I was a boy during the Fifties and Sixties, and I can tell you that we all acutely felt the presence of the threat of the end of the world in those days. Lots of people got really worked up about it and made efforts to survive it, at least for six months or so, in private “fallout shelters.” The end that we were half-expecting was, of course, a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.
It was a real topic of national conversation, and lots of art was devoted to it, because the possibility of it was part of reality, there really were vast arsenals of huge bombs joined to efficient delivery systems, all targeted and ready to go. It was never, perhaps, likely, but, given the contentious relationship of the superpowers and the vagueries of human nature, it was way up into the range of the possible, more than merely conceivable. Scientists invented the Doomsday Clock as a way of warning us to keep our wits about us. Hollywood gave us “Fail Safe,” and “On the Beach,” and even the black comedic masterpiece, “Dr. Strangelove (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb).”
There was a lot of “Post-Apocalyptic” science fiction too, one that I read was called “1999: The Penultimate Truth,” which featured a much reduced human population living in a dangerous new natural world. That was small potatoes though, the real deal was the actual, certifiable End Of The World.
The fear that it engendered in the general population was real and widespread. During the Cuban Missile Crisis I was a high school sophomore, and I distinctly remember the tension among the faculty of my school. They obviously weren't worrying about some ships being sunk, or some soldiers being dispatched. They were worried about the end of the world.
Not surprisingly, given my nature, I viewed the prospect through a romantic, yet strongly cynical, lens. Imagine the thrill of participating in the single greatest event in human history! My role would have been small, no need to prepare ones self for mere vaporization. I lived in New York City, and later on in Los Angeles, and in any nuclear war worth the title both of those places would be multi-targeted and among the first to go. For me, it would probably be a simple matter of noticing the flash from indoors, and having a fraction of a second to feel the pride that comes from witnessing something truly important, however disagreeable.
The worst that I expected was to be reduced to a radiation damaged hulk, essentially disintegrating over the course of the next little while. I could imagine myself kneeling on a lawn, or the dining room floor, vomiting up the remains of my insides and watching my skin sloughing off in big chunks, which was the real life, documented experience of some unfortunate people in Asia on at least two occasions. More time to enjoy the marvelous thrill of a vast nuclear exchange, knowing that a follow up strike will soon end any misery that intruded on the wonder of it.
Honestly, though, I strongly believed that it would never happen. We would never start that war; no cost-benefit analysis, no risk analysis, no possible agenda could justify it. I was also one hundred percent sure that the Soviets would never start it. Even a “victory” would be the end of them, their Soviet style of government. They existed only by the exercise of total control, which would disappear immediately under the first mushroom clouds.
Now we find ourselves in a very different, but almost analogous situation. The Soviets are gone, the number of nuclear weapons has been much reduced (certainly below “end of the world” levels), and the weapons that remain do so in a more stable emotional environment. We live today with the present threat of a different manner of ending for our civilization.
I read a nice bit of fiction the other day, in a New Yorker magazine. “Diary of an Interesting Year,” by Helen Simpson. I say nice, it wasn't great, I was a little bit surprised that it made the cut for that august literary entity. It was a short, first-person (“Diary”), account of the experience of Brits after a sudden, disastrous rise in world temperatures.
Far be it for me to debate the politics, or even the existence of what has come to be called “Global Warming,” I think on the evidence “Global Climate Change” is a more apt title. I think that something is happening, there's plenty of evidence for that, and I think that it should be of concern to us, and I think that it should be investigated without prejudice by the best minds available, but I have no firm opinion as to what might be happening, although I have my suspicions.
Like the U.S. v. Soviets nuclear war, this threatened climate catastrophe is perhaps unlikely, but certainly way up into the range of the possible, more than merely conceivable.
Ms. Simpson's story is very downbeat, the protagonist describes a miserable existence, a slow process of starving to death in disease ridden degradation. If her description of the aftermath of sudden, irreversible climate disruption is accurate, it would be a fate terrible enough to make us long again for those halcyon days of nuclear destruction.