On witnessing the first ever atomic bomb detonation American theoretical physicist and “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer is reputed to have said, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds!”. He was quoting the Hindu scripture, Bhagavad-Gita and more particularly referencing the Hindu god Lord Shiva, who represents the concept of constant change, both in the form of death and destruction and in the positive sense of transformation or renewal. In the Hindu pantheon Shiva is a metaphor for one facet of the cyclical process of creation, preservation, dissolution and recreation found at every level of existence. Although I think we can be sure that when he uttered those words Oppenheimer had in mind only the more sinister aspect of this metaphor. He looking upon the awesome destructive power that had been delivered into the hands of frail, fallible, foolish humanity and he saw our doom.
It is not easy to remain philosophical when contemplating the prospect of melting in the heat of a thousand suns along with everyone and everything else that one knows or knows of. Or worse still, the prospect of surviving only to melt more slowly and painfully in a world whose atmosphere has been turned into a toxic, corrosive soup while watching helplessly as everyone and everything that remains suffers the same fate. It was not, I think, the idea of death which haunted Oppenheimer but imagining the impossibility of life – life made impossible.
Most people alive today were either born into a world where nuclear weapons were part of the reality everybody on the planet lived with, or they were born into a world where the prospect of nuclear holocaust had receded somewhat with the end of the Cold War. We are either part of a generation which learned to live with the moment-to-moment possibility of searing annihilation or part of a generation for which that prospect has to compete as the subject matter of nightmares with climate change and viral pandemics. For more than a Biblical lifespan we have all lived in a world where filling the spare room with toilet rolls and baked beans makes perfect sense. All humans have to live with awareness of their own mortality. Every human on the planet today has to live with the additional burden of knowing that life itself may be extinguished. We are all haunted as Oppenheimer was by the knowledge that life may not just end but be made impossible. And that we are each and all responsible. We are every one of us become Death, destroyers of Life!
Nuclear weapons have, for many people, come to stand for this idea of life made impossible. When people protest against the existence, development and proliferation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems they are expressing their fear and anger that humanity has taken to itself the power not merely to end lives in uncountable numbers, but to end the possibility of life. They are venting their outrage at being robbed of whatever ease may have been attached to awareness of their own mortality by the idea that life goes on. Likewise those climate change protesters who rail against fossil fuels. What is terrifying about climate change is the same as what is terrifying about nuclear weapons and chemical weapons and biological weapons. All by their existence, development and proliferation put in jeopardy not just life but the very possibility of life.
Let’s draw back a bit from this apocalyptic train of thought – even if only to come at it from a different direction. Gerry Hassan had a very thought-provoking piece in the Sunday National last weekend. The following snagged my mind.
The Empire State has been at the centre of what the UK is and its projection of power overseas, its inability to come to terms with its relative decline, and how it has tried to maintain global pretensions through its Atlanticist tendencies and by clinging to the fantasy of the supposedly independent nuclear deterrent.Gerry Hassan: Britain is lost in a past that largely never existed
The connection with the first part of my own article may not be immediately obvious. But if I explain that I read Gerry Hassan’s column while mindful of the AUOB demonstration at Faslane on Saturday 28 August, it may be clearer. The “supposedly independent nuclear deterrent” is, of course, crucial to The British state’s conceit of itself. In exactly the same way as Scotland is. To conform to its self-image, the “Empire State” must have all the accoutrements of a global power – including the weaponry and the territories. Scotland is of huge geopolitical importance. Possession of Scotland gives England-as-Britain importance. And England-as-Britain desperately needs to feel important. Possession of Scotland combined with possession of nuclear capability gets England-as-Britain entry into the big-boys’ gang-hut. And I’m not being entirely facetious here. It really is as puerile as that.
How does this relate to what I was saying earlier? Well, nuclear weapons as well as being objectionable in themselves are powerfully symbolic of the kind of world we have created. A world and its systems which seem contrived solely for the ultimate purpose of destroying the world and its systems And the planet. And life. And the very possibility of life on this planet which for all we know, may be the only life in the entire universe. We would certainly be well-advised to behave as if life was a phenomenon exclusive to this wee planet. We would do well to value it not just as a commodity that is possessed and traded but as a unique and mysterious natural phenomenon common to everything that is imbued with it. Many things make a person different from a tree and a tree different from an antelope and an antelope different from a woodlouse. But life is common to all. It is precisely the same phenomenon whether it is found in a tree or a person. And humanity seems hell bent on making life impossible. Or should I better say, making life an impossibility.
Nuclear weapons – shorthand for all weapons of mass destruction – are starkly symbolic of this seemingly inexorable trend towards making life impossible and then going even further to make life an impossibility. It’s not just nuclear weapons. Humankind’s potentially catastrophic impact on the terrifyingly fragile environment that makes life possible is arguably an even more powerful symbol of this derangement which has gripped humanity. As is the fact that we’ve created a world that is all but ideal for the rapid global transmission of deadly pathogens. Then there’s the acquisitive/accumulative capitalism which increasingly commands the world and its systems and which is destroying those systems at an accelerating pace. In everything we do as a species we seem hell-bent on breaking the complex and flawed but functional cyclical processes in which Lord Shiva has a vital role by imposing linear processes which all end at the same place – the end of everything.
While it may seem trivial compared to the end of civilisation and destruction of the planet, Scotland’s constitutional predicament is also symptomatic of this derangement afflicting humankind. It’s all connected. England-as-Britain clings to Scotland for the same reasons that it clings to nuclear weapons. For the same reasons more and more of the world’s resources are being concentrated in the the possession of fewer and fewer people. That is the world we’ve created.
We are all involved. We are all both victim and perpetrator. It is our strength that powers the destructive derangement while we seem powerless to halt it. This can be either an excuse for not trying or an incentive to try harder. The problem is global and complex and daunting beyond comprehension. Which makes even the smallest victory more precious because it shows that victory is possible. Above all, we must not give up the effort. You may think you’re just protesting against nuclear weapons or fossil fuels or the Union. What you are really doing is fighting for life. You are fighting for the possibility of life.
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4 thoughts on “The possibility of life”
I don’t have the words, but your essay struck me. I can’t say in words what I felt as I read it. Everyone should read it and see hope or annihilation. Thank you for filling me with hope.
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Your writing lifts my spirits and deadens my soul all at the same. It makes me hopeful and also very sad and it touches me somewhere that is well hidden to all but a few. Thank you
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Great thought-provoking article:
“We are all both victim and perpetrator. It is our strength that powers the destructive derangement while we seem powerless to halt it.”
If only we, as humans, could discover BALANCE … the key to a long life and existence.
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Peter it is good to see you get back on track! You meandered off the path for a few years!
Well done with this article…get back to the old Peter
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