20 years ago I sat in a classroom, and with the help of an avuncular history teacher and a comic like text book I was educated on a chapter of the cold war - The Cuban Missile Crisis. As with much of my education most of the details of the subject have today escaped me. Two things however remain clear in my mind.
Firstly; the Kennedy administration drew up a list of seven options that were available to them. To my teenage mind this appeared to be a pragmatic way to approach an international crisis, all the more so since it included - right at option #1 no less - the option to "Do Nothing". In the intervening years I have deployed the "Do Nothing" option on a number of occasions, although it has to be said with mixed results.
Secondly; there was much focus on the human element of the situation. Behind the newspapers' hyperbole about the "world holding its breath" there were many many case studies about real people experiencing real fear. A genuine consideration in the minds of millions that annihilation could rain from the sky at any moment. Anecdotally conversations over the two intervening decades confirms this.
Fortunately it looks like JFK was no friend to apathy and option #1 was ignored. I was, and remain, a poor student of history (and indeed most subjects) so today I don't know how the crisis was resolved. However resolved it was and since that moment of brinkmanship the world has been steadily retreating from global annihilation. For sure the path has been a meandering one, sometimes doubling back on itself, but it is heading in the right direction. Global Armageddon has truly been consigned to the history books.
Or has it?
There were just over 3bn people on Earth in 1962. Fifty years later there are almost 7bn. Human ingenuity has proved the letter of Malthus wrong, and with global population growth now slowing and predicted to stabilise at around 10bn by 2100, it looks as if fears of starvation were overblown. But what about the spirit of Malthus? That humanity through the pressures of growth will damage itself, perhaps fatally. Escaping this fate is certain. Most of us will never suffer from the black horse of famine (in fact quite the opposite, since 2008 more people have suffered from having too much food than not enough) but are we free from the self destructive nature of humanity's success?
If we don't live sustainably, and we don't live decently, we damage the environment and we damage people in ways that we don't fully understand. Some change is under way, and chances are that if you are reading this post you are probably already taking steps to change the way you live to minimise damage. But is it enough? Are we sleepwalking to global social and environmental Armageddon as we sleepwalked to a nuclear one in the 1950s? If so where is our Cuban Missile Crisis to put us back on track?