The Nuclear Atomic Age

Born in 1946, I am a child of the Atomic Age whose birth was so vividly displayed in the film, Oppenheimer. Here we see the tragic consequences of the interplay between human ingenuity—the scientific quest; human greed and fear—war and conflict over territory and resources; and human pride—the triumphalism of scientific achievement and the subjugation of one’s ‘enemies’.

For me, the most chilling moment in the film is when Oppenheimer announces the impact of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in achieving Japanese surrender, following the already achieved German surrender—and his audience erupts with cheers and feet stamping, while Oppenheimer’s face betrays his personal anguish at what his quest has achieved.

We are reminded of the famous Greek legend of the price Prometheus had to pay for stealing fire from the Gods, while Oppenheimer recalls the ominous words of Krishna from the sacred Hindu text, Bhagavadita: ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’.

Krishna is an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu the God who creates, protects and transforms the world, who is called into action when the world is threatened with chaos, evil and destructive forces, to restore the cosmic order. Some Hindus regard the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha, as an incarnation of Vishnu.

Western culture, shaped by the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution has a strong belief in the power of human intelligence, through the capacity of human reason, to create continuous progress towards a better world. We are heavily invested in our cleverness and addicted to individual and group competitiveness, which we celebrate and develop through pride and aggression in our culture through politics, business, education, sport and culture.

We are still driven by the discredited Darwinian idea of the ‘survival of the fittest’ instead of the later realisation that evolution is not marked by the survival of fittest (strongest, smartest, wealthiest) but more importantly by the survival of the fitting/best fit (in tune with the complex nature of systems ecology that prescribe planetary life and the role of collaboration as well as competition, from microbes to apex predators).

Because of the ability of the ‘white’ folk of the European powers and their diaspora to settle the Americas and the Pacific, and claim it for themselves, ‘white’ people have long thought of themselves as the triumph of Darwinian human and cultural evolution—the smartest and therefore the fittest ‘kids on the block’ who grabbed all the spoils and won all the wars.

Now we are discovering that this is the curse of those victim to the idea of the survival of the fittest.  Our collective capacity for the technologically amplified destruction of the Earth as a life supporting bio-regional system of local ecologies, and of the socio-cultural expressions of sustainable human societies, cannot survive a ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy. Instead we must now contemplate an entirely different philosophy—the survival of the most fitting. those who understand how to live symbiotically with the complex interdependent systems of nature that prescribes life on Earth.


In Greek mythology Prometheus is best known for defying the Olympian gods by stealing fire from them and giving it to humanity in the form of technology, knowledge, and more generally, civilisation. Prometheus is known for his intelligence and for being a champion of humanity. The punishment of Prometheus for stealing fire from Olympus and giving it to humans is a subject of both ancient and modern culture.  Zeus, king of the Olympian Gods condemned Prometheus to eternal torment for his transgression. Prometheus was bound to a rock, and an eagle—the emblem of Zeus—was sent to eat his liver (in ancient Greece, the liver was thought to be the seat of human emotions). His liver would then grow back overnight, only to be eaten again the next day in an ongoing cycle.

As a practising Buddhist, I would read this mythology as ‘there is no escape from the endless cycle of samsara (the neurotic way of living life)’ when we are caught up in the pride of what the anthropologist, Gregory Bateson (Steps to An Ecology of Mind) calls the limitations of purposive rationality, versus the wisdom of total systems awareness.

In Western culture Prometheus became a figure who represented human striving (particularly the quest for scientific knowledge) and the risk of overreaching or its unintended consequences. The heroic figure of the genius scientist who discovers the secrets of the universe, and captures them in the name of ‘Fame’ and ‘Progress’ only later to wonder ‘what if”.

The warning about unintended consequences was first highlighted in Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein (1818), whose subtitle is The Modern Prometheus – at the dawn of the Techno-Scientific age. Thus Prometheus is the cautionary tale that haunts the scientific world as it pushes the boundaries of knowledge and its adaptation into transformative technologies that impact on the world—in medicines, in biotechnologies and genetic engineering, in quantum physics, in chemicals and material technologies and in artificial intelligence. Witness the current lament of those inventors and popularisers of Generative AI.

