The End of the Future

Jeff McMahan

  • The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell
    Cape/Picador, 256 pp, £7.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 224 02064 1
  • The Two-Edged Sword: Armed Force in the Modern World by Laurence Martin
    Weidenfeld, 108 pp, £5.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 297 78139 1
  • Zero Option by E.P. Thompson
    Merlin, 198 pp, £10.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 85036 288 1
  • Disarming Europe edited by Mary Kaldor and Dan Smith
    Merlin, 196 pp, £10.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 85036 277 6

The Reagan Administration’s bellicose posturing and its apparent relish for the Cold War have finally succeeded in rousing Americans to an awareness of the danger of nuclear war. But, while Reagan and his associates certainly deserve most of the credit for dispelling people’s complacency, the American campaign against the nuclear arms race has also received considerable inspiration from a series of articles by Jonathan Schell which appeared this past February in the New Yorker. These articles have now been reprinted in book form, and are continuing to have a profound impact on people’s thinking about the nuclear threat.

The book is divided into three sections. The first contains a detailed discussion of the probable consequences of a large-scale nuclear war (which in the New Yorker was juxtaposed, in the usual way, with advertisements for luxurious living), and concludes that such a war could conceivably lead to the extermination of all human life. This then leads to a series of reflections on the prospect of human extinction. The third section challenges the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, and advocates complete nuclear and conventional disarmament, and the renunciation of national sovereignty.

The power of the book lies in Schell’s passionate concern for the future of the human race. The sombre meditation on the possible death of the entire human species seeks to explain and justify this concern. Schell distinguishes between two losses which would occur if nuclear war were to result in the extinction of human life. One is the loss which existing people would suffer in dying prematurely. The other is the loss of future generations. While he believes that both losses would be incalculably tragic, he regards the latter as ‘supreme’. Indeed, it is the conviction that it is supremely important morally to ensure the existence of future generations that animates and informs the whole of the book.

Several possible justifications for this conviction come out during the course of Schell’s somewhat rambling argument, but none of them is more than partially successful. One focuses on the extent to which existing people’s lives would be impoverished by the expectation that all human life would soon come to an end. At present our lives are enriched by the assumption that they will be linked in various ways with the lives of future people. Future generations serve ‘as the audience for our works of art, as the outstretched hands to receive our benefactions ... as the minds that will provide us with immortality by remembering our words and deeds, and as the successors who will justify us by carrying on with the tasks that we have started or advanced’. Thus if their existence comes into doubt, our ‘own lives become progressively more twisted, empty and despairing’. Schell illustrates this claim by presenting a poignant vision of the blighting effect the belief that we may be the final generation can have on love, marriage and art, as well as on our social and political relations. It is obvious, however, that this explanation cannot account for the overriding importance which he attributes to ensuring the existence of future generations. The prospect of extinction can have adverse effects on our lives, but there are other things which can have equally adverse effects without being as dreadful as extinction would be. So the evil of extinction cannot be fully explained in terms of its impact on the lives of the living.

Schell is aware of this. He stresses that his ‘emphasis on us ... does not mean that our only reason for restraining ourselves from elimination of the future generations is to preserve them as auxiliaries to our needs.’ Future people should not be regarded instrumentally, as agents for carrying on with ‘enterprises that are supposedly grander and more splendid than they are ... The works of man are great, but man himself is greater.’ He claims that ‘what we must desire first of all is that people be born, for their own sakes.’ For ‘if we let them into life they will have abundant opportunity to be glad that they were born.’ In these passages Schell has cited, and apparently conflated, two distinct reasons for ensuring the existence of future generations. When he speaks of ‘valuing the future human beings themselves’, he seems to have in mind the view that the existence of human life is intrinsically valuable, that it is simply a good thing that people should exist. On the other hand, when he refers to the ‘desire that the unborn exist for their own sake’, he seems to have in mind the view that people can benefit by being brought into existence, and that we have a duty, other things being equal, to benefit future people by causing (or allowing) them to exist.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in