(This post appeared on my Patreon page on the 18th of this month — my patrons see posts 3 days early. When I publish a new ebook, they get a FREE copy THIRTY DAYS EARLY even if I charge for it everywhere else! Even a pledge of a single buck per month gets you those benefits — and you also get the pleasure of supporting a financially struggling self-published author whose wife, 3 kids, and self insist on extravagant luxuries like “food” and “electricity” and even — GASP WHAT FRIPPERY — a 20 year old minivan. We’re such softies.)
So, I’ve gotten in the habit of posting a substantial companion ramble/rant/essay/callitwhatyouwill with these 13 word stories. I couldn’t sleep last night, so I propped my chest up on my zafu (stiff meditation cushion, usually for butts & not writing in bed, for anyone who hasn’t run into that word before), nudged myself over perilously close to my restlessly sleeping 2 year old boy where the dim light of the nightlight was brightest, and proceeded to write about 700 words longhand. I’m sure that was wonderful for my eyes, probably aged them an extra year and I’m already in progressive-lens trifocals. Sign me up for a writers’ purple heart, I suppose.
After a bit of editing, as my edits usually go, the companion post ended up expanding to 805 words. Plus all these words I’m typing here. I’m a glutton for composition.
Without further ado, here’s the post:
We talk and think a lot about the end of the world. For my and my parents and grandparents’ generation (once that last passed through the Great Depression and World War II) the vision of the end of the world is tied up in Cold War visions of nuclear holocaust. I don’t know about you, but this Gen Xer has a copy of The Day After on DVD – the movie, which I saw in its original airing on television when I was 13 — was a distillation of all of the vague fears of death at the hands of Soviet ICBMs that occasionally haunted my nightmares and daymares. I’m sure I’m not the only one with those experiences.
Today that nuclear war specter is still around, a shade still fearful but overshadowed by younger, more vital terrors, banished to the edge of consciousness. We’ve become comfortable with our eternal wars waged against small nations lacking nuclear arms, and even with current events in the Middle East and the South China Sea and Crimea, few even bother to wonder if a third world war might be in the making, or to fear the potential for a mass detonation of thermonuclear weapons.
Pollution as a human-world-ender, too, has lost some of its former luster. Russia has survived the worst of messy Soviet industrialism and Chernobyl as well – few pay attention to what aftermath there might be. The same for Japan and its Fukushima, China’s current smogs and rare-earth-mine pollutant pits, the Flint, Michigans and flaming fracking faucets of the United States, the landlocked oil spills and leaky pipelines the petroleum multinationals have splotched major portions of several nations in Africa with. Even the once-vivid fears of bioengineered, weaponized anthrax and smallpox have faded.
These confidences that the old dangers no longer threaten hold their own danger – that if a danger does arise from those quarters, we’ll find it easy to overlook until it’s too late.
Today, we sublimate all those fears, along with our fear of civil unrest and mob rule, into zombie fiction, as far as I can tell. A nice, safe end of the world, one unrealistic enough yet barely plausible enough to allow suspension of disbelief and provide a nice, safe thrill, like a rollercoaster with a secure safety caged seat.
But unlike we older folks (though many of us are catching on) the Millennials and – have we decided on a name for those following them yet? The Trans-Millennials being born now, like my littlest sons – have a world-ending specter as vivid and potent as any child of the Cold War ever had: climate change.
It’s easy for some of us olders (and a few youngers too) to downplay or ignore climate change – though I’m given to understand that the United States is among those nations of the world in which the sport of ignoring scientific consensus is most popular. Some even like to chalk up the very concepts of climate change and global warming and rising carbon dioxide levels to a shadowy cabal of academics thirsty to line their pockets with grant money. As if that were actually lucrative – a local district manager for a snack food distributor stands to better that “fortune” by exceeding sales quotas. Some even go farther and more wildly afield into theories about Illuminati – but we’ve pretty much always had those. Before the internet the Illuminati or similar “explained” Cold War threats as the fruits of conspiracy as well. Those theorists and their imaginings come and go like the dew, appearing to explain what’s “really behind” each new dawn.
But climate change, like nuclear weapons, will not be going away. And nuclear war, except in its most extreme Cold War incarnations, is not a threat on the same enduring and growing levels.
If climate change is the existential threat the Millennials will grow up with – and it is – so will their great-grandchildren and those great-grandchildrens’ great-grandchildrens’ great-grandchildren.
Climate change may or may not develop into a truly existential threat in itself. But if it heads into Venus-greenhouse territory, or even becomes enough to shift the wheat belts to the poles and drive the subtropical and tropical rice bowls into trans-tropical heat and weather pattern, whatever those might be, the worldwide struggle to adapt and survive may well add nuclear war and disregard for pollution in favor of short-term industrial advantage and wars fought with engineered plagues.
And if the end of humanity does come at the hands of a climate-change driven complex of disaster, by simple extinction or reduction to the stone age or pre-intelligence as a species, perhaps in time another species will evolve to occupy the intelligent builder niche we humans failed to hold. Squirrels are as good a candidate as any – I welcome Earth’s new squirrel overlords, assuming we do screw things up badly enough.
Somehow, they restrained themselves until their children traveled among the stars.
I remember the Cold War, going to school in a designated nuclear shelter, the uneasy jokes about getting nuked, Reagan joking about nuking the Russians, ha-ha, ho-ho, we’re all going to die so let’s yuk it up black humor style.
But somehow we managed not to unleash the nasty nuke genie. And we still manage today. After seeing the horrors two bombs wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we’ve managed to resist the temptation and continue to kill each other by less wholesale means, keep the torture and shooting and dronestriking down to a dull subnuclear roar.
When the day comes (I say when and not if out of hope that we’ll actually manage it, we self-sabotaging humans) that humanity has significant settlements off earth, I wonder if the gloves will come off. Once there are a million people on Mars, or in asteroid habitats, or on the far side of Luna, or on a planet around another star (should be be lucky enough to stumble into some sci-fi method of faster than light travel), will it sink in, that nuking each other now will not doom the human race?
Will that be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, that allows some politician to finally reason, hey, letting the nukes out isn’t such a big deal, even if we wipe life off the planet our descendants will live on, humanity will survive?
It’s a dark cold night, and my imagination is playing nasty games with me. I hope when you read this it’s sunny, and I’m wrong.