The nuclear apocalypse of a new generation

I’m going to be honest and direct in this post. It’s one of the most difficult I’ve written. It was originally titled “I can’t do it”; I’m not sure if I’ll make it to a point where I can press the publish button, but I hope to.

Have you ever felt that there are problems in the world too big for you to face? That merely by being aware of them, they weigh you down, giving you a nagging sense of guilt or unease? For me, they’re like creeping vines, spreading over a world I once viewed with bright optimism and youthful wonder. The realisation that I’ve been one of the luckiest and most privileged human beings to have lived in all of history wasn’t an easy one, because it’s the only life I’ve had. And I don’t just mean because I’m a middle class Westerner, compared to the stereotypical starving African; I mean I live better than the kings of centuries ago, and I’m very likely to live better than the middle class will in centuries to come.

Let me digress. The Cold War intrigues me. How did the average US or Soviet citizen, or for that matter anyone with access to international news coverage, deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis? A Doomsday Clock poised near midnight, global superpowers with itchy trigger fingers, and the relatively recent specter of multiple World Wars. In those conditions, how could someone build a career, raise a family, invest in their future? How many forms of expression and the breaking of inhibitions were catalysed by the idea that there may not be a tomorrow?

There it was, the threat of extreme loss of human life and profoundly negative impacts on our society, simmering away. Importantly, it wasn’t under the control of John Smith at the corner shop. The powers responsible for military and political maneuvers could, perhaps, be spoken to with petitions and protests and demonstrations, but we didn’t collectively have our finger on the button, a button that could be the cause a global problem. And perhaps because of that, regular lives could be lead, the problem could fade into the background of public consciousness because most people weren’t in a position of responsibility.

Now we have our finger on the button.

The act of switching on a computer, or turning on a light, or firing up a car’s ignition puts us on the path to a global crisis more widespread, more complex and varied and insidious than any mushroom cloud. The superpower responsible for global warming is humanity. Sure, there are us-vs-them games and finger pointing. America and China are straining to blink last on major action, with many other smaller players in the race too. The rich, as usual, have the most power and weight to hurl around. They’re responsible for the most emissions, will be affected the least, and are the most likely to have to curb some of their excesses if society takes action at the scale required to mitigate the problem.

Is this a picture of isolation? Is nature too big and great and wild? Or is this friendship against a backdrop of beauty?

The rich do not, however, have numbers, and numbers are important too – our governments are democratic, and I believe that vocal and active mass movements can force change. The massed meek will only inherit the tattered scraps of their collective inaction. To think otherwise is to ignore history and accept defeat.

What, though, is defeat? I have lost sleep over the question. I genuinely do not believe we will do what’s necessary to avoid dangerous levels of global warming. So what should I do with my life? I get one shot on this planet, and spending a significant proportion of that time dedicating myself to a problem I know isn’t going to be solved could be a massive waste of time. I can’t shove the problem aside though – it’s hard to explain why, and I might try later – but should I still think of my future in a more proactive way?

Here’s some of the things I have given thought to of late:

  • Giving up science communication as a career to chase higher pay (say, go work in the mines in Australia for a period of years, or, fuck it, be a banker), investing hard and either buying a property in the countryside and washing my hands of most of society by 2030, or continually and directly investing in new technologies and action groups using my extra money.
  • Actively and strategically learning a range of skills which might help me live in a global crisis situation, including – and I cringe at this – how to fire a gun.
  • Quitting my current job and looking for a position, however poorly recompensed, in an environmentally focused organisation and sinking all my time and passion into the issue until I burn out.

Clearly, none of these are desirable, and I am not planning any of these things, but when I think deeply about climate change I feel like I should be trying action as extreme as that to counter the apathy I see in others. Have I come to a conclusion on what I should do? Good question. It’s a topic for another, more optimistic post, which I am writing alongside this one, and I hope you can read soon, and challenge and push me to justify my choices.

What strikes me is the simple fact that I, a mentally agile, physically healthy, financially stable white man – pretty much ticking every box for ongoing health and wealth – am scared shitless about the future. And it’s not too much about myself. Walking to the tube the other day, I thought about the things I’ve done. The cliched one is swimming with wild dolphins (on not one, but dozens of occasions). Flying halfway round the world. Friendships, sunrises, amazing parents, countless concerts, overseas trips to surf in tropical paradises. I’m 24 but if I died tomorrow, I’d have led a pretty phenomenal life.

