The Things That Happened to Happen

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been reading William MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future. He is a Scottish moral philosopher who advocates “longterm-ism,” the moral framework that decisions we make today have tremendous consequences for future generations, and that those consequences should be deeply considered and taken into account. Almost in passing, MacAskill, in discussing the “contingencies of history,” mentions that in the early days of the United Nations there was serious discussion about having the UN take responsibility for the then-new atomic bomb technology. The idea was that all nations would surrender their bombs into the custody of the United Nations, who would then monitor all uranium mining and bomb fuel manufacture to make sure that no nation secretly re-developed atom bombs on their own.
I found this revelation, mentioned almost in passing, rather shocking. Imagine the idealism of those early post-war days, when nations actually thought that this potent new weapons technology could be surrendered to this new international peace body. Such a thing goes against every tide of history, which shows that every tribe, country and nation constantly strives for weapons supremacy against its rivals and enemies. But I can imagine that after four years of bitter world war there was a moment when there was a groundswell for a new beginning, a new era in human affairs where weapons could be surrendered and peace could reign.
Of course we know that this now-obscure moment in the early thinking of the UN passed away quickly, to be replaced by the old international competition and a burgeoning cold war. But MacAskill’s larger point in mentioning this moment is that history is full of such contingencies and odd chances. He also mentions that as early as 1890 there was a European scientist who figured out that releasing carbon into the atmosphere would eventually radically change the climate and lead to world-wide global warming. This was in 1890! Right now there is a climate meeting in Egypt going on when the world’s nations and leaders are still struggling to take the giant steps needed to reign in this phenomenon, and, according to the Secretary General of the UN, mostly failing. Again, it was a shock to realize that more than a hundred years ago our current situation was predicted, but due to the contingency of history and the self absorption of nations, the warning was ignored.
There is one more contingency I can think of, one that happened during the depths of World War II, on which the fate of the war and the world hinged. As recounted in A Man Named Intrepid by William Stevenson, the Germans had a top-secret base in Norway where they were developing a heavy water reactor, a precursor to the manufacture of a nuclear weapon. Had they developed an atom bomb before we did, they could have used the V-2 rocket to deliver it to England and perhaps the United States, and could have won the war. Instead, the Allies sent several teams of commandos into Norway in what amounted to a suicide mission, to destroy the heavy water reactor. It was the third team they sent, I believe, that accomplished the mission and prevented the Germans from getting the bomb. The details of this story remained secret for decades.
These contingencies, these “things that happen to happen”—to use a line of poetry by a poet I can no longer remember—are tiny forks in the road on the great canvas of human affairs, moments when we could have all gone one way along one salutary fork in the road, but in the end did not. There is grief in this, I think, a deep grief that circulates among us like a deep ocean current, one that we cannot mark or measure, but can still feel. We all struggle to stay afloat while we swim in this grief as each day comes and goes. We know there is something we should do or should have done, something we should say, but as individuals we are powerless, it seems, to change the course of that deep ocean current. It is too powerful, it seems, and too deep.
The two great threats for our continued existence as a species—climate change and nuclear holocaust—are grave threats that both seem to be increasing by the month, week, and day. And yet we march like lemmings to the cliff, because we are just one tiny lemming in a vast horde of lemmings, all marching in the same direction, singing patriotic songs with earbuds on.


One thought on “The Things That Happened to Happen

  1. Lew, Always appreciate your vision, creative ideas, and long-reach implications. Want to take the opportunity to say, “thank you” for being in my life and sharing your heart so generously.

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