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Feature Story April 21, 2002
The Case for Nuclear Winter
By John Dolan Browse author Email

Courtney Love: another gloating vampire.

Courtney Love: another gloating vampire.

There are no nihilists -- but suppose there were. What would they say?

Once you dare to consider this question, the answer seems obvious: if there were any real nihilists, they would praise nuclear weapons as the means to bring an end to the world via nuclear winter. They would sing hymns to the warheads, seeing in them the first weapon we have ever obtained against the universe which has brought us into being to suffer and die. Even if these imaginary nihilists were too squeamish to advocate nuclear winter outright, they would be compelled to praise nuclear winter as the first real CHOICE any organism has ever had about whether to continue in the fated cycle of birth, pain, and death.

10 Things We'll Miss Least When We're Dead

  1. Intestinal cramps
  2. Homeless people
  3. Hagfish
  4. Beer
  5. Nursing Homes
  6. Masturbating
  7. Eurosport Channel
  8. Humidity
  9. Auto shops
  10. Memories

But of course no one has said anything like this -- because there are no nihilists. The confrontation at the bowling alley at the end of Big Lebowski summarizes ethical philosophy at the end of the twentieth century: brainless Americans confronting even stupider Germans, one of whom brandishes his great-grandfather's cavalry saber, a slapstick relic of the mad daring with which the Europeans entered the twentieth century. The Germans mouth nihilist cliches ("Ve beliefs in nossink!"), while the Americans say simply "What's mine is mine!" The Americans win because they, at least, mean what they say: their chump change is theirs, and they'll fight to the death for it. The Germans don't even understand, let alone mean, their nihilist bluster; they are "laughable, man!" as the Jesus-Man would put it, their claims merely a cover for their pitiful state as parasites on the culture which wrested the world away from them. It's not that they believe in nothing; they ARE nothing.

There are no nihilists any more. That fact is the most damning evidence of a great betrayal which has happened in the last half century. In 1945, when the Bomb gave us the option of quitting this dirty, rigged game of Darwinian strip poker, we learned that not one of the anti-life artists meant what they said. In a few years, all the anti-life art of the early twentieth century vanished. The artists who had made their careers documenting the horrors of life on earth and denouncing the cycle of animal existence yelped away like scared puppies the moment a real chance to end the suffering appeared.

They saw that magnificent mushroom cloud and instead of falling down to worship it, they ran to the nearest church or Christian Science Reading Room or Socialist meeting hall. After convincing thousands of adolescents to kill themselves in the name of holy despair, these sleazy careerists ran to hug the knees of GAIA, the bloody mother. They Chose Life -- the swine!

Go ahead, pick a culture, any culture! Any culture you can name, during any historical period you choose, will furnish hundreds of examples of anti-life rhetoric which was taken very, very seriously -- up until the moment when it actually meant something. Take, say, Europe in the nineteenth century, that cheery and bustling period. OK; here's its greatest philosopher on the subject:

"If you imagine...the sum total of distress, pain and suffering which the sun shines upon, you will be forced to admit that it would have been better if the surface of the earth were still as crystalline as that of the moon....For the world is Hell, and men are on the one had the tormented souls and on the other the devils in it."

That was Schopenhauer, telling the Germans in their bristly abstract way what Darwin told the English in their fussier, more detailed language: there is no point but suffering. There is no hidden redemptive meaning in any of this. It's just an unfortunate industrial accident, organic life.

Both Schopenhauer and Darwin resorted to animal examples to convey the horror which summed up the world. They were trying to overcome the popular heresy that somehow, it all must "balance out" somehow. It doesn't, because it was never designed to do so: "compare the pleasure of an animal engaged in eating another animal with the pain of the animal being eaten."

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Schopenhauer and Darwin were in play in the higher European circles, mixing and strengthening each other. It was the bravest moment in the history of our species; something truly dangerous, a final anti-life epiphany, seemed ready to happen. This is what poor sweet Nietzsche meant with his heartbreaking faith in "the men who are coming."

Nihilism's one great weakness was that it had always been an elite cult, not considered transmissible to the masses. This was in fact why Buddhism was replaced by a mindless demotic cult like Hinduism in India: Nirvana was too cold a doctrine for peasants who equated fecundity with happiness.

Man craftily hunts the last of the great Mammoths into extinction.

Man craftily hunts the last of the great Mammoths into extinction.

