A picture of the Trinity nuclear weapon explosion, which took place on July 16, 1945. (AP Picture)
I remember a spoof of an old-fashioned public proclamation that was nailed to the wall of our kitchen when I was a kid. The steps included “bend over and place your head firmly between your knees” as step 6, and “kiss your ass goodbye” as step 7 for what to do “in event of a nuclear bomb assault.”
That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that my parents, Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, were well-known anti-nuclear activists and former nuns and priests, respectively. I was too young to be a member of the “duck-and-cover generation,” which rehearsed bomb shelter drills in the basements of local churches and town halls or under their desks during class.
I consider myself to be a member of the generation known as “The Day After,” which was tasked with seeing that astonishingly well-liked made-for-TV film in 1983 and reporting on our experiences. I was born in 1974. It made a compelling (if perhaps unintentional) argument that dying in the initial blast would have been preferable to surviving and having to deal with the nuclear winter and over-armed chaos that followed. The story dramatised the life of people in a small Kansas town after a full-scale nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Maybe we should refer to today’s youth as the Generation Fed Up With Grown Ups in this Ukraine War age (Gen Fed Up). Gen Zers were “digital natives,” born with smartphones in hand and instantly able to spot all the messy seams in, and agendas behind, poorly produced, uninformative Public Service Announcements like the much-maligned recent PSA from the New York City Emergency Management department about what to do in case of—yep, you guessed it! —a nuclear attack: seek shelter inside, remain there and pay attention. (That poster on my wall when I was a kid sounds a lot like this, doesn’t it?
Young people require accurate data and analysis, as well as resources and skills for survival. Generation Z and the younger Generation Alpha (I have members of both in my family) are raising their children in a world that has been torn apart by the selfishness and shortsightedness of previous generations, including the effects of the continuous production and “modernization” of nuclear weapons, not to mention the horrors associated with the global climate change, such as sea level rise, megadrought, flooding, mass migration, starvation, and on and on and on.
Dead Day Parade
The six-kilogramme Trinity nuclear weapon was tested on July 16, 1945, in the Jornada Del Muerto Valley of New Mexico, ushering in the nuclear era during World War II. The estimated 38,000 residents who resided within 60 miles of the nuclear test were not informed of its impending conduct or the possibility of hazardous radioactive fallout. There was no evacuation. The region, whose name in Spanish translates to “Journey of Death” aptly, was rich in native culture and life; it was home to 19 American Indian pueblos, two Apache tribes, and various Navajo Nation chapters. They were our generation’s first nuclear casualties, but they are rarely known today.
After that initial test, which was swiftly deemed successful, American war planners believed they were prepared for the ultimate “testing,” which included the atomic bombings of two Japanese cities on August 6 and Nagasaki three days later. Thousands of people perished shortly after the initial explosions from the back-to-back bombs, and countless others perished from radiation sickness and cancer.
The detonation of two strangely named bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, ought to have brought an end to nuclear war or even all conflict. Nuclear weapons should have been banned and placed in a museum of horrors alongside the guillotine, the rack, and other historical instruments of grotesque torture because they have killed so many innocent people and destroyed two major cities.
But it would turn out to be merely the start of an arms race and commodification of life that persists today. After all, this nation is spending trillions of dollars on “modernising” its nuclear arsenal, while Vladimir Putin has threatened to use one or more of his numerous “tactical” nukes, and the Chinese are attempting to catch up. I keep thinking about how 77 years of nuclear brinkmanship and imminent doom have had an impact on the world, made life more fragile, and contributed to turning our lovely and complicated planet into a landfill for radioactive waste for all time. (Okay, hyperbole alert… it’s not actually forever, only a million years.)
Some members of the “duck and cover” generation worried that they wouldn’t live to adulthood or that tomorrow wouldn’t come. Unsurprisingly, too many of them developed the habit of treating the earth as if there were really no tomorrows as they grew older. And whenever you think about 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, you can see proof of just that attitude. All of this contamination of our air, water, and ground was likely sparked by a nuclearism that was pessimistic.
If there is a danger that it could all vanish in a mushroom cloud tomorrow, it seems impossible to labour so hard to switch from burning carbon to utilising solar or wind power. However, there have been some noteworthy initiatives from which we can take heart and be inspired as we continue to live out those very tomorrows. In his autobiography The Flag, The Cross and The Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back on His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What The Hell Happened, environmentalist and futurist Bill McKibben argues that President Jimmy Carter tried to lead this nation toward a less carbon-dependent future—and it cost him the presidency. The Carter administration made large investments in solar energy, other environmentally friendly technology, and cutting-edge conservation in an effort to lessen the effects of the 1979 oil crisis. In McKibben’s words, “climate changes would have changed from an existential crisis to a manageable problem on a list of other problems” if such policies had been allowed to take hold.
Can you picture it? As we doom-scroll the most recent headlines about the present and impending climate catastrophes, we have to go back in time to even conceive of a healthier tomorrow. Carter is loved today for his folksy accessibility, moral fortitude, and promotion of affordable housing through Habitat for Humanity. Sadly, under Carter, we might have been on the verge of a turning point, and we might have had a chance. But then actor (and huckster) Ronald Reagan rode into the White House, took down the rooftop solar panels the Carters had installed, implemented tax cuts for the extremely wealthy, and loosened regulations on all forms of polluters. In 1986, not quite a year after the final month of our era when the globe was cooler than average, President Reagan took that action.
1986 seems to have happened yesterday! What’s next? How about the next day?
