Doesn’t it sometimes feel like we’re living a low-budget rerun of our parents’ era?
They had the Beatles. We got Lady Gaga.
They had Paris 1968. We got Occupy.
They had Vietnam. We got Iraq.
They had Marlon Brando. We got … George Clooney.
But there is one thing we’re just as good at as the boomers: worrying about global apocalypse.
For 45 years following the end of WWII, the world lived in constant fear of nuclear war between the US-led capitalist West and the Soviet bloc. Such a war would be different from all previous wars because the simultaneous detonation of thousands of nuclear warheads was calculated to result in a planetary catastrophe — the Nuclear Winter — that would wipe out most life on earth. No matter who won, everyone would lose.
That fear mobilised millions of idealists all over the world to denounce such lunacy. Naturally, some people — like the unhinged US general Curtis LeMay — argued that a nuclear war could be won without destroying the planet, famously declaring: “We might have destroyed Russia completely and not even skinned our elbows doing it.” Thankfully for your humble writer, his assertions never came to be empirically tested. The Cold War ended and, although nuclear weapons have not gone anywhere, the spectre of atomic apocalypse has been all but forgotten.
Perhaps feeling left out, our generation also needed something to project our romantic struggles, express our ideological positions and fight to save humankind. Enter climate change, which, if it didn’t exist, would have certainly been invented (and actually was invented, according to News24 commenters and Fox News viewers).
Its logic, gatekeepers, and even some of its language (“Ban the Bomb”/”Keep the Oil in the Soil”) echo those of the disarmament movement. At bottom lies the same basic prisoner’s dilemma: nuclear weapons/fossil fuels are bad, but nobody wants to be the one left without them. Just as UN Security Council members preached nuclear non-proliferation atop their existing missile stockpiles, they now denounce the proliferation of the very fossil fuel-led development model that made them rich. But who wants to be left behind?
Given the similarities between these two movements, what lessons does the world’s experience of nuclear disarmament hold for the current fight against global warming?
Unfortunately, the most important takeaway is that any concessions, whether on the grounds of principle, weakness or expediency, are likely to be exploited rather than rewarded.
Former Soviet president Gorbachev removed Soviet nuclear weapons and troops from Eastern Europe both because he believed in disarmament and because their costs were becoming prohibitive for a bankrupt Soviet Union. He expected the US to follow suit with their missiles in Western Europe. Instead, rather than close its shop now that the Soviet threat was neutralised, Nato expanded eastwards, to the areas and even the physical bases vacated by the retreating Russians. Nature abhors a vacuum.
Or take smaller countries. Gaddafi thought that by stopping his nuclear programme, he would be welcomed into the fold; instead, he was overthrown. Would that have happened had Libya retained its nuclear programme? Just ask Kim Jong Il!
The lesson here is that, in international politics, might remains right. That even if America were to unilaterally cut its emissions, China would be the first to exploit it, rather than follow the good lead. Small nations, too, would be wise to repeat whatever folly the rich and large nations are doing or else risk getting taken advantage of, even if it means doing something stupid and useless like spending billions on nuclear technology or building vast polluting power plants. Any idealism will be severely punished.
Like nuclear disarmament, real pollution reduction must be done universally and simultaneously, or not at all. And simultaneously isn’t looking any more realistic than it ever did. Even more worryingly, unlike Mutually Assured Destruction and short of a miraculous technological solution, climate change is a creeping, inexorable process that cannot be averted by a freak deus ex machine moment like the sudden implosion of the USSR.
Of course, our fears might turn out to be exaggerated, the world might yet manage to adapt just fine to a few more degrees, and the next generation will invent a new imminent apocalypse to rally against. But if that best-case scenario does not pan out, then the world may actually be doomed this time.
In which case, at least we’ll have finally outdone the baby boomers in something, and that’s what matters.