From my interviews in Hiroshima I learned of rumors that circulated immediately after the atomic bomb struck, rumors that revealed survivors’ anxious sense of the vulnerability of their habitat. The most persistent of these rumors, and for many the most disturbing, was that trees, grass, and flowers would never again grow in Hiroshima. Because of the bomb’s “poison”—its radiation effects—the city would be unable to sustain vegetation of any kind. Nature would dry up altogether; life would be extinguished at its source. The rumor suggested a form of desolation that not only encompassed human death but went beyond it.

Another rumor was that for a period of seventy-five years—or perhaps forever—Hiroshima would be uninhabitable: no one would be able to live there. Suggested here was the idea that the city itself, the habitat of all who dwelled in it, was contaminated beyond the point of sustaining human life.

There was also the sense among survivors that the bomb had so altered the natural world that the Americans were capable of further altering it in any imaginable way. Hence rumors that America would mount new attacks with “poison gases” or “burning oil”; that America, having dropped such a terrible “hot bomb,” would next drop a “cold bomb” or “ice bomb,” which would simply freeze everything so that everyone would die; and even a rumor that America would drop rotten pigs with the result, as one survivor put it, that “everything on the earth would decay and go bad.”

All of these rumors were related to observed radiation effects, acute and delayed, or what I came to call a fear of invisible contamination—the fear among survivors that the same mysterious, pervasive, and deadly poison that had entered their individual bodies would engulf their entire city.

As it turned out, the environment was not permanently destroyed. The appearance of cherry blossoms the following spring even conveyed a partial sense of renewal. That environmental recovery was in keeping with a very different view of nature expressed to me by a survivor who quoted an old Japanese (originally Chinese) saying: “The state may collapse, but the mountains and rivers remain.” Here the message expressed was that whatever we humans destroy, nature will somehow endure. Though events seemed to confirm this second, more hopeful view, Hiroshima survivors retained feelings that they had come close to experiencing the destruction of everything, to experiencing, as several put it to me, “the end of the world.” Indeed the desolation expressed by those early post-bomb Hiroshima rumors turned out to anticipate later responses of people everywhere to the interactions of mind and habitat.

Overall, people in Hiroshima became deeply uncertain about how much one could depend upon the natural world to keep human beings alive. And many people elsewhere, having heard about or encountered images of Hiroshima and the weapon that destroyed it, took on a similar sense of cosmic uncertainty that continues to haunt human beings everywhere. We could not confidently depend upon “nature” to protect us from this new weapon. We learned that, whatever our destructive power, mountains and rivers may indeed remain.

What may not remain, however, are precisely the elements of nature necessary to human life: an atmosphere surrounding the earth that is not overheated, and oceans that are not rendered acidic and dangerous to the land around them. In other words, it is precisely the human habitat, and that of other plant and animal species—just a small part of nature — that is threatened. The rest of nature will be okay. If our bombs inundate the earth with deadly radiation, or bring about a nuclear winter by creating debris that blocks the rays of the sun, or if our carbon and methane emissions significantly increase climate temperature, then the prevailing mountains and rivers will do little to sustain the life of our species.

Hiroshima and the Ultimate Pollution

Early in my work I struggled with the relationship between nuclear threat and danger to our habitat. I completed my Hiroshima study in 1962, and a few years later I wrote most of a talk that I called “Hiroshima and the Ultimate Pollution.” I apparently gave the talk on a couple of occasions but had forgotten about it until just a few years ago when my assistant rediscovered it among my papers deposited at the New York Public Library. In the talk I discussed those Hiroshima rumors and their suggestion of our new capacity to destroy, or come close to destroying, our natural world. I spoke of the “breakdown of ecological balance” and said that we “must use such terms as ‘poison,’ ‘deterioration,’ ‘degeneration,’ and ‘starvation,’ ” as we are “speaking of nothing other than death, whether partial, symbolic, or total—and not only death but grotesque and premature death.” I was talking about both nuclear weapons and extreme environmental pollution. And I went on to insist that “to preserve our planet and avoid these deadly breakdowns is to speak of life—not only in the individual person but the life of our species and that of other species as well.”

I believed that those Hiroshima rumors were prophetic for all of us, possessed a Cassandra-like quality, which we had better heed. The term “global warming” was not yet in general use, and I was clearly unaware of the important scientific findings about climate change that had already been recorded. But I was groping for a way of comparing, and finding parallels between, nuclear and climate threats.

The “ultimate pollution” I referred to—of individual bodies and the atmosphere outside of them—was created by an atomic bomb.


