What would it take to protect the things I love and value: my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my extended family (by marriage and by “blood”), my dogs, my cats, my wife’s horse, my self, the redwoods, the world’s mountains and meadows and rainforests and prairies and deserts, the lions and tigers and bears (“oh my!”), the whales and walruses, the Dreamers, the dispossessed, the unemployed, the employed, the oppressed women, the oppressed men and children, the minorities, the majorities...in short, pretty much everything? The answer, alas, is that nothing will suffice. Eventually all will die and disappear, since all that is solid melts into air, or humus, or rock, or liquid. Saving life is a fool’s errand, isn’t it? A Sisyphean task, pushing that rock uphill only to have it roll back down again. Guaranteed.
And yet, as Camus pointed out, one must consider Sisyphus happy. He is doing his job, struggling against an indifferent cosmos, shouldering his task, fully knowing that it can never be finished. Which brings me—at last!—to my point. Although death is certain, along with the eventual triumph of entropy, it is also certain that we, each of us, can do something to keep the unwanted at bay. At least for now, for the moment, in the hope that others will do their part to keep those moments going, keep the ball in the air as long as possible, as long as strength and will remain.
Every one of those beings that each of us cherish confronts an array of terrifying and infuriating threats, many of them induced by the policies and actions of the current administration. I’m thinking of global climate change, social inequity, racism, religious bigotry, resource depletion, habitat loss, pollution, crushing poverty, drug abuse, epidemics, pandemics and the loss of endemics, rampaging robotics, and scary psychotics. All of them serious, each of them demanding our attention. And yet, none of these—demanding and legitimate as they are—rival the one overriding challenge: the need to prevent nuclear war.
If we fail in this, nothing else matters; we will have failed in everything. Period. Full stop. The end.
During the Reagan reign, my wife and I—along with myriad others—were part of the anti-nuclear war movement, which brought out more than a million protesters in New York’s Central Park alone, in June 12, 1982, and which ultimately proved key in turning the threat around (at least, for that time). Since then, the great Sisyphean rock has rolled far down once again, and we are confronted with yet another existential challenge. And now, we find ourselves facing a personal challenge as well: what would it take to protect—at least for now—the things each of us loves and values? What would it take to generate another mass movement for anti-nuclear sanity and what Carl Sagan memorably called basic planetary hygiene?
In the early 1980s, the cause was ignited and maintained by Reagan’s cavalier attitude toward nuclear war, the inflammatory policies of his underlings, plans for a mobile MX missile, Star Wars, the Euromissile crisis, news of neutron bombs, and a nearly hot Cold War with the USSR. Many of us slumbered for a time after the Soviet Union exploded (politically, fortunately, not militarily). The world appeared safe—at least from thermonuclear annihilation—during the Clinton and Obama years, even while the lesser Bush was in office.
Could we have another early 1980s-style, grassroots movement today? It’s not impossible. Given the extraordinary dangers posed by Donald Trump’s authority to order nuclear Armageddon, on top of a fraught and perilous relationship with nuclear-armed North Korea, it would seem that sufficient motivation exists to rouse the sleeping giant of American outrage, regardless of political orientation and station in life. After all, nuclear obliteration would be bad for business, and thus, even for Republicans, and for street-cleaners, dental technicians, billionaires, those who are college-bound or home-bound, the homeless, the hearty and the heartless, not to ignore the all-too-often unmentioned, completely innocent rhinoceroses, hummingbirds, iguanas, and hot-house orchids.
What would it take to get everyone to wake up?
David P. Barash is professor of psychology emeritus, University of Washington and author of Through a Glass Brightly: using science to see our species as it really is, forthcoming in 2018 from Oxford University Press.