I was born a few years after WWII, and grew up going to school, mostly in England, through the 50s and early 60s. It was regarded as more or less a fact of life, in my school days, that after two shattering world wars, there was bound to be a third. But us kids figured the next one would be a nuclear war, with Soviet nukes raining down on Britain and America. I spent my teens reading dystopian sci-fi novels about nuclear wars which a few people would survive, returning to a stone age existence. And if I wasn’t reading them, I’d be reading War Picture Library comics which endlessly re-fought WWII. And if I wasn’t reading those, I’d be reading books about survival, and how to light a fire by using a makeshift drill, and how to cook hedgehogs wrapped in clay on a camp fire. I’d need those skills one day, I figured. Sometime in the mid-1960s, a Soviet general remarked that they had a nuclear bomb of such a scale that a single one dropped on Britain would wipe out the entire country. Right, that’s it, I thought. I doubted I’d live to the ripe old age of 21.
If Hiroshima was one nightmare, Auschwitz was the other, even worse one. I didn’t find out about Auschwitz until I read the Scourge of the Swastika, which was circulating in my school along with Lady Chatterley’s Lover. So, right, I figured, if we weren’t all going to be nuked, then we’d all be led into gas chambers because we had freckles or curly hair or circumcised penises or something.
And so, although the world around us was at peace, we all expected horrific war to break out at any moment. We were a doomed generation, living out the last days of a dying golden age. Up ahead lay the coming nuclear holocaust, or the labour camps and the gas chambers, or both. Oddly enough, our parents and grandparents, who had actually endured both world wars, were of a sunny optimistic nature, and looked to the future. But we knew they were fools.
In some ways the ‘Swinging Sixties’ was a protest against this by a doomed generation making a last plea on behalf of humanity, and peace, and love, before the nukes started landing. Beatles music was relentlessly optimistic, but the underlying gloom and despondency gradually worked through even to them. The Sixties efflorescence that began at Woodstock ended a few short years later at Altamont. We were always on Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction.
I only stopped thinking that there wasn’t going to be a nuclear war when I came to gradually understand the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Nuclear war between two nuclear-armed states would end with the complete destruction of both sides. So neither side, if they were rational, would embark upon such a senseless war. War had become unthinkable. Very slowly, I stopped worrying about nuclear war. The only wars that are fought these days are ‘asymmetric wars’ between nuclear-armed superpowers and hillbillies armed with muskets. Somehow or other, the hillbillies always win. And that’s partly because the superpowers have one arm tied behind their backs. Everybody knows that nukes aren’t going to be used to win the Afghan war against the Afghan hillbillies.
Never mind. In the late 60s Paul Ehrlich had figured out that if we weren’t going to be killed off by the nuclear bomb, we’d be killed off by the Population Bomb instead. As human numbers remorselessly multiplied, there would be greater and greater distress and starvation and horror. There were simply too many of us locust humans. If it wasn’t going to end in tears one way, it was bound to end in tears some other way. Except that as global prosperity rose, people tended to have fewer children, because they no longer needed them as child labour, and so population stabilised in prosperous America and Europe.
And a few years later there came The Limits to Growth, published by the Club of Rome, which predicted peak oil and resource depletion and the collapse of unsustainable Western industrial civilisation by about 1990 or so, all generated by computer simulation models which prefigured today’s global climate simulation models. I happened to be sharing a flat with a sceptical friend who single-handedly replicated the simulation models and their results, and showed that with some quite modest changes in input data and sensitivities, quite different outcomes would emerge. But that didn’t stop me predicting to a friend of mine that in 20 years the oil would have run out and the unused motorways would be be overgrown with grass and trees.
