Nuclear weapons, unique in their power and capacity for destruction, pose an existential threat to humanity. Although the peril of living at the precipice of nuclear devastation is clear, progress toward nuclear abolition has been slow and uneven. Although the nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons that exist today across nine nuclear-armed countries (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) is far below the Cold War zenith of 70,000, it is still enough to destroy civilization several times over. The sunlight-blocking dust generated by the detonation of, say, 300 thermonuclear weapons in a war between the US and Russia could trigger a new Ice Age, dropping global temperatures to the lowest levels in 18,000 years, and leaving civilization utterly destroyed.
"If we want to break new ground, and achieve a livable world, then something needs to change."
The history of the nuclear age reveals just how resistant nuclear-armed nations have been to real accountability, fueling a vicious cycle of ignorance, apathy, and fatigue. Only a global, systemic movement can bring the global, systemic change required. For that to be a possibility, the nuclear abolition movement must link up with the many other social forces fighting for a better world.
A (Very) Brief History of the Nuclear Age
How did the world come to build and maintain, to the tune of more than $100 billion each year, such civilization-destroying weapons of mass destruction? The story begins with the creation of the first nuclear weapons in the secret US Manhattan Engineering Project during World War II, sparked by ultimately unfounded fears that Germany was well on its way to developing an atomic bomb. In August of 1945, the US took the fateful step of being the first (and, to date, only) country to use a nuclear weapon in war, bombing the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killing well over 100,000 individuals by the year’s end.
The omnicidal threat of nuclear warfare shaped the ensuing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two hegemons of the postwar order. Nuclear testing and arms spending escalated in the ensuing decade, but the world experienced a wake-up call in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. This thirteen-day incident brought the US and Soviet Union to the brink of a third world war and made clear the importance of taking some steps to keep the arms race in check.
Since then, an alphabet soup of treaties has dominated the global landscape. The Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) of 1963 prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water. The 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) aimed not only to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional countries but also, importantly, to provide for the disarmament of then existing nuclear states (namely, the US, USSR, UK, France, and China). The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty between the US and Soviet Union set limits on the number of sites that could be protected with missile defense systems (the deployment of ABM systems had exacerbated the arms race as countries sought to build even more powerful weapons to overcome them).
The post-Cold War era has offered a mixed landscape on nuclear disarmament. In 2002, the US unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty, and soon began deploying missile defense installations in Eastern Europe near the Russian border, exacerbating tensions. But, in a sign of progress, a series of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) have substantially reduced US and Russian arsenals. As of 2018, each country is limited to the deployment of 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons, still far more than enough to destroy most humans and other complex forms of life on the planet.
The non-nuclear countries of the world are clearly behind the cause of the disarmament. In July 2017, the United Nations adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the result of a partnership between the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of civil society organizations, and most non-nuclear weapon states. They joined forces to assert that nuclear war would be a dead end for humanity, with a total ban on nuclear weapons the only way out. But the nuclear states have vowed never to sign it, giving it moral but no practical force.
If we want to break new ground, and achieve a livable world, then something needs to change.
Whither the Disarmament Movement?
The nuclear disarmament movement reached its apex in the early 1980s, when the arms race looked bleakest. In 1982, more than a million people took to the streets in New York to demand that the number of nuclear weapons be frozen and further deployment cease. Perhaps the protest was so large because it asked for so little: a freeze, rather than deep reductions. Still, the movement succeeded in spreading public awareness and concern about the dangers. Once the Cold War ended, though, interest in nuclear disarmament issues rapidly faded.
"We must use our imaginations to envision the horror of nuclear catastrophe, but it is very difficult to sustain such fear in the public mind year after year, decade after decade, in the absence of nuclear war."
Various factors have contributed to this decline in enthusiasm. First and foremost is ignorance. The awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons lacks tangibility since they are largely kept out of the public sight and mind. As a result, many in nuclear-armed countries see them as a positive source of prestige and necessity for security. Nuclear countries boast of technological achievement and belonging to an exclusive “club”—even though possessing nuclear weapons makes countries more likely to be nuclear targets themselves.
Beyond ignorance and its cousin pride, another source of apathy is a sense of fatigue. We must use our imaginations to envision the horror of nuclear catastrophe, but it is very difficult to sustain such fear in the public mind year after year, decade after decade, in the absence of nuclear war. The world has come close on many occasions, but malice, madness, or mistake has not yet triggered the use of nuclear weapons in war since World War II. Nonetheless, it is essential that we keep shouting warnings despite accusations of being “the boy who cried wolf.” Only by sounding the alarm can we build a movement with sufficient power to abolish nuclear weapons once and for all.
Even when people understand the dangers of nuclear weapons, however, they may still be paralyzed by a perceived lack of power to bring about change. With decision-making power on nuclear policy highly centralized, individuals lack influence—unless they become politically active in large numbers. Ironically, the perception of impotence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that impedes movement-building and effective change.
The only way to change direction is to build a strong popular movement, in the nuclear-armed countries and throughout the world, to delegitimize nuclear weapons, support the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons, and oppose reliance on nuclear arsenals. Political pressure from below is our best hope for getting governments of the nuclear states to join the rest of the world in prohibiting the possession, use, and threat of use of nuclear arms.
Toward Systemic Change
Nuclear weapons stand as the quintessential shared risk, posing a danger to the whole of humanity. The problem cannot be solved by any one nation alone. Nuclear abolition requires collective global action—a deep shift in values and institutions lest the forces that created the nuclear age continue to prevail.
