Why should someone like me, an old man in Albuquerque, New Mexico, think he should be writing something about the ludicrous and monstrous possibility of imminent nuclear war with North Korea? And why am I finding an association between such madness and the fact of climate change denial?
Other than my horror at the thought of a nuclear exchange that could result in the deaths of uncountable billions of innocent people and alter the nature of global political conscience forever, I feel obliged to say something right now because I come from the unique place on the planet that saw the invention of such weapons. I live in a place that is still plagued by the radioactive waste from producing those warheads. My hometown and large parts of my state are endangered by uranium mining pollution from supplying and processing the basic material for those bombs.
And, I live in Albuquerque. In a nuclear exchange with Russia or China, we would be a first-strike zone owing to our national labs and nuclear weapons storage facilities.
Most of us here know we aren’t a great city but we are a great place, one filled with marvelous people many of whom, however, are burdened, one way or the other, with the eerie reality of living in the landscape of where the greatest mistake in human history was made — creating a weapon so powerful that no rational person would use it, but that any common variety madman sociopath wouldn’t have a second thought about using it preemptively or impetuously.
In the Southwest, that greatest mistake exists now cheek by jowl with the ominous and increasingly obvious effects of the second greatest mistake in human history, the denial and foot dragging that’s allowed climate change to begin its chain reaction of calamity around the world, with special brutality in the desert.
For most of my life the people of the world have lived with the possibility of a nuclear war with weapons thousands of times stronger than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, some 72 years ago. And the unthinkable specter of an “all out” nuclear Armageddon and its resulting “nuclear winter” freezing out most life on the planet is the backdrop to most of modern history.
We suspected that if it came it would come fast, either by accident or by insane intent, and that we could do nothing about it. We worried, and still do, that if one bomb were used, it would open the gate for many, many more. But we placed our faith in the rationality of our species. Mutual assured destruction, as it is called, was not something rational human beings would allow to happen if they could help it. Only rarely did we contemplate what might happen if true mad men, driven insane by greed and power, were at the helm of great nuclear arsenals. We were content to worry about terrorists with dirty bombs, something ghastly enough to focus our attention but then be quickly driven from the news by less spectacular calamities.
In the last two decades we were distracted from instant annihilation by reports of the slow, inexorable evolution of climate change threatening to rend the very fabric of our way of life, especially for people on the coasts and in the deserts of the world. But we consoled ourselves that rational people wouldn’t let such a thing happen. But, again, we didn’t count on a kind of criminal insanity taking hold of our government, and the governments and corporations of the world, an insanity also driven by derangements of greed and power.
So what do we do now? For the first time that I can remember since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, it seems like the politics of technology and global realignment is not crying wolf about a nuclear war between mad men, with billions of us caught in the middle. Will it happen? If not Trump and North Korea now, what next?
We do know that the philosophy of mutually assured destruction as being the ultimate deterrent to nuclear war is kaput. The age of rationality as the bedrock of deterrence is over. Rationality has become as unreliable as the machinations of the stock market. The philosophy of deterrence needs to be completely overhauled and the production of the bombs that backs it up completely ended.
Nuclear weapons strategy and the pollution that comes with it, climate change and the pollution that causes it, both must dominate American politics like they never have been allowed to before, both nationally and locally whenever possible.
So what is there to be done in the face of horrendous things you really can do nothing about, in the great scheme of things, as a person closer to being on the way out than on the way in, as a person living in the outback of American culture, as a citizen in an unprecedented historical moment? I don’t think it’s Pollyannish to say that we can allow such unthinkable situations to motivate us to do more than we ever have about things we can do something about, however remote and indirect our actions might be.
We are living in a time when the world as we know it is in danger of being radically reconstituted in ways that endanger everyone — either through calamitous weather conditions or the unraveling of modern life everywhere in the world, not only in flattened cities that nuclear war would bring.
For us in New Mexico, we could focus our attention on the obvious, if not glaring, realities of radioactive pollution from nuclear weapons research and development, the greatest mistake of our species. We could focus on cleaning up waste sites at the lackadaisical Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories which seem as interested in safeguarding New Mexico from plutonium waste as it does in world disarmament; clean up the radioactive Mixed Waste Landfill at Sandia National Laboratories and probably many other hot sites at the edge of our city; address WIPP’s lax safety procedures; clean up the more than 800 abandoned uranium mining sites west of Albuquerque, most on tribal lands in the Grants Mineral Belt. We could also “double down”on a Cold War jet fuel leak at Kirtland Air Force Base that threatens our water supply.
As to the second greatest mistake — denying climate change while willfully exacerbating it for profit — we could wake ourselves up to the prospect of being ripe for economic and cultural heat prostration and social dehydration in this desert city, conditions that will make our terrible poverty even more unbearable than it already is.
Waking up entails finding a way to live with what is, rather than hide from it, live with and be energized by it, not thrown into useless and pathetic despair. It means each of us, somehow, doing more than we have, more of what we do well, in the service of humane and resilient action.
We have to change what we believe in and what we think works. If we used to cling to the belief that humans tend to act rationally in their own best interests, we have to morph that idea into a belief that’s more reliable. If rationality can’t be trusted, perhaps a conviction can that understands like-minded individuals have a potentially great impact on the machinery of power if they come together and grow in size, organization, and moral self-regulation. The trick is, though, they can’t abandon existing forms of governance, they have to learn to make them work to serve the interests of a humane world. We don’t have time for revolutions and their chaotic aftermaths.
If we’re to survive the two great mistakes, we must wake up to the possibility of productive conflict without violence. We must do away with our distaste for wrangling in the public square, the grinding and exhausting process of winning and losing, losing and compromising, prevailing and being beaten, over and over, the process by which a culture and perhaps a world evolves with a double helix of yes and no, agreeing and disagreeing, an honest tug of war of ideas – without violence, and without running away in disenchantment or disgust.
We must empower ourselves, not towards narcissistic power, but to become serious people who can bear to face and struggle with the serious problems of our world. Does that sound Pollyannish?
When it comes right down to it, if you can’t believe in the rationality of the human species, you must find a way to believe that it is realistic to trust in our adaptability and capacity for survival, and ask yourself what kind of actions such a belief calls for, and humbly submit yourself to thinking and acting with clarity and good faith.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image by Christopher Dombres)