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Daniel Ellsberg to discuss the end of world in Petaluma

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PLANNING TO GO?

What: Daniel Ellsberg, in conversation with Peter Coyote, discussing his new book ‘The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.’ The event is a benefit for Petaluma’s Literacyworks non-profit.

When: Sunday, June 10, 4:00 p.m. (doors open at 3 p.m.)

Where: Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building, 1094 Petaluma Blvd. S.

Admission: $35 (plus fee) admits one person and includes a copy of Ellsberg’s ‘The Doomsday Machine’ - $45 (plus fee) admits two persons and includes a copy of the book.

Tickets: Purchase tickets in person at Copperfield’s (140 Kentucky St.), or online at www.copperfieldsbooks.com/event/ellsberg-coyote, or at www.literacyworks.org/events

Upcoming Literacyworks Lectures: The next event in the series is an onstage interview with novelist Isabelle Allende, in conversation with KQED’s Michael Krasny, on July 1, 4 p.m., at SRJC’s Carole L. Ellis Auditorium, in Petaluma.

‘To those who struggle for a human future.”

Those eight sobering words make up the succinct “dedication” with which author Daniel Ellsberg kicks off his gripping, disquieting and surprisingly entertaining 2017 book “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.” According to Ellsberg — best known as the whistleblower who leaked the infamous “Pentagon Papers,” a story told in last year’s Oscar nominated film “The Post” — his strikingly blunt dedication was intentionally crafted to suggest the very real possibility of a dire future for humankind.

“I do think, with the combination of a changing climate and the high likelihood of nuclear winter taking place over the next century or so, that the question of whether humanity has any real future is necessary to contemplate, though it’s not a question with a very positive or optimistic answer,” says Ellsberg, reached at his office in Kensington, in the East Bay. “I do think that it’s unlikely that human civilization will continue for very much longer — not that I’m all that keen on human civilization at the moment.”

Ellsberg will be appearing this weekend at the Veterans Memorial Building, discussing his book (and more), in conversation with actor-activist Peter Coyote. The event is part of the ongoing Literacyworks Lectures series sponsored by Copperfield’s Books and Literacyworks, a Petaluma non-profit dedicated to lifelong learning as a path to opportunity, meaningful employment, and individual fulfillment. Though the afternoon conversation is certain to include Ellsberg’s recollections of the historic Pentagon Papers incident, and the aforementioned recent film in which he was portrayed by actor Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”), the primary focus of the event will be “The Doomsday Machine.”

The book reveals for the first time that when Ellsberg — while working as an analyst for the RAND Corporation in the 1960s — famously photocopied thousands of pages of classified documents about the Vietnam War, he also copied thousands and thousands of additional pages concerning the U.S. government’s strategies for engaging in nuclear warfare with another government, specifically the U.S.S.R. Early on in the book, Ellsberg describes a classified memo he was shown in the White House, in the spring of 1961. The memo was a response to a question from President Kennedy to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as to the number of casualties that could be anticipated should the U.S. actually engage in a nuclear exchange with Russia, a possibility that many in the government were actively considering, and in some cases, strongly advocating for.

The answer to Kennedy’s query — which Ellsberg was allowed to see because he’d been the one to draft the original question at the behest of the President — came in the form of a short, simple graph, with lines and numbers, indicating that the expected casualties would range between 275,000,000 and 325,000,000.

“I very clearly remember my emotions as I read those numbers,” Ellsberg says. “It was absolutely stunning, particularly as there were those in our government who evidently considered such numbers to be acceptable.”

It was that moment, he says, when he decided to do whatever was necessary to reverse what he then saw as the world’s reckless march toward self-destruction. Asked if he’s surprised that anyone on Earth is still alive today, nearly 60 years later, Ellsberg admits that he’s often doubted civilization would make it this far.

PLANNING TO GO?

What: Daniel Ellsberg, in conversation with Peter Coyote, discussing his new book ‘The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.’ The event is a benefit for Petaluma’s Literacyworks non-profit.

When: Sunday, June 10, 4:00 p.m. (doors open at 3 p.m.)

Where: Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building, 1094 Petaluma Blvd. S.

Admission: $35 (plus fee) admits one person and includes a copy of Ellsberg’s ‘The Doomsday Machine’ - $45 (plus fee) admits two persons and includes a copy of the book.

Tickets: Purchase tickets in person at Copperfield’s (140 Kentucky St.), or online at www.copperfieldsbooks.com/event/ellsberg-coyote, or at www.literacyworks.org/events

Upcoming Literacyworks Lectures: The next event in the series is an onstage interview with novelist Isabelle Allende, in conversation with KQED’s Michael Krasny, on July 1, 4 p.m., at SRJC’s Carole L. Ellis Auditorium, in Petaluma.

“I honestly didn’t expect it, that’s true,” he says. “I wasn’t certain that a war would occur, but I did feel it was highly likely. That said, I think it’s highly un-likely, given what I see happening in the world, that we will survive another 60 or 70 years. I was wrong before, so I could be wrong now. But we’ve been incredibly lucky, and one has to wonder how much longer our luck can hold out.”

Ellsberg suggests that, in pondering the extinction of the human species — whether from nuclear winter or unchecked climate change — and in calculating the relative values and characteristics of humanity, many make what he feels is a major error in equating humanity with humaneness.

“A lot of people do that, regarding those words as virtual synonyms, which they are quite obviously not,” he says with a short, warm laugh. “The various things that humans are doing now that make it unlikely that civilization, or humanity in its best form, will survive, are indeed human actions. But they are not humane actions. And if the world ends, it won’t be animals, or aliens, that bring it about. It will be us.”

Just as he was once shocked to see that 325,000,000 lives was considered an acceptable loss to endure, Ellsberg says he continues to be amazed that so many people in power believe that maximizing wealth in the present is a higher priority than ensuring humanity’s survival in the future.

“At the age of 87,” Ellsberg says, “I have repeatedly concluded that there are a great many powerful people who say, ‘Well, let’s fill our own pockets while we can, let’s live for the moment — and if that means limiting the potential number of moments the human species has, well, that’s for those in the future to worry about. As long as I get mine now, I couldn’t care less about what’s left for anyone else.’ I don’t see any other way to understand what Exxon, and all the other oil companies, are doing, dumping burned fossil fuels and co2 into the atmosphere, knowing the effect they are having on a human future.”

Thankfully, Ellsberg adds, there are those who are trying to counter that, to transcend such characteristics, to make it possible for humanity in its best aspects to survive.

“And if that happens, if we do survive, it will only be done by our somehow overcoming our human nature, finding a way to truly behave humanely toward one another,” Ellsberg concludes. “There are people who are working to improve the chances of our having a humane future — and I hope that I am one of them. But whether we will ultimately be successful is very much in question, because at the same time there are many, many people working against us, working against any acceptable possible future for our species.”

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)