When I was growing up, there was a parody of an old-fashioned public announcement tacked to the wall of our kitchen that I vividly remember. It had step-by-step instructions for what to do “in case of a nuclear bomb attack.” Step 6 was “bend over and place your head firmly between your legs”; step 7, “kiss your ass goodbye.”
That shouldn’t be surprising, since my parents, Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, once-upon-a-time priest and nun, were well-known antinuclear activists. I was too young to be a part of the “duck-and-cover generation” who, at school, practiced hiding from a nuclear attack beneath their desks or heading for local bomb shelters in the basements of churches and town halls.
Born in 1974, I think of myself as a member of The Day After generation, who were instructed to watch that remarkably popular made-for-TV movie in 1983 and report on our observations and feelings. Dramatizing the life of people in a small town in Kansas after a full-scale nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States, it made a strong (if perhaps unintentional) case that dying in the initial blast would have been better than surviving and facing the nuclear winter and over-armed chaos that followed.
In this Ukraine War era, maybe we could label today’s kids as the Generation Fed Up With Grown Ups (Gen Fed Up). The members of Gen Z are “digital natives,” born with smartphones in their hands and instantly able to spot all the messy seams in, and agendas behind, poorly produced, un-informative Public Service Announcements like the New York City Emergency Management department’s much pilloried recent PSA about what to do in case of — yep, you guessed it! — a nuclear attack: get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned. (Sounds pretty close to the poster on my wall growing up, doesn’t it?)
Young people need real information and analysis, survival skills and resources. Generation Z and the younger Generation Alpha (I have some of both in my family) are growing up in a world torn apart by the selfishness and shortsightedness of earlier generations, including the impact of the never-ending production and “modernization” of nuclear weapons, not to speak of the climate upheaval gripping this planet and all the horrors that go with it, including sea level rise, megadrought, flooding, mass migration, starvation, and on and on and on…
Jornado del Muerto
The nuclear age began during World War II with the July 16, 1945, test of a six-kilogram plutonium weapon code-named Trinity in the Jornado Del Muerto Valley in New Mexico. No one bothered to tell the estimated 38,000 people who lived within 60 miles of that atomic test that it was about to take place or that there might be dangerous nuclear fallout following the blast. No one was evacuated. The area, whose Spanish name in translation means, appropriately enough, Journey of Death, was rich in indigenous culture and life, home to 19 American Indian pueblos, two Apache tribes, and some chapters of the Navajo Nation. Though hardly remembered today, they were the first nuclear casualties of our age.
That initial test was quickly evaluated as successful and, less than a month later, American war planners considered themselves ready for the ultimate “tests” — the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki three days later. The initial blasts from those back-to-back bombs killed hundreds of thousands of people on the spot and immediately thereafter, and countless more from radiation sickness and cancer.
Fat Man and Little Boy, as those bombs were bizarrely code-named, should have signaled the end of nuclear war, even of all war. The incineration of so many civilians and the leveling of two major cities should have been motivation enough to put the cork in the deadly power of the atom and consign nuclear weapons to some museum of horrors alongside the guillotine, the rack, and other past devices of obscene torture.
But it would prove to be just the beginning of an arms race and a cheapening of life that goes on to this day. After all, this country continues to “modernize” its nuclear arsenal to the tune of trillions of dollars, while Vladimir Putin has threatened to use one or more of his vast store of “tactical” nukes, and the Chinese are rushing to catch up. I keep thinking about how 77 years of nuclear brinkmanship and impending doom has taken its global toll, even while making life more precarious and helping render this beautiful and complex planet a garbage can for forever radioactive waste. (Okay, okay, hyperbole alert… it’s not forever, just literally a million years.)
Some among the duck-and-cover generation feared that they wouldn’t live to see adulthood, that there would be no tomorrow. Not surprisingly, too many of them, when they grew up, came to treat the planet as if there indeed were no tomorrow. And you can see evidence of just that attitude any time you consider the “prosperity” of the second industrial revolution with its toxic sludge of fossil fuels, PCBs, asbestos, lead in paint and gas, and so many plastics. This polluting of our ground, water, and air was all, I suspect, spurred on by a nihilistic nuclearism.
It seems impossible to work so hard to shift from burning carbon to capturing solar or wind power if there’s a chance that it could all go up in a mushroom cloud tomorrow. But there have been some notable efforts from which to draw hope and inspiration as we keep living out those very tomorrows. As environmentalist and futurist Bill McKibben writes in his memoir The Flag, The Cross and The Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back on His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What The Hell Happened, President Jimmy Carter tried to guide this country to a less carbon-dependent future — and it cost him the presidency. The Carter White House sought to mitigate the damage of the 1979 oil crisis with significant investments in solar power and other green technologies and cutting-edge conservation. Had such policies been allowed to take hold, as McKibben points out, “climate changes would have turned from an existential crisis to a manageable problem on a list of other problems.”
Can you imagine? We love Carter now for his folksy accessibility, moral stamina, and promotion of affordable housing through Habitat for Humanity, but as we doom-scroll the latest news about present and future climate catastrophes, we have to reach back through time to even imagine a healthier tomorrow. Sadly enough, with Carter, we might have been near a turning point, we might have had a chance… and then actor (and huckster) Ronald Reagan rode his 10-gallon cowboy hat into the White House, removed the rooftop solar panels the Carters had installed, instituted tax cuts for the very wealthy, and loosened regulations on every type of polluter. President Reagan did that in 1986, only a year or so after the last month of our era that the planet was cooler than average.
