Einstein’s Monsters

A few weeks back, I finally read the opening essay in Martin Amis’ Einstein’s Monsters, a book I’ve had on my shelf for years but never quite got around to. Reading about how nuclear anxiety felt during the cold war, it’s hard not to compare it to climate anxiety, different as they are in some respects.

Amis makes a point about the strange effect nuclear weapons have on the experience of time, erasing the future and past, leaving only an anxious present. If that feeling ever went away, I think it’s come back in recent years, although with less of the sense that the world only exists because of the happy accident that there hasn’t been an unhappy accident.

(On that note, the fact we’re alive at all after nearly a century of the bomb seems like a strong argument for the multiverse view where consciousness and experience compress into the threads of reality where life continues. At the very least, it reinforces the incredible fact that I’m only here now because this is a reality where humanity hasn’t yet ended itself, which is an unlikely but necessary plot contrivance.)

The similarities are in the sense of futility and anger, the strange knowledge that all of this can end, the frustration at how politics and institutions can pervert language to discuss “acceptable” losses, their seemingly inhuman acceptance of apocalypse for the sake of a system. The chief difference being scales of time. The nuclear balance required (and still requires) an eternity of days where no one triggered the end. A statistical impossibility, given enough time. An eternity of getting it right to avoid an instant of getting it wrong, followed by an eternity of nothing.

Climate change compresses time in a different way. The effects of action and inaction are remote. You can argue the effects of inaction are immediate because they’re here now, but those aren’t the effects of today’s inaction, they’re the cost of decades passed without concern for today. We’re dealing with the hangover of a night out 30 years ago, and we’ll go out drinking again tonight because staying sober won’t prevent tomorrow’s pain. The relationship between yesterday and today and tomorrow are somehow beyond our grasp.

But the biggest similarity is in how we are seemingly powerless in the face of systems we created, and which we continue to perpetuate. To get at the absurdity of humans using the threat of nuclear weapons as a source of security, Amis uses the metaphor of a children’s party guarded by thousand-foot sentinels covered in poison and razor blades, so obviously monstrous and beyond any scale the children can control–although it’s within the children’s power to ask them to leave. At least for climate change, there is some obvious benefit to sustaining our problematic behaviour, short-sighted as it may be. Instead of the sentinels, it’s more like we’re running a gas generator in the house, and it’s slowly filling the rooms with carbon monoxide. The house is big, so we can believe the fumes won’t get to us in our lifetime. And if we turn it off, we’ll get colder; we won’t have light to read by; our experience will be harder and poorer. So we let it run a little longer, and then longer still.