Last month, the International Committee of the Red Cross released a report with a shocking — and seemingly contradictory — pair of statistics.
According to the report, a majority of millennials (54%) believe that a nuclear attack will occur within the next decade. Yet those same respondents simultaneously ranked nuclear weapons as the “least important” out of 12 global issues.
These findings, although seemingly in conflict, may not actually be that surprising. In fact, they reflect an existential question that the nuclear community has been grappling with for some time:
HOW CAN WE GET YOUNGER PEOPLE TO CARE ABOUT NUCLEAR WEAPONS?
Two of the most common responses to this question are either: “we should scare the youths straight,” or: “we should meme nuclear weapons.” Neither of these is the answer. In fact, millennial Dadaist humor is already rooted in an ironic acceptance of the dystopian years that lie ahead of us. We’re terrified of our futures and apocalyptic memes are our defense mechanism.
So, the problem is not that young folks aren’t scared enough, or that nuclear weapons aren’t in the cultural zeitgeist. Rather, young people don’t see themselves as agents of change when it comes to nuclear weapons: for many the problem is thought of as too big, too outdated, and too intractable.
Interestingly enough, this isn’t the case with other systemic issues like climate change, gun violence, or health care, for which millions of young people around the world are striking, marching, and — most importantly —voting.
Why don’t they do the same for nukes? Some blame lies with the nuclear community, which has both an exclusivity and an elitism problem. In stark contrast to the climate change and gun violence movements, we almost never hear from those on the front lines of the nuclear issue. In fact, when talking about nuclear weapons, the community generally prefers a wonky, fetishistic lexicon that elevates the weapons over their victims.
Additionally, the nuclear community often demands that people care about nukes more than they care about any other issue. This is an understandable instinct, given that nuclear war is arguably the greatest existential threat that humanity faces. However, emphasizing the existential nature of nuclear weapons often makes people switch off, as our brains have a tough time processing non-proximate threats. By treating nuclear weapons as a standalone, singular issue that trumps all others, we lose the chance to connect with folks who feel more viscerally threatened by things like climate change, lack of access to health care or education, and police brutality.
To illustrate this point, consider the Green New Deal. Its proponents understand that an effective response to the climate crisis cannot rely solely on building solar farms or scaling back factory farming. Incremental policies like these barely scratch the surface of the problem, and they are too wonky to bring the imperative for climate justice into the mainstream. This is why Green New Deal advocates constantly tie the issue to more proximate concerns, like health care, education, public housing, capitalism, militarism, and social justice.
This strategy works: the Green New Deal has broad majority support across the country, including in states that voted for Trump in 2016. On top of that, emphasizing the intersections between these issues has proven highly effective in building a broad coalition that elevates the voices of those most affected.
We need to emphasize that nuclear weapons exacerbate all of these issue areas as well, and that nukes, therefore, must be considered as elements of a larger ecosystem that must be tackled in tandem:
As I have written in The Nation, climate change and nuclear weapons have a symbiotic relationship: climate change is making nuclear war more likely, and a nuclear war would devastate our climate in ways we cannot fully fathom. Not to mention the fact that decades of uranium mining, nuclear testing, and nuclear waste dumping have already contaminated some our planet’s ecosystems, displacing entire communities––often communities of color––in the process. Nuclear weapons are undoubtedly a climate justice issue.
Nuclear weapons must also be inextricably tied to discussions about health care. During the Cold War, US atomic veterans, Marshall Islanders, and “Downwinders” (communities throughout the American Southwest located downwind from the Nevada Test Site), among others, were exposed to harmful doses of radiation that dramatically raised the rates of cancer for those communities. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which has thus far awarded over $2 billion to a small portion of these populations, expires in 2022. Not only should this program be extended and expanded, but nuclear disarmament advocates must also unequivocally advocate for universal health care as a means for addressing those past and present nuclear harms.
As political philosopher Michael Hardt has written, “capital needs military spending and cannot survive without it.” This is because weapons — and especially nuclear weapons — are not kept in check by the typical limits of consumption. As Hardt explains, “a society’s appetite for arms can be limitless, and capital turns a profit even when weapons are ultimately unused.” Simply put, if your goal is invulnerability, then you can never have enough weapons, missile defenses, or nukes.
However, this framing is obviously flawed: no one — especially not an entire country — can ever achieve invulnerability. Therefore, the “arms race” has no finish line. Instead, it’s just an endless loop: we constantly seek out “deterrence gaps” and rush to fill them with new weapons, regardless of whether those gaps are real or fabricated. The arms race is not the means to an end. For those who profit from these weapons, it is an end in itself.
Therefore, just as the most effective resistance to climate change encourages struggle against our fossil-fuel based economic system, we must tie nuclear disarmament to a parallel, anti-capitalist struggle against our internalized pursuit of military invulnerability.
When it comes to big money items like oil, guns, or nukes, corruption is basically legal in the United States. You only need to look at the case of “senator-turned-lobbyist-turned-senator-turned lobbyist,” Jon Kyl, to understand how the Washington revolving door enables profit to drive nuclear decision-making. Disarmament will always be a pipe dream so long as nuclear policy remains a business decision.
For more indirect issues like education, infrastructure, and poverty, the link to nuclear weapons is easy: nukes will cost the United States $100,000 per minute over the next 30 years –– where could that money be better spent? We could end homelessness for $20 billion –– the price of 36 B-21 bombers. We could trade in the proposed new $85 billion intercontinental ballistic missile program to cancel Puerto Rico’s $74 billion debt––and even have a “little” left over! That new low-yield warhead that the Navy just deployed? It cost five times more than the entire country’s $10 million student lunch debt crisis.
Imagine this: your political candidate of preference unveils an ambitious social program, and when they are inevitably asked how they plan to pay for it, they respond not by presenting alienating and overly-wonky cost measurements –– but by drawing a link between the potential success of their initiative and the excesses of the nuclear weapons budget.
That is how you galvanize people –– and especially young people –– around the nuclear issue: by demonstrating that their lives could be tangibly improved by eliminating unnecessary weapons programs that they never voted for in the first place. In short, we shouldn’t seek to scare young folks, we should seek to activate them.
Matt Korda is a Research Associate for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, where he co-authors the Nuclear Notebook with Hans Kristensen. Matt is also the co-director of Foreign Policy Generation –– a group of young people working to develop a progressive foreign policy for the next generation.