Do you hear that? That ticking sound? Of course you do. That’s the sound of the clock running out on the human race, and it began winding down 69 years ago today. On the 16th of July, 1945, at 05:29 local time, the world’s first nuclear weapons test occurred in the New Mexico desert. They called it “Trinity". That’s it there, in the corner, a few milliseconds after detonation. It’s probably the most written about of all the 2,084 or so known nuclear tests, and there are breathless descriptions all over the place about the size and power of the explosion, invariably capped off with Robert Oppenheimer’s now quite cliched reminiscence of how a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” occurred to him at that moment.
In fact, the bomb was a baby as nuclear weapons went, and less than ten years later the Americans were testing nuclear weapons with quite literally a thousand times the explosive power. In the early 1960s the Soviets tested ones with two or three thousand times the power. For a couple of decades, in the 50s and 60s, both countries were popping them off in the atmosphere like kids with fireworks. In the early
1960s, a study found trace levels of Strontium-90, a rather nasty
radioactive isotope that affixes itself to bones in the human body, in
the teeth of every baby they could find who was born in 1963. Babies
born in 1950 didn’t have that. That was one reason why some protesters gently suggested that if the superpowers wanted to screw with a planet maybe they should get their own.
Admittedly, the Americans built the bomb in the first place for a good reason – they were afraid that Hitler’s Germany was building one, too (it was) and they dropped it on Japan to end a terrible war that the Japanese started and refused to end. But the nuclear arms race that followed the Soviet Union's first test in 1949 demonstrates the normalization of a genocidal mentality that gripped the leaders of the great powers in the postwar period. Around the time that I was contemplating just how much hair gel would be required to produce a satisfactory mullet every day (a lot, so I never did it), global nuclear arsenals peaked at around 60,000 deployed weapons, which was enough to kill, well, everybody. They called this “national defense”, but really it was a suicide pact that great powers made with their enemies. And everybody else, whether they wanted in on it or not.
Every culture has had apocalyptic myths, stories about the end of the world and how it will happen. But the nuclear age is different, in that we possess a certain means of making it happen, so over the years we have vested control of apocalyptic weaponry in the hands of wise men like Leonid Brezhnev and George W. Bush. The good news is that there are far fewer nuclear weapons in the world today than thirty years ago, and fewer still actively deployed. Serious strides towards nuclear disarmament in the great powers has taken place, despite the best efforts of Republicans. But there are still a lot left. Even a small, regional nuclear war would have devastating global consequences. Just a few hundred would probably suffice to kill a billion people or so, and their continued existence makes a mockery of so much intellectual activity in the community of military theorists and civilian defense experts. By all means, have your wargasm about your F-35s, protecting Canada’s high arctic from the incursion of obsolete Russian bombers. And if the war comes, they can knock those bombers down and then fly back to the radioactive pile of rubble left by ballistic missiles.
We’ll probably never go to war with Russia, of course. But the basic problem isn’t Russia, or China, or North Korea. The problem is that the nuclear genie can’t be put back in the bottle. Nuclear weapons are the technology of the mid-40s and early 50s, older than colour TVs and Elvis records. Sooner or later, any country that wants them can have them, so trying to enforce non-proliferation is a pipe-dream in the long term. Arms control can only delay their eventual use, while deterrence is just an utterly absurd delusion that strong countries are left at peace. We were lucky to avoid a nuclear war in the 20th century. What will happen in the 21st? The 22nd? The 23rd? It is incredible to think that we can avoid eventual nuclear armageddon by the present means of trying to do so. But there is a solution. It’s one everyone has to agree to, so people will say that it’s a phantasm. Well, okay: enjoy the fallout. It will be pretty, like snow at Christmas. Anyway, here’s the solution. You won’t like it, but I think it’s the only way we’re getting out of here alive.