Lord Boyd Orr

Nobel Lecture

Nobel Lecture*, December 12, 1949

Science and Peace

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize is an international event of the first importance. It arouses the interest of the people of all countries and focuses attention on the objects of the organization or the views of the individual selected to receive this great honour. It is fitting, therefore, that in the lecture which, in accordance with statutes, the recipient must deliver, he should give his views on the prospects of peace and the best means of attaining it. In this lecture I wish to consider the possibility of eliminating the causes of war and bringing in a new era of world unity and peace by the intelligent application of the new knowledge and new powers over the forces of nature which modern science has given mankind.

The Long Tradition of War

The history of our civilization has been one of intermittent war. In the last five or six thousand years, empires one after another have arisen, waxed powerful by wars of conquest, and fallen by internal revolution or attack from without. But though the centre of power moved from one country to another, the general pattern of the political and economic structure has suffered no radical change. The increase of territory and power of empires by force of arms has been the policy of all great powers, and it has always been possible to get the approval of their state religion. The destruction of the false gods of the enemy, which threaten the true religion, has always justified propaganda of fear and hatred to overcome the natural reluctance of soldiers to kill their fellowmen with whom indeed they had no quarrel. Some wars have been due to the lust of rulers for power and glory, or to revenge to wipe out the humiliation of a former defeat. Most however have had an economic basis: the conquest of foreign territory in the interest of trade, or of land with rich agricultural or other resources. At the present time the control of oil-bearing land is an important factor in the foreign policy of some governments.

If the view I am going to express be true, we have reached the end of the age of competing empires because what Alfred Nobel foresaw has happened. Science has produced such powerful weapons that in a war between great powers there would be neither victor nor vanquished. Both would be overwhelmed in destruction. Our civilization is now in the transition stage between the age of warring empires and a new age of world unity and peace.

Science Molds Society

Though the general principles of statecraft have survived the rise and fall of empires, every increase in knowledge has brought about changes in the political, economic, and social structure. Thus, for example, the use of gunpowder ended the feudal system in Europe. The invention of the steam engine1 led to the mechanical industrial revolution, with all the resulting economic and social changes. Even more important has been the birth of new ideas. The Renaissance with the invention of printing2 spread the revolutionary idea of the dignity and rights of the individual from which arose the democratic system of government in Europe, America, and the British Dominions. These few examples are sufficient to illustrate the effects of the growth of knowledge on the structure of human society. Our civilization has evolved through the continuous adjustment of society to the stimulus of new knowledge.

But major adjustments do not take place without a struggle. Every impending change which threatens vested interests or tends to undermine authority based on orthodox beliefs is resisted by those who hold power. When the fabric of society is so rigid that it cannot change quickly enough, adjustments are achieved by social unrest and revolutions. It needed a civil war in England to establish the new doctrine that the rights of a king were no more divine than those of a common man3. It needed a French revolution to convince a hereditary aristocracy that the day of its despotic power was past4, and a Russian revolution to get rid of a medieval form of government which had become obsolete5. When the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century brought a rapid increase in wealth, the demand of workers for a fair share of the wealth they were creating was conceded only after riots and strikes.

The Powers of Modern Science

In the last fifty years science has advanced more than in the 2,000 previous years and given mankind greater powers over the forces of nature than the ancients ascribed to their gods. The thunderbolt of Jove was a pip-squeak compared to the atomic bomb; Mercury, the messenger of the gods with wings on his heels, a slow coach compared with the radio; the magic flying carpet of the fairy tale, a crude method of travel compared with a transatlantic air liner. In biological science the advance has been as wonderful though not so spectacular.

At the same time as mankind has gained these new powers the idea of the rights of the individual, which originated and caused such changes in Europe, has spread among the coloured races which have become dynamic, demanding freedom and a political status and standard of living equal to that of the white race.

The present worldwide revolution is due to the difficulty of adjusting human society to this terrific impact of modern science. Changes commensurate with the magnitude of the new forces are inevitable.