Around the same time, I and a loosely connected group of activists began to talk about “ecocide,” a term we used to suggest large-scale destruction of the environment. Interestingly, we first spoke of ecocide not in relation to nuclear weapons or climate change but to the U.S. military’s use of the herbicide called Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange was actually a combination of herbicides, named because of the signature orange stripe across the barrels in which it was stored; it was sprayed widely on vegetation in South Vietnam for the purpose of depriving guerrilla forces of protective terrain. Agent Orange contained benzoic acid and dioxin, and turned out to be extremely harmful not only to plant ecology but to people as well, increasing rates of cancer and causing birth defects, brain disorders, and other grave diseases in Vietnamese and Americans who were exposed to it.

The term “ecocide” was first used by a friend and colleague at Yale, Arthur Galston, whose relationship to Agent Orange was both tragic and inspiring. Tragic because Galston’s work as a young botanist on a benzoic acid compound was utilized by American military scientists in producing Agent Orange. Inspiring because Galston was deeply troubled by the part his work played in extending war into environmental destruction, spoke often about his sense of guilt and responsibility, and became an extraordinarily articulate antiwar activist who made many trips to Vietnam and China, focusing always on the dangers of Agent Orange.

In that way he and other scientists eventually persuaded the American government to end the herbicidal project. I collaborated with him in a number of antiwar activities and observed the passionate intensity of his very personal involvement. His dedicated opposition to the use of the substance he had helped create, and his subsequent work in the new realm of bioethics, gave powerful expression to what I have come to call an animating relation to guilt. What I mean by that is the converting of self-condemnation into the anxiety of responsibility. That in turn can result in considerable achievement.

Another friend, Richard Falk, did much to bring the term ecocide into the international legal realm. Falk, an authority on international law, pointed out that American behavior in Vietnam “provided the first modern case where the environment was selected as a ‘military’ target appropriate for comprehensive and systematic destruction.” He proposed a U.N. ecocide convention in 1973 that, although not officially accepted, had considerable influence over the years. His proposal was to become a basic document for a contemporary Ecocide Project, a widespread effort to render ecocide an international crime parallel to, and part of, the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Ecocide, then, has long been my concern, even if I took considerable time to realize its full significance. Without being aware of it, I was undergoing a change in consciousness in connection with the human habitat. That is, I was becoming part of the climate swerve.

Taking On (or Being Taken On by) Climate Change

Recently I have wondered at the hiatus between my work on Hiroshima and my concern about climate issues. I remember a conversation I had in 2013 with Jonathan Schell, the most influential of all writers on nuclear issues, about our having both been slow to take up the issue of climate change. We agreed that there was a deep connection between nuclear and climate threats and that climate was the all-enveloping one. Now I wonder whether both of us were not held back by a faith in the ultimate stability of nature, a faith that could cloud the minds of even those who were strongly aware of nuclear threat. I believe that Schell and I were no different from many others in assuming, however unconsciously, that those mountains and rivers would indeed outlast—and perhaps contain—the devastation of nuclear war.

In my case I had to be prodded by a friend, a member of the Wellfleet group on psychology and history, who pointed out in 2012 that we had never taken up the subject of climate threat. I had formed the group in 1966, together with Erik Erikson, and had hosted all of its annual meetings in my home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. We had frequently discussed nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and psychological perspectives on various historical events. My friend suggested that we should connect climate change with our ongoing concerns, and that I in particular should have something to say about the issue, just as I had about nuclear threat. I experienced a direct and immediate affirmation, as one does to ideas that make contact with unrealized inclinations of one’s own. Climate change became a central issue of the Wellfleet group, and I began a systematic comparison of climate and nuclear threats, drawing upon past nuclear explorations that I could now see in a somewhat different light.

In that way my study of climate change was anchored in previous work. In that earlier research I had made use of extensive psychological interviews with people who had undergone various forms of duress. For instance, my work in Hiroshima was primarily based on in-depth psychological interviews, supplemented with what I call a mosaic approach, an immersion in the historical and cultural forces providing the context for those interviews. But in this and other research, the interviews themselves had been basic to the method; through them people conveyed to me, directly and powerfully, their pain and suffering and their struggles with healing.

In going about my climate study, I did not conduct systematic interviews with particular groups of people as in previous research. Rather, I relied on the findings of scientists and knowledgeable observers, and on the recorded experience of survivors of climate events. But I brought to the climate work that longstanding exposure to raw human experience that I had gained through decades of interviews. What people went through in Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and Vietnam had become part of my enduring consciousness and a source of survivor-like feelings that have lasted a lifetime. To be sure, I have been a witnessing professional and not a survivor, but my interview method took me as close to survivor experience as a non-survivor can get. Climate change could never become an abstraction for me. Rather than a theoretical projection of a possible future, I came to see global warming as a source of ever-increasing human suffering.