Can the Mind Comprehend Its own Annihilation?


Yesterday I was reading from Chapter 5 of Robert Jay Lifton’s recent book “The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope and Survival” (link), the chapter on Malignant Normality. What I took out of my reading was that most people are unable to realistically envisage the destruction of their culture and global environment.  Drawing on US history, he found that when we were faced with the prospect of what later got to be named “mutually assured destruction” resulting from nuclear war, we tended to “normalize” what we felt powerless to change. As a result, we as an informed citizenry accepted as normal and sustainable some of the most artful but fundamentally unrealistic dodges that our leaders offered up.

Here are some excerpts I found striking:

….I came to recognize that the greatest threats to society were not posed by psychotic or severely depressed people but by those considered normal. It is the latter who participate in destructive collective projects, such as promoting and fighting wars or building and projecting the use of nuclear arsenals.  p.69

How could this be happening? It would seem to be the opposite of what we would expect from normal people, particularly our leaders.  Yet he goes on to state that:

Nuclear and climate threats have both undergone malignant forms of normalization that suppress and distort our perceptions of their danger.  pp. 69 – 70.

Here are two more extracts from this section of his book:

Nuclear policies [that were} considered normal seemed to me quite insane – a form of ethical insanity rather than a specific mental disease in a clinical sense. So I spoke of the logic of nuclear war scenarios (we drop our bomb on Moscow to stop your invasion of Europe, you drop yours on New York, and then we both stop) as the “logic of madness”. p.70

….our society has attempted to render {our testing and use of nuclear weapons] part of the everyday landscape, viewing them as available instruments for defending our territory and our values, for maintaining something we call “national security”.  p. 70

What were some instances of our insanity in an effort to persuade ourselves that we would be safe and survive a nuclear attack?  Having enough spades to dig ourselves a whole in the event of a nuclear attack; building fallout shelters in people’s back yards; teaching children to duck under their school desks and place a piece of paper over the heads.  And all this at a time when we had ample knowledge of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after nuclear bombs were dropped there.  Sure, there were survivors and the cities have been rebuilt, but at what costs? Would we really want to be a statistic of that sort.  And, of course now, we know that the ground zero of the Chernobyl disaster is uninhabitable for humans for at least the next 20,000 years, that windborne radioactive pollution spread far and wide over central Asia and Europe, and that the Fukushima disaster is spreading radioactive wastes through huge swaths of the Pacific Ocean.

While I am old enough to remember some of those events, looking back at them now feels a little uncanny to say the least.  How had I been hoodwinked into holding the beliefs, hopes and fears that I did back then?  And why am I not more incensed at contemporary discussions, they are hardly debates, about the logic of using nuclear arsenals to resolve conflicts that do not yield to more conventional forms of violent, armed dissuasion?  There have to be mechanisms in the human brain that act as circuit breakers, that serve to disconnect our thinking process when faced with overwhelming perceptions and projections.  Hopefully, I will be able to share some of my thinking on this point in responses and posts to come.

Right now, I am only conscious of our collective need to avoid thinking that a bigger bomb, a greater and more total destruction of our perceived enemies, their culture and environment will yield us greater security and comfort.  There is a known tendency for a single spark to be able cause a massive conflagration where everything is lost, ann unnecessary holocaust.


Yet before signing off, I wished to acknowledge that there have been and still are other points of view. I have to accept them, however insane they might seem to me.  Lifton reminds us:

[William Laurence] viewed the [successful] test of the atom bomb the month before Hiroshima as “the birth of a new world”, and spoke of the bomb generally as a gigantic Statue of Liberty, its arm raised to the sky, symbolizing the birth of a new freedom for man.  P.71