We Are Now One World

The most important change is the one made necessary by the radio and the airplane. Measured in time of transport and communication, the whole round globe is now smaller than a small European country was a hundred years ago. The world is now so small that a major event in any country affects all. A civil war in Greece or China involves the active intervention of foreign governments, not as arbiters to make peace, but for the defeat of the side whose victory would be against the interest of the intervening power. An election in Italy is not so much a purely national matter as a local contest between two groups of nations, each afraid of the spread of the political ideologies of the other, and is of almost as much interest in Washington, London, and Moscow as in Rome. The United Kingdom devalues the pound. Within a few days twenty other nations are forced to devalue their currencies, and all nations to adjust their finance and trade to a decision made by a few men in one country. We are now physically, politically, and economically one world and nations so interdependent that the absolute national sovereignty of nations is no longer possible. However difficult it may be to bring it about, some form of world government, with agreed international law and means of enforcing the law, is inevitable.

Modern Technology

As I have tried to show, science, in producing the airplane and the wireless, has created a new international political environment to which governments must adjust their foreign policies. Almost as important are the new industrial conditions science has created. With the advance of technology, more and more goods can be produced with less and less labour. After the First World War the economic problem was no longer one of production. It was the problem of finding markets to get the output of industry and agriculture dispersed and consumed.

The only solution nineteenth-century economics could offer was to cut down production to the level of economic demand. Land went out of cultivation while the people were hungry. Factories were idle while people urgently needed the things they could produce. Unemployment increased to over ten millions in the United States, nearly three millions in the United Kingdom, and six millions in Germany. World trade decreased to a fraction of its former level. The economic system broke down because it could not carry the great wealth which modern science can create.

At an economic conference in 19336 Viscount Bruce7 warned governments that an economic system which for its own preservation restricted the production and distribution of the things which the majority of mankind urgently need, is one that cannot endure. He predicted disaster. It came. Unemployment was cured, first in Germany and then in other countries, by the production of armaments for the Second World War.

During the last war when there was a market for everything that could be produced, the production capacity of Canada and the United States, which were outside the battle area, increased one hundred percent. What the U.S.A. and Canada have done, all countries can do. Nearly every country in the world is now becoming industrialized as rapidly as it can. Already the acute post-war shortage of goods has been made good, and the fight for markets has begun. What will the position be when Germany and Japan regain and surpass their pre-war capacity for export, when China and other countries, whose workers will be glad of a standard of living much lower than that of American or European workers, become industrialized and join the fight for an export market Shall we again adjust supply to affective economic demand, and cure unemployment by preparation for another world war, or will governments cooperate in a new world economic system which will provide an assured market for all that modern science can produce?

If the target of output were the satisfaction of human needs, there would be no difficulty about markets. When the United States was battling with unemployment, the late President Roosevelt said that there were so many people ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed that if their needs were to be satisfied, there would be work for every man and woman willing to work8. If that were true of the United States, how much truer is it of the whole world in which two out of every three people suffer premature death for the lack of the primary necessities of life. The upsurge in Asia, which is liable to spread to all coloured races, is fundamentally a revolt against hunger and poverty. There can be no peace in the world so long as a large proportion of the population lack the necessities of life and believe that a change of the political and economic system will make them available. World peace must be based on world plenty.

Annexation by Conquest Must Change to Union by Consent

If the views I have expressed be right, we can think of our civilization evolving with the growth of knowledge from small wandering tribes to large settled communities which were integrated by law, with a government with power to enforce the law. As the means of transport and communication improved and each community grew larger, the territory under its law increased in size. Thus arose great states or empires, each with its own laws, religions and traditions, and armies to extend its territory by conquest or defend itself against the attack of neighbouring states. So empires have grown by wars of conquest. In recent times, European nations, with the use of gunpowder and other technical improvements in warfare, controlled practically the whole world. One, the British Empire, brought under one government a quarter of the earth and its inhabitants.

