“I believe that for a moment I thought the explosion might set fire to the atmosphere and thus finish the Earth, even though I knew that this was not possible.”
These words of Manhattan Project physicist Emilio Segre, quoted by Richard Rhodes in his book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, refer to the Trinity blast on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo, N.M., the first atomic explosion in history and, so it appears, a turning point for all life on this planet.
The atmosphere didn’t catch fire at 5:30 that morning, but Segre’s words remain relevant, sort of like radioactive fallout. They encapsulate what may be history’s ultimate moment of human arrogance: the belief in a sense of separateness from and superiority to nature so thorough that we have, with our monstrous intelligence, the ability and therefore the right to play Bad God and make the whole planet go poof.
Turns out the Trinity test set into motion something even more profound than the nuclear era. The bomb didn’t just “defeat” Japan and define the Cold War, with its suicidal nuclear arms race. It is also, at least symbolically, marks the beginning of what has come to be known as the Anthropocene: an era of profound climate and “Earth system” destabilization caused by human activity and therefore, like it or not, establishing humans as co-equal participants in activity of the natural world.
There’s more to this “co-equal” status than nuclear weapons, of course. They may be the tip of our arrogance, but we’ve been exploiting and rearranging the planet for nearly 12,000 years, since the beginning of the era we are now leaving, the Holocene, an era of climate stability in which human civilization and all written history emerged.
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