Once upon a time, long ago in another universe, the end of the world was left in the hands of the gods, not human beings. Today, however, humanity, in its curious ingenuity, has managed to come up with two ways of destroying itself, as well as the very habitat that welcomed and nourished it all these eons. For the first of these, two dates suffice: August 6th and 9th, 1945. Those were, of course, the moments when the primordial power of the split atom was first released directly on the human populations (and cityscapes) of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not long after, the two Cold War superpowers began to create vast arsenals of such weaponry, ever more powerful, ever more destructive, that could, if released in a full-scale nuclear war, annihilate not just humanity but much of the world (and possibly two or three more Earth-sized planets in the bargain). This was, in the phrase of the era, “the unthinkable” and, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon reminds us today, those of us growing up in the Cold War years couldn’t stop thinking the unthinkable.
Unlike that version of Armageddon, consciously organized, planned out, tested, and financed by the American and then Soviet governments (which would, when all its implications were clear, be replicated by a host of other powers ranging from China and Great Britain to Israel and North Korea), the second human apocalypse was essentially inadvertent. It caught us unawares. It turned out that, once burned, coal and oil, the energy sources that powered the industrial revolution and so changed forever the nature of our lives, were also putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These would cumulatively warm the planet in ways guaranteed to devastate humanity — not in an instant but over hundreds of years in what can only be imagined as a slow-motion Armageddon.
Think of these two apocalypses as nuclear winter (an effect of nuclear war, not known in 1945, in which even a regional nuclear exchange could devastate the planet) and climate change summer with, as we’ve experienced this year in the U.S., its extreme weather, fierce droughts, raging wildfires, and rising sea levels.
What makes this moment in the first year of the age of Trump so extreme is that our strange new president, a man ready to turn everything (even the dead of America’s wars) into a win-lose contest centered on himself, has taken the accumulated knowledge of the two potential human apocalypses and essentially tossed them out the window of Trump Tower. It’s possible, in other words, that the guy with the orange comb-over, the jut jaw, the thinnest of skins, and the most limited of vocabularies — and his urge to inflict “fire and fury” and his fervent rejection of the very existence of climate change — may be the true apocalyptic god of our era. It’s a hard thought to take in, but let Rebecca Gordon, TomDispatch’s expert in “forever wars,” lend a hand on the nuclear part of the equation.