Missing in the Japan Catastrophe -- Thinking the Unthinkable
By Tom Engelhardt
"Seldom more than thrice annually did any layman or stranger travel the old road that passed the abbey, in spite of the oasis which permitted that abbey's existence and which would have made the monastery a natural inn for wayfarers if the road were not a road from nowhere, leading nowhere, in terms of the modes of travel in those times. Perhaps, in earlier ages, the road had been a portion of the shortest route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso; south of the abbey it intersected a similar strip of broken stone that stretched east- and westward. The crossing was worn by time, but not by Man, of late."
I traveled that "old road" when it was still relatively new and heavily trafficked, and I was already a grown-up. I also traveled it when I was a teenager -- the version with "broken stone" -- through the blistered backlands of what had once been the American West, coming upon the "sports," the mutants, "the misborn" who, in those grim lands, sometimes looked upon human stragglers "as a dependable source of venison."
And if you're now thoroughly confused, I don't blame you. Let me explain. The passage quoted above comes from A Canticle for Leibowitz, a still-riveting novel published in 1959. I probably read it a year or two later and in that I was anything but unique. Like many American teens of the 1950s and early 1960s, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the irradiated lands between the Great Salt Lake and Old El Paso or other planetary dead zones like it, thanks to what was then called "pulp fiction."
In those days, post-apocalyptic futures were us.
Canticle, like many novels of its era, was set in a new dark age after humans had destroyed so many of their own and so much of their civilization, leaving behind a mutant planet. It didn't take a lot of smarts to know how they did that either: with the newly discovered power of the atom -- already loosed on the perfectly real cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- aided and abetted by the hubris and bumbling of humanity. (I hope, given the headlines of the moment, you see where I'm heading.)
Canticle was the best of a bevy of post-apocalyptic novels. I read them often enough in those years, just I snuck into a Broadway movie theater in New York City, my hometown, to watch the world end in the long, dreary film version of Nevil Shute's eerie novel On the Beach.
Of course, the great weakness of any novel in which life as we know it ends is that, when you shut the cover, your life and life around you go on as before. Still, in those years, we were gripped by the apocalyptic imagination of the moment, caught by pop novelists as well as a bevy of on-screen stand-ins for the split atom in B-movies aimed at a new teen audience -- alien intruders and invaders, mutant creatures (ants, spiders, even rabbits), previously slumbering dinosaurs and assorted reptiles, even irradiated clouds from atomic tests, not to speak of super weapons run amok on planet Earth and other planets as well. Our imaginations were repeatedly -- to use a word coined by the Hollywood magazine Variety -- "Hiroshimated."
All of this, for the young, was given a certain reality by the sirens that periodically screamed outside our school windows to signal the start of citywide nuclear tests. We would then "duck and cover" under our desks as protection against Soviet A-bombs, while the Conelrad emergency warning network interrupted normal radio broadcasts and the press reported on how many millions of Americans had "died" in events no less imaginary or, in their own way, scary than the pulp fiction we read.
In his book Nuclear Fear, Spencer Weart reports, for instance, that the Detroit public schools of the early 1950s used the pamphlet "Survival under Atomic Attack" as a "fourth-grade text." He adds: "Since the children might be separated from their homes, Detroit parents were asked to put names on clothing with indelible ink, and about half complied. But experts frowned on identification by marking clothes, since "clothing can be destroyed by blast and fire.' Some cities therefore handed out metal identification tags to hundreds of thousands of school children."
Peaceful as our actual American world was, it wasn't that hard for us to imagine it in flames and ashes, and that was before President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation on television on October 22, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the Soviet Union, to indicate -- or so it seemed to many of us at the time -- that we might really be toast tomorrow. ("We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth; but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.") I was then just 18 years into a life that, as far as I was concerned, hadn't even begun.
Of course, when the worst didn't happen and the first U.S-Soviet arms agreement sent nuclear tests underground and out of sight in 1963, and not so long after that, the Vietnam War sent protest in other directions, the anti-nuclear apocalyptic imagination was essentially entombed. It was so much simpler to stop thinking about end-of-the-world possibilities and let those mutants and "sports" wander the blistered landscape of our unconscious unnoticed.
Except for a sudden, startling, and massive anti-nuclear upsurge that began after a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 and lasted into the early years of the Reagan presidency, the nuclear issue remained largely absent from American lives. In more recent years, our nuclear fate (though not Iran's, Iraq's, and North Korea's) has generally found itself elbowed to the back of a jostling cue of potentially apocalyptic dangers, including of course global warming.
And so, for decades, that part of my childhood remained the dark but largely forgotten underside of the golden 1950s. I never thought I'd want it back, but with six nuclear plants threatening to melt down in Fukushima, Japan, I find that I do.
The Alienation Zones of the Future?
Not to put too fine a point on it, as an unfolding nightmare Fukushima already inhabits territory perilously close to those irradiated landscapes of the pulp fantasies of my childhood -- only you wouldn't know it. As "not as bad as Chernobyl" slips into the fog, it might be better to describe the situation at Fukushima as "remarkably unlike Chernobyl" in rural Ukraine, where almost 25 years ago, a single uncontained nuclear reactor with a graphite core blew.
We now contemplate the possibility of multiple reactors accompanied by multiple containment pools for what is euphemistically called "spent" fuel (when it isn't "spent" at all) -- at least 11,195 such rods, 1760 metric tons of them -- self-destructing in a highly industrialized country smaller than California with the third largest economy on the planet. In a situation we've never faced before, except perhaps in fiction, to talk about "safety" and offer "reassurance" should ring oddly indeed.