It's Déjà Doom All Over Again: 'The Fate of the Earth' and Global Warming Hysteria

Not so long ago, writers, editors, concerned world citizens and deep thinkers of all kinds were consumed with the idea of a coming global catastrophe that seemed implacable and virtually unavoidable. When it comes to covering today’s debates on global warming, we might want to take a step back and recall this earlier, somewhat chillier 1980s obsession with the fate of the earth – that is, of course, The Fate of the Earth, the title of a three-part series by Jonathan Schell first published in The New Yorker, then republished as a popular book by Alfred A. Knopf in 1982.

J. SchellJonathan Schell

This influential series was all about the unstoppable, world-ending consequences of nations (especially the United States) clinging to their nuclear weapons. The fate of the earth, according to Schell, was to be nuclear annihilation, human extinction, the end of all life. Game over. You’re dead. We’re all dead. Your children are dead. Your dog’s dead. Your children’s children won’t exist. Finito. It was a very popular idea at the time, much discussed at cocktail parties, sidewalk reefer breaks, and editorial meetings. Schell had caught the ear of the culture.

(To judge by this piece in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times by Schell’s older brother, Orville, pessimism seems to run in the family.)

Although we had heard it all before, from a multitude of sources, including the robotic alien scold in the cranky 1950s science-fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still (recently remade with Keanu Reeves as the alien preaching about, naturally, global warming), in these New Yorker pieces Schell made nuclear Armageddon seem fresh again. Schell was a master at bringing down the curtain, closing the coffin lid, zipping the body bag on human civilization and all our hopes and dreams.

Unlike Terry Southern, whose fiendishly funny Dr. Strangelove satirized the idea of “fail safe” nuclear deterrence, Schell was not exactly a barrel of laughs. His prose was punishing. He was supremely sure of himself. He wasn’t just in an ivory tower, he was on his own cloud, a thunderhead, preaching to a receptive choir of liberals, ex-hippies, creative types, and — especially — journalists and editors like me. His was the voice of doom on the hydrogen jukebox, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, and we loved it. Foolish mortals, now you die! And it’s all your fault!

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You couldn’t fairly disagree with his thesis, it seemed, and call yourself fully human. (Just as climate change skeptics are now called “deniers.”) If the world teetered on the brink of extinction, were not any and all measures, including unilateral disarmament, suddenly thinkable?

The Fate of the Earth unleashed a writhing, sweaty-palmed national epidemic of hand wringing. People I know wept when they read it. No doubt a few people took an overdose of pills after reading it. Unfortunately, a lot of what Schell wrote about – at times quite prettily – turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

Contrary to his predictions, the earth world took a giant step back from the brink, the superpowers reduced their atomic arsenals by half, airplanes stopped flying to fail-safe points, and the major powers began the noble but arduous task, under the auspices of the United Nations, of successfully getting rogue proliferators like South Africa and the Ukraine to dismantle their nuclear weapons. All this was the outgrowth of policies exactly the opposite of what Schell and his followers had proposed (instead of freezing our nukes, for example, we went ahead with the modern Pershing 2 missile in Europe). But never mind. No apologies necessary (and none offered).

In light of this and current debates about planetary catastrophe, serious journalists should keep a few points firmly in mind:

1. Schell argued that given the incredibly dire state of things, a world-destroying nuclear exchange was inevitable. A nuclear exchange was virtually certain to happen, sooner or later, he said, and when it did radioactive clouds would blot out the sun and create a “nuclear winter” resulting in the extinction of human life. Once it started, there was no going back. The concept of inevitability was mortised into the framework of the argument.

2. It was also depicted as a race against time! We had only a teeny-weeny window in which to reverse the horrendous policies and mindset of our ignorant, bellicose leaders (read: Republicans). It was, like, so super urgent, action had to be taken, like, yesterday.