The Problem of Entanglement

Five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Prince Siddhartha Gautama of Lumbini (in what is now Nepal) went, as a wandering ascetic, in search for answers about human existence and pervasive suffering, both physical and emotional.

After pursuing various paths, he sat in meditation under the Bodhi (Pipal) Tree in what is now Bodhgaya and declared he would not break his meditation until he found the answer.  Guarded by the nagas (serpents, an ancient symbol repleted with many meanings), he was visited by the demon, Mara, a mythological expression of the forces of human delusion: cognitive and emotional entanglement. The cognitive forces of delusion which are today amplified through social media, drawing out the poison of our prejudices and fears, are all expressions of Mara.

Firstly Prince Siddhartha was assailed by the forces of seduction-desire in the form of beautiful dancing maidens, flowers and sumptuous feasts. Then he was assailed by the forces of aggression and fear in the form of vast armies of monsters. But he continued to sit in meditation in a state of equanimity, recognising these as the weapons of Mara. And thus he discovered there is a dimension of mind that is replete with pervasive awareness and limitless compassion, undisturbed by the powers of Mara. This is the state that Buddhists call Enlightenment.

Recognising this, Buddha called the Earth to witness that he had found the cause of human suffering and how this can be overcome. When he arose from his meditation, he was proclaimed Buddha, the Awakened One.

Basically, what the Buddha discovered is how difficult it is for human beings to be at ease in the world because they are entangled in a web of desire, attachment, ignorance and aggression that comes with a human birth, and then further developed through their individual and cultural circumstances (karma). This is known as the Truth of Suffering.

But Buddha also discovered that it is possible to escape this entanglement and become awakened. The answer lies within the human mind itself. This is known as the Truth of Cessation. The path to freedom from this entanglement, and to become awakened, is to face and recognise the truth of this suffering and cut the web of entanglement that afflicts human intelligence, and binds it to pride, jealousy, prejudice, greed and aggression.

This awakening cannot be achieved by merely finding peace in better managing our anxieties and depressions, as beneficial as that might be in our modern age of high anxiety. Rather, in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of Buddhism in particular, it requires the more radical direct experiential realisation of shunyata, the essential openness of reality replete with the limitless possibilities of its manifestations. Ways to achieve this involve outer, inner and secret levels of mind-training—something that is alluded to in the innermost secret knowledge held in many ancient cultures.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

We will never forget how the invasion of Iraq to effect regime change to benefit US oil interests was justified on the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s development of ‘weapons of mass destruction’—of the same nuclear weapons already stockpiled by the 9 existing nuclear powers such as the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Korea and Israel. Similar fears are stoked about Iran.

However, given the human capacity for ingenuity as witnessed by the exponential growth of scientific knowledge since the 17th century, and human capacity for large scale social organisation (as witnessed by the two world-wars, and the growth of platform capitalism), unless we free ourselves from the web of entanglement, we ourselves, we human species are the weapons of mass destruction – on multiple fronts, not just in the form of nuclear bombs.

Through our collective actions, in search of wealth, power, pleasure and material goods, we now threaten the viability of life for ourselves and the many lifeforms that have flourished during the Holocene Geological Epoch on our planetary home, the Earth. And despite all the warnings from our science and the mounting evidence through extreme weather events, collectively we continue along the path, driven by these same forces of wealth, power, pleasure and material goods.

The Holocene Epoch is dated from approximately 12,000 years ago, following the last Ice Age. The Holocene corresponds with the rapid proliferation, growth and impacts of the human species  worldwide, including all of its written history, technological revolutions, development of major civilisations, and overall significant transition towards urban living and large cities in the present. Many scholars now consider that as a result of the impact of human activity on the Earth’s systems, we are now entering a new epoch, the Anthropocene dating from the 19th century Industrial Revolution and intensifying use of fossil fuels for energy sources and chemical pollution of soils, waterways and air, which is characterised by global warming, species extinctions, and significant changes to the world’s climatic and ocean current systems.

