Alt-Coin Trader

The Audacity of Doom

Not so long ago, writers, editors, concerned world citizens and deep thinkers of all kinds were consumed with the idea of a coming global catastrophe that seemed implacable and virtually unavoidable. When it comes to covering today's debates on global warming, we might want to take a step back and recall this earlier, somewhat chillier 1980s obsession with the fate of the earth – that is, of course, The Fate of the Earth, the title of a three-part series by Jonathan Schell first published in The New Yorker, then republished as a popular book by Alfred A. Knopf in 1982.

J. SchellJonathan Schell

This influential series was all about the unstoppable, world-ending consequences of nations (especially the United States) clinging to their nuclear weapons. The fate of the earth, according to Schell, was to be nuclear annihilation, human extinction, the end of all life. Game over. You're dead. We're all dead. Your children are dead. Your dog's dead. Your children's children won't exist. Finito.  It was a very popular idea at the time, much discussed at cocktail parties, sidewalk reefer breaks, and editorial meetings. Schell had caught the ear of the culture.

(To judge by this piece in yesterday's Los Angeles Times by Schell's older brother, Orville, pessimism seems to run in the family.)

Although we had heard it all before, from a multitude of sources, including the robotic alien scold in the cranky 1950s science-fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still (recently remade with Keanu Reeves as the alien preaching about, naturally, global warming), in these New Yorker pieces Schell made nuclear Armageddon seem fresh again. Schell was a master at bringing down the curtain, closing the coffin lid, zipping the body bag on human civilization and all our hopes and dreams.

Unlike Terry Southern, whose fiendishly funny Dr. Strangelove satirized the idea of  "fail safe" nuclear deterrence, Schell was not exactly a barrel of laughs. His prose was punishing. He was supremely sure of himself. He wasn't just in an ivory tower, he was on his own cloud, a thunderhead, preaching to a receptive choir of liberals, ex-hippies, creative types, and — especially — journalists and editors like me. His was the voice of doom on the hydrogen jukebox, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, and we loved it. Foolish mortals, now you die! And it's all your fault!

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