From Cold War to Climate Change
For Gen-X, the threat of mass extinction isn’t new. Is it any surprise we’re exhausted?
The mass extinction threat of my 1980’s childhood was not climate change but nuclear war.
It’s a Sunday evening and my parents are driving us home from my grandmother’s house. My three brothers and I are in the back seat, squished thigh to thigh.
I’m looking out the car window into the chilly, Scottish dark, at the gleaming eye of a full moon. I make-believe it’s following us home, and wonder at the way its whiteness casts a perfect, circular aura into the night sky.
I drift off to sleep when *boom*, my subconscious mind throws up an image of a nuclear bomb going off, just as I’ve seen on black and white footage on the little television in our living room. I’m nine years old, my heart pounding, my body shaking from idea of a world exploding outward with a fiery blast that incinerates people and buildings and trees, then shrieks back in on itself, erasing even the ghosts it left behind.
The childhoods of both Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers were blighted in this way, with ever-present fears of nuclear apocalypse. Worse than dying from a hydrogen bomb though, was the prospect of surviving it, and enduring the bitter nuclear winter to come. My own anxieties became conflated with scenes from James Herbert’s book ‘The Rats’, which I found on my dad’s bookshelf and read when I was much too young. According to Wikipedia, it contains ‘graphic descriptions of death and mutilation’. I can safely say it didn’t help my mental health.
The soundtrack of our lives included the song ‘Breathing’ by British songstress Kate Bush. I listened to her album ‘Never for Ever’ (the days of vinyl, my friends) on repeat while babysitting for the kids across the street. In dramatic fashion, she croons the story of a child in its mother’s womb. The Bomb has finally dropped:
“We’ve lost our chance
We’re the first and the last, ooh
After the blast
Chips of plutonium
Are twinkling in every lung”
(If you’re interested, you can still find Kate Bush on video, singing ‘Breathing’ from inside a back-lit plastic bubble that I assume is meant to be the placenta, a glowing umbilical cord strapped to her costume. It’s classic.)
In the late eighties, something astonishing happened. Its’ name was glasnost, introduced to us by Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Before long there was perestroika too, and one by one, the fall of communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe. There was the sound of Reagan’s voice, echoing across the Atlantic, to us in the U.K. and around the globe, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
We were moving forward, joyfully into the new decade of the 1990’s. For a few years, we could breathe with a glimmer of hope, without thoughts of plutonium ‘twinkling in every lung’. The impassive eye of the moon no longer glared down coldly, reminding us that one day we would all be extinguished in the glowing embers of a nuclear furnace.
We came out of our psychological bomb shelters and went about the business of our lives. In Scotland, Gen-X women like me focused on getting our degrees, and putting off having a family. My dad, a Baby Boomer who’d immigrated to America, celebrated his 40th birthday party with gusto, entertained by a lady in a belly-dance costume. “She’s not a stripper” my mum explained, “it’s an art form”. Ironically, we were having a blast.
We didn’t know it was a brief reprieve between wars, new horrors of genocide and burgeoning existential threats to our survival as a species. We had no idea that we would soon throw away our Kate Bush records and replace them with Tori Amos CD’s. How could we?
We were yet to learn what generations ahead of us knew, even though we were already singing the lyrics with reckless abandon:
“We are young
Heartache to heartache we stand
Life is a battlefield …