Oddly enough, I’ve read obituaries with fascination from the time I was quite young. And yet, in all these years, I’ve never really reflected on that fact. I don’t know whether it was out of some indirect fascination with death and the end of it all or curiosity about the wholeness (or half-ness or brokenness) of an individual life in full. But here’s the odd thing: in all that time — put it down to the charm of youth or, later, perhaps a lingering sense of youthfulness or, at least, agelessness — I never really thought about my own obituary. Like so many of us when younger, I simply couldn’t imagine my own death. Against all reason, it seemed strangely inconceivable.
Now, at 78, I find that obituaries are again on my mind — and not just because people I knew are being featured in them all too often these days or for that other all-too-obvious reason, which I hardly need to spell out here. As a matter of fact, if you put my last name or yours into a search engine, you may be surprised at how many obituaries come up. It turns out, in fact, that Engelhardts have been dying for centuries now.
After all, the one obituary you can’t really have is your own; at least, not unless you decide to write it yourself or you’re so well known that a newspaper obit writer interviews you as one of the “pre-dead” while you’re still kicking. Of course, for the best known among us, such pieces, as at the New York Times, are prepared and written well in advance because the one thing we do know, whether we think about it or not, accept it or not, is that we all will indeed die.
Nuclear Winter or a Climate-Change-Induced Nuclear Summer?
Let’s not be shy. If there’s one word that comes to mind (mine anyway) at the moment, it’s madness. And no, believe it or not, I’m not even thinking about Donald Trump or the crazed crew of election deniers, QAnon conspiracy believers, and white nationalists who have become the essence of the Republican Party and may sweep to victory, at least in the House of Representatives, only days from now. And no, neither am I thinking about the Trumpist-leaning Supreme Court that might single-handedly (or perhaps hand in hand with all too many voters on November 8th) send us even further down the road to autocracy or at least to an eternally Republican-controlled mania-ocracy.
From the time we left our Neanderthal cousins in the dust, the story of humanity is tens of thousands of years old; and our history — you know, since we first began herding other creatures, raising crops, and arming ourselves to the teeth — is thousands of years old. In all those eons, we discovered so many things, both uplifting and down-thrusting. But perhaps, looking back (if, given our present circumstances, anyone’s even bothering), the most remarkable thing may be that we discovered — once quite purposely and once without at first even noticing that we’d done so — two different ways to do ourselves in. And, believe me, I’m using that word advisedly, given the Elizabethan moment that passed only recently, leaving so many of us watching a “news” spectacle that was her obituary and nothing else but that for what seemed like ever and a day. Now, of course, the former British queen is gone not just from our world but from that news cycle, too. Not a trace of her remains. Nothing, it seems, lasts long these days, Donald Trump aside. And if things continue to go ever wronger on this planet of ours — and I wouldn’t Truss (joke, joke) that they won’t — it’s possible that she could indeed prove to be the last queen.
As I’m sure you already know, those two discoveries I’m thinking about are nuclear weapons and climate change. Each of them should be on all our minds right now for reasons almost too obvious to enumerate. Our own president recently chatted privately with Democratic Party donors about the possibility that we might indeed face “Armageddon” (his word, not mine) for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. That would be thanks to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the Russian president’s threat (“this is not a bluff“) to use nuclear weapons for, as he himself pointed out, the first time since the United States ended World War II by obliterating the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In a sense, however, whether Putin ever uses those “tactical” nuclear weapons or not, he has, in his own uniquely deplorable fashion, already nuked this planet. His decision to invade Ukraine and, after an eight-month disaster (including the especially dangerous occupation of a Ukrainian nuclear power plant), only increase the level of destruction, while evidently looking for no off-ramp whatsoever, has sent energy politics in the worst possible direction. Some desperate European countries have already turned back to coal power; militaries are burning ever more fossil fuels; gas prices have been soaring globally; and what modest attention was focused on the broiling of this planet and the very idea of the major powers cooperating to do anything about it now seems like a fantasy from some past universe.
It evidently doesn’t matter that a combination of fearsome monsoons and growing glacial melt flooded one-third of Pakistan in an unparalleled fashion; that record heat and drought was last summer’s reality across much of the northern hemisphere; that Hurricane Ian only recently leveled parts of Florida in what should have been, but given where we’re heading, won’t be a once-in-500-year fashion; that a mainstream website like Politico can now refer to our country as “the United States of Megadrought“; or that rivers from the Yangtze to the Mississippi are drying up in a historic manner. Worse yet, that’s just to start down a far longer list of climate horrors. And I almost forgot to mention that the giant fossil-fuel companies continue to live on another planet from the rest of us. Call it profit heaven.
