John M. Crisp: Where are we on the global catastrophe spectrum?

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Passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship stand on their cabins' balconies at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, Japan, on February 13, 2020. - Alessandro Di Ciommo/NurPhoto/Zuma Press/TNS

Many a gloomy doomsayer has gone to his grave disappointed because, despite threatening signs to the contrary, the ever-resilient earth persists. The sun still comes up, the seasons change and human beings endure.

Sophisticated civilizations have come and gone, but you would have gone broke betting on catastrophe on a global scale, even during the 14th Century, when many thought the plague, raging through Europe, signaled the end of humanity. They were wrong.

Still, is it just me or do you, too, have the nagging feeling that the potential for global catastrophe has increased in inverse proportion to our shrinking world? Is it possible that, for once, the doomsayers are on to something?

Of course, the coronavirus, surging in China and making inroads elsewhere, is relevant to this way of thinking, but we probably shouldn’t overreact. The disease has quickly killed 1,700 people, but experts note that the ordinary flu kills about 400,000 people every year worldwide, and the flu pandemic of 1918 killed more than 20 million. We’ll probably be fine. Probably.

At the more ominous end of the catastrophe spectrum is climate change. But for many people it’s still an abstraction whose worst effects seem far in the future. Unless you live in Australia, California, Bangladesh, Miami or just about anywhere else where the ocean meets the shore, it’s easier just not to think about it.

The possibility of nuclear war falls somewhere on the catastrophe spectrum, as well, but like climate change, it’s an abstraction that we find easy to ignore. If we think about it at all, we hope that we were sufficiently chastened by the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and that no nation or faction would unleash these unthinkably powerful weapons on other human beings. This, of course, is a naive mistake.

But consider a more immediate catastrophe-maker: conventional warfare. Since all of these potential catastrophes — climate change, nuclear war, conventional war and even, probably, the coronavirus — are connected in complicated and obscure ways, we should probably be concerned by how close we came to a conventional war in January when tensions with Iran took a sharp spike.

Had, say, 10 American troops been killed — a distinct possibility; at least 100 were injured — by Iran’s inevitable retaliation for the assassination of top general Suleimani, we could very well be engaged with a catastrophic war in the Middle East right now. And the fact that not everyone believes that such a war would be catastrophic only increases the possibility of conflict.

Unfortunately, wars spring from and reflect the psychology of their times and, at present, the world is in a bad mood. We seem to be getting ready to fight.

On Feb. 5, the day that President Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate, my local paper carried two related stories:

First, the European Union expressed regret that Trump had cancelled a prohibition against the use of landmines, a move that, according to an EU policy chief, “undermines the global norm against anti-personnel mines. A norm that has saved tens of thousands of people in the past 20 years.”

Another article in the same edition announced the U.S. military’s deployment of a long-range missile equipped with a low-yield nuclear warhead. Oddly, the Pentagon insists that this nuclear weapon makes nuclear war less likely. Critics contend that nuclear-lite could lead more easily to a full-blown nuclear war.

If it does, we will be ready to fight: The same article reports Trump’s continued commitment to modernize our nuclear forces.

In any case, it appears that we’re preparing for war. World War I scholars don’t agree on what started that global catastrophe. In fact, the war started without much of a reason, at all, except that Europe was home to rival nations that were competitive and well-armed, that were willing to fight and that had not nearly enough imagination about what a catastrophe lay ahead.

But that’s the thing about catastrophes: They’re always abstract, distant, implausible and even unthinkable. And then, suddenly, they’re not.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.

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