Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth. But up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits us. There are not yet any obvious signs of extraterrestrial intelligence and this makes us wonder whether civilizations like ours always rush implacably, headlong, toward self-destruction.
-Carl Sagan, Cosmos
What follows are several gritty photos taken on a walk in Muir Woods with two friends during a break in the first major downpour of the rainy season. It took place last Sunday, away from the infernal noise of the city and the desultory crowds of people confined indoors and hollering like lunatics at football games on televisions. The forest was socked-in with clouds and mist condensating on old-growth redwood trees dripping with water. In the darkening solace of the forest I could not shake from my mind the terrible feeling that humanity is entirely and utterly fucked, and that all our individual dreams and common aspirations would soon come crashing down because we are incapable of curbing our consumption and waste, and because America seems hell-bent on drawing Russia into nuclear war. I acknowledge that every generation since humanity’s inception has felt (in many case with greater justification) that they were living in the end-times, but when you walk through a primeval forest at a time when there are more people (7.1 billion) on Earth than ever people, more ecosystems in decline and species going extinct than ever before (discounting the destructive aftermath of massive impact craters eons ago), and when the United States and Russia are preparing to launch nuclear warheads against each other without significant outcry from their citizens – you begin to worry about the fate of humanity, yourself, and everyone and everything you love, including the forest itself, which has outlived all of us and is sacred (I wouldn’t have been surprised if during our walk diaphanous orbs floated unseen in the redwood canopies above our heads or if legendary spirits drifted across the forest floor just beyond our field of vision).
My friend asked me what I would do in the event of a nuclear war. I said it would depend on how many bombs would be dropped and where. Modern thermonuclear weapons are exponentially more powerful than the atomic bombs that the United States deployed against Japan seventy years ago, and proportionally there would be far less survivors in the blast zone of an H-bomb compared to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The outcome of an individual’s life after a nuclear war is dependent on a myriad of unknown factors and variables (the numerical amount and megatonnage of the bomb(s) dropped, the locations where the bombs would be dropped, the extent of the radioactive fallout, the length of the nuclear winter, the degree to which infrastructures, economies, and social and agricultural systems would collapse), so my simple answer to his question was that I would try to make peace with myself and lament the downfall of humanity. I would regret the tragic failure of our species, which has come so far and exhibits so much promise, to live up to its responsibilities as stewards and caretakers of the natural world from which we have originated and evolved and that we rely upon for survival. Assuming that Earth would be made uninhabitable in the aftermath, a nuclear holocaust would represent the suicidal climax of our cumulative insanity – an insanity that is demonstrated by our relentless consumption and myopic selfishness, by our inability to look ahead and empathize with other people and creatures – for we will have swallowed whole this planet that we are already sucking dry due to our avarice, hedonism, and insecurities. Humans have demonstrated a suicidal propensity toward stockpiling nuclear arms and perpetrating irrecoverable environmental destruction. With reckless abandon we are bringing the rest of the biosphere down with us in our careless descent to hell. A nuclear holocaust would be a haunting manifestation of our role and legacy: that in our insatiable lust to consume the all the natural world that we felt entitled to, not only will we have destroyed ourselves, but we will have made of this planet an uninhabitable wasteland upon which nothing alive shall ever exist.
There is a direct connection between modern warfare and the health of the environment. Exorbitant military spending and wars of aggression by imperial nations present a multifaceted assault on the environment. Trillions of dollars are poured into the highly resource-intensive process of manufacturing and maintaining weapons as well as stationing and maintaining forces. Thus, militaries across the globe are stripping the Earth of finite raw materials and fossil fuels to prepare for and conduct war. Not only should these natural resources be used more intelligently and conservatively, but the vast sums of money spent by governments on militarism should be redirected into resolving the most intractable problems currently jeopardizing the overall health of humanity: poverty, disease, pollution, and other critical threats to the environment. But beyond the monetary investment and natural resources extracted and burned to fuel the world’s military machines, the application of these weapons in theaters of war constitutes one of the greatest threats to Earth’s ecosystems. War requires an almost incomphrensible quantity of gas-guzzling vechiles (tanks, jets, drones, aircraft carriers, support vechiles), and the environmental impact of constantly dropping bombs, firing missiles, and testing weapons results in a poisoning of the environment in conflict zones. A nuclear war would make the present threats of rising sea levels and climate change look like a day in the park compared to the devastating impact a hydrogen bomb slugfest would have on planet Earth. And if the megalomaniacs and pathological liars in power continue to drag humanity down this road of hatred, fear, and war, then a nuclear holocaust will be inevitable.