After all, the population of this planet will reach eight billion by the year 2022. And tomorrow will come, of course. Dryer and hotter, but daybreak nonetheless. but still coming despite the weather and wind.
My three children, who are 8, 10, and 15 years old, serve as my anchors in a confusing and peculiar—yet ultimately beautiful—reality. Even though this world is limited and has challenges that are getting more and bigger, I still value it and believe it is worth fighting for. I am powerless to ignore tomorrow. It is not abstract. We may be reaching a climate tipping point, as the headlines seem to never stop screaming. A potential tipping point, did I say that? That was supposed to be a plural. In fact, a piece in the Guardian’s September 8th issue listed a total of 16 of them. Sixteen! Think about it!
According to climate experts, three of the major ones are in danger of tipping over:
The melting of Greenland’s ice cap will result in a significant rise in sea levels worldwide.
The breakdown of a crucial circulation in the north Atlantic Ocean will seriously reduce the global food supply by further upsetting global weather patterns and precipitation patterns.
Melting of the carbon-rich permafrost in the Arctic, releases enormous volumes of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and further warms the globe. It’s unlikely that it will freeze again if we take the appropriate action because it appears that the tipping point has already occurred.
How can you alter political or business conduct in the face of all of this, in the age of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk, and the rest of the gang, to slow, if not reverse, global warming? The human race has been poor stewards of the future for more than three-quarters of a century, especially, of course, those in the developed/industrialized globe.
Therefore, we are at an all-time low in terms of our ability to act collectively at a time when we perhaps need it more than we have since the Second World War to maintain the stability of the planet. According to Johan Potsdam, a scientist at the German Institute for Climate Impact Research, “time is truly running out very, very fast.” Tellingly, he continued, “I must say, in my professional life as a climate scientist, this is a low moment. The global temperature ceiling set at the Paris climate agreements in 2015 (and already deemed out of date in the most recent catastrophic United Nations assessment) is a low point. It’s quite difficult because the window for 1.5C is closing at this very moment.
Dreadful forecasts, mountains of scientific evidence, solemn appeals to action from climatologists and environmentalists, not to mention the displacement of the island and coastal people already due to a rapidly warming planet. Just recently, activists from the Just Stop Oil movement used tomato soup on the glass of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in London in October, and two young people from the climate movement Last Generation threw mashed potatoes at the glass covering a famous Claude Monet painting in a museum close to Berlin in an effort to draw attention. The paintings themselves were not damaged in either scenario; for what it’s worth, they both have my attention.
The tide has already turned for a staggering number of climate migrants worldwide and given their predicaments, they might prefer some tomato soup and mashed potatoes to eat rather than being used as protest props. Longer term, for their children and grandchildren, they need large populations in the major emitters of greenhouse gases—China and the United States top the list—to drastically adjust their lives in order to contribute to the preservation of what is left of our clearly finite planet.
My great-grandfather Thomas Berrigan was born in 1879. In 1886, my grandma Frida was born. Their early lives in the United States were almost carbon-free, despite missing the pre-industrial era by more than 100 years. They carried water, cut wood, and mostly ate food from a little garden. Even as the pace and pollution of life in the industrialised West and the United States increased, their carbon footprint as poor people remained impressively low.
The youngest of six brothers, Philip Berrigan, who was born in 1923, is my father. Between his birth and mine in 1974, there could have been two more generations of Berrigans, but there weren’t. When I gave birth to my last kid in 2014, I might have been a grandma, but I wasn’t. Therefore, whether we intended to or not, we paused the march of generations, and I’m appreciative of the long view that provides me.
More recently, her great-grandchildren have discovered that they could still go to school (sort of) thanks to computers during the Covid pandemic, communicating in real-time with teachers and classmates dispersed elsewhere in our world. My grandmother once marvelled at the ways in which a car could bring her back and forth to the city “all in one day.”
It’s unlikely that I’ll survive to see my grandfather’s 200th birthday in 2079, but my daughter Madeline, who is his great-granddaughter, will only be 65 at that time. When we reach the year 2100, when climate scientists predict that we may have reached a terrible world average temperature of 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, she’ll be 86 if she lives as long as my mother did. Unless. In the absence of action, numerous actions are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Otherwise, that would be very disastrous for the future generations of my children.
I recognise my own features in my mother’s hollowed-out, wrinkled cheeks when I look at old pictures. The way my daughter’s eyebrows arch and her still-chubby cheeks remind me of my own younger face (and that of my mother, too).
Even if I won’t be there to experience it with my children and their offspring, 2100 is my future in my eyes. While doing so, we continue to put one foot in front of the other (walking is better for the environment anyhow) and fight to make sense of this wonderful, yet damaged, the world of ours. While attempting to pass along knowledge and lessons to the succeeding generation, one generation cedes to the next without really knowing what tools they will require to create a better tomorrow out of a worsening today.
If nuclear weapons, the philosophy of mutually assured annihilation, fossil fuels, and apocalyptic terror helped get us to this breaking point in the first place, we need something truly new now, while such a thing is still feasible. We need the greenest of powers—no new nuclear weapons, not next-generation diplomacy, not fossil fuels—but peace. We require a society that people like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk, and others of their ilk cannot even fathom, a future in which their brand of dominance is neither required nor lauded.
We need to be humble, grateful, and in awe of the intricate interconnections that support all of nature. We require wonder, delight in learning, and celebration. And because these abilities are innate in all children, our kids (that Gen Fed Up) can assist us in accessing them. The Day After, ducking and covering, and staying inside is all out. Let’s change, maybe survive, by using what Generation Z and Generation Alpha have taught us.
Advocacy Unified Network