EP Thompson saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the beginning of a new phase in world history. By itself this is not exceptional. Most historians, politicians and commentators, from across the political spectrum, saw the end of the Second World War and the dramatic shift in the geopolitical axis as the dawning of a new era. What set Thompson apart was the name he picked for the logic undergirding this new world: “exterminism.”
To Thompson, the usage of the atomic bomb by one country on another was “the first annunciation of exterminist technology.” I wrote extensively about it in a recent piece for the Historical Materialism blog:
As the Second World War made way for the Cold War, as eastern and western blocs competed in building up their stockpiles of this same technology, it was increasingly feasible to picture that mass devastation recreated elsewhere. Thompson recounted in his “Notes On Exterminism” that US generals were remarkably cavalier about the possibility of Europe reduced to wasteland: huge cities reduced to rubble, radioactive winds traveling across borders, whole countries transformed into “theatres of apocalypse.”
The Bomb was a dramatic distillation and obvious avatar, but the truly dreaded development was the willingness to use it, to give into its logic and accept the scenario of society destroyed wholesale. Exterminism was, therefore, bigger than the Bomb itself. It was, in Thompson’s words, “characteristics of a society – expressed, in differing degrees, within its economy, its polity, and its ideology – which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes.”
The year 1945 should loom large for us too. Though debates among climate scientists continue, many see it as the inaugural year of the Anthropocene. It makes sense. The boom in industrialization since the end of the war has spewed 75 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, the fastest pace in recorded history. Any system willing to split the atom for the sake of mass destruction is easily able to undo the balance of global ecology for the sake of growth, human consequences be damned.
The results are what we live with now: erratic weather patterns, floods, wildfires, crop failures. It is not for nothing that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (also founded in 1945) now factors climate change in its annual calculations of the Doomsday Clock. That clock currently stands at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to Doomsday it has ever been.
As I also argue in the piece, there is enough convincing argument out there that the coronavirus pandemic is rooted in the same ecological devastations that have given us our current climate catastrophe. Now add in Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic (confirmed to be brazenly deliberate) and the premature push to put the poor back to work during a pandemic. Add on top of that the increasingly open police and vigilante violence against movements that are in essence demanding little more than the right to exist. Think of how each catastrophe feeds into the next. Did we need much more evidence needed that exterminism, as Thompson illustrated it, didn’t end with the Cold War? That it had merely shifted in its phenomenological structure?
Apparently, we did. It comes in the form of red skies over San Francisco, of Los Angeles’ endless sunshine obscured by a yellow gray blanket, and air so unhealthy you can taste it as you breathe. At the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung’s blog, Mike Davis shares a story of Berlin-based botanists after the Second World War. Over a period of decades these botanists observed soil and plant-life in areas that had been repeatedly fire-bombed during the war. They determined that the trauma had transformed the soil on a molecular level, allowing new invasive plant species to flourish and for dramatic changes to the surrounding ecology to take place. Future nuclear war could play a similar catalyst of granular ecological disaster, on top of the obvious immediate devastation, but this time on a global scale.
Fire in the Anthropocene has become the physical equivalent of endless nuclear war. In the aftermath of Victoria’s Black Saturday fires in early 2009, Australian scientists calculated that their released energy equaled the explosion of 1,500 Hiroshima-sized bombs. The current firestorms in the Pacific states are many times larger, and we should compare their destructive power to the mega-tonnage of hundreds of hydrogen bombs.
The question then is not whether we live in an exterminist age. We do not need to imagine Thompson’s “theatres of apocalypse.” Most of us live in them.
The question is whether we have reached our upper limit of exterminism. There are two scenarios that will answer this for us. One involves the complete unraveling of societal bonds, and the arrival of a climate apartheid in which every last available resource is placed at the whim of those who already have more than enough while the vast underclass approaches absolute immiseration.
The other is in Thompson’s own solution. If in reading his “Notes On Exterminism” he seems overwhelmed, it is probably because he wanted his readers to understand the enormity of what he was asking them to face. When he titled his pamphlet for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament “Protest and Survive,” he was partially lambasting the facile public safety program produced by the British government. Thompson and the CND argued that programs like “Protect and Survive” in fact made nuclear conflict more likely rather than less.
We’ve already seen this kind of normalization in relation to the pandemic, in the everyday lionizing of essential workers even as their hazard pay is cut, in the persistent belief that America will “come out of this stronger.” Even the most catastrophic disaster can be painted not only as survivable but as a minor disruption, its threat folded into daily routine. “Not great but not terrible,” as someone once said.
That title, “Protest and Survive” was also quite literal. Protest, in this case, was not merely marching and demonstrating. It was finding every opportunity to become ungovernable, to dig our collective heels in against the catastrophic inertia of history. Such protest may not win, but ultimately, we are left with little choice if survival is even an option.