A legendary anti-nuclear weapons activist's advice to eco-anxious people

A chat with Dr. Helen Caldicott, physician to a dying planet

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There were a couple of years, after I turned thirty, when I was allergic to hopeful narratives about the climate and ecological crisis. If I’d encounter a journalist, activist, or scholar writing about how we can beat the crisis if we’d only immediately get down to work, I’d interpret their gospel as a kind of desperation -- a melange of wishful thinking and fear of the truth; what the doom-literate call “hopium”. “We still have time to turn this around” they’d say. Yeah right, I’d think. “How bad this gets is completely up to us” they’d exclaim. That’s very self-important, I’d scoff. 

I am quite familiar with that part of myself, and ironically, I credit her with spurring the work that I now do. But I’ve discovered that she is not the only voice that whispers to me when I’m in touch with my fear for the world. As my work on climate psychology has expanded, her despairing tone has started to harmonize with several others. My research has taught me how to manage the hopeless parts of myself, and make room for other important facets. Namely, an accepting voice that knows how to find meaning in our predicament; a courageous voice that understands the purpose of being brave in these times; and a resolved voice that is committed to taking action that can make the world a better place, even as it becomes more bloody and broken. Somehow, amidst all that, I can still laugh my head off and revel in the joys of life. I’m learning to keep the balance.

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There’s so much to say on the topic of learning to live well with one’s awoken state in this crisis that I could write a book about it (sorry, how cheesy -- if you read Gen Dread regularly you’ll know that I have, though it isn’t yet out.) This week, I wanted to shed light on a woman whose life of brazen advocacy nourishes the courageous and resolved voices in my head that are now a lot louder. 

"Portret. Helen Caldicott." by Europeana CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Dr. Helen Caldicott is an Australian physician, author, and long-time anti-nuclear war activist. In the 1970s and 80s, she worked tirelessly to educate the public about the medical effects of radiation, by touring cities and lecturing to thousands of people, spearheading rallies, and regularly appearing on TV. She led a collective of anti-nuclear war activists whose efforts helped bring an end to the Cold War and production of an arms control treaty. To learn more about Dr. Caldicott, check out this Oscar winning short called If You Love This Planet, which was made about her activism in 1982, by the National Film Board of Canada. 

Dr. Caldicott is now 82. I spoke with her a little over a year ago. At the time, I was trying to understand how the rise in reproductive anxiety today (due to the climate crisis) might connect with other moments in history when people may have felt it was a questionable time to have kids. Below is an excerpt of our interview. 

"Nuclear Explosion 1280X1024 Wallpaper" by judaluz83 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Wray: Surveys show that many people today don’t feel like the world is safe enough to bring kids into because of the climate crisis, and so, they aren’t planning to. I’ve been wondering if the same thing happened in the past during moments of heightened nuclear scare.

Caldicott: Yep, I don’t blame them. When I had my children in the early 60s I wondered if I should bring children into this world because of nuclear. When my son was 9, he said that he wanted to be on the roof of the state house. And I said “why?” And he said “because I’ll be the first to die.” 

I think people probably thought about not having children, though maybe not as strongly as now. But that’s not the point. It is not about whether they should or shouldn’t have children. If they rise up, with their full moral and spiritual height and educate themselves and take on this bloody country that you live in, they’ll feel better. Much better. They’ll know they’ll make a difference and they may be able to save the planet by covering every house with solar panels, using windmills, and offshore wind. The solutions are there. 

I’m talking about revolution -- closing down the Pentagon -- because the military corporations have produced a factory in every congressional district. So what happens if that notion is introduced? They scream “jobs”. Well, many more jobs can be created by saving the planet than killing the planet. 

Wray: What kind of mindset should people adopt in order to help bring about the actions that are needed now? 

Caldicott: Every single person needs to take it on their own shoulders. Holding the world, like Atlas, on their shoulders, and deciding to save the planet. I don’t really care how people react emotionally. Well I do, but they will be far less depressed, and far past worrying about having babies or not. That’s irrelevant! They have to get off their asses, excuse my French, and save the planet. They have to get off their computers, figure out how to organize their community and how to organize their politicians and take over the country.