Returning to the subject of obituaries, you could, of course, have written a group one for the approximately one billion sea creatures that died last summer, thanks to a record heat wave on Canada’s Pacific coast, or another based on the recent report that, since 1970, the population of fresh-water species on this planet has fallen by a startling 83%. In fact, if you’re in an obituary-writing mood and thinking of the pre-dead, don’t forget the emperor penguin. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that classic creature is threatened with extinction by the end of this century thanks to the increasing loss of the sea ice it needs to exist on a fast-warming planet.
So, give the Vlad full credit. His invasion of Ukraine refocused the attention of the world on that other way we’ve come up with to do ourselves in, those nuclear weapons. In short, he’s helped take our minds off climate change at the worst possible moment (so far), even as his war only increases the level of greenhouse gases heading into the atmosphere. Well done, Mr. President!
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn then that, according to a recent United Nations report, of the 193 nations which, in 2021, agreed to step up their efforts to fight climate change, only 26 have followed through so far (and even some of those in an anything but impressive fashion). In other words, our future — should we ever get there — will be blistering. The Earth is now on track to warm not by the 1.5 degrees Celsius the 2015 Paris climate accord made its ultimate temperature, but a potentially broiling 2.1 to 2.9 degrees Celsius by century’s end.
Even before the Ukraine war began, the powers that be were paying all too little attention to how we could do ourselves (and so many other species) in by overheating the planet. Worse yet, the major powers of the old Cold War were already “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals — in the case of the United States, to the tune of more than a trillion dollars over the coming decades. That will include a mere $100 billion to create a “next generation” intercontinental ballistic missile dubbed the LGM-35A Sentinel, undoubtedly because it’s meant to stand guard over hell on earth. Meanwhile, the rising power on the planet, China, is rushing to catch up. And now, with a war underway in Europe, “dirty bombs” and far worse are seemingly back on the playing fields of history.
Here, I suspect, is the strangest thing of all. We now know that we’re quite capable of doing something humanity once left to the gods — creating a genuinely apocalyptic future on this planet. With our weaponry, we already have the ability to induce a “nuclear winter” (in which up to five billion of us could starve to death) or, with greenhouse gases, to fry this planet in a long term way via, to coin a new phrase, a climate-change-induced nuclear summer.
And that — don’t you think? — should already have been game-changing information.
And yet, despite the Greta Thunbergs of this world when it comes to climate change, these days there are no significant equivalents to her or, say, 350.org or the Sunrise Movement when it comes to nukes. Worse yet, despite the growing green movement, the fact that we’re already in the process of making Earth an increasingly unlivable place seems not to have fazed so many of those in a position to run things, whether nationally or corporately. And that should stun us all.
An Ultimate Obit?
Give humanity credit. When it comes to our urge to destroy, we seem to see no limits, not even those of our own existence. I mean, if you really had the desire to write a communal obituary for us, one logical place to start might indeed be with the invasion of Ukraine at a time when the planet was already beginning to broil. Honestly, doesn’t it make you want to start writing obituaries not just for our individual selves, but for all of the pre-dead on a planet where the very idea of mass killings could, in our future, gain a new meaning?
And in that context, if you want to measure the madness of the moment, just imagine this: It’s quite possible that a political party largely taken over by that supreme narcissist, Donald Trump, the Me-Man of history, could win one or both houses of Congress in this country’s coming midterm elections and even the presidency again in 2024. Given that the U.S. is one of the planet’s two leading greenhouse gas emitters, that would, of course, help ensure a fossil-fuelized future hell. The Donald — like his authoritarian cohorts elsewhere — could be the ultimate god when it comes to our future destruction, not to speak of the future of so many other beings on this planet. Think of him and his crew as potentially the all-too-literal ultimate in (un)civilization.
After all these thousands of years — a long, long time for us but not for planet Earth — the question is: Should we aging types begin thinking not just about our own obituaries (“He was born on July 20, 1944, in New York City, on a planet engulfed in war….”) but humanity’s? (“Born in a cave with their Neanderthal and Denisovan cousins…”)
Everything, of course, ends, but it doesn’t have to end this way. Yes, my obituary is a given, but humanity’s should be so much less so. Whether that proves true or not is up to us. When it comes to all of this, the question is: Who will have the last word?
This column is distributed by TomDispatch.