This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Once upon a time, long ago in another universe, the end of the world was left in the hands of the gods, not human beings. Today, however, humanity, in its curious ingenuity, has managed to come up with two ways of destroying itself, as well as the very habitat that welcomed and nourished it all these eons. For the first of these, two dates suffice: August 6th and 9th, 1945. Those were, of course, the moments when the primordial power of the split atom was first released directly on the human populations (and cityscapes) of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not long after, the two Cold War superpowers began to create vast arsenals of such weaponry, ever more powerful, ever more destructive, that could, if released in a full-scale nuclear war, annihilate not just humanity but much of the world (and possibly two or three more Earth-sized planets in the bargain). This was, in the phrase of the era, "the unthinkable" and, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon reminds us today, those of us growing up in the Cold War years couldn't stop thinking the unthinkable.
Unlike that version of Armageddon, consciously organized, planned out, tested, and financed by the American and then Soviet governments (which would, when all its implications were clear, be replicated by a host of other powers ranging from China and Great Britain to Israel and North Korea), the second human apocalypse was essentially inadvertent. It caught us unawares. It turned out that, once burned, coal and oil, the energy sources that powered the industrial revolution and so changed forever the nature of our lives, were also putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These would cumulatively warm the planet in ways guaranteed to devastate humanity -- not in an instant but over hundreds of years in what can only be imagined as a slow-motion Armageddon.
Think of these two apocalypses as nuclear winter (an effect of nuclear war, not known in 1945, in which even a regional nuclear exchange could devastate the planet) and climate change summer with, as we've experienced this year in the U.S., its extreme weather, fierce droughts, raging wildfires, and rising sea levels.
What makes this moment in the first year of the age of Trump so extreme is that our strange new president, a man ready to turn everything (even the dead of America's wars) into a win-lose contest centered on himself, has taken the accumulated knowledge of the two potential human apocalypses and essentially tossed them out the window of Trump Tower. It's possible, in other words, that the guy with the orange comb-over, the jut jaw, the thinnest of skins, and the most limited of vocabularies -- and his urge to inflict "fire and fury" and his fervent rejection of the very existence of climate change -- may be the true apocalyptic god of our era. It's a hard thought to take in, but let Rebecca Gordon, TomDispatch's expert in "forever wars," lend a hand on the nuclear part of the equation. Tom
Trump's Nuclear Dreams
Nightmares Past and Present
By Rebecca Gordon
Preventing a nuclear war between the United States and North Korea may be the most pressing challenge facing the world right now.- Advertisement -
Our childish, ignorant, and incompetent president is shoving all of us -- especially the people of Asia -- ever nearer to catastrophe. While North Korea probably hasn't yet developed the missiles to deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland, it certainly has the capacity to reach closer targets, including South Korea and Japan.
But what can ordinary people do about it? Our fingers are far removed from the levers of power, while the tiny digits of the man occupying the "adult day care center" we call the White House hover dangerously close to what people my age used to call "the Button." Nevertheless, I think there may still be time to put our collective foot on the brakes, beginning with the promise of a bill currently languishing in Congress.
Meanwhile, many of us who were born in the post-World War II years are re-experiencing nightmares we thought we'd left safely in the past.
Duck and Cover
I was born seven years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like the rest of my generation of Americans, I grew up in the shadow -- or perhaps more accurately, the glow -- of "the Bomb" (which, in those days, we did indeed capitalize). I remember the elementary school ritual of joining a line of neat, obedient second-graders crouching on knees and elbows against a protective concrete hallway wall, hands covering the backs of our necks. I remember coming home from school, recounting that day's activities to my mother and watching as she rushed to the bathroom to vomit -- her all-too-literal gut reaction to a world in which her children were being prepared in school for global annihilation.
In class, we saw civil defense films produced by the government, like the one that encouraged us to "set aside a small supply of canned goods" in makeshift basement shelters. "They're safe from radioactivity," the narrator assured us, as a lovely, young, white mother confidently placed the last can firmly on the cupboard shelf. (The film was far less enlightening about what to do once that "small supply" ran out.) Other movies reminded us that we should always be aware of the location of the nearest fallout shelter or taught us how to duck and cover.- Advertisement -
By 1961, my family had moved from rural New York State to Washington, D.C., where my mother got a job with the brand new Peace Corps. Everywhere in my new city I saw the distinctive black-and-yellow signs indicating fallout shelter locations. The student body at Alice Deal Junior High School was too big for hallway drills. Instead, at the appointed time, we would all be herded into the auditorium, where a solemn-faced principal would describe the secret underground shelter where we would all be safe, should the Soviets actually launch a nuclear attack on our country. I remember bursting out laughing, while my homeroom teacher fixed me with an angry stare. Who was the principal kidding? We lived in Washington, the number one political target of any potential Soviet nuclear strike. Even then, I was aware enough to know that, whether above ground or under it, we would either fry immediately or die of radioactive poisoning thereafter.
In my family, we joked about bomb shelters. We knew they wouldn't save us. So I remember being shocked when, in the early 1960s, we visited the family of a friend of my mother's named Yarmolinsky. We kids were all sent out to play behind their suburban Virginia home, where my brother and I stumbled upon a large dome in the middle of the woods. "What's that?" we asked our new friends.
"Oh, that's our fallout shelter," one of them replied.