HIROSHIMA: A mushroom cloud after a nuclear bomb was detonated above Hiroshima. Today the US and Japan are allies. Picture: U.S. Army via Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum/AP
Many years ago, when I was young and engaged to be married, I read a visionary novel by a popular author which made me wonder whether the happy future I envisioned for myself was doomed.

The impact of On the Beach by Nevil Shute on my generation was profound.

We were 1940s babies, brought up in the shadow of a global conflict that is estimated to have killed 70 million people.

It ended with the dropping of two obscene new weapons of mass destruction on crowded cities in Japan.

Peace finally came to a shattered, dislocated world and the mammoth 50-year task of rebuilding political and economic infrastructure and the founding of new families began.

At the same time, Russia, France, Britain and later China engaged in a bitter arms race to acquire and perfect the technology that would enable them to break the US government’s nuclear monopoly.

The ensuing Cold War lasted 45 years. Ten years into the chill, the British author and former aeronautical engineer Shute wrote a book which spelled out what might happen if a tit-for-tat nuclear war broke out by accident in the northern hemisphere, written from the perspective of ordinary people waiting for a lethal atomic cloud to reach them in the south.

Shute told the truth and laid bare our deepest fears. He said nuclear war meant death, and in doing so, he helped transform passive resignation into vociferous anti-nuclear protest.

Set in 1960s Australia (but it could equally have been in South Africa or South America), On the Beach describes in a very low-key, understated way how a small group of Australians and Americans face the appalling fact that everyone in the north is dead and that the same fate awaits them. Facing the inevitable, they all choose to end their own lives (usually by taking state-sponsored suicide pills) rather than die agonisingly from radiation fall-out.

The lack of hysteria and heroics made the novel all the more believable. Scientists and academics had been issuing anti-nuclear warnings for years, but the message didn’t filter down to ordinary people until Shute’s book and the subsequent Hollywood movie appeared.

Thanks to this new awareness, humanity managed to avoid a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War, which ended in 1991. Between eight and 10 nations now have nuclear arms, but the fear that they might be casually unleashed seems to have declined. South Africa’s own nuclear weapons were dismantled in 1989.

I was reminded of my 1960s unease when I came across a YouTube video recently called The Next 10 Years by a biologist named Guy McPherson, who announced - with apparently complete conviction - that run-away climate change was so far advanced that the entire population of the globe would be dead by 2026.

More next week.

* Jackie Loos' "The Way We Were" column is published in the Cape Argus every week.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus