The book is divided in three parts, with the first part mainly dealing with what could be called the "direct" effects of nuclear war - the physical and environmental destruction that would have occured (and could still occur) if the Kremlin and Washington had a really, really bad day. The second part deals with the moral and ethical questions of human extinction, and was for me an important, if slightly repetitive part to the book. Schell argues that nuclear war, regardless of the "reasons" it was fought for, would be an immense crime against the entire human race. He also notes that, as a species, we tend not to want to think abou these things - something which should trouble us all. As Schell says, a species that spends so little time contemplating the single biggest threat it faces cannot be called mentally well.
Speaking of "biggest threats" we face, I'd also like to note that Schell's book - published in 1982 - contains not one but two mentions of global warming driven by increasing CO2 emissions. But lord knows, the science is still too uncertain, no matter how many polar bears eat each other.
Finally, the first part of Fate of the Earth contains a number of disturbing descriptions of likely results of nuclear attacks on New York, but the section that haunted me the most was the survivors accounts of the real-life results of Hiroshima. The passage that kept me from sleeping Saturday night:
Throughout the city, parents were discovering their wounded or dead children, and children were discovering their wounded or dead parents. Kikuno Segawa recalls seeing a little girl with her dead mother: "A woman who looked like an expectant mother was dead. At her side, a girl of about three years of age brought some water in an empty can she had found. She was trying to let her mother drink from it."The destruction of Hiroshima was so complete and sudden that the normal safety net the a community provides simply disappeared. It was not simply that the atomic bomb destroyed the physical aparatus of the city - The City itself, as a human community - ceased to exist. Survivors straggled out to the hills surrounding the city, many dying on the way there. All in all, the bomb probably killed 130,000 people from direct effects and radiation poisoning.
There are still 30,000 nuclear warheads out there, with God knows how much megatonnage among them. The vast majority are still held by the Russians and Americans. And in case you were wondering, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists says we're still seven minutes to ultimate midnight.