One can forgive Kurt Vonnegut for these misguided prophecies, writing in the midst of the Cold War about his World War Two experiences as he was. In an era when it must have seemed inevitable that the world would return to the familiar state of conflict – this time an unthinkable nuclear version that would surpass even the horrors Vonnegut had witnessed in Dresden – an anti-glacier book might have been considered less of a waste of money. Slaughterhouse Five, an anti-war book itself, turned out to be an extraordinary work that is well worth the read, but as with almost all postmodern texts, it is not one that can actually tell us anything about the world we live in today, let alone how to live in it.
Because, as it turns out, in the years that Vonnegut was writing about the inexorableness of wars and glaciers, the world was in fact muddling its way towards ending both. Glaciers, I suspect you will have heard, are being stopped in their tracks, and are even withdrawing. War, it might surprise you to learn, has undergone the same retreat.
Whilst it is true that civil wars continue to devastate the likes of Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, you will doubtless notice that these are poor and unstable states, and that is no coincidence. War between democratic nations, on the other hand, has ceased; and given the world is slowly undergoing democratisation, we can be hopeful that it will one day also become peaceful. The point here, by the way, is certainly not to climb up on some high Western horse and to devalue or criticise those who had the misfortune to be born in the Syria’s of the world, but simply to point out that if anything in the last few hundred years can be analogous to the advance of a glacier, it is not war, but rather the cold, solid, gleaming fact of progress. Postmodernism at its core foolishly denies this, which is why it’s so delightful to read something like Slaughterhouse Five and recognise that, one, yes it is a wonderful piece of prose, but two, its lack of predictive powers will keep it firmly on the shelf of fiction. Indeed, so long as the world continues to advance, and developing nations can prosper in the same way that we have, one can be hopeful that the chances of war melt away altogether.
There is, however, a problem with this, in that it appears the glaciers have to melt away too: the price of human flourishing seems to be that of global warming. And it is this warming that might keep the fires of war alive after all.
It might seem peculiar to talk about wars and glaciers in the same breath, but – like Vonnegut – that is precisely what The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have been doing of late. Since 1947 The Bulletin have kept beady eyes on the level of existential threat to humankind, and by way of measuring the danger we are in they created the concept of the Doomsday Clock. At its inception it was set at seven minutes to midnight, and has been adjusted accordingly in years ever since. In the early 1950s, as tensions between the United States and the USSR built, it ticked ominously to two minutes to midnight, but then over the following decades it edged away again, and come the end of the Cold War in 1991 the hand rested a luxurious seventeen minutes from the apocalypse. The world could breathe easy, it appeared. Last month, however, immersed in the context of the climate crisis and deteriorating relations with Iran, the Clock edged closer to catastrophe than it ever has before: we now have only 100 seconds to midnight.
How can it be, then, that in increasingly peaceful times we find ourselves teetering on the precipice of extinction, ostensibly peering down over the edge and into the abyss? It seems paradoxical that in a world of plenty, where more people die from obesity than from starvation, and from suicide than from war, that we have never been more vulnerable as a whole.
But these are times in which the impulsive paws of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un hover over red buttons, where uncertainty surrounding the nuclear capabilities of Iran and Israel exasperate an already tense Middle East, and where the embittered states of India and Pakistan hold in their hands the power to cast us all into a devastating nuclear winter. Put in these candid terms, the forecast looks bleak, as if great clouds loom on the horizon, curiously mushroom-shaped.
If the world is only just holding back this tide of nuclear war, it is already losing to the flow of the glaciers. As they retreat, the fresh water supply to some two billion people diminishes, casting uncertainty on future supplies of food and drinking water, which will likely result in levels of mass migration that have never been seen before. The pressure that this will put on international ties is why The Bulletin has incorporated the strains of climate change into its Clock considerations.
Taking all of this into account, and throwing the US’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal in for good measure, one might wonder if there is even 100 seconds left until midnight. Either way, we are apparently living in the time of mankind’s greatest peril.
It is at this point I hope to convince you otherwise. Not that the threat of nuclear war isn’t a very real one: it is consistently ranked alongside climate change and the unconstrained march of artificial intelligence as the greatest of existential threats. But even in the midst of a warming world it seems there is not only good reason for calm, but a duty towards it.
In fairness, it is likely you haven’t given all of this much thought: we tend to assume the responsibility lies with those who have the required knowledge and expertise, and that we are in safe hands. At the same time, however, we know that Trump can literally press the button whenever it strikes his fancy. Indeed, if anything demonstrates the human brains ability for cognitive dissonance – the capacity to hold two opposing ideas in ones head at the same time – then it is surely the topic of nuclear weapons.
It is funny, though, that we find so little of this in the media. Most outlets completely ignored the movement of the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds, which is bizarre given it plays so well into their alarmist culture. Indeed if your idea of the world is based on the news then you would assume the most likely cause of your demise is either terrorism, immigration, or – as is currently in vogue – the coronavirus*. It seems that The Bulletin were directly selling into this fear-mongering custom, but for once not all of the media was buying it.
I am not, as such, a fan of the Clock. When The Bulletin created it, one would assume – and indeed hope – that they used some scientific method for arriving at the initial figure of seven minutes to midnight, rather than the mere notion that “it looked good”. Alas, that is precisely the reason the Doomsday Clock began at 11.53, and to this day it has been set by nothing other than the subjective whims of the panel selected to decide it.
