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Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth addresses the foremost problem of the twentieth century, the issue of human survival in the face of a worldwide nuclear cataclysm. Such a disaster could, at the least, destroy the fabric of civilization that provides order and stability; at worst, it could destroy...

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Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth addresses the foremost problem of the twentieth century, the issue of human survival in the face of a worldwide nuclear cataclysm. Such a disaster could, at the least, destroy the fabric of civilization that provides order and stability; at worst, it could destroy all human life on the planet. Though certainly not the first book of nuclear warning, Schell’s work quickly came to be regarded as the bible of the antinuclear movement during the 1980’s.

Schell’s approach is digestive and comprehensive. It is particularly useful in the way it translates technical information available in other sources—such as The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (1950), edited by Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan and published in several updated editions by the Department of Defense and the Energy Research and Development Administration—into language comprehensible to laypersons.

Besides The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, which Schell considers a classic textbook on the subject of thermonuclear weapons, Schell has consulted other specialized surveys, such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prepared by Japanese scientists and published in the United States in 1981, and the National Academy of Sciences 1975 report “Long-Term Worldwide Effects of Multiple Nuclear-Weapons Detonations.” The purpose of the first chapter is informative; later chapters become increasingly reflective, philosophical, and finally polemical, as the urgency of the issue is argued.

The book is organized into three chapters, titled “A Republic of Insects and Grass,” “The Second Death,” and “The Choice,” the purpose being to alert readers to the scope and nature of the problem. These chapters were originally serialized in The New Yorker, intended for a sophisticated and thoughtful audience. It was not Schell’s primary intention to propose solutions to the nuclear dilemma; rather, his aim was to remind readers of the gravity of the problem. Schell went on to discuss possible solutions in a later book, The Abolition (1984), which carried forth the argument started in The Fate of the Earth.

The three chapters of Schell’s book are really separate but related essays that define the various implications of the nuclear dilemma and speculate about the possible consequences of nuclear weapons for human society and the planet in the event of worldwide nuclear war. The information is incremental and intentionally repetitious, repetition being a basic component of the author’s rhetoric of warning.

Although treating emotional issues, Schell adopts a stance that at times seems detached and “scientific” (when translating theory from physics, for example, and describing how Albert Einstein’s ideas about mass and energy became workable models at the Trinity testing grounds near Alamogordo, New Mexico) and generally objective. Behind the mask of objectivity, however, one senses the author’s alarm. Schell builds a powerful argument against the stockpiling of nuclear arms, totaling more than fifty thousand warheads.

In his final chapter, Schell modestly understates his purpose: “To examine the physical extent, the human significance, and the practical dimensions of the nuclear predicament in which the whole world now finds itself.” In the final pages of the book he challenges the world’s political leaders who “menace the earth with nuclear weapons” and the inertia and despair of those citizens in democratic nations who permit their leaders to follow such policies. “The Choice” is between life and death, and no thinking person can afford the luxury of avoiding it.

The Fate of the Earth

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2485

In 1945, fifty-one countries approved the charter of the United Nations Organization at its founding. Today, over 150 states claim membership in the United Nations, and it is certain to grow in the future. Independence movements presently rage in East Timor, Tigre and Eritrea, Puerto Rico, Corsica, Quebec, the Basque region of Spain, Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iran, Namibia, and even in Soviet Armenia. The aim of these struggles is national sovereignty, the main components of which are: a unified system of binding law administered by a unitary structure of authority; the right to raise a standing army and police power for internal and external defense; eminent domain over all national assets; and access to all normal diplomatic channels and institutions.

