Bomb and Climate Change in Fact and Fiction
This essay counterpoints two existential threats in our lifetimes—nuclear apocalypse and climate catastrophe—comparing how they have been recorded in historical documents and how they have registered in the American imagination. It surveys non-fiction and fiction, including a few films, to uncover persistent patterns of American denial that may lead—in fact, scientists increasingly believe will lead—to climate apocalypse. Strong historical and thematic similarities exist until, surprisingly and even shockingly, they diverge at their imagined endpoints.
My essay turns to examples from the United States’ history as a nuclear power. These include governmental suppression of information after the bombing of Hiroshima, willful distortions of how the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, and controversial museum exhibitions since 2000. I also analyze American perceptions of climate change, as directly informed by numerous, but flaccid, reports, conferences, and summits on “global warming” that activist youth groups now parody in postings and memes.
The essay examines the kind of doom-laden fantasies that I myself once had about the threat of nuclear annihilation. It looks to the worlds of fiction and film for iterations of the same kind of dread and doom. Imaginative projections in fiction include motifs such as “empty cities” with no sense of human responsibility for the absence of people, strong themes of racial disparity, and the exploration of human depravity versus the possibility of cooperation and community. Primary fictional examples of nuclear plots include Cormac McCarthy and Octavia Butler, and the suppressed 1959 racial drama The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, starring Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens. For cli-fi fiction, the essay touches on similar preoccupations in novels by Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, and a host of 21st-century others.
My topic has renewed urgency in 2022, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reintroduced the nuclear threat and forestalled action to slow climate change. But—and this emerges as an important payoff in the essay—nuclear and climate change narratives differ strongly in how we conceive of their endpoints. Despite sporadic fears about terrorists after 9/11, about North Korea, and now about Ukraine, Americans still by and large expect that, absent a true madman (Putin being a chief suspect), nuclear restraint will hold. In contrast, with regard to climate catastrophe, an increasing number of examples in both fact and fiction now expect climate catastrophes that will end humanity but (unlike nuclear winter), not end life on Earth which will remain, and increasingly become, both inventive and fecund. The essay ends with a meditation on the possible, even likely, consequences of expecting, and even accepting, the inevitability of climate apocalypse on a human scale.
Archive: Selected 20th and 21st-century American novels, grouped by theme and outcome and cited briefly; a few 20th and 21st-century films; best-selling non-fiction books: Schell’s The Fate of the Earth. Weisman’s The World Without Us, the History Channel’s Life After People, Scranton’s We’re Doomed, Now What? Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, Rich’s Losing Earth and others. Academic books by Nixon, Scranton, Ghosh, Purdy, McClintock, and others.
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