Friday, 15 May 2009

Apocalypse now and then

NUCLEAR war across the northern hemisphere has left most of the world uninhabitable and most of its people dead. In Australia, life goes on – but the deadly radioactive clouds are coming, blown on unpredictable but unstoppable winds.
No, of course that’s not true. If it was, I wouldn’t be here to write it and you wouldn’t be here to read it.
But when Nevil Shute used that scenario as the basis for his novel On The Beach it must have seemed horribly plausible.
Published in 1957, the book was set in the not-distant future of 1963. When in 1962 the Cuban missile crisis brought the world close to nuclear war, those who had read Shute’s work must have thought he was frighteningly prescient.
In 1956 another book had described a different end to the world as we know it.
A new virus has attacked rice crops in Asia, causing massive famine. Now a mutation has appeared which infects wheat and barley.
If it isn’t stopped – and there seems no way to stop it – the Western world will quickly starve too. Already Britain and Europe are descending into violent anarchy…
This is the story of John Christopher’s horrific vision The Death of Grass. It’s often bracketed with the catastrophe novels of John Wyndham, which appeared about the same time.
Wyndham’s books are a cracking good read, and his description of society breaking down is generally good. But it takes a stretch of imagination to believe in triffids – deadly walking plants – or the Kraken, deadly alien beings from outer space.
The disaster at the heart of The Death of Grass, though, is all too believable.
Scientific predictions suggest now that such an event is highly possible. Which is why it makes perfect sense that Penguin has just re-issued Christopher’s book as a Modern Classic.
One of the biggest arguments against genetically modified crops is that if most of the world’s grain is of just one strain, it would only take one strain of virus to kill the whole lot off.
In the farms of the world right now there is more grain being grown to feed more people than ever before. And fewer strains than ever before.
An article in this month’s issue of the respected journal Scientific American is headed: “Could food shortages bring down civilisation?”
The answer given by the writer, leading US environmentalist Lester R Brown, is a clear “Yes”.
His argument boils down to these key points:
  • Water shortages, soil loss and global warming are placing increasing limits on food production.
  • Food scarcity and rising food prices are pushing poor countries into chaos.
  • “Failed states” export disease, terrorism, drugs, weapons and refugees – and a series of government collapses could threaten the world order.
Plausible? Horribly. And only one of an overwhelming, even baffling, cocktail of deadly threats scientists tell us we face.
One warning suggests sea levels could rise enough this century to flood most major cities, including London (and, incidentally, most of Suffolk). Imagine the chaos that would bring, not just in the flooded areas, but in the shrinking portion of habitable land. That’s one thing Wyndham may have got right in The Kraken Wakes.
We are, as Frazer in Dad’s Army had it, all doomed. Or are we?
The sheer range of predicted catastrophes may be the broadest since the Book of Revelation – but humanity seems always to have lived with a strong sense of its own imminent downfall.
When I was growing up it was the Bomb. In the 1950s if it wasn’t the death of grass or triffids it was little green men or The Blob.
In the 1930s, as historian Richard Overy details in his new book The Morbid Age, people were increasingly worried about a coming war they feared would bring civilisation to an end.
As we know now, they weren’t entirely wrong.
As 1939 approached, the Jews of Europe lived in a state of gradually increasing trepidation. But they went on with their daily lives until the day the horror became total, escape impossible.
Even when it might have been possible to escape, most didn’t.
It seems there’s a gap which the human mind cannot bridge. A gap between rumour, fear and belief that allows the unthinkable to remain literally that.
You might imagine the worst, but you can’t really believe it until it is no longer escapable.
Such was the feeling of impending doom pre-war. And such, perhaps, is the mood of impending environmental catastrophe today.
At one level, we believe at least some of the predictions of horror. At another, we get on with our daily lives as if nothing could possibly go wrong.
Perhaps all the doom-mongering is simply natural human paranoia – these days given credibility by science, where once it was religion.
On the other hand, just because you’re paranoid…

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