The first three of these components either imply or entail the monopolistic possession of armed power. Since the rise of the modern nation-state in post-Renaissance Europe, the world has increasingly subscribed to Thomas Hobbes’s dogma that, where Leviathan is not the sole master of the instruments of death, there is no Leviathan. Despite having Mahatma Gandhi as its principal founder, India has been a highly militarized state from the start. She is so not only because of palpable threats from her neighbors, but because she is obedient to the requirements of sovereignty. Experiencing no substantial external challenges, Brazil is very heavily armed; indeed, the Brazilians are one of the world’s foremost arms suppliers. Regional and worldwide collective security arrangements notwithstanding, modern nations betray few signs of foreswearing sovereignty as a fundamental goal of policy. With the exception of several recent attempts (all failed) by Arab states to submerge sovereignty into higher Islamic unities, there are no cases in modern history of independent states freely surrendering their sovereign status.

Despite these all-too-familiar realities, Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth boldly appeals for a sovereignty-free international order. Like a Hebrew prophet preaching destruction and chaos at the high tide of his nation’s power, Schell demands that we “lay down our arms, relinquish sovereignty, and found a political system for the peaceful settlement of international disputes.” He does not shrink before the magnitude of this transformation: “We are asked to replace the mechanism by which political decisions, whatever they may be, are reached.” The task, he recognizes, “is nothing less than to re-invent politics: to re-invent the world.”

Such words remind one of those halcyon moments in 1928 when, in their horror of what had happened in World War I, more than a score of nations signed the Kellogg-Briand pact which renounced war “as an instrument of national policy.” One must regard the “spirit of Locarno” with suspicion, since it most certainly invited the aggressiveness of Hitler, and thus helped create the preconditions of World War II. Is Schell, despite being a seasoned war correspondent of the Vietnam era, simply a reincarnated Locarno optimist, a professional pacifist, naïvely ignorant of the peace-producing function of armed sovereignty?

While “realist” critics mock his counsels, Schell insists that his is the truly realistic position. For something fundamentally new has entered the world since Locarno—something so overwhelmingly new that even though we live and move and have our being in its presence, we refuse to recognize it. That new thing is nuclear weaponry. Schell’s jeremiad is meant to awaken us all—and for all time—to the full truth of the Nuclear Age. Under his guidance, we must be fully disabused of the notion that nuclear weapons are simply modernized TNT devices, mere quantitative improvements on traditional ordnance. Most important, he would have us understand that nuclear weapons utterly negate the codes, standards, and structures for whose protection they were invented. It is not too much to say that for Jonathan Schell, history completely turned a corner on July 16, 1945, when the United States detonated the first atomic bomb near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The test site was called Trinity; for Schell, a better name would have been Armageddon.

The Fate of the Earth has quickly become a very famous book. Major newspapers all over the world have printed long excerpts in their magazine sections. In West Germany, a television special dramatized key elements of the book’s first chapter. Dr. Helen Caldicott, the ubiquitous nuclear-freeze activist, has proclaimed the book the Bible of the antinuclear movement. On the face of it, this notoriety is a curious development, for what Schell mainly attempts—to picture in the most graphic detail the destruction of a possible nuclear exchange—has been done by other writers and documentarians before him. “Scenario construction” (the clearer the better) has long been a favored method of defense analysts. Novels such as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) have shaped and haunted the imagination of millions of readers. Antinuclear proponents have prepared extremely effective tableaux, films, and case studies to make vivid the consequences of a nuclear attack. United States Defense Department footage of major above-ground tests has long been publicly available. There are yearly observances of Hiroshima Day which invariably present potent visual reminders of the attack. Why, then, the commotion about Schell?

Several factors account for the exceptional power of Schell’s work. First, he takes pains to acquaint the reader with those principles of nuclear physics that explain the difference between nuclear and non-nuclear explosions. One learns that the violent explosive power of the Hiroshima blast derived from the sudden release of atomic energy resulting from the splitting of nuclei of an extremely stable element such as plutonium or uranium by neutrons in a very rapid chain reaction. Some 12,500 tons of TNT (whose power resides in its unique chemical bond) would have been required to reach the same level of destruction. The first atomic bomb, by contrast, exploded the energy packed in but one gram of mass. As a more advanced hydrogen device is exploding, reports Schell, it generates temperatures whose equal can be found only in such cosmic events as supernovae. Schell forces one to confront the full incommensurability of nuclear weapons. They are the sun brought to earth; they are hugely, monstrously, unfathomably disproportionate to the merely terrestrial world they now inhabit.

