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Nuclear Weapons in the Anthropocene

Nuclear weapons have triggered a new geological era, but what does that really mean?

Words: Peter Waring
Pictures: Jaanus Jagomägi

There were a few possible contenders when a working group established by the International Commission on Stratigraphy began searching for a “golden spike” — a geological inflection point marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. Stratigraphy is the branch of geology concerned with the study of rock layers, and to establish that a threshold has indeed been crossed, the spike would need to be both geologically visible and globally synchronous. Possibilities included microplastics or coal combustion residue or organic pollutants of one kind or another. But from a geological perspective, no marker better captures humanity’s impact on the physical environment than the fallout from decades of atmospheric nuclear testing.

In 2019, the Working Group voted overwhelmingly to recommend establishing a new era — the Anthropocene — to record the beginning of the period where humans have drastically altered the planet. The proposed start day was July 16, 1945, the day of the Trinity Test.

The beginning of the nuclear age marks a new stratigraphic boundary in Earth’s history. The “bomb spike,” as it came to be known, represents the level of carbon 14 and plutonium 239 in the atmosphere, both of which peaked in the mid-1960s at the height of the Cold War. And though levels have subsequently reduced — as states limited and finally halted atmospheric testing — evidence of the spike is now a matter of geological record. In other words, it will exist for as long as the Earth does. But what does this really mean for our security and our environment?


The term Anthropocene was first coined in 2000 by chemist and Nobel laureate, Paul Crutzen. The concept caught on and quickly spread beyond Earth system science to become a catch-all neologism for the destruction wrought by human activity. The concept has inspired research across a wide range of scholarly disciplines, as well as poems, songs, journals, websites, and works of art. In the process it has situated the impact of humanity on a much wider scale of both time and space: From the narrow bandwidth of human time to deep geological time, and from our local and national settings to the planetary.

Humanity and the environment are now “mutually transformative — and potentially mutually destructive,” a fact which forces us to confront the possibility that the era of climate stability, known as the Holocene, has ended and that our own collective and individual actions are to blame. Apart from its prominent geological signature, the “bomb spike” is also emblematic of the so-called Great Acceleration, the exponential growth in various metrics of human activity since the mid-twentieth century, which include: population, technology, economic development, industrial output, energy consumption, carbon emissions, and international tourism. These measures have been thrust ever upwards by the spread of extractive capitalism, endless technological innovation, and an underlying assumption that somehow the realm of human activity exists outside and separate from nature. Today, we are not witnessing the failure of this world view. Rather, we are witnessing the consequences of its success.

Nuclear arsenals are regularly justified as a bulwark against threats to the postwar, liberal international order. But it is precisely this global system that has served as the launching pad for the Great Acceleration. And as such, it is difficult to separate our conceptions of wealth, progress, and liberty — the very things nuclear weapons are meant to secure — from the causes of human-induced climate change. We have been led to believe that this skyward trajectory is a good thing, that all of our problems will disappear if only there were more progress, more technology, more freedom. But like Icarus, have we flown too close to the sun?


The Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic weapons, has been described as a “full stop on modernity” — or in other words, the natural terminus of a worldview that separated humankind from our environment. It is the belief that we can do whatever we want to nature and that the Earth exists to support humanity. This is such a central and pervasive myth as to barely register in our collective consciousness, but it underpins our very existence: The products we consume, the wars we fight, the energy we burn, the stories we tell ourselves, our wants, our desires. Everything.

The “global nuclear order” is nothing more than a darkly ironic oxymoron. It is an irony matched only by the growing realization that our species can make destructive changes to the Earth yet seems unable to make similarly transformative changes to our politics.

Modernity in this sense is not merely technology or our institutions but rather a mode of thought premised on a belief in human supremacy. Nuclear weapons are the apotheosis of modernity. We can take whatever we want from the Earth and we can destroy it too. Here is the intersection some nuclear threat experts have been looking for, between the environmental movement and the nuclear movement. Between a cause with seemingly endless cultural cachet and one that appears like a mid-century relic.

The nuclear weapons industry is undoubtedly the source of much environmental damage: There are uranium mines, plutonium production facilities, and former test sites. But the true impact exists on a different register altogether. It is more than just the material effects, more even than the devastating ecological impact of a nuclear blast. Atomic weapons are the most extreme example of our world-possessing pretensions. Their existence and central role in our security apparatus is representative of a mode of thought that portrays humanity as the chief protagonist in the story of Earth. The Anthropocene is the point at which the plot changes.

It is also clear that on a planet increasingly defined by human activity the old dichotomies of friend and foe — of good and evil — are no longer relevant. But constructing enemies is at the core of nuclear thinking as only the most extreme adversaries can justify the most extreme weapons. During the Cold War this was a relatively simple task, albeit one pursued with a kind of cartoonish zeal by politicians on both sides. And while there is a worrisome element of deja vu about the rising discord between Russia and NATO, talk of a new Cold War seems oddly out of place in a world of pandemics and catastrophic climate change. Yet it remains an inescapable feature of the Atomic Age that enemies must be suitably evil and suitably different from us. They must “hate freedom” and they must reject the so-called “rules-based” global order. More significantly, the enemies themselves are largely inconsequential: When they crumble or retreat into the background, we create new ones. As long as the weapons exist there will be myths to justify them. Arundhati Roy perhaps said it best:

“Nuclear weapons pervade our thinking. Control our behavior. Administer our societies. Inform our dreams. They bury themselves like meat hooks deep in the base of our brains. They are purveyors of madness.”

