Berkshire Hathaway 2008 Annual Meeting Audience Question # 45

The primary problem of mankind

Warren Buffett:

Number 7. I’m going to go out and buy that stuff as soon as we get out of here.

Audience Member:

Good afternoon. My name is Matt Thurman, Chicago, Illinois.

Mr. Buffett, Mr. Munger, what are your thoughts on preventing further nuclear proliferation, given recent events in Syria, Iran, North Korea, and other countries? Thank you.

Warren Buffett:

Yeah. Well, it’s the great problem of mankind, along with proliferation or the spread of other weapons of mass destruction in the chemical and biological field.

The genie is out of the bottle on nuclear knowledge, and more and more people are going to know how to do enormous damage to the rest of the human race as the years go by.

You’ll have a given percentage of the population that are psychotics or megalomaniacs or religious fanatics or whatever, and will wish ill on their neighbors.

And the choke point will be… presumably… will be materials, and to a degree, deliver-ability.

I think there… people generally associate weapons of mass destruction threats these days with terrorists and rogue organizations of some sort and not so much with nations.

But I regard both as being enormous threats to the future of mankind, and we have not made much progress in that respect to… we should be doing everything possible to reduce access to materials… and I’ve even had a few thoughts on that which you can look up on the Nuclear

Threat Initiative, probably on the website.

And we’ve got a proposal, actually, that might reduce by a tiny bit the rationale, at least, for all kinds of nations having highly-enriched uranium and that sort of thing.

But it’s the… it is the primary problem of mankind. If you’ve got 6 1/2 billion people, you’re probably going to have… in the world… you’re probably going to have close to twice the number of people who wish ill on their neighbor than you had when you had 3 billion people.

And for a long time, if you were a psychotic or something, you could pick up a stone and throw it at the guy in the next cave, and you moved onto bows and arrows and rifles and cannon. But for millennia, the ability to inflict massive damage was quite limited, no matter how crazy you were.

And since 1945, when Einstein said that the atomic bomb, as they called it then, “has changed everything in the world except how men think.” That was a comment made shortly after Hiroshima.

We live in a world where exponentially… has experienced exponential growth… in the ability to inflict harm on somebody else, and we haven’t gotten rid of the nuts or the people who want to do it.

And it is… whether it’s, you know, Iran or you name it, or whether it’s terrorist organizations or whatever, you know, we live in a very, very, very dangerous world on that that is getting more dangerous as we go along.

And we’ve been very lucky since 1945, you know, when the Cuban missile crisis came along in the ’60s, you know, it might have been 50-50, and I think we were lucky we were dealing with Khrushchev and we were lucky that Kennedy behaved the way he did. But we were lucky, and Charlie and I talked a lot about it in the ’60s at the time.

But it won’t go away. And you would hope, at least in the United States, that we have an administration, whether it’s Republican or Democrat, where that’s at the top of the agenda, trying to figure out a way to minimize that risk.

You can’t eliminate it. It is out of the bottle. But we’ve got to… it should be paramount to minimize the risk that we really get into something that involves, you know, deaths on a scale that nobody’s ever contemplated before.


Charlie Munger:

Yeah. Well, you talk about deaths on a scale that people have never contemplated before.

People have recently figured out that the population of Mexico probably had a population decline of 95 percent caused by European man bringing in his pathogens. And it was a pretty big civilization that went through that little knothole.

These things can happen and have happened. And look at Mexico today. I don’t think it’s going to wipe out the species.

Warren Buffett:

Well, that’s…

Charlie Munger:

I hope that cheers you up.

Warren Buffett:

The cockroaches will survive.

It’s a very good question. I wish I knew a better answer.

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