Nuclear war no longer seems to scare us as much as it used to – have we become accustomed to the unthinkable?

·5 min read

Raymond Briggs, the writer and illustrator who died on Tuesday, created many memorable characters but none as haunting as Jim and Hilda Bloggs, the elderly couple enduring a nuclear attack in When the Wind Blows.

As news of Briggs’s death circulated, social media filled with people of a certain age recalling childhood nightmares derived from the poignant attempts of the Bloggs to follow the absurd instructions from a civil defence pamphlet.

“Thank goodness I got those official leaflets today,” says the ever-cheery Jim. “Suppose I hadn’t? We’d have been totally non-prepared! Just think!”

When the Wind Blows appeared in the early 1980s, a decade in which the prospect of atomic Armageddon dominated the culture. Think of WarGames or The Day After, think of the music of Midnight Oil and books like EP Thompson’s Protest and Survive and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

What happened to that fear – to the bone-deep terror of nuclear war?

We don’t associate disaster only with a push of the atomic button. We see it creeping up slowly everywhere we look

An obvious answer pertains to the west’s victory in the cold war. Certainly, the disintegration of the Soviet Union ended the geostrategic rivalry that had fuelled the proliferation of weapons and made an apocalyptic conflict feel so imminent.

Yet, although America and Russia reduced their nuclear arsenals, they didn’t abolish them. On the contrary, both sides have since modernised their weapons, rendering them more destructive than ever before.

Meanwhile, promises of a post-cold war “peace dividend” have evaporated, as nations everywhere devote themselves to rearmament.

Related: Russia suspends US inspections of its nuclear weapons arsenal

In Europe, the nuclear-armed Russians are already at war in Ukraine. In the Asia-Pacific, tensions between the United States (equipped with perhaps 5,500 warheads) and China (with some 350) mount almost daily.

In 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight. It remains on that setting today – as close to the position signalling apocalypse as it’s ever been.

Last week, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, declared that humanity remains “one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation”.

So why haven’t we seen a return of the sentiment captured so powerfully in Briggs’s book?

The black humour in When the Wind Blows often stems from Jim and Hilda trying to cope with an atomic war just as they coped with the London blitz during their youth. Briggs uses their nostalgic recollections of “old Churchill on the radio … nine o’clock news … Vera Lynn singing away …” to emphasise the unprecedented horror of a nuclear conflict the couple barely comprehend.

For all the misery it brought, the second world war culminated in remarkable social advances such as the extension of the welfare state. The generation that first read When the Wind Blows lived through the postwar economic boom – and so could understand the threat of nuclear annihilation as a hideous aberration threatening the more-or-less steady march of human progress.

No one thinks like that today.

A few days ago, we learned that scientists at Stockholm University have judged rainwater throughout the planet unsafe to consume, thanks to the presence of the so-called “forever chemicals” we’ve dumped into the environment. The researchers say that, from Antarctica to the Tibetan plateau, the levels of toxicity in rain exceed the guidelines of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

That extraordinary news barely caused a ripple, probably because it followed on the heels of so many other deeply disturbing stories. To take a few examples more or less at random, heatwaves have led to crop failures across Europe, the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet, and the rise from diseases such as Zika, malaria, dengue, chikungunya and Covid-19 has been caused by climate change, creating what scientists describe as threats “too numerous for comprehensive societal adaptions”.

If nuclear war no longer gives us nightmares, it’s perhaps because we’re becoming accustomed to the unthinkable. We don’t associate disaster exclusively with a push of the atomic button. Instead, we see it creeping up slowly everywhere we look.

That’s why it’s worth remembering the era that gave rise to When the Wind Blows.

The cold war of the 1980s terrified people – but it also made them angry. A widespread sense that the leaders of both east and west would risk the fate of the planet to preserve their own power spurred a powerful movement.

In London, 250,000 marched against the bomb in London in 1981. In the US, the nuclear disarmament rally of 1982 brought a million people to New York’s Central Park. In Australia, the annual Palm Sunday peace rallies mobilised perhaps 300,000 people in 1984 and 350,000 the following year.

Those huge marches – and the mass membership of groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – acted as a constraint on politicians, and so ensured that the grim scenario in Briggs’s book remained entirely fictional.

By contrast, today Peter Dutton can tell us to “prepare for war” and Nancy Pelosi add to tensions by visiting Taiwan, safe in the knowledge that the antiwar movement has never been weaker.

A nuclear exchange would, quite obviously, devastate the environment. But the environmental crisis also makes war more likely, as the great powers reposition themselves in the context of an energy transition.

It’s a good moment to re-read When the Wind Blows – not to scare yourself but to get inspired to fight!