Empires won by conquest have always fallen either by revolt within or by defeat by a rival. We are now moving from conquest to union by consent, each state with a government controlling its own internal affairs but united by a central government, with laws to regulate interstate affairs and put an end to war within the union. As we have seen, the wireless and the airplane have made the world so small and nations so dependent on each other that the only alternative to war is the United States of the World.

Attempt to Form a World State

During the First World War the suggestion for a world government in the form of a League of Nations came from America. It would be wrong to belittle the League. The conception was so sound that it nearly succeeded. To the disappointment of the many millions who thought it would bring in a new era of peace, it failed9.

Two reasons may be given for its failure. European governments, with their long tradition of economic conflict and war, were more concerned with their own selfish interest than with the contribution they could make to the building up of a world state, and they were too much concerned with politics and too little with economics. A world community can arise only through a community of interest. The road to peace lies only through the cooperation of governments in developing the vast potential wealth of the earth for the benefit of all. It is significant that the work of the League which survived was that dealing with non-political cooperation, such as the International Labour Office10 and preliminary work on a World Food Plan, which was renewed in 1943 by the Hot Springs Conference11 called by the President of the United States.

The great conception of the League was premature because politicians, highly skilled in the old diplomacy of foreign affairs, did not realize that nineteenth-century politics and economics will not carry twentieth-century science. They reconstituted the post-war shattered world on the old model. It wobbled in the 1929 economic crisis and crashed in a second world war.

The United Nations Organization

After the Second World War another attempt was made to form a world government. The United Nations is a better organization than the League. In addition to the Assembly and the Security Council, where the delegates of the foreign offices meet, there are the specialized agencies – the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, and the Economic and Social Council, through which nations can cooperate to apply science to develop the resources of the earth. And there is the World Bank to provide the necessary credits to enable them to do their work12. Here at last mankind has the machinery through which governments can join in eliminating hunger, poverty, and disease, and in creating prosperity in agriculture, industry, and trade which will be permanent, because based on the needs of the people which do not fluctuate in booms and slumps.

Concrete plans of development need not conflict with any political ideology. They have the further advantage that they can be discussed in well-defined terms, like tons of wheat or standards of timber on which there can be no misunderstanding, such as occurs when politicians talk in ill-defined abstract terms like democracy or socialism or capitalism, which can be used to mean almost anything. Further, cooperation in the work of these international agencies would bring about a better understanding and a friendship which would facilitate the solution of political problems. These agencies could grow to World Ministries of Food, Health, Labour, Trade and Finance, and a World Government could evolve through the development of the functions of governments.

Unfortunately, these United Nations agencies have neither the authority nor the funds they need to enable them to do the job for which they were established. If the sixty governments which adhere to these and have given the great ideal of cooperation lip service, would agree that out of every twenty units of their currency they are devoting to preparation for war, one would be taken for an international fund for the development of the work of these agencies, and also agree to give them a little authority to act without interfering in the internal affairs of any country except on request, I venture to predict that within a few years the political issues which divide nations would become meaningless and the obstacles to peace disappear.

Mr. Henry Wallace, the former vice-president of the United States13, was caricatured as saying that the job of the United Nations was to give every Hottentot mother a pint of milk a day. That indeed would be in accordance with the highest ideal of a World Government. When the time comes that so-called Christian nations are prepared to recognize the common brotherhood of man and follow the example of the great Prince of Peace in feeding the hungry, relieving misery and disease, there will be such a new spirit in the world that the very thought of war would be abhorrent.

United Nations Alternative to War

Some think that because the United Nations has not fulfilled the high hopes of 1946 it, like the League, has failed. As a matter of fact, though but an infant organization, it has already a record of achievement both in stopping local wars and in getting nations to cooperate in regional, agricultural, and economic development. When we consider that the new policy of the cooperation of nations is diametrically opposed to the old policy of competition for power in the past five thousand years of the Age of Empires, it is not surprising that there should be resistance to change on the part of those who have been trained in the orthodox politics of the past. Those who regard world unity as an unattainable and indeed an undesirable ideal, should consider that a continuation of power politics will end in war, for which, indeed, governments are now preparing with feverish haste. Let us face the facts and not stumble into a war without counting the cost.

