Other Voices: Who will we blame for destruction of Spaceship Earth?
As the new year dawns, it brings with it all the problems of the past.
Issues of war, poverty, environmental degradation, etc., could likely be solved if we were a nation (let alone a world) united in saving the planet. Unfortunately, most of us seem entranced in a type of “magical thinking” that distorts our perception of the grave dangers we face.
The old threat of nuclear annihilation has been matched by an equally dangerous global temperature crisis endangering our very existence. Intractable skeptics notwithstanding, each of these is a crisis of our own making. Nevertheless, we – the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases – continue to resist international remediation efforts because we are gluttonously obsessed with preserving the very lifestyle that has created the problem. Addicted to our plethora of luxuries, we “reason” that:
A) Things have been “this way” throughout our lifetime, so they will surely remain the same.
B) Science created this mess, so science (like a fairy tale godmother) will rescue us from our plight.
C) The end times are coming, so who gives a hoot about this polluted little dirt ball anyway?
While denial can be an effective short-term coping mechanism, providing traumatized individuals time to adjust, such perverted logic is absolutely lethal when confronting a problem that demands decisive action. An anecdote from Los Alamos – the birthplace of the atomic bomb – illustrates the extent to which such faulty thinking can be taken.
The date was July 15, 1945, the evening before the first nuclear explosion. A new addition to Robert Oppenheimer’s staff was Dick Hamming, who had recently graduated with a Ph.D. An early computer geek, Hamming’s job was so tangential to the Manhattan Project that his unofficial title was simply “computer janitor.” Even so, he was privy to the rumors circulating around the scientific compound.
One such hypothesis provided an interesting twist to the concept of “winning” the Second World War. An atomic explosion, the hypothesis suggested, might literally ignite the atmosphere, killing off all life on the planet (we’re talking all-out nuclear barbecue here, so a certain amount of concern can be understood).
Hamming, the youngest man on the site, was imbued with a sensitivity his older colleagues had lost with age. Consequently, he found himself plagued by doubt regarding the consequences of unleashing such a force into the world.
“What right does mankind have,” he wondered, “to so imperil the future? To gamble with the world’s survival?” That night, before the first test explosion, he found himself unable to sleep, wandering the grounds of Los Alamos at 2 a.m.
At one point he encountered an older colleague who was awake due to chronic insomnia, not catastrophic doubt. Noticing his young companion’s agitated state, this man asked what was troubling him. Hamming immediately launched into his concerns, frantically relating his fear that detonating this monstrous weapon endangered the very existence of humanity. On and on he went, nearly breaking into tears as he related his horror at possibly turning the earth’s life-giving atmosphere into a deadly firestorm.
The older gentleman heard him through, shaking his head at the younger man’s feverish concern. A governmental researcher for many years, he had long ago rationalized the individual’s responsibility in the march of science. Finally, he cut Dick off in mid-sentence.
“But Hamming,” he crooned, his voice dripping with condescending rationality, “Think about it, son. You’re only a computer assistant. Nobody will blame you.”
So, beyond the fact that instigating mass extinction is an extreme means of protecting one’s reputation, what’s wrong with this picture? We may consider the old scientist’s logic preposterous, but is it all that different from our own?
We live in a time when the U.S. emits more than 7,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year (EPA), and is currently warehousing more than 75,000 metric tons of nuclear waste (U.S. Dept. of Energy).
The mega-nations India and China haven’t even begun to reach their destructive potential following our lead in this regard, and as they do, we can expect an exponential increase in the effects of such environmental degradation.
One hardly needs to be a doomsayer to see that this trend cannot continue without disastrous consequences in the near, not distant, future. The signs are all around us, and yet little concerted effort is being made in our country to institute the massive paradigm shift necessary to truly confront this historic crisis.
The Armageddon enthusiasts could be right, but until that cheery day, Spaceship Earth is all we have. It’s hard to imagine an omnipotent creator truly wanting her infantile subjects to destroy such a magnificent creation. But, hey, not to worry! When the ground is bubbling in molten soil and radiation has turned us into mutant scarecrows, just relax. After all, you’re only an individual consumer: Nobody will blame YOU.
William Larsen lives in Nevada City.
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