The end of the world is an old theme in pop culture, as well as common in the lore of much of the world’s religions. But it became even more common in Western movies, science fiction novels, television, radio, etc. in the aftermath of the US atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
But there was a difference in the perception of how The End would come. If the end was once almost solely imagined at the hands of aliens from space or from vengeful gods, the end of life as we know it was soon being imagined at the hands of human beings themselves. The US nuclear monopoly after all lasted only a few years as the Cold War broke out. The Soviet Union soon exploded its own nuclear bombs after the US, as did China by 1968. A confrontation among these nuclear powers seemed inevitable. Science fiction writers thus began to crank out short stories, novels and films that foresaw The End through nuclear war.
The science fiction writers were way ahead of the rest of the world. It would take years for ordinary folk—and not a few scientists—to accept that possibility. The US government and its scientists strove mightily to prove in the 1950s that the atomic bomb, while extremely powerful, was “just another weapon.” Only in the last 25 years or so has it been accepted that a nuclear war would not only result in the mutual annihilation of the protagonists, it could also trigger a nuclear winter that would end not only their lives, but all life on the planet as well.
The astro-physicist Carl Sagan was among the first scientists to accept the use of that term in his work “The Nuclear Winter” (1983). Sagan argued that even a small-scale nuclear war would devastate the planet and destroy all life. There were at the time 50,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the then Soviet Union and the United States, with a combined power of 13,000 megatons (a megaton is a million tons) of TNT.
The two-megaton bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had the explosive power of “a mere” two million tons of TNT, but were enough to destroy both cities and to immediately kill 400,000 people. The 50,000 nuclear weapons existing in 1983 could thus destroy a million Hiroshima-size cities—although, as Sagan pointed out, there were only 3,000 cities on the planet with a population of 100,000 or more.
A nuclear war in which 10,000 megatons of nuclear weapons were exploded, Sagan said, would kill 1.1 billion people outright, and 1.1 billion more in the aftermath through various injuries and radiation sickness. The death of over two billion people would “represent by far the greatest disaster in the history of the human species,” said Sagan, but that’s not really the bad news.
A nuclear explosion “would lift an enormous quantity of fine soil particles into the atmosphere (more than 100,000 tons of fine dust for every megaton exploded in a surface burst).” Should nuclear bombs with a combined power of 5,000 megatons of TNT be used, the dust and smoke they would generate would be enough to blot out the sun and lower temperatures worldwide for months, in some cases to hundreds of degrees below zero, thus obliterating all life on the planet. (Sagan’s essay can be accessed at www.cooperativeindividualism.org/sagan_nuclear_winter.html.)
This is the “nuclear winter” the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) said last January 17 has become an even greater possibility today. To indicate how close that possibility is, BAS scientists led by British theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Stephen Hawking moved the minute hand of the BAS’ “Doomsday Clock” from seven minutes to five minutes before midnight, with “midnight” representing the world’s end. (The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic clockface the BAS has maintained since 1947 to monitor developments in the nuclear threat to life on earth.)
Although the number of nuclear weapons has decreased, there are still enough in the arsenals of the nuclear powers to destroy the world several times over. Hawking cited both the continuing danger of a nuclear war as well as climate change, or global warming, as the major threats to the existence of mankind.
“The dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons…Over the next three to four decades climate change could cause irremediable harm to the habitats upon which human societies depend for survival.”
But BAS saw the nuclear threat as more urgent, and warned that “nuclear weapons still pose the most catastrophic and immediate threat to humanity.”
Among the reasons BAS cited for moving the Doomsday Clock minute hand forward were North Korea’s test of nuclear weapons, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as well as “a renewed US emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons.” The last is a reference to the US’ declaration that it reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first, and to use tactical nuclear weapons against the weapons facilities of “rogue states.”
The BAS warning is not likely to prod policy makers into a flurry of activity to address both threats. Significantly, since the Doomsday Clock first began counting (at seven to midnight) the “minutes” to the end of days, the farthest its minute hand has been from midnight was 17 minutes. That was in 1991, when the US and Russia signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The Doomsday Clock hand has moved steadily forward since.