Not long ago, as part of a public art project in Pittsburgh, Afrofuturist Alisha Wormsley mounted a billboard atop a commercial building. It featured just seven words, big bright letters on a dark background: “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE.” Incredibly, the sign was deemed too provocative and quickly dismantled. But what can’t be dismantled is the burgeoning artistic movement that Wormsley’s words represent. Afrofuturism is an aesthetic practice involving vast numbers of Black artists and creatives whose work envisions futures rich with African heritage and sci-fi futurism. Their work challenges the dominance of Eurocentric worldviews—and it’s creating a groundswell of ideas, agency, and optimism for the future in Black communities worldwide.
Reynaldo Anderson and Lonny Brooks are fueling this groundswell. Anderson is an associate professor of communication studies at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis, an Afrofuturism thought leader, and cofounder of the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM), a national and global movement dedicated to celebrating Black speculative creativity and design. Brooks is an associate professor of communications at California State University, East Bay, co-creator of The Afrofuturist Podcast, co-director of the Afrorithm Futures Group, and co-creative director of California BSAM Futures, which promotes, publishes, and teaches forecasting with Afrocentric perspectives in mind.
From left: Sheree Renée Thomas, Stacey Robinson, and Reynaldo Anderson
In April 2021, as part of our mission to build a transdisciplinary network of innovators committed to ending the nuclear threat, and to diversify and democratize the communities involved in envisioning a future beyond nuclear weapons, N Square partnered with BSAM on a new kind of collaboration. For months, we’ve been conducting strategic foresight training with BSAM members and engaging in a knowledge exchange, with BSAM’s Afrofuturist community bringing valuable and highly underrepresented perspectives to questions about nuclear threat and how to imagine a future beyond it. In this interview, Anderson and Brooks talk about Afrofuturism, how it illuminates longstanding blind spots in the craft of futures thinking, and why the collaboration with N Square excites them.
Q Let’s start with the basics. How do you describe Afrofuturism?
BrooksAfrofuturism combines science fiction and fantasy to reexamine how the future is currently imagined and to envision alternative futures based on the Black experience, leveraging our ancestral intelligence. Afrofuturism celebrates the Black imagination and our Black state of consciousness, released from colonialism and the slaver mentality. It gives Black artists, writers, and other creatives the space to explore, as Reverend Andrew Rollins puts it, the possibilities and probabilities within the universe, individually and as a community.
AndersonAfrofuturism is the high culture of the African diaspora and creatives on the continent, involving a network of intellectuals, activists, and artists who are generating philosophy, literature, arts, and social science concepts based upon this construct. Being immersed in radical Black art has always been a gateway to the future, but it’s now being elevated and recognized as that gateway. The first wave of Afrofuturism came in the 1990s, and the second wave, Afrofuturism 2.0, is now underway. It’s international in nature, so the way it looks depends on the geographical location. If you’re in Brazil, it’s Afrofuturismo. On the continent, it’s African futurism. In the North Atlantic Basin, it’s Afrofuturism.
Q The term “Afrofuturism” might be young, but it’s a practice, or an aesthetic, with deep historical roots, right?
BrooksBlack people had to be futurists when they arrived from the continent, because they were forcibly stripped of so many traditions. They had to be innovative and resilient. They took hymns from Christianity, a religion forced upon them, and recreated them as their own spirituals that foresaw a future free of slavery and colonialism. So, we always were futurists, because we had to be.
Anderson The Black speculative tradition emerged out of the context of imperialism, colonialism, resistance to slavery, and resistance to scientific racism. In practice, Afrofuturism, in a way, is a form of slow politics. It evokes a moment of deceleration in which we can intuitively engage each other and reimagine alternate realities. Our underground churches and literary societies were probably the first speculative spaces, where we could meet in peace and imagine a better tomorrow. A good Black orator knows how to suspend time and space through the spoken word or nommo, where you feel like you’ve only been in there 10 minutes but actually it’s been 90 minutes, because they’re able to speak to the Black imagination and suspend time briefly in that very communal moment.
“NUCLEAR FOLKS SAY IT’S ONE MINUTE TO MIDNIGHT. BUT IN AFROFUTURISM STYLE I WOULD SAY IT’S ONE MINUTE TILL THE JUKE JOINT CLOSES.”
Q You’ve said Afrofuturism brings the African mind, heart, and soul to futures thinking, that it’s “a 360-degree, full-body immersion into the possible.” What’s driving the communal vigor that seems to animate the Black Speculative Arts Movement?