It is stated on the highest authority that the atomic bomb will kill ten to twenty millions in a month, and it may be assumed that the enemy also will have some skill in the new art of wholesale murder. Man will soon surpass this achievement. An American senator has stated that there is a prospect of an atomic bomb a thousand times as powerful as the one that fell on Hiroshima. Then it is stated that biological weapons are much more efficient instruments of death than the atomic bomb. They can kill more than fifty percent of the population in the area against which they are directed. We have been warned that a war with these weapons would leave us with a world in which civilization, as we know it, could not continue.

Some think the worst horrors of war might be avoided by an international agreement not to use atomic bombs. This is a vain hope. When gunpowder was introduced, it was considered such a barbaric weapon that it was banned by the church except, of course, against heretics. That did not prevent the use of artillery. No religious or moral principle will prevent the use of any weapon in war which itself is the denial of the fundamental principles of all great religions. The only restraint is the fear of reprisals. In the last war the U.S.A., which had no fear of reprisals, did use it. In another war those in power, with the memory of the fate of Hitler and his associates in Berlin and in the Nuremberg trials, will not hesitate in a last desperate effort to throw in every weapon in their power. A limited war is an impossibility. It would be easier to outlaw war itself than to outlaw any special weapon.

It is said that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. It may well be that a war neurosis stirred up by propaganda of fear and hatred is the prelude to destruction. European civilization, like the dinosaurs which loaded themselves up with great armour-plating for defence, in failing to adjust itself to the new environment which modern science has created, may disappear and leave the leadership in the evolution of human society to a rejuvenated and more peace loving Asiatic civilization.

The Road to World Unity and Peace

If those who hold the destiny of nations in their hands are not restrained from war by ethical or religious principles, they must surely be restrained by intelligent self-interest. In a war with modern weapons and in the subsequent chaos, it is doubtful whether any of the present leaders would remain in power or many of them alive. While preparing for a war of defence, they will not lightly take the first offensive. The danger is that in an inflamed political atmosphere an otherwise trifling incident may start a war which nobody wants.

The first step towards peace must be an easing of the present political tension. This might be brought about by a consideration of the facts of the present dangerous situation in the calm light of reason. The main tension is between communist Russia and capitalist America. Both say they want peace. Let them get rid of their fear of each other by realizing that the world will never be dominated by either Moscow or Washington. The lessons of Yugoslavia and China are obvious. Nor will either the capitalistic or the communistic ideology be destroyed by direct attack or by fifth column infiltration from within.

The present tension cannot be relieved by propaganda of fear and hate. It might be relieved by a new approach, in which each power, beginning with the one which feels surest of its own position, would give full and even flattering credit to every worthwhile achievement in the other, ignoring, as far as they can be ignored, issues which cause disagreement.

Thus, for example, let our communist friends admit that the worst evils of a ruthless capitalism, which Karl Marx saw in England14 and rightly hated, have disappeared. The capitalist system is being transformed from within and is proving so successful in creating wealth and raising the standard of living, while at the same time enlarging the individual freedom of the workers, that there is little hope of people exchanging their way of life under which they are doing so well for an alien ideology. Foolish attempts to undermine it by a propaganda of half-truths merely rallies people to its support and alienates many friends of Russia.

Let our friends in Russia give the democratic countries credit for the great advance they have made and realize that this course of peaceful evolution will be followed in all countries where the people are educated and have freedom to read what they like and to discuss and criticize governments.

On the other hand, let the Western countries give full credit to what the U.S.S.R. has done against appalling difficulties, including the hostility of capitalist countries, in its great expansion of technical education, in its public health work in some aspects of which it seems to be in advance of almost any country, and in its astonishing agricultural and industrial development. Young people who have been indoctrinated with the communist ideal and know little or nothing of the achievements of other countries believe that they are building a new and better world, and, compared with the conditions of the old medieval rule of the Czars, they have some ground for their enthusiasm. Attack on the system merely strengthens their faith, and the fear that their work may be destroyed by attack by the capitalist countries makes them willing to make any sacrifice in the preparation of a war of defence.