The panel, of course, is comprised of extremely clever minds with good intentions, but whilst their endeavours to increase public awareness of the existential threats we face are admirable, its effect, unfortunately, may be more pernicious than prudent. In ratcheting up fear, for example, it might induce a panic amongst a public that would all too readily support nuclear action against an enemy, which in a world of mutually assured destruction only serves to invite nuclear action upon themselves. In this sense, the Clock is a self-fulfilling concept: it is merely a measure of fear, which only begets itself.
The Clock instils in us an inevitability of disaster, because as far as we know it is only ever a matter of time before a clock strikes midnight. I would be interested to know what the scientific consensus is on changing behaviour with these tactics. For example, is the best way to get people to change how they act on climate change issues to scare the shit out of them? Or is it to encourage that change by reporting what progress is being made on it? I genuinely don’t know which is the more effective – and suspect the answer will play a big role in the future of the planet – but I do know which one sells more newspapers and gets more article clicks.
But whilst a warming world is a tragedy of the commons conundrum, the nuclear threat differs to it significantly in that it comes from an enemy (or perceived enemy). To suggest the inevitability of doom – as the Clock does – serves only to weaken the motivation to bring the nuclear threat under control, because it suggests that our only way to survive is to maintain nuclear weapons. In this manner, the fear of death might be the death of us all.
What would be a constructive way to approach the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons then? Well, how about demonstrating the progress that has been made in the area? One might make the point that since the end of the Cold War the amount of nuclear weapons in the world has been reduced from over 70,000 to less than 15,000. So there are 55,000 fewer nuclear weapons today than there once was, and not one of them ever got used. That is truly remarkable. It borders the ridiculous, in fact. Now, admittedly, 15,000 nuclear weapons is still quite enough to destroy life as we know it, but it is movement – quite incredible movement – in the right direction, no? Increasing public awareness of such improvement would almost certainly put more pressure on the United States and Russia to renew the New START Treaty, which commits the world’s leading nuclear stockpilers to reducing their stores and keep the momentum going. As it stands, however, this is set to expire in 2021.
Another positive worth remembering – a vastly understated one – is that we are now in the seventy fifth year since the last – not to mention the only – atomic bombs were used aggressively. For a weapon to only be used once in seventy-five years is unprecedented in human history. If we further note that it has not been used at all since multiple states gained a nuclear weapon, then we might find reason for optimism. Indeed the fact that several states have nuclear weapons brings into play mutually assured destruction, and that is an enormously powerful deterrent that does not diminish with time. It is as powerful now as it was in the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it will be just as powerful in the future. It is so powerful, in fact, that at one point it contained 70,000 nuclear weapons. Nothing else can do that, and we would do well to remember that mutually assured destruction is not going away.
Around about now opponents tend to point to a long and terrifying list of close-calls, where nuclear war might have broken out by mistake if it were not for the heroic decisions of a few individuals. Stanislav Petrov and Vasily Arkhipov are among them. They are fascinating stories in themselves that make for harrowing reading, but perhaps something best left for another time. What I would say though, as a Parthian shot of sorts, is that whilst we could deem these escapes from extinction to be a matter of luck, it might also be worth considering that the sheer amount of these examples could indicate that something about the systems in place is, in fact, working. So far, no individual or state has overcome the undeniable reality that pressing that button has consequences beyond all imagination. As Stanislav Petrov put it after he declined to react to an apparent inbound attack on the USSR in 1983: “I knew perfectly well that nobody would be able to correct my mistake if I had made one”. Perhaps you need some luck for that to be the case – for him to be the man in the chair at the time – or perhaps we are a smarter and kinder species than we give ourselves credit for.
I will leave you with another excerpt from Slaughterhouse Five. It is a rather lengthy one and, as you have been so kind in sparing me this much time already, I shall offer a brief overview of it if you don’t want to read it all.
In the excerpt, Vonnegut has his protagonist dream of a war movie in reverse, where all the terrors of the World War are undone: shells are magically pulled out of a flaming German city (presumably Dresden), shrapnel is sucked from the bodies of dying men so that they might live, and – most wonderfully of all – the bombs are taken back to the factories, where they are disassembled and hidden back amongst the earth. (That this latter part is carried out by women, who used to be employed in the bomb factories but are now seen to be undoing the destruction of their male-counterparts, feels particularly poignant.)
My point is this: whilst this dream sequence feels mythical and impossible to Vonnegut and his readers, this is quite literally what has been happening in the world since Slaughterhouse Five. The cities of Germany that were ablaze at the end of the Second World War are amongst the globes wealthiest, and they have benevolently opened their doors to people whose own cities now burn. Of course, the millions of men who lost their lives fighting in those wars were never brought back, but so far the developed nations have done a pretty good job of not repeating their mistakes, at least when it comes to fighting other developed nations. Developing nations are also getting better at this as they get richer. And, finally, on the bombs that Vonnegut saw returned to the earth, one can all too easily draw parallels with the 55,000 nuclear weapons that have been taken to the factories and disassembled since 1991, “so they would never hurt anybody ever again”.
In playing this movie in reverse for us, Vonnegut inadvertently exhibits the very progress that he thought impossible. The Doomsday Clock, however, victim to a questionable modern philosophy that to panic is the way to progress, seems only to be ticking forward.
Here is the passage in full.<