No, the future freaks me out because the opportunity to live that kind of life is being slowly but surely snuffed out, not by intercontinentally-delivered fission reactions, but by apathy and inertia and economics and campaign fatigue and vested interests and the grand finale of the tragedy of the commons. Is this going to be the signature of my generation as we inherit the Earth? Are we going to wait passively until the problem is too direct, too immediate, too painful for each individual to ignore? Are those who grasp the scale of the threat going to succumb to despair, while others carry on, blissfully unaware or uncaring? And if so, who are the fools?

Can we take our finger off the button? Better yet, can we reshape the button so the intent and consequences of our actions – light in the darkness, convenient transport, global communication – are not accompanied by a silent, incremental contribution to this problem? I don’t know. I want to think we can. But what I really want to know is – how lonely am I with these thoughts? Do you care? Think about it, and if you find you have anything to share, please do, and share this post if it means something to you. I don’t think I’m alone.

Categories: environmentalism, Politics, Problems, Thoughts | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “The nuclear apocalypse of a new generation

  1. Baroque97

    I feel the same way often, with the same questions about “should I just stop caring because if no one else does, why shouldn’t I just do whatever the hell I want and actually have some fun in the years I have left?”

    I have no children, but my youngest sister has three, and I am terrified about what kind of life they will have in another 15-20 years when they are young adults. I wish I knew how to make people understand, but I don’t have the voice or the power to do so, and I find it incredibly depressing and scary.

    You are definitely not alone in your feelings. :/

  2. Chris

    I am no longer a young person with a long future ahead of me. At best, I may have 30 years. These thoughts plague me also. Should I devote my future, non-working life, to campaigning hard to sway a few more people to the realisation that NOW is what we have, and the choices we make every hour of every day are critical to the long term ‘sustainable’ survival of our species? Or do I just say…I’m tired, I’ve earned a rest, I will find a quiet place to hide from what is coming and leave it to more noble and energetic people to fight on? I understand now, more than ever, why ‘ignorance is bliss’.

  3. PeterT

    there is a positive to be taken from the cold war experience – the worst thing didn’t happen. not remotely. maybe having fewer individuals in the key positions is an advantage. maybe that was a scenario in which clearly nobody could actually “win” and that makes all the difference. probably there was little doubt that a global nuclear war would be a very bad thing, backyard bunker or no.

    there are more immediate problems for most of the worlds people, even the very well off, who are great at turning mole hills into mountains (my smart phone is just so slow!). i think we are working towards a solution, even if it involves a generational change. i also think however that many people believe that the worst won’t happen in terms of climate change, while having a poor appreciation of what the worst might involve. this is the tragedy of the commons writ large.

    personally, i think we’ll see some crucial scientific breakthroughs that will grease the wheels of capitalism and politics will then follow. some of these early breakthroughs may not be far off and we may see business decide to take advantage of whatever policy there is in place at the moment. president obama has realised that a political solution in the usa is impossible from the start and funded solar thermal. energy storage solutions look promising. what we need to stop doing however is giving fossil fuel energy production so many free kicks. hopefully we’re seeing that now at least.

    i’ve come down on the side of optimism. possibly because i’m in the fortunate position to see the attitudes of and be influenced by many young people like you, david.

    i still admit to the odd sleepless night however and i’ve driven my extended family to varying degrees of annoyance at times over my passion for this issue.

    • Good to hear, Pete. I think a big part of what worries me is that my general assumption that people think, at least mostly, like me, is being proven wrong. That’s not a bad thing to happen – probably better sooner than later – but it means I have to shift my expectations of how society and politics work a bit!

      I think power storage will be the most critical element that could tip a balance in favour of large-scale decarbonisation. And as soon as these kinds of things become properly commercially competitive, suddenly politics will follow, like you say, because they’ll be where both the money and the moral high ground lie.

      The uncertainty of when this will happen, and the sad fact that we kind of need it to happen before effective changes are likely to take place, are what worry me, but… well, you see the title of my next post. I am going to do what I can!


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