Saved by the Apocalypse

Within hours, 'nuclear calamity' and 'the specter of nuclear nightmare' became the stuff our world was about to be unmade of.

Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval
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Yonatan Touval
Yonatan Touval

Whatever the long-term impact of the Fukushima disaster on nuclear energy policy across the industrialized world, the catastrophe that befell northeast Japan has already reminded us that our world cannot get enough of the prospect that the end is at hand.

The media's immediate reaction to the tremor and tsunami said it all. "Hell on Earth," proclaimed one typical headline, while another struck a more contemporary tone by estimating the magnitude of the earthquake as equivalent to "16,000 atomic bombs."

That the nuclear metaphor was used even before the onset of the accident at Fukushima is revealing. To be sure, the setting of the devastation forced an almost inevitable link to 1945, but our cultural imagination was hankering for the worst.

Thus, with human consciousness raised to apocalyptic pitch, news of the unfolding crisis at Fukushima could only lead to rhetorical overkill. No longer did we need to exploit the nuclear for metaphoric effect - we could now wield it literally. Within hours, "nuclear calamity" and "the specter of nuclear nightmare" became the stuff our world was about to be unmade of.

That the potential human catastrophe from the nuclear troubles appeared minor compared to that which had been wrought by the earthquake and tsunami made little difference; that our leading scientists repeatedly explained that "radiation" as such did not equal death - that its risk to humans depended on multiple variables, including concentration levels and exposure time - seemed beside the point. Here, after all, was the apocalypse we had long been anticipating, and nothing but radiation was allowed to rain on our parade.

Not surprisingly, the term "apocalypse" instantly enjoyed universal vogue, with headlines from Israel to the Baltics proclaiming an apocalypse now. And lest we dismiss the use of the term as tabloid hyperbole, no less than Europe's energy commissioner employed it as well, insisting that the A-word was "particularly well-chosen."

Well-chosen or not, one thing is certain: the most panic-stricken reaction was also the most conservatively traditional. After all, Western culture has always thrived on the assurance that our world would come to an end, and happily so: As the Greek etymology suggests, the apocalypse would be the "revelation" of divine retribution.

Certainly, the question of how the end would come has intrigued human imagination since the beginning. Until Copernicus and Newton, the physics of the apocalypse made for spectacular pyrotechnics: The trumpet would sound, the moon would turn into blood, stars would fall like withered leaves, all motion would stop, and a big flash of light would set the earth on fire. At that moment, the righteous would ascend to heaven and the sinners fall down to hell, and earth itself would cease to exist.

As modern cosmology developed, this apocalyptic set piece came under increasing strain. The Copernican revolution, for instance, upset key elements in the visual effect: If the earth was not the center of the universe, what would it mean to "ascend" to heaven and to go "down" to hell? A century later, Newton's theorem of perpetual motion raised still more troubling questions: Once the motion of the earth was reduced to a mathematical formula that depicted the attraction of two bodies as a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the squares of their distances, the drama that attended the end of the world had to be radically rethought.

And yet, much as our own doomsday fantasies over Fukushima defied contemporary nuclear science, the apocalyptic imagination overcame modern physics. Thus, for instance, the discovery that earth was only a minor planet moving perpetually in concentric circles shifted our focus to comets. For if the end of the world did not come from an internal blast, it could still be caused by a collision. The calculation in 1705 of the periodic return of Halley's Comet into the inner solar system was most fortuitous, proving that the end, if not inevitable, was at least plausible.

Then as now, far from undermining our apocalyptic spirit, science's advance has only spurred us to imagine our end differently. Prophecies of global catastrophe over the so-called Y2K problem at the turn of the last millennium and the effects of global warming are thus par for the course. And while we may have grown increasingly skeptical that annihilation must also be our purgation, the drama of a violent ending has never ceased to grip us.

Nor, finally, to serve us. For it is doubtful that we should stubbornly latch on to so terrifying a specter if it did not serve a useful purpose. And what better purpose than to sidestep that which we would rather not, or cannot, handle: That is, all those exquisitely technical questions about nuclear energy, power plant safety, the meaning of half-lives, the availability of nonfossil fuel sources, etc.?

In the face of our inability to grasp such concepts, we welcome the apocalypse as the surest smokescreen to our ignorance; a drama in which we need only fire the imagination to play a role, and, come what may, no one will be held responsible.

Yonatan Touval is a foreign policy analyst based in Tel Aviv.