Second, availing himself of first-rate scientific materials, Schell develops his imaginary accounts of nuclear war on the basis of the least controversial data. He has studied the Hiroshima/Nagasaki reports carefully, and continually checks his scenarios against them. His now-famous description of a single-bomb attack on New York City assumes only a one megaton warhead (eighty times more powerful than the Hiroshima device). Since Russia has exploded a sixty megaton bomb, Schell can hardly be accused of dealing perniciously in worst cases. One is impressed throughout the book with Schell’s willingness to work strictly within the framework of recent research and to indicate the imperfections of that research. The Fate of the Earth, therefore, persuades by virtue of its very distance from science-fiction speculation.

At the same time, Schell writes powerfully, and, more important, he relentlessly pursues the implications of our knowledge about the effects of nuclear explosions. The book is stunningly effective because we are forced to survey every dimension of a large-scale nuclear exchange. What might happen to animals? Even those placed at a great distance from the bombs might go blind owing to the predictable depletion of the ozone layer. (If severe enough, this depletion might also subject ocean organisms to lethal doses of ultraviolet radiation.) What of the insects? It seems that this biological class has a very high radiation tolerance level; with most of the birds gone, insects would likely multiply rapidly. This is not good news for human survivors, for some insect species would feed on the millions of available corpses and thus spread cholera and typhoid. What might a limited nuclear war do to the United States economy? Schell argues that the highly technological, interdependent, specialized American production mechanism would be largely destroyed by even a “modest” strike. The typical predicament would be that of the city’s bus drivers or the suburban accountants who might suddenly have to grow their own food and make their own clothing. Searching for an uncontaminated refuge, “they would not be worrying about rebuilding the automobile industry or the electronics industry; they would be worrying about how to find non-radioactive berries in the woods, or how to tell which trees had edible bark.” In short, the economy would be that of primitive man, and it would be an economy dominated by the young, for nearly everyone would have cancer.

Schell’s insistence on tracing the full range of possible consequences of a nuclear holocaust is thus a key to the book’s surprising success. The long first section, grimly entitled “A Republic of Insects and Grass,” is now (and, one prays, forever) the definitive image of the unimaginable. Picturing a ten thousand megaton attack on the United States, Schell discusses the destruction meted out by the various types of nuclear lethality—initial radiation, electromagnetic pulse, thermal pulse, blast wave, and local fallout. Each phrase reaps its own terrible harvest. Here is a typical bit of text:The thermal pulses could subject . . . one sixth of the total land mass of the nation to a minimum level of forty calories per centimetre squared—a level of heat that chars human beings. (At Hiroshima, charred remains in the rough shape of human beings were a common sight.) Tens of millions of people would go up in smoke. As the attack proceeded, as much as three-quarters of the country could be subjected to incendiary levels of heat, and so, wherever there was inflammable material, could be set ablaze. In the ten seconds or so after each bomb hit, as blast waves swept outward from thousands of ground zeros, the physical plant of the United States would be swept away like leaves in a gust of wind.

Of the five sources of nuclear woe, fallout is easily the most horrifying, so much so that the afflicted survivors would surely envy those millions who died in the first moments of the attack. People coming out of shelters after three months into an area of high fallout would still receive such massive amounts of radiation that over one-third of their future offspring would be mutants.

