Richard Branson Goes Nuclear
An iconoclast powered by big ideas turns his gaze toward nuclear threats.
It’s December 13, 2018, and Richard Branson is gobsmacked. Jaws drop, tears flow, and friends cheer as VSS Unity—a suborbital, manned, rocket-powered spacecraft built by Virgin Galactic—makes its first trip to space. The vessel was named by Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and nuclear weapons abolitionist. It embodied his belief that nations seem capable of cooperating in space “in a way we can only envy on Earth.” In homage to Hawking, the Unity logo includes an image of Hawking’s eye.
A few days later I open my email to discover an invitation to join Richard Branson and a group of his colleagues and friends at a convening hosted by the Branson family foundation, Virgin Unite, and their Australian partner Igniting Change.
It’s an understatement to say that I too am gobsmacked.
In 1980 I left California to study theater. I did a year at NYU followed by four years in the drama division at the Juilliard School. I graduated with excellent training from a prestigious institution and a path of open doors.
Decades later, however, I know that the most important element of that experience had more universal value: when a diverse and well-trained ensemble performs to its fullest potential the effect is transformative. That’s true whether the ensemble looks like a gang of educators designing schools that serve all students or like a transdisciplinary team tackling dangers related to nuclear weapons.
“The fundamental driver of our success at Virgin has, and will always be, our people working together,” Branson once said. Maybe he’d seen this power too.
So that’s what I decide to talk about with Richard Branson and his crew.
In March 2019, I find myself speaking to the most remarkable collection of people. Presenting just before me is Graça Machel, the Mozambiquan freedom fighter and campaigner for the rights of children and women, cofounder of The Elders, an international group of leaders working together for peace, justice, and human rights. After me will be Victor Ochen. Formerly a refugee in Uganda, Victor is founder of the African Youth Initiative Network and a crusader for human rights and justice. “My heart swells with joy to see Ochen as one of the new hopes for Africa,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said.
The people in this room bring many kinds of resources. Some have vast wealth and the desire to use it for good. Others have not a penny but possess the courage to do work the rest of us would never dare do. Others are with us because they are global connectors and collectors of extraordinary people; they have dedicated themselves to the notion that good people who feel meaningfully connected to one another and to a shared purpose can accomplish what others consider impossible.
The thread that unites us, from Richard through to his professional and personal families, and from them to those of us assembled, is the power of big ideas. We are gathered, in fact, to determine how we can act in concert—as an ensemble—in service of those big ideas.
One of these ideas is that by 2045—the 100th anniversary of the creation of nuclear weapons—the world will no longer rely upon them for global stability.
Of course, I hit the usual talking points that everyone rolls out when they describe the nuclear threat landscape. That 14,000 nuclear weapons still exist. That the chance of an accident or a deployment has possibly never been higher. That the population working to make sure these things don’t happen is aging and dwindling, even as the threat becomes more complex.
I’d covered all of this in my 2016 TED talk as well, but my one regret about that talk is what I didn’t say. I focused on the threat when the real story is the opportunity. To envision a world that is more resilient and better equipped to manage conflict and to deter bad behavior precisely because we have moved beyond nuclear weapons. To begin an inspirational new chapter in the evolution of human affairs by declaring the year 2045 as the end of the nuclear weapons century. To build alliances and strengthen movements by understanding the points of intersection between nuclear dangers and climate change, social justice, and healthier democracies.
Ironically, given that preventing the spread of nuclear weapons involves ensuring that energy is used only for productive purposes, there are too few channels for the release of creative energy in the field of nuclear arms control. Funding is competitive, organizational structures hierarchical, the culture staid. One of the most significant opportunities in front of us is to unleash the energy contained in the hearts and minds of the brightest young people working on nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and security—the “heirs apparent” to this challenge— so they don’t leave the field in frustration after just a few years.
I tell the group that at a time when formal big systems are struggling to get a purchase on nuclear threats—diplomatic channels between the nuclear superpowers are nearly nonexistent—ensembles are making a comeback. I describe how the N Square Innovators Network—an unconventional, transdisciplinary network of technologists, game designers, nuclear policy experts, diplomats, and Hollywood filmmakers—is taking up the charge. Working in small, nimble teams and facilitated by skilled designers, these innovators are bringing esprit de corps to a field that could use it.
Small teams have long been good vehicles for problem-solving where big systems stumble, and this is not a new idea when it comes to nuclear weapons. The Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program, for example, enabled the Russian and US scientific communities to cooperate even as the Soviet Union fell. Unemployed Russian scientists—rather than going to other countries to help them build nuclear weapons—helped to downgrade weapons-usable nuclear material so it could be used to power light bulbs instead.
So it might not be a stretch to say that the future of humanity depends on our ability to understand and to replicate the dynamics of small teams powered by big ideas.
People love concrete examples. So I describe for Richard Branson and the group what it can look like for small but diverse teams to innovate the ways we talk about, teach about, and problem-solve around nuclear threat.
It looks like a mix of nuclear security experts and artists applying the methods of human-centered inquiry and design to awaken, or create, a constituency that understands how to exert pressure on nuclear decision-makers. It looks like N Square fellows—from Apple, MIT, the Skoll Foundation, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, among others—developing new methods for exposing false or misleading information about nuclear activities and making accurate and trusted information more universally available. It looks like an equally unconventional team tackling the question: How might we make the power imbalance surrounding nuclear weapons a personal issue for influential communities?
Then I pose a different question: What if the nuclear security field became one of the brightest sources of creativity and innovation on our planet? This question activates people in the room; I can feel them paying close attention, leaning in to the possibilities.
“EXCEPTIONAL PEOPLE COME FORWARD”
One evening toward the end of our time together, Richard reflects on his life. He talks about his family, he shows a touching short film about Virgin Galactic’s recent triumph. As he tells his grandchildren in the film, “Virgin Galactic has shown that when you set off on challenging but important adventures, exceptional people come forward to join the journey, who are consistently by your side and on your side. People who share your dreams and people who help make them reality.”
This, clearly, is the animating idea behind our gathering: to build a community of adventurers and pioneers eager to tackle the world’s greatest challenges together. Important ideas attract exceptional people who make the most significant contributions when they go beyond the ordinary, seeking to amaze themselves and others.
Now, as Richard says in his blog post, it’s time for that community of adventurers to turn their attention to the nuclear threat.
Creating a world free from nuclear weapons is the realm of the visionary and the iconoclast, but for some reason too few people like Richard Branson have set their sights on nuclear weapons. More than their financial resources we need their guidance and their grit, their networks, and their leadership. We need their optimism and appetite to do what others can’t even imagine. We need them to use their influence to do what government leaders have been unwilling or unable to do.
We’re excited by who else might join us on this path; who will invest in transforming the field by flooding it with new talent and new ways of working on an issue that all of us have a stake in; and how many other innovators, artists, experts, investors—and iconoclasts—will step up to light the way.
photos by Eric Rojas