I was born in the 1950s. It was an age riven by anxiety about nuclear war. Ten years after the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed by the first use of atomic-powered weapons, the west was still consumed with the horror of seeing Oppenheimer’s equations translated into an explosion that ripped apart buildings, adults and children on a scale envisaged only in science fiction.
The threat of this has not gone away, though it can be argued that the deadliness of what the American ‘war games’ strategists termed ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ – MAD, has maintained the peace.
Some of the fiction of the time reflected the idea that the only survivors of an active MAD scenario would be be those ‘high’ officials important enough to warrant a place in a nuclear bunker. These were (and are) actual buildings set deep underground and stocked with everything such a group would need to survive the nuclear winter, as it was called, and re-emerge, years later, pure of creed, to begin civilisation, again.
Quite what mother nature would think of such beings was never discussed. But in my own heart, I developed a loathing for such a concept and the ludicrous politics that created such an idea in the first place. My pet name for these high-caste survivors was ‘the bunkermen’. I thought it appropriate, since it seemed always to be men, rather than women, whose aggression led to war, and whose willingness to lie about the facts, inequality and the complexity of human decision-making mirrored their lack of empathy.
As a long-departed aunt once said to me “The men were good at banging the drum, but not so good at mopping up the blood, afterwards.”
Fast forward half a century and, within the invisible bubble of the nuclear MAD, wars continue on a near-global scale. Nuclear-level money is spent on a second level of warfare that targets humans deemed worthy of assassination by descending missile, guided from satellite or drone control systems. Countries which possess the MAD systems may not use their own flags to fight wars, but ally themselves – often covertly – with proxy armies through which they operate on the ground. The past forty years of Afghanistan’s history are a perfect example of how this operates.
The last decade has been a difficult period to live through. Much of what we took for granted as ‘established and stable’ has been or is being swept away by authoritarian politics. To me, it feels as though the spirit of aggression moves through increasingly confrontation politics, designed to follow an age old model of mobilising hatred to create majorities in a politics that would seem dangerously out of touch, were there any alternatives that didn’t sweep away democracy in any form. That may follow, of course…
The results are focussed in two ways. Domestically, the sense of caring is diminished, and public institutions that support it are deliberately weakened. But a far more corrosive effect is being played out on the world stage, in which areas like parts of the Middle East become the point of focus for the most heartless policies – reducing the value of human life to nothing.
It may be that human life has no value to those who control this new order. Our worth may now be measured only in the sense that we are ‘economic units’ in a monetary world where increasing power is vested in fewer and fewer people. There is a certain logic in that being the end point of a system where the measure of value has become so singular. In those ‘fewer and fewer’ controllers I see again the bunkermen, safe in their gated estates, mixing only with their fellow bunker dwellers and exploiting their vast wealth in the cementing of the newly established status quo – in which everyone but them is poorer.
Against this tide of warped materialism stands the silent outrage of those who remember how much work it took to initialise the post-WW2 landscape of social institutions such as the provision of universal healthcare and the establishment of a minimum level of welfare that would provide the basics of living to those who were suffering through no fault of their own.
It’s a truism that ‘change is inevitable’. We can choose to believe that the state of the Earth is a soul-less cycle of cause and effect or we can see that nature has true cycles of evolution beyond the Darwinian model of biological mating and survival. Bigger factors can and do change the course of the planet’s history. The current, bleak outlook of the Covid-19 virus is an example of how something unforeseen a few months ago is changing the entire ‘health’ of the commercial world. I am not proposing that any kind of ‘divine intervention’ is behind the virus’ mutation into the human ecosystem, simply that the palette of such unforeseen and deadly triggers of chaos is much larger than mankind has ever considered – and therefore that our perceived ecological and societal stability may be an illusion we can no longer afford.
Against this background, the breakdown of the old order of ‘caring and inclusive’ societies may need to be re-evaluated. The nature of survival against, say, a deadly virus, requires us to work together, regardless of wealth or rank in society. The rich or powerful man is as much at risk as anyone else. True, they could retreat into a bunker of their own making, as continues to be the doomsday scenario in a post-nuclear holocaust, but who would want to emerge into the poisoned dust of such a world?
We have become disconnected from outrage. In Syria, children are freezing to death in their thousands on a nightly basis as they flee the barrel bombings of their own president; and this is just one example of many. Think Yemen or Myanmar and we will find the same deadly cocktail of a poor part of the world within which authoritarian powers play out ‘strategies’ of control that have failed us for the past century.
The bunker is our enemy more than those who inhabit it. It is state of mind as much as any other. The future of life on Earth is surely that we recognise our connections to every other member of the human race, and act in way that begins to include rather than exclude. In that, we will change the nature of mankind and face the real challenges at the microbial, viral and economic levels in a very different way. If we cannot offer support, then, at least we can turn to face suffering and offer awareness.
That is so much more than nothing… and, for a while we may have the freedom to open our personal bunkers and step out into the complex sunshine of a world not yet destroyed.