I know what you want from me—what we all want—which is some small solace after the events of Election Day. My wife Sue Halpern and I have been talking nonstop for days, trying to cope with the emotions. I fear I may not be able to provide that balm, but I do offer these remarks in the spirit of resistance to that which we know is coming. We need to figure out how to keep the lights on, literally and figuratively, and all kinds of darkness at bay.
I am grateful to all those who asked me to deliver this inaugural Jonathan Schell Lecture—grateful most of all because it gave me an excuse for extended and happy recollection of one of the most generous friendships of my early adulthood. I arrived at The New Yorker at the age of 21, two weeks out of college, alone in New York City for the first time. The New Yorker was wonderfully quirky, of course, but one of its less wonderful quirks was that most people didn’t talk to each other very much, and especially to newcomers 50 years their junior. There were exceptions, of course, and the foremost exception was Jonathan. He loved to talk, and we had long colloquies nearly every day, mostly about politics.
Ideas—not abstract ideas, but ideas drawn from the world as it wound around him—fascinated him. He always wanted to dig a layer or two deeper; there was never anything superficial or trendy about his analysis. I understood better what he was up to when I came, at the age of 27, to write The End of Nature. It owes more than a small debt to The Fate of the Earth, which let me feel it was possible and permitted to write about the largest questions in the largest ways.
In the years that followed, having helped push action on his greatest cause—the danger of nuclear weapons—that issue began to seem a little less urgent. That perception, of course, is mistaken: Nuclear weapons remain a constant peril, perhaps more than ever in an increasingly multipolar world. But with the end of the Cold War and the build-down of US and Russian weapon stocks, the question compelled people less feverishly. New perils—climate change perhaps chief among them—emerged. Post-9/11, smaller-bore terrors informed our nightmares. We would have been wise, as the rise of a sinister Vladimir Putin and a sinister and clueless Donald Trump remind us, to pay much sharper attention to this existential issue, but the peace dividend turned out mostly to be a relaxing of emotional vigilance.
However, for the moment, we have not exploded nuclear weapons, notwithstanding Trump’s recent query about what good they are if we don’t use them. Our minds can compass the specter of a few mushroom clouds obliterating all that we know and love; those images have fueled a fitful but real effort to contain the problem, resulting most recently in the agreement with Iran. We have not been able to imagine that the billion tiny explosions of a billion pistons in a billion cylinders every second of every day could wreak the same damage, and hence we’ve done very little to ward off climate change.