The real evil of the Russian communist state is not communism. It is the secret police and the concentration camp. But that absolute totalitarian form of government is the only form of government the men of the Kremlin know. Some of them have spent a good part of their lives in prison. The masses have been conditioned to state control by an historical and psychological background which the people of the West, who enjoy the freedom of the individual, find difficult to understand. But let us in the West not be too self-righteous. It is not so long ago that we had our slave plantations and a short shrift for anyone who threatened to undermine the authority of the state. The hope is that Russia will evolve along the same lines as the Western democracies. It is probable that the threat of war acting as a pressure from without consolidates the present system and delays its inevitable transformation.

It is just possible that a new generous sympathetic approach might meet with a response which would help to dissipate the fear of war and lead to a better understanding in the clear light of reason and truth, which would promote cooperation in worldwide developments of benefit to all countries.

Economic Cooperation

But permanent peace cannot be attained merely by efforts to prevent war. We will be on the road to world unity and peace when nations begin to cooperate on a world scale to apply science to develop the resources of the earth for the benefit of all. The means of cooperation are ready and waiting in the specialized agencies of the United Nations to which all the great powers adhere. Though doing good work, they are not functioning to their full capacity because governments are devoting too much energy to preparing for a war which will most probably never come and to political issues which will never be settled by controversy.

The difficulty is to get a real beginning. Why should they not consider some concrete measure like the elimination of preventable disease through the World Health Organization or doubling the world food supply to meet all human needs through the joint work of the other agencies, with all nations contributing through the World Bank in proportion to their wealth to provide the necessary funds? In working together on a concrete world plan for the benefit of all countries, the present misunderstandings which divide nations would gradually become meaningless.

The nation or group of nations which will make a great new gesture of friendship and an offer to collaborate with all governments in a simple and concrete world plan of development would win the allegiance of the people of all countries who are sick to death of political conflict and preparation for war. The government which is strongest and surest of itself is the one which should take the lead in this road to peace. Such an offer would be an acid test of the intentions of governments. Any which refused to collaborate could with truth be ostracized from the family of nations until they were willing to put the welfare of all before their own selfish interests.

The People’s Movement

In the last resort the decision of peace or war lies with the people. Even in totalitarian countries the leader must now justify his actions in the eyes of the people. If a world plebiscite were taken, there would be ten thousand votes for world unity and peace, for one for war. The people of the world are now getting together in international organizations. At Stockholm last summer about 350 delegates from about twenty different international organizations met in the Parliament House. They had no remit from governments and so could express their views with complete freedom. In commissions they discussed a few of the real problems of the world, such as the food supply, refugees, and the colonial question, and the means whereby the peoples of the world could help in promoting world government. These delegates of all races, colours, and creeds from Japan in the East to California in the West debated in a spirit of goodwill and reached conclusions based on the facts, unbiased by political prejudices15.

If this people’s movement continues to grow as it has done in the last few years and delegates from all countries meet in conference, it will make a great contribution to an international spirit of friendship and will strengthen every movement for peace. Peace loving governments will feel that in working for world unity they have the support not only of their own peoples but of many millions in other countries.

If the peoples of the world get together and with one united voice demand world unity and peace, they will get it. It is the duty of every person of intelligence and goodwill to support one or other of these international people’s organizations.

Some Kind of Peace Inevitable

I have tried to show that any advance in science brings about changes in the structure of human society, and major changes involve conflict and confusion. Society is now trying to adjust itself to the unprecedented advance of the last fifty years. A necessary change is a world government able to keep the peace and get nations to cooperate in harnessing the great powers of science to serve mankind. That would put an end to the 5,000-year-old policy of conquest by war.

