"They traveled for three days, and found an infinite number of small
villages and people without number, but nothing of importance."
— Christopher Columbus, "Letter to the Sovereigns, 15 February 1493."
This week I saw two interesting movies. I would like to tell you about
The first movie was On the Beach (2000). A more or less faithful
adaptation of Nevil Shute's 1959 novel, it follows the crew of a U.S.
nuclear submarine as they head north, hoping against hope that not all
has been lost after a nuclear holocaust. The submarine reaches it's
destination, only to find that the radiation is not lower there, but
higher, and that everyone is dead. They then head to San Francisco.
Everything is gone. Finally, they head back to Australia, which so far
has remained untouched. But the winds will carry the radiation
worldwide. Even Australia will soon fall victim in turn.
This is an extremely depressing movie. You know as a viewer that the
writing is on the wall and, if you continue watching, you go through the
end along with them. Rather than die of radiation sickness, most in the
later stages are taking pills to end their own life. You watch as a
couple gives their little girl a lethal injection rather than have her
go through agony. Then, each taking a glass of wine, they take a pill
also. They all die in bed together. Because this is truly the end, and
to die a peaceful death is the best they can hope for. You see a man and
a woman stand on the beach. They kiss. They might very well be the last
humans on earth. But they are gone also, even as they kiss, the box of
pills next to the picnic basket. Never again will Beethoven's symphonies
be heard, Michelangelo's scuptures be viewed, the works of Shakespeare
be read. All is gone.
I remember in the early 60s my dad getting plans for a fall-out shelter.
He never did build the thing in our yard, but that is perhaps one
indication of how tense things were at that time that he should even
consider getting the plans in the first place. I also remember the "fire
drills" that we had at my school. They weren't really fire drills, of
course. In fire drills you headed outside. Instead we were taught to sit
down in the hallways with our back up against the wall, our legs pulled
up, our arms around our knees and our head lowered into our legs.
I say all this for the benefit of some younger readers out there who may
not have gone through all of that. But the threat of open nuclear
warfare was back then on everybody's minds.
As it turned out, Mutual Assured Destruction had some crazy type of
sense to it. The U.S. and the Soviet Union never did launch their
nuclear arsenals at each other. The Cold War is ended. We can all
We can breathe easier, right? Ah, you know both the U.S., as well as
Russia and a few of its former republics, are still are sitting on nuclear
arsenals large enough to kill everyone on this planet. And since I was a
kid they have been joined by a few other countries who now have the
bomb also. But the trouble now is that that is only part of it: We now
live in a time of the Nuke In A Suitcase. Geopolitical tensions aren't
necessary to use such weapons. Only basic human hatreds are needed
Who is to know what political situations in the future may trigger the
old superpowers to some idiocy. Like the assasination of Archduke
Ferdinand that set off a chain reaction to World War One, the end of the
world could come over something not very interesting, some small matter
which leads, eventually, to the brink.
The second movie this week was The New World (2005). This movie
tells the story of the founding of the English colony of Jamestown in
Virginia in 1607 and its subsequent attempt to survive in the New World.
The tale is essentially a romantic one, but not a romanticized one. It
it beautifully filmed and has a wonderful soundtrack. But it is difficult
to watch this movie without that type of Olympian knowledge that recognizes
that here, eventually, the colony is doomed also. But not the impetus.
Europeans will try again, first in the hundreds and then in the thousands
and then in the millions. I think of the painting by Salvador Dali, The Discovery
of America by Christopher Columbus, in which Europe seems to descend on
the Americas like some apocalyptic vision. At Jamestown too, the writing
was on the wall. Not that the New World was any Garden of Eden before
the Europeans came. It wasn't. But it was to get worse, much worse.
Since the end of the Cold War and the apparent nuclear threat, and in
fact just in the past 25 years, we have seen millions die due to genocide
and ethnic cleansing. Nobody dropped a bomb. The nuclear beast has still
been kept in its nice little container. But it doesn't mean that human
nature has changed any.
As Kurt Vonnegut once said, we humans are awful creatures really. We
have plenty of ways to destroy ourselves. If the history of the West is
any indication things have not gotten better since we first took to
towns in ancient Egypt. All evidence in fact points to the opposite
conclusion — that our technology has finally caught up with our ability
to do evil.
Besides the nuclear threat, we also have chemical and biological
weapons. And then there are more distant threats — global climate
change. My own analysis is that by the end of this century literally
billions will have died due to drought and famine caused by what we
are doing to our home, this planet. And, as if all of that isn't bad
enough, there is always the possibility that Mother Nature may get sick
of us and mutate a gene in some virus that will kill us all before that
virus, inevitably, mutates again.
Pretty bleak stuff. Almost so bleak you would think that either it will
or it won't happen and that there is no reason to think about it.
I would sit in the hallway again and tuck my head into my knees. But I'm
older now. And now, being older, I know it wouldn't do any good.
"If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker."
— Albert Einstein.