By Robyn Baker

It seems that we, as humans, have a tendency to allow self-destructive practices to expand beyond our control. Unprecedented habitat loss and climate change during our modern era have revealed the extent of our footprint upon the Earth. Younger generations have awakened to these environmental challenges, yet we seem to overlook a far deeper and darker challenge that threatens to change our world in an instant: nuclear arms. The existence of nuclear arms has become relatively normalized in a generation that does not recall the extreme polarization of the Cold War, the public protests for disarmament, nor the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They nonetheless have the potential to erase any memory of human civilization. 

How have nuclear arms faded into the background of human consciousness, when any decision regarding nuclear arms has global implications? For further insight, I reached out to Benoît Pelopidas, a distinguished academic and policy advisor in the field of international security and nuclear arms. His extensive research and experience opened my eyes to the various reasons why states maintain nuclear arsenals. These justifications are often accepted by the general public according to principles of democracy and security, but nuclear-armed states struggle to wield this double-edged sword in practice. While the human imagination fails to account for the existential threat of nuclear arms during peacetime, just an accident or escalation of tensions can provoke the “war to end all wars” between nuclear-armed states. The following interview with Mr. Pelopidas allowed me to address this dilemma of what it means to be human in a nuclearized world.

“What are the implications of nuclear arms for our civilization?” I ask Pelopidas. 

“Several things come to mind…” he begins. 

One implication, he says, is “Nuclear winter”, which refers to the dramatic climatic effects of a single nuclear explosion. Climate change technology has allowed nuclear scientists to support the claim that even a limited nuclear war, one that uses “small” bombs such as that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would result in so much carbon pollution that the ozone layer would erode at an exponential rate, allowing extreme levels of ultraviolet radiation from the sun to reach the Earth’s surface. The smoke from ongoing, widespread fires would be so dense that it would block out the sun, resulting in extreme cold, semidarkness, and a loss of precipitation across the world. Among many far-reaching consequences, these conditions would prevent agriculture and thus result in the greatest famine in human history. Yet the “massive level of mobilization on environmental issues”, Pelopidas explains, is “nonexistent on the nuclear weapons’ front.” How are citizens able to unify across the world to address climate change and not the threat of nuclear arms, when both scenarios qualify as existential dangers? 

“Because you can’t buy a reusable water bottle to stop an interballistic missile?” I ask. 

“Exactly”, replies Pelopidas. 

The human mind is capable of incredible imagination and innovation. Its scope may seem limitless, except when conceptualizing its own demise. After all, how can we respond to an issue that we cannot even conceive, such as the prospect of mass extinction? The consequences of climate change are far-reaching and extreme, but allow even the gravest of forecasts to enable humanity to breathe a sigh of relief: some of us will, somehow, survive. That proportion of the population will carry the memory and legacies of human civilization. Either as a result of a nuclear weapon or its climatic consequences, if the last person was to perish, so too will every person to have ever existed. “So if aliens arrived on Earth and found an apocalyptic wasteland, they would never even know that a human civilization had existed..?” I ask, my heart sinking. “For example”, Pelopidas agrees. 

A nuclear war would be the “war to end all wars”, he continues. Nuclear weapons resonate with basic instincts of our human nature: security, intimidation, power. By possessing the biggest nuclear arsenal, a state effectively becomes the most fearsome predator in the international community. This leverage was justified as a means of forcefully establishing world peace through intimidation, given that no state would use a nuclear weapon in practice. This justification has become increasingly ironic following the end of the Cold War and the spread of nuclear weapons across the world, for it has simply shifted the debate to focus on prevention as a means of safeguarding our civilization. What happens when our lesser instincts enter the equation, such as revenge, competition, and fear? In a nuclear age, we are living a Frankenstein story: as inventors, we are forced to reckon with the monster we have created. Nuclear weapons have revealed the monster within humanity, however, as we continue to allow a sense of disempowerment, fear, or gratification of security-based arguments to perpetuate their existence.  

“It is important to distinguish that humans had the capacity to self-destruct in a pre-nuclear world”, says Pelopidas. Conventional warfare, from ancient civilizations to World War II, had the capacity to bring about human extinction. “But”, he continues, “it would have [taken] much longer” and that would make all the difference. “Opportunities for de-escalation and crisis management” do not exist in the nuclear realm, which dramatically increases the likelihood of nuclear weapons eventually being used. Therefore, it seems the human mind lags behind the existential threats it has created by the twenty-first century. As the “doomsday clock” strikes closer to midnight, humanity should translate its experience in creating tangible solutions, such as environmental advocacy, into better understanding our nuclear world. By addressing the full potential of our present-day, we appreciate our past and create a future. Across the world, we have a mutual interest in doing so. In this sense, nuclear arms have served to define humanity as never before. For the first time in history, the human consciousness needs to face the implications of the free will we have achieved, either to source our creativity or enact our capacity for self-destruction.

Illustration: Emilia velazquez

Robyn Baker is an exchange student from Sciences Po’s undergraduate European-American studies program. Her passion for sustainability includes human rights, the environment, and international law. Outside the classroom, Robyn loves to dance, play piano, travel, read, do yoga, and connect with friends and family.

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