The Threat of Entanglement

As noted above, despite the plethora of scientific evidence and actual experience of severe weather events that human activity is breaching the bio-geological conditions for viable human life on Planet Earth, we have been unable to change course.  We are entangled in two directions, like sharks caught in ocean nets.

  • The extractivist logic of capitalism (in its liberal democratic and various autocratic forms) as an economic system of wealth creation and distribution, whereby wealth inequality, within and between nations, is increasingly leading to political destabilisation across most polities (nation states) and destruction of bio-regional ecologies
  • The failure to develop wisdom as a system of knowledge, which disentangles individual and collective intelligence from the entanglement of the negative emotions arising from desire, attachment and ignorance, and which understands the truth of the interdependent nature of all life (complex systems thinking), which requires a relationist logic across all aspects of human social organisation.

Consequences of our Promethean Entrancement

The development of the technological amplification of human activity through scientific knowledge in the First Industrial Revolution was harnessed to the imperial ambitions of the European polities through pride, envy and greed, to seek to plunder the rest of the world for resources to increase their own wealth and power. This resulted in the development of the slavery of African people on an industrial scale, the colonial subjugation of the cultures of Asia and the Middle East, and attempts to entirely annihilate the people and their cultures of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia who held the wisdom knowledge of living within bio-regional limits of their ecological territories.

World War I witnessed the application of this technological knowledge to the increased destructive power of weapons of war and loss of human life, in a competition for territory, wealth and power between European polities.

World War II saw the further development of this trend, now extended into Asia and the Pacific, and the birth of the nuclear atomic age, with the development of other weapons of war that could destroy human populations (biological weapons) and the entire Earth system (atomic weapons).

The end of World War II, combined with the continued development of scientific and technological knowledge, has led to the growth of a highly interdependent global economic and information system that is beyond the capacity of any nation state polity to manage, whereby different economic actors, including global criminal enterprises, use the increasing powers of technology and artificial intelligence to control and shape global activity.

Clash of Knowledge Systems (Civilisations)

Today the ‘clash of civilisations’ is not between the Christian and the Islamic world. Nor is it between the so-called liberal democracies of the West with their post WWII ‘International Rules-Based Order’, and the autocracies of China and Russia following the collapse of the old contest between Capitalism and Communism.

Instead, the new ‘clash of civilisations’ is between globalised techno-capitalism in all its forms, based on extractivist logic and cleverness (survival of the fittest), set against the eco-spiritual knowledge systems of surviving pockets of First Nations peoples, based on relationist logic and wisdom (survival of the most fitting): Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the Maori of New Zealand, the Pacifika people, the Sami of Scandinavia, the Inuit and Amero-Indian people of North, Central and South America, and the San, the Bushman of the Kalahari in Africa.

These are all people whose literacy is not based on human language texts, but on reading the ecology of the world around them across the interdependencies of different lifeforms, landscapes, waterways, skies and oceans, across seasons and deep time. People who all had an intimate awareness of the importance of ‘systems thinking’ compared to the more linear cause-effect siloed thinking of the modern world.

In Australia, Indigenous knowledge about local ecologies and creative forces are encoded in Songlines and transmitted as Ancestral Law across generations through complex kinship structures and a process of ceremonies using dance, song, painting and storytelling under the guidance and ‘control’ of Elders, the cultural custodians of knowledge who have themselves graduated through the ceremonial system. Such ceremonial knowledge transmission includes both ‘men’s business’ and ‘women’s ‘business’ as separate but related systems of knowledge and cultural rights and obligations.

The most revered members of this knowledge system are not those who are clever and rich, but the Elders, those who have demonstrated their wisdom through a life of service to their community and a demeanour of dignified humility rather than the hubris of fame, wealth, power and celebrity.