As evidence of the often painful propensity I have to think way too much, I shall offer the following bits of prose concerning the year 1945, which I obsess over to a ridiculous degree. If I had to separate human history into only two epochs, I would speak about humanity as it existed before 1945, and humanity after 1945. Thus, I would differentiate the human species that was incapable of destroying their home planet from those who suddenly were capable of destroying their planet (the surface of it, anyway).
This is not to say there wouldn’t be other eligible dates for candidacy. We might mention the advent of agriculture, or the erection of civilization. We might talk about when the written word first made an appearance in history, or that redemptive moment when humans first understood the scientific method. Or, maybe we could revisit the invention of the printing press, or the discovery of the New World. All of these moments are undeniably benchmark dates in the progression of our species through time. Nevertheless, my meager opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the year 1945 emerges as by far the most pivotal moment thus far in the history of our wretched species. Prior to this point, humans could inflict all kinds of violence upon themselves, their neighbors, and the atmosphere, but they did not have the ability to destroy the planet in one single stroke. Perhaps they were able to eradicate themselves as a species, but the planet itself? No. Furthermore, not only did they not possess the capability of destroying their planet prior to 1945, they also did not have to live with the mental knowledge that such a thing was even possible. After 1945, however, humans not only had the ability to destroy their home planet, they also had to live under the mentally crippling knowledge that it was now actually possible, that someone somewhere on this planet—maybe some fat-ass dictator with sweaty palms and beady eyes over whom an average person had no influence—not only had access to the kind of weapon that could destroy the planet but also the ability to actually push the button at will or whim.
I occasionally suspect we don’t put that fact in its proper context, that from 1945 onward, humanity had to live within a reality that included the possibility that someone somewhere might, for reasons entirely unknown to anyone else, launch a weapon that would spell the end of the species and the planet upon which that species lives. That is a tremendous weight to place on the collective mind of a species. And I think that even now, in 2015, we don’t fully appreciate the impact this has had on our psyches and our cultural development. Only hundreds of years from now, assuming we even make it that far, will we be able to look back and see just how this knowledge skewed the collective human mentality toward untold aberrations of behavior, thought, and perception. Surely the knowledge that worldwide self-destruction is possible and maybe even likely has had a hugely debilitating affect on our psychological well-being over the last 70-odd years?
I’ll often amuse myself by imagining what extraterrestrial intellectuals would say about all this if they were studying us through telescopes from afar. It seems to me that while there are several benchmark moments such observers might point to as being the defining crossroads for our species (the advent of writing might be the next most significant moment), I think they would see us divided as I have just stated, between 1) the historical sector of humanity that could destroy their planet versus the sector that couldn’t, and 2) the historical sector of humanity that had to live with that terrible knowledge versus those who did not. In both cases, the year 1945 emerges as the most pivotal juncture along our timeline.
A person living in the Middle Ages had a very small circle of concerns to worry about. Such a person, if they hailed from Europe, likely fretted about life and death and food and shelter and hell. Indeed, their sphere of fear, if you will, was quite limited. And while fear of hell is a heavy psychological burden to place on the minds of a people, it just doesn’t have the same astronomical scope that the destruction of the planet does. It’s one thing to fell a tree or blow up a castle or level a mountain, but to destroy a planet and all those who live upon it, I think, goes beyond what the human mind is currently equipped to handle.
When you consider the terrible scope of such fear (or, X) measured against the backdrop of humanity’s unpredictability (Y) (by which I mean the knowledge that anyone is capable of anything at any time), it’s no wonder that modern humans are unraveling as a species in ways that history has never before seen. Compare the current year (2014) to the historical conditions of a century ago, or two centuries ago, or ten, even. Sure, the specter of war and suffering and men doing terrible things to each other has always been present, but can you really say all of these nefarious realities aren’t getting worse? Each year it seems like there are more school shootings and meaningless murders and genocidal incidents than the year before. It’s as if our species is rushing headlong toward some awful precipice, a cliff over which we’re all doomed to fall, and that which each passing day this forward momentum’s gaining more and more speed. My suspicion is that, while maybe this forward momentum toward ultimate doom has always been in motion, it went into overdrive after 1945.
Thus, we have the following equation:
- X + Y = Z, or the fucked-up reality of modern life on this Earth
Taken from my book, The Unnecessary Essays.