Why climate change is the new nuclear war

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There are several things that repeat with the generations: war, recession, trends. Skirts get shorter, then longer, then shorter again. There is a measurable trend cycle in fashion, with fads repeating themselves every few years. There are many experiences in this short life that the generations in America share; fear is one of those things.  

There are small nationwide fears, like the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and ’90s, but there are also much larger, deeper and more terrifying fears. These are the ones that people can be born into and die being afraid of. From the end of WWII to the fall of the Soviet Union in the ’90s, the fear that plagued Americans—the existential terror that threatened the sanity of everyone—was the always-approaching nuclear war that both the U.S. and the USSR seemed to always be ready to bring about on each other. Schoolchildren were shown instructional videos with sweet little jingles about how to survive a nuclear blast in the event of an attack. Bunkers and nuclear fallout shelters were built in large cities, many of which have been repurposed but still exist today. An entire genre of science fiction media came about to explore the impacts of nuclear war. The existential dread of a potential nuclear apocalypse paralyzed many and forced the nation to consider what the ruins of civilization will one day look like, possibly too soon. 

 Today, that nuclear war seems like a worry of the past, since the Cold War came to an end, and there is a general understanding that a war like that would have no benefit given its existential consequences. Yet still, even for people born well after the fear of a nuclear apocalypse was quelled, that feeling of fear is very familiar. Our existential fear is much different, but similarly paralyzing. This century’s generation-defying threat is climate change. In a population that has been desensitized to the concept of war by two decades of mostly ignorable war abroad, the concern is hardly related to a patriotic battle against a foreign nation like the issue of a nuclear war once was. This time, it is a battle of the profiteers against the people who will not be able to afford to save themselves when the nation begins to face the consequences, as we already are. 

There is, however, an equal amount of helplessness among those who fear the end. There was nothing the average man could do to stop the politicians and militaries from making drastic decisions in the name of their citizenry during the Cold War. Likewise, there is nothing the average man can do now to stop large corporations from choosing to maximize their profits rather than make sustainable, healthy decisions. There is nothing the average man can do to stop the United States from investing more into car-based infrastructure and subsidizing oil. Again, the people in the lowest places of society are the ones who must bear the consequences of the fearful event without the resources to protect themselves or relocate.  

I am always being told how to do my part to stop climate change, and just like the instructional PSAs of the past that told people to tuck into corners to survive a nuclear blast, I know that really my survival is not in my own hands, but the hands of the people who choose whether or not to allow things to continue this way. I frequently find myself terrified of what the future will look like as we go deeper and deeper past the point of no return in terms of climate change. There is a future that I must plan for that I am not sure I will ever get to see because there is a part of me that is so convinced that our civilization will not still exist when I get to that future. I know many people my age who feel very similarly. 

But despite my fear, there is a level of comfort in knowing that my dread is the same kind of dread felt over and over again by many people before me. Humanity remains the same—anguished, poetic, scared—even as the threats change. As humanity tears itself apart over and over, still there is fear that unites us. I am reminded of my oneness with my ancestors when I experience the existential fear that comes with the fear of climate change. That connection helps me not take for granted the beautiful life I have —while I still have it and can share it with everyone else.