But in the early twentieth century, a demographic anomaly appeared: the elite was big, and getting bigger. They brought their cult with them; art began serving as the propaganda wing of Nihilism. What we call "Modernism" was actually a multimedia offensive which was beginning to make Nihilism palatable to the masses. The fuzzy "Modern/Postmodern" distinction is best seen as a change in popular religion: from 1910-1945, art did an honorable job of preparing the masses to abandon their attachment to the biosphere; from 1945 to the present, art borrows Nihilist images, diction and narrative without the least intention of employing them to free us from attachment to organic life.

The echoes of that dangerous early twentieth-century art are still audible:

"I've always been surprised by everyone's going on living."

Birth, and copulation and death.
That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.
I've been born, and once is enough.
You don't remember, but I remember,
Once is enough.

It's sad for the dog. He lives only because he was born, just like me....

So they sang. And many believed them. Maybe a few of them really meant it -- Schopenhauer especially. What would Schopenhauer have said about nuclear weapons? My guess is he'd be all for them; he was a serious man, an honorable man. But the rest -- they never meant it, and only talked so grandly against Life because they knew there was no alternative, no way to end the world. When the cat's away, the mice will ham it up.

But since 1945, they self-censored themselves, to the effect that no matter how many Nihilist images you may borrow, you will do nothing truly dangerous -- nothing that could make anyone press that nuclear trigger. You can wear all the black you want; you can worship suicide -- individual suicide, that is -- ; you can write songs about how life sucks; but you can't mean it.

Of course, not everybody's in on the double-talk scam. Those dangerous anti-lifers are still floating around, infecting those na?ve enough to listen to them. Cobain and Courtney are the classic example: both wore the rags, the scowls, the sulk; both screamed and ranted against life; but only one of them ever believed it. He, poor bastard, took it all seriously; she, a much more typical representative of the treacherous 20th-century avant garde, knew better.

When you think of poor Cobain now, it all seems inevitable, from the moment he chose that fatal name for his band. "Nirvana": a quaint Buddhist term, taken by most American bohemians to mean something like "nice peaceful feeling." But that's not what it means at all: "nirvana" means, literally, "the blowing out of a candle." Extinction, a return to stillness. Poor Cobain! He took it seriously, and made Nirvana for himself...and Courtney inherited, pouting all the way to the bank.

They're all Courtneys, the ones who still live. Lou Reed, who invented black, wrote hymns to heroin as the best available anti-life, and provided the soundtrack for God knows how many thousands of adolescent suicides, showed up recently at a memorial service for John "All You Need Is Love" Lennon. There he was, up on the stage with a dozen other rich old popstar vampires, singing treacly Beatles songs. They were praying, really -- praying to be granted another few years of life. "Choose life!" That's a vulture's favorite proverb, and these wrinkled undead were singin' it with feeling.

The ones who meant it, even a little -- they die. Sid died because he believed it; John Lydon said so, giggling at his dead comrade's stupidity in a recent interview. Sid, he explained, took all the punk stuff seriously, and died of it. Lydon knew better, he explained from poolside. He looked over at his pool frequently during the interview -- scanning his LA mansion, just overjoyed with his good sense and deriving an especially piquant satisfaction from the thought of poor old Sid. Johnny chose life.

It's not hard to see why a popstar chooses life; his life comes at the expense of everyone else's. A vampire universe feels great -- to a vampire. But what about the rest of us, the nobodies? The feeding cows? What do we have to lose?

There's always been a lot of preaching against suicide. In some way, any choice to choose non-life frightens the ruling vampires. Their favorite argument is, of course, guilt: "Think of the pain you leave behind you!" I remember a scraggly hippie mystic on Sproul denouncing suicide as "a slap in the face to everybody who loves you," and adding, "Even the worst bum on Skid Row has somebody who loves him." It impressed me at the time; I thought he must have had some special knowledge of the affectional backgrounds of bums which I didn't possess. It was several years before I knew for certain that he was simply preaching, another damn Christian-without-Christ babbling the ruling vampires' cliches.

Suicide is unpatriotic; that's why it offends them. It deprives the vampires of a jugular to sip. How can you not like this boneyard? This is the finest torture-chamber in the universe! How dare you opt out of it! But since 1945, the vampire lords have had another, much stronger reason to fear the idea of suicide: individual suicide is only Nuclear Winter writ small. Nuclear Winter is universal Nirvana.

And that makes it utterly different from individual suicide -- because there will be no survivors to mourn and grieve. There will be no mourning and grief at all, ever again.

