The Nuclear Peril: “Genesis in Reverse”

By Jonathan Schell

(Adapted from the author’s talk at the September 2008 YDS Sarah Smith Memorial Conference)

We should begin by admitting that our subject – nuclear danger – has pretty much fallen off the political agenda in recent years.

In the first years of the post-Cold-War period, it was virtually scoured from the public mind, as if the end of that shadowy, epochal struggle had brought the end of the nuclear age with it. More recently, the accelerating dangers of nuclear proliferation and the peril of a terrorist use of nuclear weapons have brought the matter back to the edges of popular consciousness, but attention is still fitful. It may be useful, therefore, to think anew about the place of the dilemma in our time, with the hope of bringing it back into view.

We can now see that the explosions in 1945 at Hiroshima and Nagasaki inaugurated something even more comprehensive than the nuclear age. We might call it the age of extinctions. I use the plural because at first it seemed that it was only our own extinction that was on the agenda – the issue seemed to amount to a collective variation of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.”

The Age of Extinctions

That was true, but there was more. With the publication of Rachel Carson’s A Silent Spring in 1962 people began to realize that other species were also at risk of extinction by human hands. Now we are told by the scientific community that something like half of existing species are at risk of elimination by the end of this century. We have learned in the same years that the nuclear threat was not the only truly global threat to the ecosphere; there also was, among other things, global warming and ozone depletion. Carson, in fact, had an inkling of all this. She began her book with a quotation from Albert Schweitzer, who said, “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall – he will end by destroying the earth.”

Nuclear danger thus no longer stands in its former forbidding isolation. It takes its place as one of many instruments of destruction – still the most cataclysmic but still only one – whereby human beings threaten the foundations of terrestrial life, including, of course, human life.

There were understandable reasons why the essential unity of this broader crisis was overlooked early on. Nuclear weapons were born of war, and for decades were discussed mainly in that context, as a matter of “security.” The other ecological perils grew out of economic production and were at first discussed in that context. The destructiveness of war and the productiveness of economic activity seemed a world apart, requiring independent discourses. Gradually, however, it has become clear that production, too, is colossally destructive – destructive of the environment. Joseph Schumpeter’s phrase “creative destruction,” so beloved of economists to describe the procedures of capitalism, already pointed in this direction. What he meant, of course, was that the new works of capitalism devastate the old: the steamship sends the sailing ship to the bottom of the sea; the rise of agribusiness shutters the family farm. But now we know that this destructive force of production cuts deeper, into the support systems of life. Ozone molecules, after all, don’t care whether the chemicals processes that destroy them are initiated by aerosol cans or by hydrogen bombs; they simply decamp from the atmosphere in obedience to the applicable physical laws.

The maker made an unmaker, and that is us, though it is a role we can escape if we choose.

We should also note, if only in passing, that a third dimension to this imbalance between human power and nature is developing: the creation of new organisms through genetic engineering. Though this is truly a power to create, it is not, unfortunately, a power to restore the environment but rather to interfere with it and unbalance it further, with consequences over the long term that are truly beyond reckoning.

Since the defining feature of our growing mismatch between the bulk and power of the human artifice on the one hand and the natural artifice on the other is the danger and fact of extinctions, it may be well to reflect for a moment on what extinction is and means. It is not the death of the living individuals, horrible as that is, but the cancellation of the unborn. Extinctions, although usually accompanied by slaughter in the present, are thus essentially assaults upon the future. This is true within the human as well as the natural order. Whether we are speak- ing of genocide, the extinction of humankind, or the extinction of other species and ecosystems, the critical distinction is between that which is created and the power that creates it – between the loom and the cloth, the die and the product.

A Market Price on Eternity

The stable forms that underlie individual species – the genomes – are the most sharply defined. The stable forms that underlie ecosystems – the fixed or slow-changing inter-relationships among species on which all depend for their survival – are likewise physically definable. The stable forms that underlie the cultures and traditions of peoples cannot be so easily identified, but are no less real for that. It is the integrity and perdurance of these life forms, which are truly the books of life, that endow each “kind” – whether this is one of the peoples that make up the human species, the human species itself, other species, or ecosystems – with an immortality that is unshared by their individual members.

That is why it is appropriate to speak of extinction as a second death. For a species or an eco-system, like a human society, is an immortal body composed of mortal beings. To be mortal is not to be at risk of death, it is to be fated to die, which is why some pessimistic philosophers have said that life is an illness from which no one recovers; but the immortal bodies, though killable, are exempt from this fatality.

It is these immortal bodies, in all their tremendous yet finite variety, that our new power of extinction threatens to destroy. In doing so, human power attacks life at a level that killing, even mass killing, did not reach. Killing removes a sentient individual from life. Acts of extinction mutilate, deform, reduce, or destroy the living world from which killing removes the individual – a living world that is also, of course, the one in which and through which the individual lives and seeks fulfillment if left unkilled.

None of this is to say that extinction is necessarily more awful than unsystematic killing. It is only to say that it is new and different, that it damages life on a new scale and at a new level, and therefore demands new thought and a new response.

Recently, a number of economists have sought to measure the importance of global warming by placing a price tag on it. Their approach is to put a dollar value on the losses, and use that as a measure of how much should be spent to avoid the disaster. Is it necessary to say that something seems wrong with this approach? Extinction is eternal, and how do you put a market price on eternity?

Well, we are gathered here at the Divinity School, and when eternity comes into the equation, surely we are dealing with matters spiritual. Thus, let me use religious language for a moment. I would say it’s more and more as if we are flinging the creation back in the Creator’s face, as if to say: what You gave us wasn’t good enough for us. We expected something better. We find we aren’t as rich as wanted to be, or not powerful enough, or didn’t have a big enough car. In acting thus, we have begun to enact Genesis in reverse. The One whom James Joyce called the Great Artificer made a destroyer. The Maker made an unmaker, and that is us, though it is a role we can escape if we choose.

Such it seems to me are the terms of the dilemma, comprising all of the threats to life, nuclear and other, on earth, that have been set before us – or that we have set before ourselves.

Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at The Nation Institute and a visiting lecturer at Yale University. His books include The Fate of the Earth (Knopf, 1982) and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (Metropolitan Books, 2007).