You do live in a democracy and unless you use it, you don’t have one. I can’t stress that strongly enough. You know, I’m a physician to a dying planet. The planet is in the intensive care unit. Paralysis will lead to death. 

Look at what I did. I turned up in the late 70s in America, an alien, a woman! And I led the movement against nuclear weapons.

With lots of others in fact, but I was the leader. So don’t think you can’t do anything. The solutions are there. The money that is being spent on death, has to urgently be reallocated.

Wray: In the Academy Award winning film about your activism - If You Love This Planet - you propose an action called Babies Against the Pentagon. The idea was to interrupt American Senators as they debated the arms race by having hundreds of mothers release hundreds of naked toddlers in the Senate chamber. Did that ever happen? 

Caldicott: (Laughs) No, but I thought it was a great idea. You could do it now. It would get into every single newspaper around the world and every TV show. 

Wray: As you say, you’re a physician to a dying planet. So what’s the prescription? 

Caldicott: We need to foster friendships with all nations and reinvent the billions and trillions spent on war, killing, and death to save the ecosphere by powering the world with renewable energy like solar, wind, geothermal and also planting trillions of trees. We need to free up billions of dollars to be reallocated to life, such as free medical care, free education, housing for the homeless, the mentally sick, and invest in the abolition of nuclear weapons. 

The United States of America urgently needs to rise to its full moral and spiritual height and lead the world to survival. I know this is possible because in the 1980s millions of wonderful people rose up nationally and internationally to end the nuclear arms race and end the cold war. This then is a sound template upon which we must act.

Wray: Thank you for lighting the fire under my ass, Helen. 

Caldicott: Go to it, baby!

The world is calling you in

Dr. Caldicott’s urgency and determination for massive uprising is one of many different approaches that we need now. Maybe the idea of “saving the planet” is off-putting to you, because a) the planet isn’t dying, we are b) there is no way to prevent some major losses that we are headed for, and so, we must try to adapt. But what good does it do to not act aggressively and boldly to save whatever ecosystem health that we can? Firstly, there is still a ton to protect, even if we blow past the hellish heights of 3 degrees and lose an unthinkable percentage of all species. Besides, in principle, if we’re going to unravel, don’t we want to fall apart in the service of defending life? In the midst of fighting to improve the odds? While holding each other up, and experiencing the depths of how humans love?

I know that many people think it’s all written off, and that no one is getting out of here alive in 50 years. Gen Dread readers sometimes write me to say such things. Who knows, maybe they’re right? Equally, maybe they’re wrong? It’s incredibly uncomfortable, all of this not knowing. I get it. If I’ve learned anything from my research, it’s that you can be positively transformed if you lean into your pain for the world (with the right support to do so). If you feel maladjusted, your conscience is alive, and this can energize you. You have an unparalleled opportunity to use that energy for good.

I find myself increasingly incensed by people who see all the chaos that is happening, and increasingly coming our way, and who respond by making peace with their own deaths as well as that of society as a whole. I know that this is part of some people’s grief process — to find quiet acceptance and new depths of spirituality, most stereotypically by retreating to the woods. The more that I learn about history though - and the overwhelming struggles that people have always faced - the more that I can only see that form of coping as unjust, malignantly unattached, and dangerous.

We’re being forced to learn to live well with increasing amounts of anxiety, grief, panic, fear, sadness, and so on. We’re being summoned to undo historical wrongs, see this crisis in the long line of crises it was born from, and decolonize our approach to living in the world anew. We’re realizing why we must listen deeply to oppressed people’s grievances, and prioritize responding to them with care. We’re sensing our ability to go beyond the human ego and listen to the plants and animals, feeling just how tightly our survival is caught up in theirs. We need to offer reparations and build trust, in so many directions. Yes, Global North to South, but also within our own backyards. This is our time to rise, lifted by a bold mission to protect life, above all else. Measuring GDP and measuring wellbeing are clearly not the same thing, and many bright people are creating better metrics that can help us (I’m thinking de-growth economics, donut economics, wellbeing adjusted life years or WALYs, just to name a few ideas).

We are each being called to find our unique contribution. What, after all, do we owe each other at the end of the world as we’ve known it? (Read: it is indeed the beginning of something new).

What are you good at? What makes your heart sing? To find what you can give that will also make your life feel more abundant, start by looking there.

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