Thus nuclear winter offers a true cure for suffering -- which the sermons against suicide do not. OK; you decide not to kill yourself because it will hurt your parents, friends, pit bull, roommates, chess club pals, whatever. So what? You're gonnna go anyway, and in some way much more agonizing than a bullet to the head: cancer, car wreck, genetic glitch, rafting accident, heart valve pop. And when you do, that suffering of the survivors will begin, the ten billionth wail of grief heard on Earth.

And the grieving die in their turn, and when they go another wail sets up....It's not just horrible -- it's silly. Just plain dumb. Squint at it -- draw your head back just a little and squint at it -- and it's truly "laughable, man": these creatures whose life consists of a ride down a conveyor belt towards a meat grinder, making a continual wail of surprise as another one goes over the edge. Every one a surprise. "Oh! He went in! How could this happen?" "Ah, she fell! My God!" Well Duh. What'd you expect?

That's what suffering is: going over the edge one at a time. The experience of individual death while the world grinds on. What would happen in the Nuclear Winter scenario is utterly different: all jump into the meatgrinder at once. No one is left to suffer or mourn. When some die and some live, there is suffering; when all die, blown out like a candle, there is no suffering. There is something else, something for which we have no name. But one thing is clear: it is not suffering. "We shall not suffer, for we shall not be."

It has been done on a small scale -- communal suicide, oblivion. The Old Believers; Jonestown; and some of the tribes hunted for sport by the Europeans. The Carib -- the last Carib jumped off a cliff rather than be taken. As did the last few bands of Tasmanians. They saw the suffering of their children ahead, and took the kids with them over the cliff. Are they were right. Imagine the prospects of a Tasmanian child in the hands of the British colonists who had killed its parents for sport. Life as a souvenir, mascot, bum-boy or -girl, stuffed exhibit in a museum...for what? So that in ten generations, one of its partial descendants might live to collect a guilt-dole from the Australian government? So that in another two generations, an even more attenuated descendant could pen a jargon-stuffed "indictment" of the crime, hoping for publication and a tenure-track affirmative-action job at a new regional polytech?

The cliff-edge has more dignity and sense.

Nihilists prefer Malevich

Nihilists prefer Malevich's "Black Square"

We have given other species the gift of oblivion, sent them over the cliff: the Mammoth, the Moa Eagle, the Tasmanian Wolf...all the finest species, really, are going or gone. A hundred years from now, when all the big cats are gone, no one will understand how we thought the life of a hundred million Tamils worth that of even one Bengal Tiger.

Life on earth hit its peak during the Ice Ages, and we are now killing off the few species from that period who survived our first coup, ten thousand years ago. We have very little to lose, destroying the remaining fauna, now that the best is gone. The lives of all the horrible humans in Houston are not worth even one Columbia Mammoth.

So we have guides sent ahead of us into oblivion. When we pull the plug, press the button, drop the nuclear dime on ourselves, we will suffer no more than the Mammoth suffers. We owe them; let's join them. We can make our first act in the afterlife a formal apology to the Tasmanian Wolf, the Cave Bear, the Mammoth.

But at least their suffering is over now. The Mammoths' suffering ended when the last calf, watching its mother being hacked to death by ugly apes wearing caribou skins, trumpeted in shock and pain and tried to run -- and was hacked to death, screaming, then silent. And when its life went out -- the blowing out of a candle -- the suffering of all Mammoths ceased, gave way to something entirely different: Nirvana. The Nirvana of the Mammoths, where they wait for us now.

But we have to be sure of one thing: that it will be oblivion, death for all, rather than another partial slaughter. That would be worse even than the present. The thought of a post-nuke world of wretched survivors is the only real argument against detonation now. That's why the notion of Nuclear Winter is crucial. If, say, a nuclear war killed even five billion of us, it would leave a billion sobbing, burned survivors; and their offspring, mutant children limping across a boneyard; and hundreds of billions of mammals, birds, and reptiles mourning their kin. This is not Nirvana. Agreed.

But that argument has been specious since the early 1980s, when a team of physicists including that annoying geek Carl Sagan suggested that a major nuclear war would create a cloud of ash which would blot out the sun for decades, blocking 99% of solar energy for a period of three to 12 months, and thus extinguishing the photosynthetic engine which runs this big green torture chamber called Earth. Here's their scenario:

"Nuclear explosions will set off firestorms in the cities and surrounding forest areas. The small particles of soot are carried high into the atmosphere. The smoke will block the sun's light for weeks or months. The land temperatures would fall below freezing.

