From 1959-1961, in a national push to prepare civilians for atomic warfare, the US Civil Defense organization ran a series of atomic war survival drills in Manhattan. New York City school children, outfitted with special-issue dog tags, learned to duck and cover. Everyone, by force of legal order, was required to participate in the rehearsal of survival tactics: turning one’s eyes away from the blast or quickly retreating to one of the countless fall-out shelters that formed the future catacombs of the post-atomic landscape.
According to the people who refused to participate, these drills were an insult to the intelligence of the people who would most definitely die in the event of the atomic warfare. It was an insult to be forced to march through a series of drills that would not save them from the blast, nor from the nuclear winter, nor from the millennium of fallout. It was a farce, so they protested and they refused to participate in the practice drills in order to draw attention to the fiction of post-nuclear survival. While they entire city went through the motions of ducking, covering, descending, and dying, a few hundred protesters sat on benches, holding their babies, and listening to the air raid sirens.
The fragility of the protesters–absorbing the imaginary radiation, burning from the imaginary shockwaves, and disintegrating outside of the imaginary protective bunkers–gives me the chills today, more than 50 years after the fact. And that, of course, was the point.
Every generation has moments of believing that they might be the last. As long as people have lived and died, someone has noted the strange slope downward, the unraveling, the falling apart, whether of the individual body or the whole apparatus of civilization. The institutions and laws and walls that surround our vulnerable bodies are failing and we are surely doomed. In American history, this culture of declension is codified in our earliest foundations as a European Christian nation, it was the driving force of much early New England colonial intellectual life, and it has sprung up, over and over, at moments of cultural upheaval and social inversion. [See every election ever held].
Sometimes we understand this decline to be religious, ideological, technological, and environmental. There has been the end of our way of life and the end of the world as we know it: the cultural annihilation the holocaust, the end of the home and hearth when the Russians invade. Today there are the frogs that will die, slowly, as our ocean waters warm.
As a child of the 1980s, my own personal apocalypse was of the nuclear winter-US/Soviet-WWIII variety. In that scenario, the world inched forward in an irrational game geopolitical chicken, leaders blinked or didn’t blink, and then in something like 11 minutes the entire planet would be consumed, first in flames, then radioactive dust, and finally into nothing. Nothing would grow and no one would live. There was no crawling out of that particular endtimes hole. It was all or nothing. Slow build-up, slow brinkmanship, then boom, burn, over.
Today, instead, the end is a process. Climate scientists tell us that we have already started something that can’t be stopped, and the uncertainties are not if but how, not when but what it’s going to look like. And while it’s not up to me, I have to admit I much prefer this new Armageddon to the white dust and blistered skin of my childhood.
There was something strangely leveling about the old American-Soviet end times, as if all that fear of Marxist collectivism oozed its way into the form of the imagined aftermath. Once the possibility of planetary extinction entered the collective unconscious, once the spinning blue marble of the planet figured into how Americans and the rest of the world understood their own biologic fragility, the Age of Man and the discourse of a human condition, a human kind, took on a new degree of totality. The divisions of the pre-atomic world—Nazis and Jews, Blacks and Whites, overlords and colonized subjects—would all be dead by the same hand that would kill everyone, in that moment when the bombs dropped and the missiles launched. Difference could be obliterated, not in the aftermath of survival, but in the total effacement of humanity.
For the scientists—the bio-geochemists and the forest pathologists and the ornithologists and the epidemiologists—the narrative of our new impending end time is dynamic and unpredictable in all ways except for inevitability. It is moving inexorably forward, but the turns it takes are only visible moment to moment. If deforestation proceeds this way, then perhaps population centers will shift North. But, if instead policies are enacted to collectivize certain resources, then path of deforestation might shift slightly South, and the next global city might be Schwedt, Poland instead of Irkutsk, Siberia.
It’s a slow moving wreck now, like watching a car sliding across the ice, brakes pressed down but nothing happening. Not with a bang but a whimper, right?