“Some scholars, including Kenneth Waltz, have gone so far as arguing that we should allow nuclear weapons proliferation as a method of promoting peace. However, this deterrence-based approach does not take into account the possibility of accidental and unauthorized nuclear explosions, or of nuclear terrorism, two very real menaces.”
You cannot go around saying to people that there is a 100% chance that they’re gonna die. You know? It’s just nuts. —President Orlean, “Don’t Look Up,” 20:40
This line is from the new Netflix sensation, “Don’t Look Up,” a movie starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in the role of two astronomers trying to raise awareness about a comet on a collision course with Earth. “Don’t Look Up” has prompted the interest of many because of its not-so-hidden political commentary on the apathy surrounding climate change, however, few seem to realize the relevance of the movie’s message for another, even less recognized issue: nuclear disarmament.
Indeed, the extent to which nuclear weapons still threaten our lives today is little understood. Despite being one of the most socially engaged and politically minded generations across a range of topics, few Gen Zers really consider the nuclear issue with the urgency it demands.
According to a 2019 Statista poll, nuclear disarmament fails to rank among even the top twelve issues that young people care about today.
But who can really blame us? After all, for myself and the millions of people born after the Cold War, nuclear weapons have always been a reality—a fact of life to which we have reconciled ourselves and with which we have learned to coexist. For those earlier generations who lived through the Soviet-American nuclear standoff and experienced nuclear-apocalypse fright in every facet of popular culture, from The Day After to Prince’s 1999 album, the anxieties surrounding nuclear weapons seem to have all but collapsed with the USSR.
But our generation is gravely mistaken in its risk assessment. American and Russian nuclear arsenals remain alive and well today, and worse, they have been joined by nations such as India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan. Many of us remain stubbornly attached to the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction, which argues the threat of nuclear retaliation against an attack provides an adequate safeguard against conflict escalation. Some scholars, including Kenneth Waltz, have gone so far as arguing that we should allow nuclear weapons proliferation as a method of promoting peace. However, this deterrence-based approach does not take into account the possibility of accidental and unauthorized nuclear explosions, or of nuclear terrorism, two very real menaces. Spreading nuclear weapons to less developed countries that may not have the means to safekeep them would drastically increase the chances of an unwanted detonation, potentially setting off a chain of catastrophes from which there will be no return.
Gen Z—the “woke” generation that applauded Greta Thunberg fordecrying inaction on global warming at the United Nations—must also give nuclear disarmament the attention it deserves. If the end goal really is to save humanity from itself, eradicating nuclear weapons must then also be at the forefront of our agenda. Yes, global warming will surely kill us in the long term—but nuclear Armageddon could do so in a matter of minutes. Yet undergraduate journals, including Columbia’s own political review, rarely mention anything related to nuclear disarmament or nonproliferation, despite the ongoing modernization of many states’ nuclear arsenals.
Nuclear issues are intimately tied to many proposed solutions to climate change. Failing to account for disarmament in discussions of new environmental policies could have dire effects. Some ecologically conscious scientists have, for instance, argued that governments should invest in more nuclear power plants as a green substitute for fossil-fuel energy. However, if enacted, this proposal could have dire consequences for nuclear proliferation. Some studies have shown that the resulting power lock-in, whereby the peaceful production of nuclear energy merges with its military use, facilitates the production of nuclear weapons. This issue has been and continues to be a major concern in Iran.
What’s more, even if the production of nuclear energy does manage to stall global warming in the short term, all of these efforts would be in vain if the tradeoff were a greater vulnerability to a nuclear catastrophe. It is also important to note that the radioactive waste we have to bury in the soil to generate this energy lingers for millennia, possibly impacting the planet long after humans have gone extinct. Is this really what we want future societies to remember of our civilization as they excavate our radioactive silos and exhibit them in museums as ancient artifacts?
We pass down this toxic legacy from one generation to the next, condemning future societies to live with nuclear weapons for eternity instead of rethinking the security risks that these weapons pose. Under the current international framework, it is understandable that older generations—those that were once acutely aware of the prospect of nuclear annihilation—feel a sense of resignation toward nuclear threats. They may believe that nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented and that the threat they pose is therefore inevitable, thus growing comfortable with the nuclear status quo. Granted, complete disarmament does seem unlikely at the present moment. States do not hold each other accountable to their promises under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, according to which governments must “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race . . . and to nuclear disarmament.” However, given the amount of tacit knowledge required for nuclear-weapons production, studies show that we could in fact “forget” how to design these deadly machines and thus effectively uninvent them in the span of a generation or two. Meanwhile, past examples of successful international cooperation on other issues, such as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, demonstrate nations’ capacity to cooperate and hold each other accountable to their promises.
Nuclear disarmament is hence well within reach—and it is on our generation to grasp it. It should go without saying that this is not a call to abandon efforts to save the ecosystem and its inhabitants, but rather a call to action on the issue of nuclear disarmament. As with global warming, we find ourselves in a situation where accumulated inaction from past generations has come to jeopardize our right to a peaceful future—or rather to any future at all. If we do not stop passing down the burden of disarmament to posterity, continuing to treat nuclear weapons like a Russian roulette until some unfortunate generation finds a bullet in the chamber, it may very well be game over for the human race. With the emergence of new tensions on the international stage and the turn to dual-capable technology—weapons whose payload can be both conventional and nuclear—the margin of error gets thinner and thinner by the day. These new innovations, coupled with rising tensions on the international scene, have drawn the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has been since the beginning of the Cold War.
As soon-to-be professionals, we—members of the Columbia student body—have a duty to bring nuclear disarmament back into the political discourse and to convince the future policymakers in our ranks of the civilizational gravity of this issue. As the Biden administration prepares to release its nuclear posture review, we have an opportunity to remobilize public opinion in favor of disarmament and pressure our governments to stick to international treaties. In this day and age, the possibilities are simply endless. We can write about it, talk about it—perhaps even sing about it if we are so inclined—so long as we make our voice heard. Unlike the trajectory of a species-ending comet, we cannot predict when or where a nuclear threat may arise, but make no mistake, the stakes are higher for us than they were for Leonardo DiCaprio.
Anna Bartoux is a columnist for CPR and a junior studying Political Science at Columbia University’s School of General Studies.