Peony Gent

The Age of Invisible Fire

What came after Oppenheimer

J.ROBERT OPPENHEIMER IS probably the figure from  the twentieth century who comes closest to a myth. In Greek mythology, Prometheus brought fire to mankind  by stealing it from the peak of Mount Olympus; Oppenheimer dived into the smallest unit of matter and brought us the nuclear bomb, the godly force more destructive than all the combined tyrants in human history.

Some have argued that Oppenheimer, through his leadership in the Manhattan Project, marked a new era in geological history. Radiation from the Trinity test and the following nuclear era established a layer we might understand as the starting point of the Anthropocene. As of July 16, 1945, our footprint was formally measurable on all surfaces of Earth, in all soils, all stones, and metals. We had begun to affect Earth the way major geological phenomena do. A few humans had the power to destroy all life. At the same time, other human activities have become so extensive that the postwar years have been called the “Great Acceleration.” Since then, our effects on Earth have grown exponentially at the same time that biodiversity has gone the other way.

Oppenheimer himself realized the mythical context of his actions when he saw the bomb explode for the first time. He said:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered a line from Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

My generation had recurring nightmares about Oppenheimer’s discovery. We were brought up with photos of Hiroshima, and words like nuclear winter and nuclear fallout hung over our childhood like dark clouds. But our greatest threat now seems to come from good old Prometheus. He stole the fire from the gods and was brutally punished by an eagle who gnawed out his liver. The gods knew that we would not be able to handle the power of fire and things would eventually go  very wrong.

James Watt took the torch of Prometheus and hid it in the steam engine. Finally humans could harness the true power of fire to boil water to turn a piston to propel machines that could shovel coal and iron ore, to create even bigger machines that made even bigger machines and ships and trains, until we mastered the art of hiding the fire under glossy hoods of automobiles with music pumping and an air conditioner blowing wind through our hair, or flying like gods through the sky in golden chariots, leaving nothing but a long white cloud in our wake.

We see figures like 415 parts per million and thirty-five gigatons, words like emissions and CO2. But they are vague. CO2 is invisible. Thirty-five gigatons is incomprehensible. All of it means nothing until we remember that it all comes from fire: emissions coming from invisible fires in cars, factories, and energy plants. Fire is behind all our activities, but still we go through a day without seeing a single flame. We see traffic but never the fire in the engines. We see in the news when an oil tanker burns, we see the violence, but never the fact that all this oil was meant to burn anyway.

When the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland in 2010 and closed down the European airspace, it emitted about 150,000 tons of CO2 every day for its duration. Human emissions are about 100 million tons a day, the equivalent of 666 volcanoes. If you ask a geologist when in history Earth had 666 volcanoes erupting simultaneously, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, they would have to go back millions of years, to eras of major disruption in all of Earth’s systems. That is exactly what is happening now.

The gods were probably right when they punished Prometheus for stealing the fire. We have kindled the greatest flames Earth has ever seen. We should buy ourselves a barrel of oil, just one of the 100 million we turn into invisible fires every day. We should set it on fire in our backyard. We should gaze into the flames and ask like Oppenheimer: “Have we become death, the destroyers of our world?”

Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.

Andri Snær Magnason is the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction for adults and children, including On Time and Water. He has directed three documentary films, the most recent of which is Apausalypse.