship, exploration and adventure can all go hand in hand with different cultural values and national interests. There are so many opportunities to be discovered in clean energy, smarter ways of building, manufacturing, farming, and many other sectors of growth.

We are also on the cusp of going to other worlds in the solar system. I am passionate about reaching for the skies. How much more would each of the world’s nuclear powers be able to achieve, if we pointed less rockets at each other, and focused our attention on peaceful uses of advanced technology?

I fundamentally believe there remains more that deeply unites us than superficially divides us. In these troubled times, it is important to remember the past - because it’s the only way to create the future we want.         

Learn more about the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and read The Elders’ warning against escalation to an ‘uncontrollable war’ in Syria



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