Or Shall We Die?

From the Writing of “or shall we die?”

by Ian McEwan

from Granta 7, originally published 1983.

For all the complex discussion of nuclear strategy with unique blend of logic and paranoia, at heart, the situation had about it the aspect of very simple human folly. To call it childish would be to demean children, who would soon tire of such a game. I’m getting ready to hit you because you’re getting ready to hit me. That this madness, which threatens not only human life, present and future, but all life on the planet, should be presented on our television screens as sanity, as responsible deliberation on “defense” policy by calm authoritative men in suits, gave the matter a quality of nightmare; either they were completely mad, or we were. Ultimately, however, I believe their madness is ours, and the responsibility for survival is a collective one.

We have a saving—or is it fatal? – ability to compartmentalize, to keep dread in one room, hope and indifference in another. The threat remains, we continue to deplore it, a few of us take action, but life goes on, thankfully, and most of us learn to sleep again without nightmares.

It is not simply a matter of what governments do to us, but of what we are, and what we could become. If there is no nuclear war it will be because a sufficient number of people, inside and outside governments, set about securing this end. In the final resort the responsibility is for the species as a whole. If our evolutionary test defeats us, it will defeat us all.

“Shall there be womanly times, or shall we die?” I believe the options to be as stark as that. Could we dare hope that we stand on the threshold of rethinking our world-view so radically that we might confront an evolutionary transformation of consciousness? It may seem a remote possibility, but then it is no more absurd a hope than that we will somehow muddle through. Perhaps less so, for violence is so dominant a feature of our civilization that failing change it seems unavoidable that sooner or later these weapons—all the power of the new physics at the command of Newtonian ambition—will be fired. Nor is there anything in our recent history to make me believe that in great, compassionate schemes of planning and reorganization we could engineer social systems that would somehow make nuclear war unthinkable or unnecessary.

Ultimately the change must come within individuals in sufficient numbers. The dominant theme would have to shift from violence to nurture. Children, not oil or coal or nuclear energy, are our most important resource, and yet we could hardly claim that our culture is organized around their needs. Our education system alone, with its absurd elitism, is sufficient demonstration of our betrayal of their potential.

Could we ever learn to “lightly on the earth”, using the full range of our technological resources, but using them in harmony and balance with our environment rather than in crude violation of it? To desire a given outcome is not sufficient reason for believing it will transpire. If we are free to change then we are also free to fail. My own belief in the future fluctuates. There are sudden insights into the love and inventiveness of individuals to give me hope for all humankind; and then there are acts of cruelty and destruction that make me despair.

This entry was posted in All part of the process, anthropology, banality of evil, Being Human, change, delusions of progress, mindworks, Other peoples words, philosophy, Questions and riddles, thinking in words, visions from the dark side and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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