Pardon my beginning the New Year with an ominous observation: Our culture manages to function year after year against a mostly unacknowledged backdrop of two conditions that have the potential to destroy it or at least alter it beyond our recognition — and maybe the entire earth, as well.
These two conditions remind me of a poignant scene in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”: Bill asks his friend Mike, a drunken, indolent rake, how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”
When it comes to cultural and global mass destruction, “gradually” is climate change. At last we’ve begun to talk about it a little more, and a few modest measures have been implemented in response to the slow catastrophe that could alter a great deal about what it means to live on Planet Earth.
But for most of us, climate change is an abstraction that has little noticeable connection with our ordinary lives; in fact, candidates for the presidential nomination of one of our major political parties are mustering considerable support, although — or maybe because — they deny climate change or never mention it, at all.
“Suddenly,” on the other hand, is catastrophe as the result of the discharge of nuclear weapons. For the most part, we live with this threat, as well, without thinking much about it. But North Korea’s detonation of a nuclear warhead last week — whether it was actually a hydrogen bomb hasn’t been determined — might make us pause to consider that we live in a world that contains some 16,000 nuclear warheads, many of them much more powerful than the ones exploded at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Among citizens of a certain age, the events of last week might serve as a reminder of a period in the past when the prospect of nuclear annihilation was much more prominent in America’s collective psyche. In the 50s, the nation assumed a state of vigilance against nuclear destruction that seems oddly quaint now. Public schools staged “duck and cover” drills, and public fallout shelters were designated. The iconic episode of this period was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when children understood from the looks on the faces of the grownups that destruction could rain down at any moment.
My high school developed civil defense classes and distributed brochures that demonstrated how to radiation-proof your home with sandbags and how to wash radioactive fallout from a roof with a garden hose. A friend’s father built a well-equipped fallout shelter deep in his backyard.
The threat of nuclear destruction was embodied in popular culture. More than one episode of “The Twilight Zone” was built around the sudden disruption of the lives of ordinary people by a thermonuclear holocaust. In 1964, the national mood was given a dark comedic cast in the film “Dr. Strangelove.” The book “Alas, Babylon,” published in 1959, describes the catastrophic aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States that was provoked by an American missile accidentally fired into a Russian naval base in, interestingly, Syria.
This strange period of hyper-awareness of the possibility of sudden death by nuclear weapons lasted a couple of decades. Then we sort of forgot about it.
But the nuclear blast in North Korea last week, current heightened tensions with Russia and China, the nuclear capabilities of long-time rivals such as India and Pakistan and the chance that terrorist groups could obtain nuclear weapons should remind us that nuclear catastrophe is still a real possibility.
The 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson comes to mind: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The possibility of gradual destruction by climate change or sudden destruction by nuclear blast should encourage us to concentrate on finding some rational middle ground between gloom or hysteria on one hand and utter denial on the other. Despair isn’t called for, at least as yet; some of these problems may still be solvable. Happy New Year.
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John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at [email protected]