We must not delude ourselves that this great transition phase of our civilization will be easy. Some politicians are still haunted by atavistic dreams of empires and hate the thought of submerging any of their absolute sovereignty in a world government. But the new powers which science has let loose cannot be bottled up again. They must be used for constructive ends or they will break loose in another world war which will destroy our European civilization, with all its magnificent achievements. For Europe at least, peace is inevitable. It can be either the peace of the grave, the peace of the dead empires of the past, which lost their creative spirit and failed to adjust themselves to new conditions, or a new dynamic peace applying science in a great leap forward in the evolution of human society to a new age in which hunger, poverty, and preventable diseases will be eliminated from the earth – an age in which the people in every country will rise to a far higher level of intellectual and cultural well-being, an age in which “iron curtains” will disappear and people, though intensely patriotic for their own country, will be able to travel freely as world citizens. That is the hope science sets before us.

Let there be less talk of war, which inspires fear and panic, and more talk of the great new age struggling to be born. Let all of us work for it. Let the churches which believe in the eternal and unchangeable truth proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth redouble their efforts for peace so that we in our day may see the beginning of the building of the new and better world which our children shall inherit.

* Lord Boyd Orr delivered this lecture in the auditorium of the Norwegian Nobel Institute. This text is taken from Les Prix Nobel en 1949.

1. The first practical steam engine was invented by James Watt, Scottish inventor, in 1769.

2. In Europe the first book was printed about 1456 at Mainz by Johann Gutenberg, inventor of a movable type.

3. The Civil War (1642-1649) ended when Parliament executed King Charles I.

4. The French Revolution (1789-1795) overthrew the Bourbon monarchy and enacted a Declaration of the Rights of Man (1791).

5. The February Revolution of 1917 in Russia overthrew the czarist government.

6. World Monetary and Economic Conference in London (June 12-July 27, 1933).

7. Stanley Melbourne Bruce, first Viscount Bruce of Melbourne (1883-1967), prime minister of Australia (1923-1929), high commissioner for Australia in London (1933- 1945); Australian representative at the Economic Conference.

8. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), U.S. president (1933-1945), said in his Second Inaugural Address: “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

9. The League of Nations was founded in 1919 and dissolved in 1946, its real estate and remaining services being transferred to the United Nations.

10. Recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1969.

11. This Conference set up the Interim Commission which made the preliminary plans for establishing the FAO.

12. The FAO was established in 1945 to improve production and distribution of agricultural products and raise world standards of nutrition; WHO became a permanent organization of the UN in 1948, its objective being to raise world standards of health; the Economic and Social Council was created by the Charter of the UN to make studies of and recommendations on world economic, social, cultural, educational, and scientific matters; the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (commonly known as the World Bank), established in 1945 as an autonomous body affiliated with the UN, provides loans to member nations and funds to facilitate investment, encourage foreign trade, and discharge international debts.

13. Henry A. Wallace (1888-1965), U.S. secretary of agriculture (1933-1941); U.S. vice-president (1941-1945).

14. Karl Marx (1818-1883), German political philosopher and radical socialist leader; lived in London from 1850 until his death.

15. The Third Annual Congress of the World Movement for World Federal Government, a movement started in 1947 of which the laureate was president, was held in Stockholm in late August and early September of 1949.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1926-1950, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

* Disclaimer
Every effort has been made by the publisher to credit organizations and individuals with regard to the supply of audio files. Please notify the publishers regarding corrections.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1949

To cite this section
MLA style: Lord Boyd Orr – Nobel Lecture. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. Thu. 18 Jul 2024. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1949/orr/lecture/>

Back to top Back To Top Takes users back to the top of the page

Nobel Prizes and laureates

Eleven laureates were awarded a Nobel Prize in 2023, for achievements that have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind. Their work and discoveries range from effective mRNA vaccines and attosecond physics to fighting against the oppression of women.

See them all presented here.

Explore prizes and laureates

Look for popular awards and laureates in different fields, and discover the history of the Nobel Prize.