3. But, almost paradoxically, it was already too late! In the bottomless pit of his despair and revulsion at the civilized world for imperiling the planet, Schell contended that we were already too far gone, and it really was too late to stop the nuclear holocaust, although everyone had a moral duty to try.

Sound familiar? What we have here, as Yogi Berra would say, is déjà vu all over again. The eerie parallels between the nuclear-freeze movement and the global-warming movement are clear: the direness of the forecast (which resembles prophecy and has a teleological dimension); the dramatic, race-against-time urgency of the healing project; the element of existential threat as a goad to activism; the notion of human extinction and the “fate” of the earth hanging in the balance, as if suspended by a slender thread; and finally, the admonition that it is probably already too late. The nuclear clock is about to strike midnight; the ice caps are already melting. Fear and trembling all around.

The anxiety level is the same, only the surface temperature is different. In The Fate of the Earth, an avalanche of words portrayed the barren, icy landscape of nuclear winter. This dour vision of doom was lovingly crafted, exquisitely detailed, like the special effects scenes of oceans rising and the planet dying in several recent films that use global warming as their bogey. Schell’s articles were an ordeal to read, which perhaps was the author’s intention – to overstate the case, to engage in exaggeration for effect.

In other words, journalism and the pursuit of plain truth had been thrown out the window, and a kind of superheated advocacy, in the service of a perceived “higher” truth, had entered through the back door. As the researchers at the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia might say, theirs, too, is a “higher” truth that supersedes the usual flow of information.

The Schell articles, more than any other single hortatory work or dramatic narrative involving the perils of nuclear weapons — including On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Hiroshima by John Hersey, even Dr. Strangelove — aroused elite opinion and formed the intellectual backdrop for a popular movement. Millions thronged the streets of capital cities and capered upon village greens to call for a “nuclear freeze” and the unilateral abolition of nuclear weapons, and, more specifically, to protest against President Reagan’s determination to introduce the speedy, accurate Pershing 2 missile (a program actually first revived by Jimmy Carter) into the heart of Europe.

Time Pershing

In the public square, Reagan was despised to a degree and with a ferocity that can only be compared to the way contemporary American presidents are vilified on the streets of Tehran or Gaza. He was truly hated, most sincerely so, by a segment of the population, many of them my friends.

Does such hatred and vilification seem rather extreme and misplaced in retrospect, from the standpoint of history? Yes. Whatever Reagan said and did, some positive results in terms of nuclear arms control are self-evident. It is really only because of the end of the Cold War and the diminution of the superpower rivalry, that the world can now focus on non-proliferation and collective security, the twin goals of many genuine, hard-headed pacifists for more than a half century. These are things quite a few thoughtful people wish for and work tirelessly toward.

Unfortunately, journalists of the time were asleep at the wheel. We (I include myself) published endless excerpts and op-eds about The Fate of the Earth, and then op-eds about the op-eds. But the premises were seldom if ever questioned. In the church of then-prevailing editorial opinion, it was difficult to mount any kind of alternative view to Schell’s. Nuclear war was bad, by definition, no? Everyone had to be against nuclear war, right? As Tom Wolfe said at the time, being against nuclear war is like being against typhoid. Meanwhile, The Fate of the Earth went largely uncritiqued.

Today’s arguments about global warming share some of the same rhetorical components, the same exaggerations, and the same mind-numbing effects on the media. Cognizant of these unsettling parallels, journalists should still take nothing for granted. They should be neither for global-warming theory nor against it. It is not their job.

How the global warming debate will play out, and what the future temperatures of the earth will be, remain to be seen. Much important reporting remains to be done. Plenty of things could happen (for example, a major volcanic eruption) to change the doomsday scenario or to upend the so-called scientific consensus (like, say, a few more winters like this one). One doesn’t have to be a scientist to know that we are talking about a complex, fluid situation in which the future is not fully known.

We must not allow intemperate emotionalism or a preening morality to cloud the truth or to substitute a “higher” truth for the actual truth. That is propaganda, not journalism.


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