The Anthropocene forces us to grapple with this madness and to reconsider our need for enemies. It demands that we confront unsettling truths and come to terms with the prospect that the greatest threat to our security and way of life is our way of life.


The long half-life of the Atomic Age is as much the product of outdated thinking as it is bureaucratic inertia or military strategy. The scholarship surrounding nuclear weapons is held back — stuck — by a kind of thinking that belongs to a different epoch. International Relations (IR) and its dominant paradigms of realism and liberalism have lost whatever explanatory power they once had. They are no longer fit for purpose as either an academic discipline or a collection of governing institutions. They have become a trap of our own making. In fact, IR fails even to acknowledge the threat posed by the Anthropocene or the consequences of inaction. The global apparatus constructed to manage twentieth-century challenges, such as genocide, nuclear conflict, and world wars has proved disastrously ill-suited to our new era.

This has been particularly true with regards to the supposed preeminence of the nation-state, which serves as the very basis of world governance. But it is precisely this belief — the privileging of the national above the international, of the human above the planetary — that has drawn attention away from the devastation occurring all around us. Viewed from the perspective of deep geological time, the pantomime of global politics and state rivalry has been little more than a distraction. What good are states if their future consists of flooded cities, devastated ecosystems, and uninhabitable wastelands? And can states defend the interests of future generations, both human and non-human?

If indeed the domain of the human and the natural are now indistinguishable, then it follows that our notions of international security and geopolitics must change. What is needed is not more realism or liberalism or business-as-usual diplomacy but rather an altogether new way of organizing the world — a theory of IR based on the belief that the Earth itself matters. Various new paradigms have already been proposed, including Anthropocene geopolitics, ecological security, planet politics, cosmopolitics, all of which share a vision of a new politics that expands our moral imagination to include equal concern for the natural world. But the sheer scale and complexity of the problem has led some commentators to call for a kind of intellectual humility — a recognition of the “urgent interconnectedness” of our existence and the need for creative approaches.

But if we accept the argument made by Roy and others that nuclear weapons themselves “control our behavior,” that they have agency of their own, then it becomes clear that we must first gain mastery of them. We must relinquish the hold they have on our politics and our thinking. Elaine Scarry has argued that by concentrating authority in the hand of a single leader and damaging the democratic ethos, the weapons “have infantilized and miniaturized our political institutions” or what David Marcus has described as living under a “mushroom cloud of secrecy and permanent emergency.” The effect of this condition has been to distort our collective moral compass, leading to more and more investments in a form of security that no longer offers adequate returns. Nuclear weapons provide no protection against pandemics, they offer no solution for the climate emergency.

Nuclear weapons are themselves inhibiting change, they have broken our politics and poisoned our thinking. A fact which points to the necessity of reducing our reliance on them as a prelude to changing our politics. No amount of well-meaning arms control or diplomatic engagement will suffice. The “global nuclear order” is nothing more than a darkly ironic oxymoron. It is an irony matched only by the growing realization that our species can make destructive changes to the Earth yet seems unable to make similarly transformative changes to our politics. As Fredric Jameson poignantly suggests, “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” The same could be said of a nuclear holocaust: It seems far more conceivable than disarmament.

To argue that nuclear weapons lack military utility or are poor tools of statecraft, or to quibble over the number of warheads or types of delivery systems, is to miss the point entirely. Politics at all scales must be made anew. The Anthropocene has transformed the utopian into the necessary.


As of May 2021, the International Commission on Stratigraphy has not met to determine whether the Earth has, in fact, entered a new geological era. The Anthropocene remains merely an informal term despite its widespread use. But it is not without its critics. Some have described it as a buzzword or a political statement rather than representative of scientific reality. Despite this, there is no doubt that the Anthropocene has become a useful shorthand for pollution, mass extinctions, thawing poles, the destruction of biodiversity, collapsing ecosystems, runaway climate change, and ocean acidification. In many ways it has begun to resemble the idea of “the Bomb” which embodied the existential angst felt by many during the Cold War. The Anthropocene promises to become a crucial marker, a rallying cry, and intellectual point of departure representing what nuclear weapons once did for our parents and grandparents — a near palpable alteration to our collective consciousness.

Writing only days after the bombing of Nagasaki, Norman Cousins predicted that the Atomic Age would create a “blanket of obsolescence, not only over the methods and the products of man but over man himself.” While his gendered language may have aged, his argument remains relevant. We need new methods and new products for a new age. This includes the nuclear policy community, which must recognize that although its work is directed toward avoiding a human-induced catastrophe, the truth is we are in the midst of one already. Acknowledging this requires more than meek efforts to highlight how the nuclear issue intersects with climate change. It means a return to first principles, a fundamental rethink of methodologies and assumptions.

The Anthropocene has the potential to galvanize just this type of thinking. And by generating multidisciplinary debates about climate change, colonialism and capitalism, the concept has already produced a body of work far exceeding the nuclear realm in diversity and cultural significance. But unlike the nuclear threat there is no single button to press, no countdown, no seconds or minutes to measure before the clock strikes midnight. Time is already up. We have crossed the threshold. Now we must deal with the consequences.

Peter Waring is N Square’s London Representative. He is also the nonproliferation program manager at Ridgeway Information and the co-host of the forthcoming Audible Original Podcast Deepest Dive: The Hunt for MH370.

Peter Waring

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