In this way, nuclear extermination would also prove to be an apocalyptic weather event, giving it an affinity with what, in the decades to come, would be called "global warming" and then "climate change." The nuclear story, the first (and at the time the only imaginable) tale of our extinction by our own hands, rose into the news periodically and even into front-page headlines, as during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as into the movies and popular culture. Unlike climate change, it was a global catastrophe that could happen at any moment and be carried to its disastrous conclusion in a relatively short period of time, bringing it closer to the today and tomorrow of the news.
Nonetheless, nuclear arsenals, too, were potential life-enders and so news-enders. As a result, most of the time their existence and development managed to translate poorly into daily headlines. For so many of those years in that now long-gone world of the Cold War stand-off, the nuclear issue was somehow everywhere, a kind of exterminationist grid over life itself, and yet, like climate change, nowhere at all. Except for a few brief stretches in those decades, antinuclear activists struggled desperately to bring the nuclear issue out of the shadows.
The main arsenals on the planet, still enormous, are now in a kind of nuclear hibernation and are only "news" when, for instance, their very backwater status becomes an issue. This was the case recently with a spate of headlines about test cheating and drug use scandals involving US Air Force "missileers" who feel that in their present posts they are career losers. Most of the major national arsenals are almost never mentioned in the news. They are essentially no-news zones. These would include the gigantic Russian one, the perhaps 200 weapons in the Israeli arsenal, and those of the British, French, Indians, and Pakistanis (except when it comes to stories about fears of future loose nukes from that country's stock of weapons).
The only exceptions in the twenty-first century have been Iran, a country in the spotlight for a decade, even though its nuclear program lies somewhere between prospective and imaginary, and North Korea, which continues to develop a modest (but dangerous) arsenal. On the other hand, even though a full-scale nuclear war between Pakistan and India, each of which may now have about 100 weapons in their expanding arsenals, would be a global catastrophe with nuclear-winter effects that would engulf the planet causing widespread famine, most of the time you simply wouldn't know it. These days, it turns out we have other problems.
The End of History?
If the end of the world doesn't fit well with "the news," neither does denial. The idea of a futureless humanity is difficult to take in and that has undoubtedly played a role in suppressing the newsiness of both the nuclear situation and climate change. Each is now woven into our lives in essential, if little acknowledged, ways and yet both remain remarkably recessive. Add to that a fatalistic feeling among many that these are issues beyond our capacity to deal with, and you have a potent brew not just for the repression of news but also for the failure to weave what news we do get into a larger picture that we could keep before us as we live our lives. Who, after all, wants to live life like that?
And yet nuclear weapons and climate change are human creations, which means that the problems they represent have human solutions. They are quite literally in our hands. In the case of climate change, we can even point to an example of what can be done about a human-caused global environmental disaster-in-the-making: the "hole" in the ozone layer over Antarctica. Discovered in 1985, it continued to grow for years threatening a prospective health catastrophe. It was found to be due to the effects of CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) compounds used in air-conditioning units, refrigerators, and aerosol propellants, and then released into the atmosphere. In fact, the nations of the world did come together around CFCs, most of which have now been replaced, while that hole has been reduced, though it isn't expected to heal entirely until much later this century.
Of course, compared with the burning of fossil fuels, the economic and political interests involved in CFCs were minor. Still, the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer is evidence that solutions can be reached, however imperfectly, on a global scale when it comes to human-caused environmental problems.
What makes climate change so challenging is that the carbon dioxide (and methane) being generated by the extraction, production, and burning of fossil fuels supports the most profitable corporations in history, as well as energy states like Saudi Arabia and Russia that are, in essence, national versions of such corporations. The drive for profits has so far proven unstoppable. Those who run the big oil companies, like the tobacco companies before them, undoubtedly know what potential harm they are doing to us. They know what it will mean for humanity if resources (and profits) aren't poured into alternative energy research and development. And like those cigarette companies, they go right on. They are indeed intent, for instance, on turning North America into "Saudi America," and hunting down and extracting the last major reserves of fossil fuel in the most difficult spots on the planet. Their response to climate change has, in fact, been to put some of their vast profits into the funding of a campaign of climate-change denialism (and obfuscation) and into the coffers of chosen politicians and think tanks willing to lend a hand.
In fact, one of the grim wonders of climate change has been the ability of Big Energy and its lobbyists to politicize an issue that wouldn't normally have a "left" or "right," and to make bad science into an ongoing news story. In other words, an achievement that couldn't be more criminal in nature has also been their great coup de théâtre.
In a world heading toward the brink, here's the strange thing: most of the time that brink is nowhere in sight. And how can you get people together to solve a human-caused problem when it's so seldom meaningfully in the news (and so regularly challenged by energy interests when it is)?
This is the road to hell and it has not been paved with good intentions. If we stay on it, we won't even be able to say that future historians considered us both a wonder (for our ability to create world-ending scenarios and put them into effect) and a disgrace (for our inability to face what we had done). By then, humanity might have arrived at the end of history, and so of historians.
Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
[Note: I would like to thank Jonathan Schell for loaning me the term "anti-news" in relation to climate change.]
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