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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/6/12

Remember Hiroshima?

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robert wolff
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In the late 60s and 70s of the last century I read science fiction. Everyone did. Rereading those paperbacks -- when paperback meant pocket book, small and cheap -- they brought back a time when the world, and certainly America, believed. We believed that everything was getting always better. Anything and everything was possible. The 21st century was far away because we knew what we could do in just a few years. After all, there were not many years between a promise to send a man to the moon and an American setting foot on the moon, planting that stiff  little flag. 

I arrived in America in January of 1950, when this country was so different from Europe five years after the end of war that I could not easily adjust to the culture and the people here. The war had destroyed cities, countries. We who survived were still in shock. And then, a few months after the end of war in Rurope, the "atom bomb;" not one but two. Many of us thinking that could have been our city, our capital, another hundred thousand deaths in Europe. More destruction falling out of just one plane when we had watched, or heard, a thousand planes overflying on their way to destroy Dresden in Germany.

In 1950, only five years after the war America was booming with energy while in Europe there was still rubble to be removed. There were many aspects of the American culture that were painful to adjust to. The overwhelming prejudice against black people; I still find that almost unimaginable. The wastefulness of the American life style. The complete disinterst in other countries, cultures, customs. After my shock from war American was culture shock. 

America was pulsing with the energy of having won the war. Women had worked in factories that were able to change in a month, they told me, from making cars to making tanks. America had built a ship a day, they said. 

I had what we later learned to call PTSD. Talking about the horrors would have helped, we now know. But nobody wanted to know my story. I learned that the American culture is so utterly convinced that we (notice I now say we) are so exceptional that we are truly not interested in other people. We don't want to know that other health services cost half what we pay and are better. We don't want to know that people in other countries have strong beliefs that are not like ours. We don't want to know that ours is an incredibly wasteful way of life.

And I remember something else about my first year in America. Nobody had heard of, or was interested in, the new philosophy that was sweeping all Europe: Existentialism. In America existentialism was (still is) unknown. 

Perhaps the most famous summing up of existentialism was "l'Absurdità totale de la vie," the total absurdity of life. At the time it was a completely new way of looking about how we in Europe experienced WWII. We had all felt overwhelmed by the enormous forces that fought this war, a thousand planes bombing one city. The sheer power of a secret police, of radio, oppression. How I read Sartre, and certainly Camus, was a reminder how puny humans are compared to a larger reality: seasons, storms, the heat of the Sun. Even the power we somehow released from an atom (nobody understood the theory) was just a bit of wind and noise compared to the enormity of the planet, in a solar system on the rim of a minor galaxy in an immense universe. Our "existence" did not warrant the importance we gave ourselves. The word :absurd" suggested not blowing ourselves up to, for instance, owners of the planet  (as we think today). Those are my words, not the philosophers of that time, of course. Reading, particularly Camus, it is clear they mean that what is absurd is not Life, all Life, but how we live our lives. Pretending we are all powerful, pretending we are so special, not part of nature. Certainly not "just another animal."

I came to understand that an existential way of thinking is utterly unAmerican. We do think of ourselves as the most important beings on this planet, maybe in the universe. We think of ourselves as more powerful than nature, having acquired, invented, enormous power over Mother Earth. We are so sure of our superiority that we cannot see the very real destruction we have wrought. We proved and continue to prove that we can destroy all life on this planet, and that we might do just that. We never shrink back from interfering in nature. We are now more firmly than ever convinced that we, humans, can do what we damn well please to the planet we imagine we own. 

We may be changing this planet, but we are not changing the solar system. It's beginning to look as if we might well change the planet so much that we, as we are today, could no longer survive on it. We are not modest, nor moderate. Powerful we may be; smart we are not.

I confess I am rereading old science fiction to escape from the world of today. I sought refuge in a country I thought was a clean and healthy democracy. It has changed. It is no longer clean nor a democracy as I thought of it. I don't understand Americans who pretend nothing has changed. I read people say after the worst drought in anyone's memory, or a never before known ferocious storm, that surely things will be back to normal next week, next year. 

Actually, of course, we all know that things will not get back to normal, but it is too hard to accept that we are losing a beautiful, fruitful world for a stormy, overheated planet. And even harder to accept that we are doing it ourselves. 

When the world ocean dies--and it is dying--Life, all Life, will be affected. The ocean is where Life began. Oh, the planet will survive, but it may become something like the next planet over, Venus, with a surface temperature of 580 - -- for such a number it does not matter whether that is Centigrade or Fahrenheit.

Here we are, 2012. The day Hiroshima was flattened by one bomb carried on one plane. I read that we now have thousands of bombs a thousand times as destructive as that first one. For what? 

Maybe Life, all Life, is not absurd. But absurdity may well apply to humans, the smart apes who in a few years can invent a way to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely. We can make ever more lethal weapons but we cannot make peace. We accept artificial intelligence but not our neighbor's beliefs. We cannot stop interfering in other countries nor stop interfering in nature and so we are destroying our only home. Knowing full well what we are doing. 

Remember Hiroshima, and now Fukushima? You would think that our most urgent priorities are getting rid of all nuclear devices and powerplants, and while we are at it, doing away with burning oil and coal. We know how to get energy from "green" sustainable sources. But no, we pretend we know best.  Profit today more important than survival tomorrow. That truly is absurd.

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robert wolff lived on the Big Island, called Hawai'i

his website is wildwolff.com He passed away in late 2015. He was born in 1925, was Dutch, spoke, Dutch, Malay, English and spent time living and getting to know Malaysian Aborigines. He authored numerous books including What it Is To Be Human, (more...)

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