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Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough. Some Thoughts

August 19, 2017

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, paintings by Denver artist Calvin Lee

The question now before the human species, therefore, is whether life or death will prevail on the earth. This is not metaphorical language but a literal description of the present state of affairs.

Jonathan Schell. The Fate of the Earth. p.113

Late last night I finished Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth. It had been among a carton of old books to be donated to a local library, but as an afterthought, I removed it and starting re-reading it. I had read it – or parts of it – just after was published, some 35 years past, in 1982. My dear and departed friend, Dr. Dick Ayre from Presque Isle Maine, held it in high esteem. Add to that, when I started my re-read, Hiroshima Day (August 6) and Nagasaki Day (August 9) were just around the corner. With his already legendary “subtlety,” Trumpty-Dumpty had jolted both the country and the world with his threat of a nuclear attack against North Korea. Reading Schell became irresistible.

I thought it might be interesting to read Schell in parallel with Naomi Klein’s recent small volume, No Is Not Enough, the choice of a book club I’ve been in for more than a decade. The Klein book, seemingly put together in a hurry, still, it presents some useful ideas as to how the country and the world got to this surrealistic moment as well as ideas concerning how to respond to the juggernaut of reaction and greed that is the Trumpty-Dumpty presidency. As usual, it is fine little volume. Klein writes with clarity and vision, her understanding of the danger of climate change, her path-breaking analysis of the use of “shock doctrines’ – a term I believe she first proposed – carefully, if briefly sketched out. If the “what to do” section at the end was a bit sketchy, still, the book as a whole contains many important and practical ideas.

Klein writes with clarity and vision, her understanding of the danger of climate change, her path-breaking analysis of the use of “shock doctrines’ – a term I believe she first proposed – carefully, if briefly sketched out. If the “what to do” section at the end was a bit sketchy, still, the book as a whole contains many important and practical ideas. 

Our book club discussion of Klein was one of the better ones of recent months,  stimulating all around with everyone participating. We all spoke highly of it and of Naomi Klein’s work in general, although not without certain caveats. For all its positive aspects, the book hardly speaks about the cancer that is U.S. militarism, the growth of the military budget, the hundreds of U.S. military bases around the world and the unending U.S. wars in the Third World, the Middle East and beyond. There is an easy and valid connection between environmental degradation and militarism both in the sizable pollution that takes place daily on U.S. military bases and the execution of the wars themselves with their use of depleted uranium, phosphorus, cluster bombs, now the “MOAB” and the like. Very little that graces the pages of No Is Not Enough concerning the other half of the extinction whammy: nuclear weapons. Not much about class struggle either in the Marxian sense of the term.

Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, is a fine companion volume to the Klein book. As an introduction to the dangers of a world living under the shadow – not just of environmental climate change – but also of nuclear annihilation, it is as precious a little volume as the day it was published in 1982. A philosophical (but readable) book, it has a timeless quality. Its message – and it most definitely is a book with a message – is probed from a number of different angles, explained and repeated throughout, is unambiguous, stark: there is no such thing as “a limited nuclear war,” nuclear war is unwinnable, if unleashed it will lead to the annihilation not just of humanity but of most if not all life on earth. Many, if not most of humanity will die awful deaths as a result of the blasts themselves, and those who survive will pity the dead. With modern infrastructure destroyed, nature polluted with radioactivity those people who survived the first shocks will die off in short order from disease, the collapse of social structure, sterility. Humanity will become extinct…and as history blatantly notes, once extinct, never will return again.

Nice uplifting stuff, no? It’s the kind of scenarios people would rather not think about but the great shadow of which has haunted our lives since August 6, 1945 when Harry Truman, who rose from selling ladies underwear in Missouri to become the president of the United States, gave the OK to drop a 15 kiloton atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing around 150,000 people instantly, and some 250,000 total within a matter of weeks from radiation sickness, cancer and burns. We’ll never know how many more people suffered and died from its after-effects.

Hiroshima – Shrine commemorating the incinerated victims of August 6, 1945 (R. Prince photo)

In August, 1987 I had the good fortune to visit Hiroshima to participate in the World Conference Against the A and H Bombs. It was more than a bit chilling being face to face with humanity’s ability to significantly speed up our own extinction and that of pretty much all life on earth. Extinction is, ultimately, the fate of all living things, but until that visit, I had thought that maybe, maybe, we (we = humanity) still had a couple of hundred thousand years to go,…not a couple of decades. Then two years after landing in Hiroshima, a visit to Chernobyl, Ukraine, took place, It was three years after the famous meltdown in April, 1986. Chernobyl was a convincing case study that not only was the use of nuclear weapons intolerable, but that the so-called peaceful use of nuclear energy also is dangerous. Should a conventional war take place, in let’s say, Europe, nuclear power plants would be targets. And now we have Fukushima. Where will the next nuclear tragedy be? How many more can the world absorb, tolerate?