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Just as no nation can succeed on its own, in our interdependent world, no movement seeking fundamental change can truly succeed on its own. However, movements are too often isolated in different issue silos, competing for support and scarce resources. This fragmentation erodes unity and long-term impact. The nuclear abolition movement must join with other movements seeking systemic global change.
Synergy is most promising between the nuclear abolition movement and the wider peace movement, the environmental movement, and the economic justice movement. Each of these movements demands a global sensibility and global action. And each calls into question the governing assumptions of society that have led us down an unsustainable path.
"Armageddon is a frightening thought, but as long as these 'doomsday machines' exist, to use Daniel Ellsberg’s term, it remains a possibility."
The most obvious opportunity for cross-movement collaboration is with the peace movement. Any war involving nuclear-armed states or their allies could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. Peace activists, of course, have often been on the frontlines protesting the expansion of nuclear arsenals. However, the peace movement in the US and globally appears to be exhausted after the long wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East that have dragged on for more than a decade.
Still, there are bright spots. New approaches to peace literacy are sprouting up.[i] Veterans groups, such as Veterans for Peace (VFP), have helped to reinvigorate the peace movement. Through their first-hand experience with warfare, the veterans bring a unique perspective, legitimacy, and energy to the quest for peace, and have demonstrated a willingness to take on the issue of nuclear abolition as well. VFP has resurrected the Golden Rule, a ship that first sailed in the 1950s to protest atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific. Now, she sails again in support of nuclear abolition and to display the bravery and tenacity that can overcome militarism. VFP also supports such disarmament projects as the lawsuits filed by the Marshall Islands in 2014 at the International Court of Justice against the nine nuclear-armed countries.[ii] The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association and other groups work to support veterans who have suffered radiation exposure from nuclear tests.
The environmental movement offers another potential partner for cross-movement collaboration. Nuclear abolition has not been high on the priority list of the environmental movement. At least in the US, the movement has been preoccupied with defensive battles against an administration intent on rolling back environmental protection. Even before, it focused on tangible and immediately pressing battles while tackling such planetary-scale threats as ozone depletion and climate change.
Environmentalists have, however, sounded the alarm on the deleterious impacts of so-called “peaceful” nuclear power, particularly in the aftermath of the accidents at Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union, and Fukushima in Japan. But this is just one facet of the threat nuclear technology poses to a livable planet. Without total abolition, every aspect of the Earth’s living systems, as well as life itself, remains at risk, while building and maintaining these tools of total war are a drag on efforts to transition toward a sustainable economy. As nuclear energy always contains within it the possibility of nuclear proliferation, advocates of nuclear abolition must likewise get behind the fight for a renewables-driven clean economy that would render such technology unnecessary.
The economic justice movement is a third promising ally of the nuclear abolition movement. Nuclear weapons systems have consumed vast public resources since the onset of the nuclear age. The US alone has spent more than $7.5 trillion on its nuclear arsenal, and plans to spend $1.7 trillion more over the next three decades to modernize it. World nuclear weapons expenditures exceed $1 trillion per decade, with the US accounting for over sixty percent of the total with Russia accounting for 14 percent and China 7 percent. These resources could be far better used to provide food, clean water, shelter, health care, and education to those in need. This diversion of resources is a double whammy: we underspend on human and ecological well-being while intensifying the threat of a nuclear catastrophe.
The militarization of the economy and centralization of power, for which nuclear weapons have been both cause and effect, are incompatible with egalitarian national economic systems. Internationally, as long as nuclear weapons give a handful of countries outsize power on the global stage, especially the ability to make credible threats, the shift toward a more democratic global economic system will be impossible.
For all these reasons, nuclear abolition serves the cause of economic justice. And it is equally true that those of us who care about the nuclear threat need to advocate for greater justice. Economic inequality within and between nations fosters polarization, migration pressure, and geopolitical conflict, thereby raising the risk of (nuclear) war. Thus the peace movement has powerful incentives to ally with social justice movements.
Peace, a healthy environment, and economic justice will remain elusive in a nuclear world. A cooperative movement of movements would enhance the capacity of each constituent to achieve its own goals, while fostering the cross-movement solidarity that can bring a Great Transition future. With the alarms sounding, the time has come to act together with a sense of urgency.
Armageddon or Transformation?
At the onset of the nuclear age, Einstein reflected, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” The splitting of the atom made new modes of thinking not only desirable but necessary. Nuclear weapons threaten the future of civilization and the human species. We can no longer think in old ways, solving differences among countries by means of warfare. Instead of absolute allegiance to a sovereign state, we must think holistically and globally. In light of the omnicide that our technologies have made possible, we must elevate our moral and spiritual awareness to forge a movement global and systemic enough to meet the challenges ahead.
Armageddon is a frightening thought, but as long as these “doomsday machines” exist, to use Daniel Ellsberg’s term, it remains a possibility. The only realistic alternative to Armageddon is transformation, both of individual and collective consciousness: an “anti-nuclear revolution,” to quote activist Helen Caldicott. This requires nothing less than changing the course of history; we are compelled to transform our world or to face Armageddon.
Change ultimately begins with individuals. Movements are composed of committed individuals, some of whom step forward as leaders. The task is to awaken to the urgency of the threat and mobilize. The nuclear age and the Great Transition call upon us, before it is too late, to wake up.
The following excerpt was adapted from the essay "Nuclear Abolition: The Road from Armageddon to Transformation" published by the Great Transition Initiative at https://greattransition.org/.