This combination of reduced temperatures and reduced light levels would have catastrophic ecological consequences. Average light levels would be below the minimum required for photosynthesis during the first 30-40 days after the explosion and most fresh water would be frozen. '...the possibility of the extinction of Homo Sapiens cannot be excluded.' This effect is similar to what may have killed the dinosaurs."

You know you feel the pull of it already. How much of our alleged "fear" of nuclear war is longing -- lust for Nirvana, disguising itself as pious horror? In Berkeley, avid hobbyists went around spraypainting the sidewalks in a circle a half-mile around the Campanile, showing the range of "total destruction" from a nuclear blast over the campus. I remember seeing one of them at work -- a skinny hippie who would've looked good in a pilgrim hat and black coat -- laboring over his stencil, biting his lip in what I then took for concentration but now seems more like...pleasure. He was having The Dream: that bomb-bay camera shot of a dull static city suddenly jolted by the first blast, a hemisphere of fire, a half-sun umbrella over downtown...then the upwash, the stalk which will flatten out in the upper air to form the toadstool cut to houses sucked inward to fuel the blast, no sooner vacuumed toward the epicenter than the full blast whipsaws them outwards, roofs and cars and windows blown out by the great breath...and then, the post-coital smoke: pillars of it, from the few ruins which have enough energy left to burn. A city of chimneys and rubble.

The Japanese, the only ones to have felt the breath of oblivion, are more honest than we in acknowledging its beauty. No Anime is complete without at least one annihilation of a city by atomic weapons. In Akira you get a bonus: you get to see Neo-Tokyo destroyed not once but twice by mushroom cloud. There is no pretense, in Akira, that this is a bad thing; it is magnificent, a consummation devoutly to be wished.

If any of what I am saying has truth, then one would expect the ruling committees to work for the destruction of all nuclear weapons, so that they can rule with the same security as the thousands of other cruel tribal elites, pre-1945. And in fact, that's what's happening now, focused on the neutralization of the nukes in the former USSR. Nuclear Winter will occur only if there is a major detonation -- a real, Cold-War style genocidal war. It cannot be accomplished by small-scale nuclear war: the erasure of a city here or there, a few missile bases melted, the boiling of a sea or two in order to cook a few enemy subs. It must be the US-USSR scenario.

Now you see why so many artists who were in love with little wars feared that one so much. A small war is material for a million artists and writers and songsters. Take Vietnam: they can't shut up about it. It was the classic evil little war: a lot of killing in a fecund jungle, with no chance at all of ending the world. But none of the artists who loved little wars wanted to endorse The Big One; that was bad for business. That meant canceling the whole season. They sang, painted, wrote, and tap-danced down the streets against it. Or thought they were doing so; because their depictions of that sacred mushroom cloud were often beautiful in spite of the artist's conscious intention. The lust for Nirvana shone from them, unnoticed as the porn aspect of a nineteenth-century nude statue.

Now there's a push, a big one, encompassing all the bought artists, the spooks, the rich, the governments, to buy up and destroy the Russian nukes. It's not like they're against nukes; the West has no intention of giving them up. They like to play with them, like suburban dads who clean their guns on the weekend. But they don't want the world to end. So they will do anything to buy up the Russian nukes. All those movies in the past ten years about Russian nukes "falling into the wrong hands" were cover for the real process, which involved those nukes falling into the wrongest hands of all: the people who plan to DESTROY those nukes, people who like this world and want it to continue.

For the first time in history, we can vote against the incumbent.

For the first time in the history of organic life -- the first time in over three billion years of "birth and copulation and death" -- the pitiful animals crawling over the surface of the planet have the power to choose to exist or to cease to exist.

Imagine a prisoner condemned to be tortured to death, huddling in a cell waiting for the next call to the bloody floor where his teeth are extracted, one by one. One day someone slips a knife under the door of his cell. For the first time, he has the option of ending a life of pain. And, like a true slave, he throws the knife away in horror, hands it over to the guards so that he may continue to be dragged out and tortured at their pleasure.

We are not the only lives at stake. We have a duty to the dead-and to the unborn. Life reached its peak at the edge of the glaciers; when they receded, we, ugly tropical scavengers, killed all the great mammals who had walked the colder and grander world. They are waiting for us: the mammoths, the last Siberian Tiger and the Tasmanian Wolf -- and the Tasmanians, the Caribs, and the other billions of lives we can erase and avenge and join, with a single step, over the cliff, a few seconds of rushing air, and then Nirvana.

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