In the center of Barcelona sits the majestic church, still unfinished, designed by Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926). It is a 20th-century masterpiece, coddled with belief and an edge of mischief. One of the first sculptures that Gaudi produced for La Sagrada Familia sits at one of its entryways. It is of the last supper. Jesus sits next to Judas. He turns toward him, but pivots a few degrees too far and looks into the eyes of those believers (and tourists) who are walking into the church. ‘You too have betrayed me,’ he says to Judas. But he is looking at the weary churchgoers and tourists when he says so. Betrayal is one thing. Complicity is another. You might not have done a bad thing, but if you didn’t do anything about it, wouldn’t that be as bad?
One hundred years ago, the German communist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) offered a stark choice to the world: socialism or barbarism. There was no third road, she suggested. If human beings did not try and organize our societies around the principles of socialism — namely the social good — we would descend rapidly into the fires of barbarism. She was thinking about war and the destruction of nature. Luxemburg was murdered a few years after she made that premonition. It was a brutal killing, with her body tossed unceremoniously into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal.
Perhaps Luxemburg’s formula was not sufficient. Barbarism is not the only option. Our choice is much starker: socialism or annihilation. It is the end of everything that has emerged once more as a possibility.
This was the sentiment after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and during the worst time of the Cold War when Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was a real threat. In 1979, a U.S. government study found that a nuclear weapons exchange between the USA and the USSR would result in casualty rates in the hundreds of millions. A few years later, scientists coined the phrase ‘nuclear winter’ to capture what would happen to the earth after a massive nuclear war. The climate would be altered dramatically with ‘nuclear famine’ producing enormous deaths since agriculture would be disrupted permanently. Near extinction of the human species was thought to be possible.
As I write this, I am sitting not far from the small fishing village of Palomares, Spain, where a B-52 struck a KC-135 oil tanker at 31,000 feet. The B-52 broke apart and three of its four hydrogen bombs fell near the little village. The fourth fell into the Mediterranean Sea. The bombs that hit the land exploded on impact, but did not generate a nuclear explosion. Nonetheless, the area suffered great contamination. This was in 1966. Even now, snails are fished out of the waters with strange deformations. It is not the safest place to go for an afternoon swim.
As if by serendipity, the last time I was in this area, 20 years ago, I carried with me Jonathan Schell’s "The Fate of the Earth" (1982), one of the most powerful books on the prospects and outcomes of nuclear warfare. The descriptions by survivors — the hibakusha — which illustrate Schell’s book are deeply meaningful. There is one memory of a terrible noise as a survivor sees a horse, pink because its skin has fallen away, galloping down the street, shrieking. Schell quotes Torako Hironaka’s list of things she remembered, which included, 1. Some burned work-clothes. 5. A naked woman. 6. Naked girls crying ‘Stupid America’. 10. A field of watermelons. 12. What with dead cats, pigs and people, it was a just a hell on earth. The writings of the Hibakusha are sentinels of the feeling of near annihilation.
Watching U.S. President Donald Trump toss binders of environmental regulations onto the ground underscored the grave dangers of this administration: the final administration. The disregard for the negative social and natural implications of human-induced climate change and warfare is striking. It is not as if Trump has broken fundamentally with a past where the world leadership was somehow truly worried about climate catastrophe and extinction by weapons of mass destruction. There are more continuities here than sharp breaks. Trump has nonetheless moved the needle faster, with a much more vicious temperament, unwilling to bend to liberal hypocrisies, eager to hasten the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock. It would not be too much to expect the Trump administration to propose to use ‘small’ nuclear weapons to blast coal seams and uncover more carbon to power the world to Armageddon.
It is not as if the Paris or Kyoto agreements would have been sufficient to stem the tide of adverse climate change. Even those were too mild, too friendly to corporations that make their money destroying the planet. But at least these agreements forced governments to accept that human activity — namely industrial capitalism — had hastened the destruction of nature. Now, Trump’s Energy Secretary Rick Perry says openly that carbon dioxide emissions are not the main drivers of climate change. Perry pointed the finger of blame at ‘ocean waters,’ allowing industrial capitalism an exit from responsibility. Why bother with alternatives to carbon when there is no ‘evidence’ that such energy sources bring the planet closer to annihilation?
Meanwhile, at the two ends of Eurasia, Trump has moved closer to war at a planetary scale. Trump has authorized the U.S. military to go after Syrian and Iranian military assets in western Syria that are currently engaged against ISIS. Russia has now warned the United States that any U.S. aircraft in that airspace will be seen as ‘air targets.’ Iran has fired ballistic missiles from Iran into eastern Syria. This sends a message to Israel and Saudi Arabia that they are within range of Iranian missiles. What might be seen as deterrence at any other time could very well be a provocation in these times of the final administration. Trump’s messy entry into the Gulf crisis, backing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar and Turkey, suggests no finesse in contemporary U.S. diplomacy. More firepower and more belligerent talk is the currency of our times. That this might provoke a much greater altercation in West Asia is of little concern to the final administration. That the war might spread from there into other locations, such as Eastern Europe and North Africa, seems to be of no concern.
Even more chilling was a tweet Trump sent this week that pertains to the other flank of Eurasia. ‘While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea,’ wrote Trump, ‘it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!’
So now what? Is the United States preparing for war against North Korea? South Korea and the U.S. have increased their military activity near North Korea — all provocations against a government terrified of being attacked. When a North Korean drone drifted into South Korean airspace this week, even the less military-minded new government in the south led by Moon Jae-in suggested that war was on the horizon. Will a ‘small’ nuclear exchange be contemplated for the Korean Peninsula and for Eastern Asia in general?
We are between climate catastrophe and wars of extinction, with the final administration provoking both at hyper-speed. Trump plays the role of Judas in Gaudi’s sculpture. Jesus speaks to him about betrayal. But he is looking over Judas’ shoulder. He is asking the rest of us if we are participants in the betrayal. What are you doing today to prevent Trump's agenda from driving our planet closer to extinction?