Growing up in the “shadow of the H Bomb” and being a teenage boy, I naturally gravitated to nuclear apocalyptic fiction.
“Fail Safe,” “Alas Babylon,” and of course “Dr. Strangelove” all conspired to feed my Cold War era paranoia.
But the most depressing “end of days” book I ever read was Nevel Shute’s “On The Beach.” It was a grinding, soul-crushing account of how the last survivors of World War III lived out their remaining days while waiting for the radiation to reach them.
“It’s not the end of the world at all,” Shute wrote. “It’s only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”
And then he tacked on what amounted to mankind’s eulogy: “Maybe we’ve been too silly to deserve a world like this.”
Shute’s “end of the world” scenario was set in Australia. It was the globe’s last outpost of humanity after Europe, Asia and the Americas wiped each other out in a nuclear holocaust. But the prevailing winds would ultimately spare no one, not even those who watched and waited at the ends of the earth.
I haven’t thought about “On The Beach” in years. But the inferno now raging in Australia…literally driving many refugees out of their homes and onto the beach, brought it all back.
Who knew that far from being the last outpost of humanity, Australia would turn out to be one of the first at risk? That its residents would be among the first to face, not radioactive Armageddon, but rather the deadly impact of man-made global warming.
It is a desert continent, after all. And changing weather patterns appear to be converging on that already hot and dry island as surely as Shute’s imagined radioactive wave.
But Shute knew of what he spoke, even if he got the means of delivery wrong. “No, it wasn’t an accident, I didn’t say that,” one of his characters, John Paxton, explained. “It was carefully planned, down to the tiniest mechanical and emotional detail. But it was a mistake.”
Mistakes aplenty were indeed made. Because, having escaped out from under the shadow of the H bomb, we humans proceeded to spend the ensuing years and decades spewing carbon into the atmosphere. We were warned, goodness knows, but we chose to ignore the harbingers of climate change doom.
“You could have done something with newspapers,” Shute wrote. “We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault…”
No, we opted for all of the cheap luxuries and consumer goods that our disposable, petro-sodden economy could give us. And we listened as charlatans like Donald Trump assured us that environmentalists were hysterical naysayers, and that we could have jobs or a clean environment but not both.
Have you seen the photos from Australia? As bad as the fires that have been raging in the Amazon rain forests. Worse than the conflagrations that burn large swaths of California.
But, surely, those are all just acts of nature and nothing to do with the rest of us.
“A look at the current fire map shows the whole continent of Australia ringed with flame,” reports the Daily Beast. “This is the driest continent on earth, and it is now being cooked by global warming. After the driest spring on record it has had the hottest day, with average highs across the whole country above 107 degrees.”
But nothing to see here, folks. “Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said climate concerns were being stoked by ‘raving inner-city lefties.’ Australia remains heavily committed to coal-fired power stations and has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission rates.”
In Shute’s novel, word of the encroaching catastrophe could not compete with all of the sweet distractions of life. “The news did not trouble her particularly,” he wrote of one character, “all news was bad, like wage demands, strikes, or war, and the wise person paid no attention to it.
“What was important was that it was a bright, sunny day; her first narcissi were in bloom, and the daffodils behind them were already showing flower buds.”
Daffodils are on fire in Australia. They will burn, or perhaps drown in the rising sea levels, elsewhere in the coming years. And we will likely continue to wallow in self-interested doubt and denial.
Perhaps because, indeed, “we’ve been too silly to deserve a world like this.”
“Australia today is ground zero for the climate catastrophe. Its glorious Great Barrier Reef is dying, its world-heritage rain forests are burning, its giant kelp forests have largely vanished, numerous towns have run out of water or are about to, and now the vast continent is burning on a scale never before seen,” Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, a latter day Shute, wrote in the New York Times. “The images of the fires are a cross between ‘Mad Max’ and ‘On the Beach’.”
Survivors are literally gathering “on the beach” in Australia because everything else is on fire. Will the fire next time blaze closer to home?