The Fate of the Earth. By Jonathan Schell. Alfred A. Knopf, $11.95.

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In 1945, not long after the bombing of Hiroshima, Bertolt Brecht wrote a short poem, “Swansong”:

Let the last inscription then run
(That broken slab without readers):

The planet is going to burst.
Those it bred will destroy it.

As a way of living together we merely thought up capitalism.
Thinking of physics, we thought up
rather more:
A way of dying together.

Since then, few great literary sensibilities have directly addressed the existence of nuclear weapons or the likely consequences of their use. It is obviously, a numbing, bewildering subject, one to which, more than any other, it is difficult to achieve an adequate imaginative response. Jonathan Schell is a fine journeyman writer with a first-rate literary sensibility, if not quite a great one. Yet he has confronted this Medusa of a subject with such courage and lucidity that he and we have been rewarded with an extraordinary book.

"The Fate of the Earth" is composed of three essays about, respectively, the physical, moral, and political significance of nuclear weapons. The first distills the large (and growing) literature on the probable social and ecological effects of a nuclear holocaust into a plausible description of the end of the world. Studies of the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings have only recently appeared, after decades of opposition by the Japanese government. Schell surveys that appalling record. Then he projects a detailed, harrowing scenario of the devastation of New York City by a one-megaton bomb. One of the many grotesque paradoxes of this subject is that a description of the effects of a one-megaton bomb may be more disturbing than a description of the effects of the twenty-megaton bomb that would more likely be dropped on a major urban target like New York. The reason is this: The results of a one-megaton blast would occur in discrete, describable stages, whereas in a twenty- megaton blast, most of any large city would be instantaneously vaporized. Instant annihilation may be, in some sense, a less unwelcome prospect than protracted horrible suffering.

Schell proceeds soberly and meticulously through the several layers of the ecosphere—social, biological, geo The cry chemical—demonstrating that the immense, fragile complexity of each would be shattered, quite possibly beyond repair, by a large-scale nuclear exchange. What might finally doom life on earth in the event of a holocaust is the depletion of atmospheric ozone. It’s suggestive—to put it mildly—that the ozone effect, arguably the most deadly result of nuclear war, was unsuspected only a decade or so ago. What else might there be?

Schell’ s apocalyptic vision climaxes with a stark image of what might well remain of America the beautiful after a full nuclear exchange: a republic of insects and grass.”

The second section of “The Fate of the Earth” is, from a literary point of view, the most remarkable. It is an essay in moral phenomenology, an extended meditation on the morality of extinction. Some of the finest, albeit most painful, writing of this century has resulted from efforts to come to grips with the Nazi holocaust. Defeated though the imagination may be, it’s impossible not to try to mentally assimilate such evils and so perhaps mitigate or redeem them. Schell argues that since it would be the end of all consciousness, a nuclear holocaust would—if it led to extinction, as it very well might—be the ultimate, irredeemable evil. And so he tries on humanity’s behalf to comprehend extinction, much as an individual threatened with death tries to comprehend death.

It is a brave and poignant effort, and it is hopeless. The significance of an individual life and death is manifest to and preserved by those who survive it. But as Schell insistently points out, the significance of the life and death of all humanity will simply vanish after a nuclear holocaust (or else will persist only in the stunted, debased subhumans of Russell Hoban’s novel, “Riddley Walker,” set in a postnuclear future). Extinction is unlike death: it is not survived, remembered or comprehended: it is strictly meaningless: in fact, it is the abolition of all meaning. Struggling in extreme, at times melodramatic, language to express the inexpressible. Schell generously overextends himself, almost makes a fool of himself, so that the rest of us, who have lived for so long with the possibility of extinction, will come to our senses.

What we ought to do when we come to our senses is the subject of the book’s last and most controversial section. The first thing to do, Schell suggests, is to recognize the dangerous absurdity of the theory of deterrence. According to this theory, no country will use nuclear weapons if its own destruction remains assured even after it has destroyed an opposing country with a first strike. This seems a plausible arrangement, until you think about it. Why would the (former) leaders of a country that had just suffered a first strike, and thereby ceased to exist, want to retaliate? Not for reason of national defense, surely— there would be no more nation and therefore nothing left to defend. Not to deter future attacks—their country has no future. Revenge? It is of the essence of nuclear weapons that their use can only be decided upon by a single person or a tiny circle of persons: what justification, then, can there be for killing hundreds of millions of innocent ‘enemy” civilians and endangering the entire human habitat? The only conceivable reason for retaliation is sheer insanity on the part of the surviving leadership, isolated in bunkers beneath the radioactive ruins of their country. Not an unlikely state of mind after a nuclear strike, but hardly a reliable contingency on which to base the survival of the species. No, deterrence is “a monumental logical mistake,” as Schell rightly concludes: “one cannot credibly deter a first strike with a second strike whose raison d’être dissolves the moment the first strike arrives.” At least, one cannot deter it this way forever. And one failure is too many.

As long as it is possible to build nuclear weapons, national conflicts may lead to extinction. Since all that is required is knowledge of the basic laws of physics and a moderate degree of industrialization, it will always be possible to build nuclear weapons, even if complete disarmament were once achieved and all current weapons were destroyed. Hence national conflicts will always threaten the existence of the species: and over a sufficiently long time, small probabilities become large ones. It follows that to insure our survival national conflicts must be eliminated or at least prevented from resulting in violence. How?

Einstein, a pacifist whose discoveries made nuclear weapons possible, once remarked—with what bitterness one can only imagine—that “the unleashed power of the atom has changed every thing save our modes of thinking.’’ What he meant, Schell suggests, is that national sovereignty is a lethal anachronism. Sovereignty, according to one of the few commonly accepted definitions in political philosophy, is the monopoly of legitimate violence. What keeps the peace within a sovereign state is a general agreement to resolve all conflicts otherwise than through violence: and to implement this agreement, private citizens give up the means of large-scale violence. Between sovereign states, there is no such agreement. Schell’s proposal—not a new one—is that nation-states also agree to resolve all conflicts otherwise than through violence and then, like individual citizens. give up the means of violence to a higher, sovereign body: a world government.

This reasoning is inescapable, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Schell argues relentlessly and persuasively that disarmament is not a sufficient goal because insoluble conflicts between sovereign states will eventually be resolved by force, and finally by maximum force. Just as national governments are sometimes challenged by insurrection (or, as some may prefer to say, revolution) and dissolve into civil war, a world government may also be challenged by revolutions if the world order it enforces generates severe conflicts. The goal, then, is not merely to contain conflict but to prevent it. Schell claims to have shown that our choice is extinction or world government. This is too modest. He has shown that our choice is extinction or justice.

This excessive circumspection is the book’s only fault. It leaves to others what it calls ‘the political work of our age”: that is, the achievement of a world community based on something more durable than ‘free” markets or authoritarian bureaucracies. But to those engaged in that work, “The Fate of the Earth” provides fresh motivation and in valuable support.

Fifty years ago, another lover of humankind concluded his reflections on our species’ uncertain future with an almost magical prescience:

“Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two, “Heavenly Powers,” eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary [death]. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?"

Schell’s noble book is one of those stirrings of Eros. Combined with in numerable others, it may succeed, at least during our lifetime, in keeping open Freud’s


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George Scialabba