Bring back the nightmares

On the role of science communication and literature in nuclear deterrence

Alom Shaha 27 April 2006

Wake up call: they're still out there

The possibility of a global nuclear war is a more immediate threat to the survival of the human race than global warming
or bird flu

There are enough nuclear bombs on the Earth to blow our whole planet to bits, several times over. And governments around the world are building more. In his book Einstein's Monsters, Martin Amis refers to nuclear bombs as "the most momentous development in the history of the species". He’s right – forget electricity, computers or any of the other things that tend to top lists of greatest inventions; the development of nuclear technology is far more significant than any of them. Even if we dismantled every single nuclear bomb on the planet and somehow managed to get everyone to agree never to build another one, the knowledge of how to do so will remain to haunt us. Discovering the ability to unleash atomic energy is science's original sin; it has irrevocably changed humanity. Nuclear bombs are the only real weapons of mass destruction that exist and George Bush has got a whole stack of them. We've even got a pile of them here in Britain. Despite their abundance, only two nuclear bombs have ever been "used". Sure, there have been lots of test explosions, usually in deep underground caves or beneath the sea, but there have only been two instances when a nuclear bomb has been used as a weapon – in the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. I’d like to think that the reason why nuclear bombs have never been used since is because the destructive power of a nuclear bomb is so awesome, so indiscriminate and so absolute that the use of one would be seen as an act of obscenity, of utter evil. I know this is naïve, that mutually assured destruction (MAD) has played a bigger part in preventing nuclear war than any notions of propriety but, as someone who grew up having a recurring nightmare about nuclear apocalypse, I can't believe that anyone who knows what a nuclear bomb can do would ever consider using one. Yet, according to recent reports, this is exactly what George Bush is saying he will do. That he will, for the first time in over 60 years, use a nuclear weapon in an act of war. And he's not the only one. Before all the shit kicked off in Iraq, Tony Blair said that he would "not rule out" the use of nuclear weapons in a future conflict According to Mohamed El Baradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the threat of nuclear war "is greater today than ever before". But no one seems to care. There was a time when, before the end of the Cold War and even for a little while afterwards, the threat of nuclear war was felt to be so real that writers, artists and film-makers were compelled to make anti-nuclear works. Back then, there seemed to be a feeling that we needed to keep reminding people just how bad an idea nuclear war was. In 1982, the publication of Raymond Brigg's When the Wind Blows was even "welcomed" by a motion in the UK Parliament. Children's books like Brother in the Land and Z for Zachariah painted bleak post-apocalyptic pictures that, I suppose, were meant to frighten us into never wanting to live through a nuclear war for real. TV programmes like Threads and The Day After showed the horrific effects of a nuclear bomb in graphic, unflinching detail, while films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Dr Strangelove and War Games sought to show people the ridiculous futility of nuclear war. Nowadays, a nuclear bomb in the movies is more likely to come to the rescue and save the world from an asteroid or blast aliens out of the sky. Perhaps they worked; perhaps the anti-nuclear books and films contributed to the fact that we have not had a nuclear war. But the fear and horror of nuclear war that inspired them has faded. Anti-nuclear marches used to attract hundreds of thousands of people but now more people turn out to campaign against globalisation, as if Starbucks were a bigger threat to our future. None of my students from a few years ago had any idea why nuclear bombs were any worse than "regular" bombs beyond the fact that they were more powerful. They certainly weren't afflicted with any nuclear nightmares. In an age of suicide bombers, the logic of mutually assured destruction will not save us. We need another deterrent. We need to make everyone remember that nuclear war is suicidal. That the possibility of a global nuclear war is still very real, that it is a much more immediate threat to the survival of the human race than global warming or bird flu. So, add this to your list of useful things "science communicators" could do: bring back the nightmares of nuclear holocaust so the likes of Bush, Blair and Ahmadinejad don’t even dare to dream of using a nuclear bomb.

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