Helen Caldicott is here to tell you how you aren’t scared enough of nuclear war.
Dir. Terre Nash, 1982, 25 min
If You Love This Planet is something of a proto-Inconvenient Truth. The film takes a single lecture and adds in other media to expand upon its message. The subject is even fittingly apocalyptic: nuclear holocaust. And one thing the movie makes clear is that the use of nuclear weapons constitutes a holocaust, not a war. The sheer destructive potential is extermination, not combat. This documentary is about absurdity: the sheer childishness at the heart of the Cold War, of “boys flexing muscles in a sandbox.” Einstein said that, “The splitting of the atom has changed everything, except man’s mode of thinking. Thus, we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.” We haven’t evolved with our technology, and the consequences are literally too staggering to comprehend.
The film tries to make them comprehensible, though. Australian physician Dr. Helen Caldicott was moved to become an anti-nuclear activist by the Three Mile Island incident. She gave a lecture at SUNY Pittsburgh, and director Terre Nash got it on camera. In the speech, Caldicott describes, in explicit, agonizing detail, what exactly happens when a nuclear bomb is used. It’s a nightmare scenario laid out with scientific calm and simplicity, which makes it all the more haunting.
With archived photos and video from the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings edited in, Caldicott explains how everything within a certain radius would be instantly obliterated, and how radiation would devastate any of the survivors. And the effects are cumulative; one bomb is a disaster, but the use of any good amount of the U.S. or Soviet Union’s stockpiles would spell the end of life on Earth. The damage to the ozone alone would mean you would get a third-degree sunburn from being outside for more than fifteen minutes for years afterward.
This is a game that is impossible to play, much less win, so why do we do it? Why did America and Russia build up nuclear arsenals plentiful enough to overkill the opposing populations twenty or forty times over? People only die once. It’s like Buck Turgidson talking about a “mineshaft gap” without any of the irony. It’s not really much of a surprise that the Reagan administration tried to suppress the doc, calling it “foreign propaganda.” Which didn’t stop it from winning an Oscar for Best Documentary Short, which is kind of gratifying.
The best, most affecting thing about the lecture and the movie isn’t the dark forecasting, which is a bit miraculous. Caldicott is a staunch idealist, and she uses this sobering knowledge to agitate for political activism and change. The answer isn’t to dig a bomb shelter – it’s to reach out to Washington. With expert grace, she transitions from horror to gentle humor. The title of the speech and film isn’t Hide Under Your Bed and Pray Feebly Because You Will Die Horribly, after all. Caldicott believes that our better angels can win out.
And she was right. She speaks in the movie of scientists predicting that we wouldn’t survive to 1990, and look how that turned out. But today, there are new challenges to humankind’s well-being (As well as some old ones. The threat of nukes is still alive and present), and they also have to be confronted as well. If You Love This Planet stands as a great, enduring call to action. No matter what new problem arises, it can be met with rationality and compassion. Change might be slow, but it does happen. And that is a comfort.