One evening in the early 1980s I responded to a friend's remark about the "arms race" by suggesting that it was simply not possible to think of nuclear war all of the time. My friend's rejoinder has stuck in my mind ever since: I do think of it all the time.
We were crossing a road in London, I remember, on our way to a local pub. We were talking about how that pub, as well as everything and everybody else we could see, might at any moment disappear in the flash of an atomic explosion. Rumour had it that a new kind of bomb was coming too, one that killed people but left buildings intact. Like so many other public houses in the UK, that pub did in fact disappear (the building has remained intact), while the local community it supported, and which supported it in turn, gradually adapted to the three-job, no-time-for-sleep (or talk) economy.
The reason I remember the exchange, however, may hinge less on our vision of disappearing cities (however realistic) than on the fact that nuclear Armageddon was on my friend's mind all the time. These words expressed a vulnerability I shared and which I think must have been universal, even if many people had no words for the scarring pressure bearing down on their everyday thoughts and feelings. Forty years before that conversation the chief source of anxiety had been war, too. Is there a similar anxiety forty years on? The answer may not be the most obvious one.
For purposes of comparison some context may be helpful. At the beginning of the 1980s, with no end to the Cold War and its accompanying proliferation of nuclear weapons in sight, and with the imminent deployment by NATO of a new generation of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles adding to tensions that were already acute, the fear of a nuclear conflagration that could wipe out life as we knew it was widespread. This was especially the case in Western and Eastern Europe, which were broadly reckoned to be the kill zone in the event of war. Under these circumstances, determination to prevent such a possibility becoming reality was paramount on the personal agendas of many millions of ordinary citizens. The peace movement became an impressive and popular force; demonstrations with a hundred thousand participants were not rare; the Krefeld Appeal in Germany carried four million signatures – a huge number if we remember that these names were handwritten. A "click" in those days was the sound of a dropping latch.
The Krefeld Appeal in Germany carried four million signatures – a huge number if we remember that these names were handwritten.
The danger of nuclear war is by no means a thing of the past, and yet even if our fears were not continuously focused on Covid-19, it is probably true to say that we might not worry about nuclear weapons every week, let alone all the time. Recently, in a period of dangerous tensions between the US and China, of advancing ecocide and systemic social inequality exacerbated by new mass unemployment, a time too in which human rights and the freedom of speech are under threat, it has been the state of the economy and the effetti del cattivo governo (as Ambrogio Lorenzetti called the "effects of bad government" in his allegorical painting), that have vied with Covid for our attention. The first of these concerns, essentially the question of how people, often with very limited resources at their disposal, are going to make ends meet, comes disguised by the "nuclear" metaphor of "economic fallout" (i.e. from Covid), while the second is frequently euphemised under the heading "management" (i.e. the government's mishandling of Covid-related contingencies and measures). Nothing, certainly not language, escapes the bug.
It would therefore seem obvious that Covid, given the immense suffering it has caused and economic headaches it may give us for some time to come, is the universal anxiety and scourge of the present times, equivalent in some way to "yesterday's" nuclear threat.
Nonetheless there are considerable differences. Hopes based on a universally accessible vaccine and, even less likely under present "management", structural investment for long-term recovery, bring into partial view the prospect of a less uncertain future, an option not available in the 1941 or 1981 scenarios. By contrast, we do not have a quick-fix for the elephant in the room: the climate crisis. And even as hope rises and millions crave a return to the "before times", we everywhere notice the inequalities and injustices of the normality we wish to reclaim. Yes, science and pharmaceutical companies have combined resources to find a vaccine for an illness affecting many in the wealthiest countries. Meanwhile more than 200 million people, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa, are infected every year by malaria, killing 800 children every day. According to WHO, Covid-related interruptions to treatment may lead to a doubling of this death rate.
This piece was originally published in the Splinters December edition .