1986 seems like just yesterday! Now what? How about tomorrow?
After all, here we are in 2022 about to hit eight billion strong on this planet of ours. And there is, of course, a tomorrow. Hotter and drier but dawning all the same. Wetter and windier but coming anyway.
I have three kids, ages 8, 10 and 15, and they anchor me in a troubling and strange, if still ultimately beautiful, reality. This world, however finite with its increasingly overwhelming problems, is still precious to me and worth a good fight. I can’t turn away from tomorrow. It’s not an abstraction. The headlines now seem to endlessly scream: we are at a potential tipping point in terms of the climate. Did I say a potential tipping point? I meant to make that plural. In fact, an article in the September 8th issue of the Guardian lists 16 of them in all. Sixteen! Imagine that!
Three of the biggest ones that climate scientists agree we’re close to tipping over are:
1. The collapse of Greenland’s ice cap, which will produce a huge rise in global sea levels.
3. The melting of the Arctic’s carbon-rich permafrost, releasing staggering amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and so further broiling this planet. (Will it freeze again if we do the right thing? Not likely, as it seems as if that tipping point has already tipped.)
In the face of all of this, in the age of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk, and the rest of the crew, how do you change political or corporate behavior to slow, if not reverse, global warming? More than three-quarters of a century of uncertain tomorrows has made the human race — particularly, of course, those in the developed/industrialized world — awful stewards of the future.
“So when we need collective action at the global level, probably more than ever since the second world war, to keep the planet stable, we have an all-time low in terms of our ability to collectively act together. Time is really running out very, very fast.” So said Johan Potsdam, a scientist with the Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. As he added tellingly, speaking of the global temperature ceiling set at the Paris climate accords in 2015 (and already considered out of date in the latest devastating United Nations report), “I must say, in my professional life as a climate scientist, this is a low point. The window for 1.5C is shutting as I speak, so it’s really tough.”
Dire predictions, reams of science, sober calls to act from climatologists and activists, not to speak of island and coastal communities already being displaced by a fast-warming world. Only recently, two young people from the climate movement Last Generation threw mashed potatoes at the glass covering a classic Claude Monet painting in a museum near Berlin in a bid to get attention, while activists from Just Stop Oil used tomato soup on the glass of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London in October. In neither case were the paintings themselves harmed; in both cases, they have my attention, for what that’s worth.
For striking numbers of climate refugees globally, the point has already tipped and, given their situations, they might like to have some tomato soup and mashed potatoes — to eat rather than to be flung as protest props. In the longer term, for their children and grandchildren, they need masses of people in the biggest greenhouse gas polluters — China and the United States top the list — to radically alter their lifestyles to help protect what’s left of this distinctly finite planet of ours.
Thomas Berrigan, my grandfather, was born in 1879. My grandmother Frida was born in 1886. While they missed the pre-industrial era by more than 100 years, their early lives in the United States were almost carbon-free. They hauled water, chopped wood, and largely ate from a meager garden. As poor people, their carbon footprint remained remarkably small, even as the pace and pollution of life in the United States and the industrialized West picked up.
My father, Philip Berrigan, born in 1923, was the youngest of six brothers. There could have been two more generations of Berrigans between his birth and mine in 1974, but there weren’t. I could have been a grandmother when I gave birth to my last child in 2014, but I wasn’t. So, in our own way, whether we meant to or not, we slowed down the march of generations and I’m grateful for the long perspective that gives me.
In her later years, my grandmother marveled at the ways in which a car could bring her back and forth to the city “all in one day.” More recently, her great-grandchildren have found that they could still go to school (after a fashion) thanks to computers during the Covid pandemic, communicating in real-time with teachers and classmates scattered elsewhere in our world.
It’s not likely that I’ll live until 2079, my grandfather’s 200th birthday, but his great-granddaughter, my daughter Madeline, will just be turning 65 then. If she has my mother’s longevity, she’ll be 86 when we hit the year 2100, That is the grim milestone (tombstone?) when climate scientists expect that we could reach a disastrous global average temperature of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Unless. Unless something is done, many somethings are done to reverse greenhouse gas emissions. Otherwise, that spells disaster beyond measure for my children’s children.
When I look at old photos, I see my own face in my mother’s hollowed-out, age-spotted cheeks. And when I look at my daughter’s still chubby cheeks and the way her eyebrows arch, I see my own younger face (and that of my mother’s, too).
As far as I’m concerned, the year 2100 is my future, even though I won’t be here to struggle through it with my children and their children. In the meantime, we keep putting one foot in front of the other (walking is better for the environment anyway) and struggling somehow to deal with this beautiful, broken world of ours. One generation cedes to the next, doing its best to impart wisdom and offer lessons without really knowing what tools those who follow us will need to carve a better tomorrow out of a worsening today.
To go back to the beginning, while such a thing is still possible, if nuclear weapons, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, fossil fuels, and apocalyptic fear helped get us to this breaking point, we need something truly different now. We need not war, but peace; not new nukes, but next-generation-level diplomacy; not fossil fuels, but the greenest of powers imaginable. We need a world that Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk, and their ilk can’t even imagine, a world where their kind of power is neither needed, nor celebrated.
We need gratitude, humility, and awe at the deep web of interconnection that undergirds the whole of nature. We need curiosity, joy in discovery, and celebration. And our kids (that Gen Fed Up) can help us access those powers, because they’re inherent in all children. So, no more ducking and covering, no more Day After, no more staying inside. Let us learn from Generation Z and Generation Alpha and change — and maybe survive.
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