We live in a deeply, perhaps uniquely dangerous moment.
The Western imagination has been haunted for two millennia by the idea of apocalypse — of a final, definitive end to human life on the planet, and to material existence as such. It was given most vivid expression in the second century Book of Revelation, but it was implicit in the earliest confessions of Christianity. For most of this period, men and women of the West lived in sometimes imminent expectation of the end of days, and in times of crisis they searched anxiously for signs of it.
Apocalypse was an idea, an assurance and, for many, a faith. But its actual fulfillment, until the year 1945, lay in God’s hands alone. Then, with the coming of the atomic bomb, it passed into ours. The bomb can’t realize the Christian hope of eternal, blessed life for the faithful and just. But it can destroy all human life, and with it the planet as an environment for all but perhaps the most primitive forms of life.
I’m aware of this fact on some level all the time, as I think any minimally sensitive person must be, but I’m particularly reminded of it in October, when for 13 days in 1962 the world stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event triggered by the military adventurism of one of its superpowers and the response of the other. No one who lived through it, as I did, would ever have forgotten the experience of those days. There was, almost literally, no atmosphere; it was as if all the air had been sucked out of the world’s room and no one dared draw a breath. It sobered a young American president, John F. Kennedy, and an aging Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, into seeking the control and reduction of nuclear arsenals. But it did not eliminate atomic weapons, or prevent their spread to other powers. In one of the most irresponsible acts since the Missile Crisis itself, America and its allies brought about the fall of Muammar Gathafi of Libya, the only ruler to voluntarily renounce a developed nuclear weapons program. We owe that particular folly to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. No nuclear-armed power is likely to repeat Gathafi’s mistake, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea least of all.
In the past three decades we have become generally, if ineffectually, aware of a second apocalyptic possibility, slower-moving but no less fateful: global climate change. The effects of a cumulative buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the oceans, and the role of human energy consumption in it, were first described scientifically in 1896. It took nearly a century to sound a significant alarm. Now the bells are ringing for all but those choosing to willfully ignore them. It is already too late to avoid serious and lasting consequences; it may soon be impossible to avoid catastrophic ones.
Political leadership means, above all, addressing these twin specters hanging over us. Nuclear technology can’t be reversed. But we fool ourselves to think that we can live with the bomb; only the destruction of all nuclear arsenals, with the most rigorous mutual inspection we can devise, can do anything more than defer this particular apocalypse, and those Pentagon hirelings who war game “limited” nuclear conflicts are the biggest fools of all. Any nuclear exchange is a potential Armageddon. And the longer we go on, the more, not the less likely it becomes.
Fossil fuel burning, in contrast, can be reduced and eventually eliminated. It’s not simply a technological problem, though, because industrialized nations burn the majority of these fuels, and Third World ones, anxious for development, don’t want to pay the price for the crisis richer countries have largely created. The solution would be intricate, requiring much trust, aid and assistance — and also broad consensus on issues of trade, technology transfer and taming the wild bull of capitalism generally. So far, there’s been precious little to report, but at least the problem has been acknowledged — oh, with one substantial exception. Can you guess?
Donald Trump has brought the world closer to nuclear apocalypse than anyone in the past 30 years. He has also done more than anyone else to stymie and undo efforts to grapple with climate change. He’s playing Russian roulette with both six-guns at once, and he’s emptying the chambers as fast as he can.
Donald Trump is, in short, not only our problem, but the world’s ultimate nightmare. He has put the planet itself, and every living soul on it, in mortal jeopardy. And, to the extent we fail to deal with him, we ourselves are the world’s nightmare too. We might say that a political system that brought, even with a little help from Russian hacking, such a man to the world’s most powerful office is functionally broken, and that one that has failed to remove him on the evidence of the past nine months is irresponsible past censure. If Donald Trump is, as he has justly been called, the most dangerous man on the planet, then the nation that tolerates him is the world’s most dangerous state.
This latter conclusion is not new. Surveys have shown that three times as many people regard the United States as the world’s greatest threat to peace, and if that number isn’t 30 times as large by now, a lot of people have been enjoying a Rip Van Winkle snooze. We have had inept presidents before, and corrupt ones, and unbalanced ones, but not one who treats the world’s largest nuclear arsenal as if he were a 6-year-old playing with an unsecured handgun; not one who fails to understand the first principles and responsibilities of constitutional conduct; not one who bends truth to whim or — worse — fantasy; not one who, day by day, destroys whatever faith and credit this country may have and brings us all step-by-step closer to the brink of a destruction he can precipitate at any moment.
There’s no use at this point in enumerating Trump’s crimes, legal and moral; they have long since merited impeachment or suspension through the 25th Amendment, which provides for dealing with an incapacitated or unfit president. I have read, with such patience as I can muster, legal analyses explaining why Trump’s conduct does not rise to the level of impeachable offenses or disqualification from office. Nothing excuses, and nothing explains, his continued presidency except the inescapable conclusion that the current Congress is as dysfunctional and irresponsible as the current executive.
Beyond Trump — if we can perform this imaginative miracle — is the nigh-insane power over the fate of the world we have tolerated for decades in the hands of the presidency, in turn a consequence of our failure to deal with the nuclear apocalypse. A president would have 30 to 60 seconds to be briefed on a nuclear attack, and perhaps five minutes to decide on a retaliatory launch, including its targets and its scope. We put him, and ourselves, in the hands of a process that effectively determines the outcome by algorithm: perhaps what Vladimir Putin, a man with a nuclear trigger of his own, meant by saying recently that the greatest threat to the human future lay in artificial intelligence. When we add to this the character and personality of a Donald Trump, we remove the faintest trace of rationality — natural or artificial — from what might be the last event, at least for us, on earth. And that is not nearly but completely insane.
The situation we’ve boxed ourselves into is well-illustrated by the legislation introduced earlier this year by Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Ted Lieu of California, which would make any attempt to launch a nuclear first strike by the president subject to a Congressional declaration of war. The absurd impracticality of this idea is obvious: would any potential adversary wait on such a determination before deciding whether to strike preemptively itself? Of course, we could decide to renounce a first strike as a matter of policy, as others have done; we have steadfastly refused to do so, and the Markey/Lieu bill would institutionalize the option further. What it expresses, though, is the fear, not to say terror, that contemplating the power of nuclear annihilation in the hands of a man who plainly relishes the thought of using it has aroused — a man who has threatened to “totally destroy” a foreign power at the cost of rendering much of East Asia potentially uninhabitable, who itches to create a new nuclear arms race and who wonders aloud what the point is of having weapons you can’t use.
We haven’t talked, really, about Trump’s climate change denial, whose consequences will be with us even if we avoid nuclear war on his watch. But, you get the idea. Two apocalypses confront us, and both draw nearer. Choose your poison.