In August, 1987 I had the good fortune to visit Hiroshima to participate in the World Conference Against the A and H Bombs. It was more than a bit chilling being face to face with humanity’s ability to significantly speed up our own extinction and that of pretty much all life on earth. Extinction is, ultimately, the fate of all living things, but until that visit, I had thought that maybe, maybe, we (we = humanity) still had a couple of hundred thousand years to go,…not a couple of decades. Then two years later, a visit to Chernobyl, Ukraine, took place, It was three years after the famous meltdown in April, 1986. Chernobyl convinced me that not only was the use of nuclear weapons intolerable, but that the so-called peaceful use of nuclear energy also is dangerous. Should a conventional war take place, in let’s say, Europe, nuclear power plants would be targets. And now we have Fukushima. Where will the next nuclear tragedy be? How many more can the world absorb, tolerate?

Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth was published in 1982. That was a year into the Ronald Reagan presidency. The Cold War between the United States and the (then) Soviet Union had ratcheted up a good deal. The threat of nuclear war was real, especially intensified by the build up of both U.S. and Soviet medium range missiles in Europe (Cruise and Pershing on the U.S. side, SS-17s and 20s on the Soviet side). There was talk (and plans) of “Star Wars” – bringing nuclear war making to space. Here in the United States plans to develop yet more powerful and accurate missile systems (like the MX) and to boost the accuracy of the medium and long range systems. This only added to the tensions. Worse, there was talk among the idiot-savants in the White House and Reagan Administration, that nuclear war could be winnable, talk which 35 years later is being resurrected now by Trumpty-Dumpty and his coterie of military advisers.

At the same time, nothing short of a global movement to prevent nuclear war burst forth all over the world. In Europe, the European Movement for Nuclear Disarmament (END) exploded on both sides of the continent. In the United States a call for both the United States and the Soviet Union to freeze the development of nuclear weapons triggered a similar powerful wave of protest against human extinction. Nor was this movement limited to Europe and North America. Countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, cognizant of the fact that the consequences of nuclear war would annihilate them as well, produced active and vibrant anti-nuclear, peace movements as well. There was worldwide concern. That global peace movement brought the world back from the edge as the United States and the Soviet Union removed their various medium range missile systems from Europe. Those who fail to appreciate the power of this mass peace movement, don’t understand history. It was millions of people who took to the street, who contacted their government representatives that forced two belligerent world powers at the time to come to their senses. 

Although at the time some Americans were aware of the nuclear danger, many were obvious to the threat, what it meant to this country and the world. Then, like today, there were certain political figures who were arguing the impossible: that nuclear war is winnable. Not surprisingly it is from these same circles that the dangers of climate change are denied or belittled. The Fate of the Earth was one of the main public vehicles to debunk such nonsense. Carefully, systematically, Schell argued that once unleashed, nuclear war would neither be limited or “managed.”

Nor would it be possible for any nuclear weapons power to destroy the nuclear war-making capacity of its opponents. By then nuclear weapons powers were arranging their nuclear arsenal in what came to be known as a “triad” – ie, striking possibility from land, sea and air. No surprise attack by one county against another would deter its adversary from striking back. Furthermore, the idea that the destruction would be limited to the countries involved in such a conflict was fanciful: nuclear war would engulf the entire world and in short order, having destroyed the socio-economic fabric of modern life, polluted the atmosphere and waters, it would lead to the destruction of the environment and most if not all life on earth.

What would Darwin say about the prospect of human extinction?Diego Rivera Paints Darwin, father (along with Alfred Wallace) of the theory of natural selection, the basis of modern biology and evolutionary theory. Easily the most important scientific discovery of the 19th century, under attack today from certain bigoted, well-funded quarters.

Although Schell’s work is important, it is notable that he hardly mentions the driving force behind the nuclear weapons build up in the United States (and elsewhere): the military industrial complex.  Eisenhower warned the country and the world about it in his parting speech. In constant need of “a threat”, fear to fund its industries and build weapons, if anything sixty or so years later, it is more powerful today than even when Schell was writing about it. He must have known about it, but preferred to avoid analyzing it and how it has manipulated public opinion through “threat exaggeration.”

During the Cold War, the Soviet Threat was constantly exaggerated as a pretext for yet more bloated military budgets; it was only after communism collapsed in the USSR that it became clear that economically, politically and militarily, the Soviet Union was always the weaker of the two (US-USSR) parties. Now the same logic is being applied to different Middle East leaders (Hussein, Khadaffi, Assad, the Iranians) and to the open-ended war on terrorism. Same story, different target.

How to avoid either calamity?

There needs to be a change in how people think about it all, understanding the threats..but it will take much more. Here we are, lurching every day into new fields of knowledge, insights about how “things” (living things, the natural world) work, the history of life, otherwise known as evolution, able to make more sophisticated tools and forms of communication, and at the same time inching closer to collective doom, actually racing towards it.

How to avoid either calamity?

A good way to start is by reading Klein and Schell. They shed about as much light on the subject as anyone can in 250 pages. At the very least, they burst the bubble so many people, especially those in power in Washington D.C. these days, find ourselves in. It’s a start.

 

 

 

 

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