Americans’ fears of nuclear annihilation well up every few decades. Early 1960s: the Cuban missile crisis. 1980s: the Soviet Union’s reaction to the “Star Wars” defense plan. Now: “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, there’s no doubt about that” — Stephen K. Bannon.
Apocalyptic visions are always in fashion, of course; it’s just a question of where the end is seen to be coming from. The bellicose statements directed at other countries by our current president and some of his advisers have renewed fears (or, in some quarters, hopes) that we’ll bring it about ourselves through all-out war.
Trust television to remind us that whatever we do, there’s a range of threats completely out of our control that will someday do the job for us. This programming category is a mainstay of a number of cable channels, and its latest iteration can be seen on Saturday when the Science Channel presents “The Dark Side of the Sun.”
“Dark Side,” a documentary about the inevitable catastrophe that will be caused by a coronal mass ejection — huge solar winds — isn’t, strictly speaking, apocalyptic. But it’s on the spectrum: coronal ejection, mega-volcano, asteroid strike. When Earth is hit by another solar wind like the 1859 Carrington Event (scientists estimate that we’re about 50 years overdue), the likely result will be significant, with a long-lasting loss of electric power. Imagine the entire East Coast without any power for a year.
(If you want real apocalypse, cable provides. On Sunday the American Heroes Channel begins the six-part series “How the World Ends,” beginning with nuclear war and proceeding through rogue planet and epidemic to alien invasion.)
Because “Dark Side” is on the Science Channel, it balances its scaremongering with reports on two major efforts to study the sun and predict when a massive solar wind is going to hit the Earth. (We couldn’t send Ben Affleck up to stop the wind, but we could shut down our power grids and communication systems and ground our airplanes.)
We can only hope that other current trends — the belittling of climate research and general attacks on the scientific method — don’t derail the construction of a huge solar telescope in Maui or the launch of the first spacecraft that will provide close-up satellite views of the sun. The program doesn’t suggest this, though it includes a highly pointed image in the current context: President Obama signing an executive order “coordinating efforts to prepare the nation for space weather events.”
In the end, “Dark Side” leaves behind the problem of solar winds and indulges in some pure tabloid-cable fun: pointing out that the sun, according to scientists’ best guesses, only has about five billion years to live. As the commentators talk dreamily about nuclear-fusion engines that will carry our descendants to other planets, you can’t help wondering whether approaches to diplomacy might be affected by our popular culture’s love affair with apocalypse.
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