It was June 12, 1982. My daughter was still in her stroller, my son as yet unborn, when my wife and I, six friends, and another child in a stroller joined an estimated million people in New York City at the largest antinuclear protest in history. All of the adults in our party had grown up in a world unsettled in a unique way: Armageddon had, for the first time, potentially become a secular event. End times were no longer God’s choice for us, but ours for ourselves. It seemed no mistake that, three decades into the Cold War, the nuclear readiness of the two superpowers was referred to as “mutual assured destruction,” about as graphic a phrase as you could find for the end of civilization; and, of course, it had its own acronym which, to us at least, seemed less like an abbreviation than sardonic commentary: MAD.
In 1979, a near-catastrophe at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania helped launch a new iteration of the antinuclear movement. Initially, it was focused on “peaceful” nuclear power, and then, amid a renewed superpower arms race, on the potential destruction of the planet in a MAD conflagration; in the atmosphere of that moment, that is, we found ourselves living with a renewed sense that the world might not be ours or anyone else’s for long.
The first nuclear weapon had been detonated at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, just four days before I turned one, which meant world-ending fears and dreams would be woven into my life. So, with a child of my own, it felt right to be in that giant crowd of protestors, marching near a contingent of hibakusha, or survivors, from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts that had, thanks to America’s “victory weapon,” ushered in the nuclear age.
In 1991, only nine years later, the Soviet Union, that other superpower, would disappear. If you had told me then, with the Berlin Wall down and not an enemy in sight, that almost a quarter of a century later — with two of our 1982 marchers dead — most of the rest of us would be planning to meet and march again, lest our children’s children have no world worth living in, I would have been surprised indeed. And I would have been no less surprised to learn that the U.S. and Russia still preserve, update, and upgrade monstrous nuclear arsenals that contain enough weapons to destroy a number of Earth-sized planets, or that those weapons continue to proliferate globally, or that, as we now know (given the “nuclear winter” phenomenon), even a “modest” regional nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could result in an event of unimaginable horror for humanity. Told all this, I would undoubtedly have wondered where the then-much-talked-about post-Cold War “peace dividend” had gone.
Had you also told me that, on September 21, 2014, I would be planning to be out with my wife, my old friends, my son, my daughter, my son-in-law, and my grandson marching in New York City, but this time against a second human-produced potential apocalypse, and that it was already happening in something like slow motion, I would have been stunned.
And yet so it is, and there I will be at the People’s Climate March, and I wouldn’t be anywhere else that day. At some future moment, wouldn’t it be sad to say that humanity’s greatest achievement was to exploit to the fullest two energy sources — the atom and fossil fuels — capable of destroying the basis for our lives on this planet, and potentially much other life as well? What a strange possible epitaph for humanity: what we burned burned us.
At 70, this world won’t be mine for that much longer, so it’s not a matter of my life or my planet, but I only have to look at my grandson to know what’s at stake, to know that this is not the world he or his peers deserve. To make global warming his inheritance could represent the greatest crime in history, which means that those who run the giant energy companies (and the oil states that go with them) and who know better will be the ultimate criminals.
No single march, of course, will alter the tide — or perhaps I mean the greenhouse gases — of history, but you have to begin somewhere (and then not stop). And to do so, you have to believe that the human ability to destroy isn’t the best we have to offer and to remind yourself of our ability to protest, to hope, to dream, to act, and to say no to the criminals of history and yes to the children to come. Tom
Why We March
Stepping Forth for a Planet in Peril
By Eddie Bautista, La Tonya Crisp-Sauray, and Bill McKibben
On Sunday, September 21st, a huge crowd will march through the middle of Manhattan. It will almost certainly be the largest rally about climate change in human history, and one of the largest political protests in many years in New York. More than 1,000 groups are coordinating the march — environmental justice groups, faith groups, labor groups — which means there’s no one policy ask. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a loud and pointed reminder to our leaders, gathering that week at the United Nations to discuss global warming, that the next great movement of the planet’s citizens centers on our survival and their pathetic inaction.
As a few of the march’s organizers, though, we can give some sense of why we, at least, are marching, words we think represent many of those who will gather at Columbus Circle for the walk through midtown Manhattan.