Schell doubts that “limited” nuclear war is really possible; he is equally sure that a full-scale engagement would mean the extinction of almost every life form. He therefore undertakes to defend life from its nuclear critics. This is the burden of the book’s long middle chapter, “The Second Death,” a complex philosophical and psychological meditation on what one might call (but does not wish to, so illustrative is the phrase of the deficiency of language) “the problem of human extinction.” This might seem an odd and unnecessary excursion—to construct an argument against “omnicide”—unless one recalls that Schell views the world’s nuclear arsenal as an expression of man’s willingness to risk the life of the entire species. Hence, with utmost seriousness, he sets about to show that “there can be no justification for extinguishing mankind, and therefore no justification for any nation ever to push the world into nuclear hostilities, which, once inaugurated, may lead uncontrollably to a full-scale holocaust and to extinction.”

There are several components in Schell’s argument. The first is a humanistic rendering of George Berkeley’s defense of theism. The physical universe has its being of itself, autonomous from human perception, but its meaning, its beauty and worth, derives solely from its status as an object perceived by human subjects. The human species, part of that universe, thus gains its significance by being the object of human perception and appreciation. Mankind is the only source of worth in “an otherwise neutral and inhospitable universe.” It follows that no value can justify killing off humanity, for humanity is “the inexhaustible source of all the possible forms of worth.”

Schell also argues against any theistically grounded justification of nuclear war. Especially concerned with the fundamentalists’ identification of nuclear holocaust and the prophesied battle of Armageddon, he insists that the two great commandments—love of God and love of one’s neighbor—rule out any Christian resignation in the face of possible nuclear war. When God appeared in human form, he points out, “not only did He not sacrifice a single human being for His sake but He suffered a lonely anguishing, degrading human death so that the world might be saved.” Commanded to be reconciled with brother, neighbor, and even enemy, Christians dare not participate in planning the ultimate Final Solution. “Clearly, the corpse of mankind would be the least acceptable of all offerings on the altar of this God,” he concludes.

The most impressive part of Schell’s philosophical inquiry is his return to Edmund Burke’s view of society as a fathomless partnership of the living, the dead, and the unborn. Nuclear weapons are a summary expression of human rationality. That triumphant rationality in our time has engendered a profound numbness in the human psyche. Our instinctual allegiance to the unborn, our desire to be worthy inheritors of what the ancestors have bequeathed us, our sense of the nonhuman species as members in the great partnership—these are now deeply repressed feelings in most people. Nuclear weapons themselves engender a profound and destructive emotional fissure, for they dangle an absurdly massive sword of Damocles above everyday existence, making any pretense of normality mannered, unreal, and fundamentally false. We have arrived at this juncture: in order to recover love for the unborn, ourselves, and our ancestors, we must throw aside our reason-induced willingness to live among weapons of ultimate death. There must be a joyous assertion of our right to have future generations to serve and cherish. This may require a new discipline of sensitization and sympathy. “Now reason must sit at the knee of instinct and learn reverence for the miraculous instinctual capacity for creation,” Schell proclaims.

Schell, then, rests his case on three premises: first, that nuclear war, even in a limited form, is the equivalent of human extinction; second, that the human community, whether regarded as the source of all value or as the object of God’s love, is worth saving; and third, that life lived in the shadow of nuclear weapons is horribly diminished and ultimately impossible. These premises adumbrate a new human task, that of dismantling the mechanism of extinction which vitiates our lives. Once a decision is made to embark on this effort, a new energy will make itself available to us, maintains Schell.Suddenly we can think and feel again. Even by merely imagining for a moment that the nuclear peril has been lifted and human life has a sure foothold on the earth again, we can feel the beginnings of a boundless relief and calm—a boundless peace.

Invited by this prospect, is there any “realist” willing to continue to insist on the transcendent value of national sovereignty?


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 105

Choice. XX, November, 1982, p. 504.

Christian Science Monitor. April 9, 1982, p. B1.

Draper, Theodore. “How Not to Think About Nuclear War,” in The New York Review of Books. XXIX (July 15, 1982), p. 35.

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Sierra. LXVII, July, 1982, p. 77.

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