And if we weren’t doomed to nuclear extinction, or to a Malthusian population explosion, or to resource depletion, we could surely at least rely on the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union roll westward over Europe, and complete a conquest left incomplete in 1945, to ensure that we’d all end up in a vast Gulag Archipelago of labour camps. It wouldn’t be a nuclear war, of course, but in all other respects it’d be just as bad. The actor Dirk Bogarde, then living in the South of France, expressed well the inevitability of it. “They’ll come one day, and that will be the end, and I’ll shoot the dogs,” he wrote (or something very like that). Not even his dogs would be able to endure the horror of it. He was presumably still waiting when, in 1990 or so, the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc satrapies bloodlessly collapsed. Not much chance of a labour camp existence after that.
And then, if none of these were to come to pass, then Western capitalism was doomed to succumb to a ‘crisis of capitalism’ with another Wall street crash, and a global depression. Except that every time Wall street crashed, as it regularly does, it soon bounced back up again.
And, failing that, there was always the possibility that, if you’d smoked a couple of cigarettes in your life, that you’d succumb to the lung cancer that followed inexorably a few decades later. And if you hadn’t smoked any, but had merely caught the occasional whiff of secondhand smoke, your chances weren’t very much better. And if it wasn’t going to be these that carried you off to a premature death, it would be saturated fats in your diet, or cooking with aluminium saucepans, or sugar, or salt, or lack of exercise.
And then, if that wasn’t enough, there was Global Warming. Us busy hyperactive humans were burning off so much wood and coal and oil that we were filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, and were slowly cooking ourselves beneath a blanket of carbon dioxide. There was a Hockey Stick that showed what’d been happening to global temperatures over the past few hundred years. But now it seems that the climate scientists who’ve been predicting all this have been cooking their books, and ‘hiding the decline’ in global temperature
over the past decade. Seems we’re not going to fry after all.
The post-war generation to which I belong saw impending doom in all directions. If it wasn’t by nuclear warfare, then it was going to be through acid rain, or a population explosion, or peak oil, or global warming, or whatever. And as, one by one, these idols were shown to have feet of clay, new prophets of doom effortlessly replaced the old ones.
But in my own case, although I initially started out as a true believer in the latest prophecies of impending doom, I began to notice that I was gradually beginning to suffer from a cumulative ‘disaster fatigue’ as time went by. Sometime in the early 1980s, having bought some magazine (the shortlived Now! magazine) hoping to read about Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, I was angry to discover that it was instead filled with accounts of the overwhelming military strength of the Warsaw Pact tank armies poised on the border of West Germany. And I simply didn’t believe a word of it. Nor, a decade or so later, did I believe a word about global warming or passive smoking. I’d had enough.
The post-war generation was highly receptive to prophecies of doom. And when one prophecy of doom lost its force, they would simply adopt another one. In the 1960s, you expected nuclear war. In the 1970s you expected overpopulation and resource depletion. In the 1980s, you worried about acid rain and the ozone hole and AIDS. In the 1990s it was economic crash. In the 2000s it was global warming and passive smoking and the War on Terror. All roads led to a slow and painful death in a collapsing civilisation, rooting around for tins of cat food in derelict cities. Meanwhile, life became more and more prosperous, and the shops were full of more and more consumer goods (which they weren’t in the 1950s), and people regularly drank wine (almost unheard of in Britain until the 1970s), and flew off to holidays in France and Spain and Greece (a 1980s innovation). And everyone lived longer and longer, despite their smoking and drinking and all the toxic chemicals in food and water and air. ‘Cognitive dissonance’, I think it’s called.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the post-war generation were either schoolkids or hippies. Now, however, they’re running Western civilisation. They’re the politicians and doctors and architects and university researchers. But they all seem to be just as easily scared as they were 40 or 50 years ago. They don’t seem to suffer from fatigue like I do. Somehow or other, over a few decades, I gradually became less and less pessimistic. In fact, I’d say that I’ve become something of an optimist these days. The global warming scare is now in a state of collapse. Soon the passive smoking scare will be too.
So we’re coming overdue for a few new prophecies of doom. It could be anything. Killer badgers. Land-walking great white sharks. Asteroid impact. Looming ice age. But whatever it is, one thing I know for sure: I won’t believe a single word of any of it.