The idea of “business as usual” began as a civil defense premise after World War II and the introduction of the atomic bomb. Today, business as usual means something very different: an official baseline for climate change predictions.
While these two uses of the phrase may seem unconnected, climate change has in many ways replaced nuclear fallout in the public mind as a real, yet unfathomable threat. Along the way, business as usual has morphed from a protective ideal into the very thing that is threatening Earth’s future.
A nuclear mindset. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the American public began to grapple with the threat of nuclear attack. This fear created the need to think about civil defense and how it would affect society. The prevailing mindset throughout most of the nuclear age was business as usual, which ensured that society continued to function at a high level despite seemingly impending danger.
The Cold War saw little defense mobilization; instead the US government invested in psychological operations and media to foster preparedness, or at least a sense of preparedness. The 1951 government video Survival Under Atomic Attack, for example, posits itself as a preparation for surviving the atomic bombing of an American city. It emphasizes that centers of production, offices, and homes should not be abandoned due to the possibility of nuclear attack, because they are essential elements to winning a war. The film encourages viewers to find shelter opportunities within their homes and suggests simple preparation techniques. If viewers followed the instructions, preparation for nuclear war would not interrupt the business as usual of the nation—the thriving production and consumerism of the postwar era.
This priority in fact compromised civilian safety. Truly meaningful preparation for a nuclear attack would have greatly disrupted life, since the effects of nuclear detonations are nearly inescapable.
The climate context. While business as usual during the Cold War was a way to keep America going in the face of nuclear war, today it is used as a way of speaking about the impacts of human activities on the planet’s future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines the “business-as-usual baseline case” as the projection that “assumes that future development trends follow those of the past and no changes in policies will take place.”
Continuing to emit greenhouse gases at the business-as-usual rate would result in a global average surface temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius, according to the most recent IPCC assessment. Business as usual for the climate, like its civil defense counterpart, still prioritizes the economy over the future well-being of citizens. If humans continue with business as usual, the planet will experience irreversible damage. Both uses of the phrase refer to the preservation of the pattern of daily life in the face of large-scale danger, which reflects the similarity between the threat of nuclear warfare and the threat of climate change.
Self-destructive priorities. During the Cold War, nuclear conflict was perceived as a threat that could end the world as we knew it. Today, a similar mindset and fear exists about climate change. University of Chicago anthropology professor Joseph Masco, in an article titled “Bad Weather: On Planetary Crisis,” compares climate change to nuclear armament in terms of its ability to alter geopolitical power structures, which calls for “a new focus on national defense” for the United States. The potential outcome of both climate change and nuclear warfare is the destruction of human habitat and a possible reorganization of civil society.
The similarity between nuclear warfare and climate change as national fears is further evidenced by the treatment of scientists in both fields. Attempts by the George W. Bush administration to censor climate scientist James Hansen, for example, were similar to the silencing of nuclear scientists who attempted to speak about the disadvantage of using nuclear weapons.
Business as usual, then, has become a self-destructive practice of humanity, and especially Americans, and represents a refusal to change the status quo in order to prevent future disasters, even on a global scale. Because climate change functions like a modern-day nuclear fear, the business-as-usual ideal has the same purpose now as during the Cold War: It has always protected everyday life, and especially the economy—while not protecting, or even directly endangering, the civilians involved.