Anderson A BSAM event is like a Hogwarts wizarding tournament where we all come together. There are exhibits, performances, cosplay, and workshops that are all experienced in community. BSAM events create a temporary space that allows us to decelerate from the acceleration of the postmodern condition, reimagine alternatives, and keep alive this idea of what a better tomorrow might look like. With BSAM events, it’s like we’re trying to hold open the stargate portal for as long as possible for all the cool people to get through until it closes.We’re also a democratic and de-centered movement. We don’t have a traditional hierarchy based upon educational level, gender, geography, or anything else. It’s whoever has the dopest stuff at the moment. All the organizers do is invite a lot of people that are smarter than us to help develop and host something, and they often create something beautiful.
Q What sorts of insights and intelligences does Afrofuturism bring to futures thinking that more classic strategic foresight does not?
AndersonAfrofuturism helps point out the blind spots of some other methods and approaches. Black futuristic practice, to borrow a phrase from philosopher Lewis Gordon, operates out of a different geography of reason. Most Western Euro modern thinkers who are futurists, their geography of reason, even when they’re trying to be progressive, usually revolves around ideas of political economy, German philosophical idealism or romanticism, and French socialism. The geography of reason that animates the Afrofuturist 2.0 perspective is the geography of Africa, or Africa mediated through the middle passage within the diaspora. And this leads to different imaginings. For example, an Afrofuturist might look at Great Britain weakening as an important country in the world because of Brexit and other issues. They might couple that with the fact that the African Union will dwarf the European Union (the former colonizers) in population sometime in the 21st century. And they might see the decolonizing possibility that the prime meridian, which has run through Greenwich, England, since the 1880s, moves to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. That would be both a radical political move and a simple reimagination of how we reclaim our time.
BrooksAfrofuturism’s focus on art as a powerful medium for reshaping worldviews is also different. Classic futurists talk about the social, technological, environmental, economic, and political, or “STEEP,” factors that will shape the future. A framework that we’re trying to develop, influenced by Afrofuturism 2.0, is what we call “ASTEEP,” where the “A” stands for arts. What are the artistically driven signals that we need to shape and to look out for, and how do they in turn influence these other social, technological, environmental, economic, and political factors? So, we’re really creating a kit for that.
Anderson Culture, fashion, and expression are a core part of the futures we’re envisioning. I’ve never seen a classic futurist talk about the kinds of food we’ll eat in the future, or what music survives. Being African American, we’ve got to think of style, too. I mean, there is no way that I’m going to go around wearing a gray drab outfit in the future. When COVID-19 started, we were talking about how do we pair loose clothes with a mask and make it look cool, if that’s going to be the new reality of dealing with climate change and the plagues of the 21st century.
QLonny, you’ve written about how insights from Afrofuturism can translate into public policy. That it’s not just about imagining these vibrant futures beyond the present—it’s also building elements of these worlds into existence.
Brooks I co-direct a program called theCommunity Futures School, based at Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Arts, that engages youth of color in futures thinking. One goal of the program is to partner with other local institutions like the Museum of the African Diaspora, the Oakland Museum, the City Council of Oakland, as well as universities like California State University East Bay and others, to create a kind of speculative futures hub, or imagination network. The network can articulate visions of the future of traditionally underrepresented communities—from Latinx to Asian to Queer to Black—and translate these visions into public policy agendas as platforms for legislative action. How might we create an imagination network in the state of California, for example, that advocates for the futures of its peoples and centers the margins rather than the elites?
“THIS KIND OF TRAINING BRINGS US ALL UP TO A NEXT LEVEL OF THINKING. IT’S CREATING A NEW KIND OF FUTURES ECOSYSTEM.”
QN Square and BSAM have been in conversation for a while, looking to set up opportunities for mutual learning and exchange. From a BSAM perspective, what value do you see in the strategic foresight training that BSAM members are currently doing with N Square?
AndersonWe have an international network. The futures training that N Square is facilitating gives us a common language through which to mediate some of our ideas. Even though we speak different languages—whether it’s Portuguese, Spanish, Igbo, French, English—it offers a shared platform for thinking about what the future looks like from Legos, Nigeria, or Rio, Brazil, or Montreal, Canada, or Cape Town, South Africa, or Berlin, Germany. These traditional futurist tools bring a certain type of rigor to some of the processes that we want to engage in, or just a different set of tools that will become a part of our toolkit going forward.
Brooks To have this opportunity to train this network is remarkable, because everyone should have access to this type of practice. Stacey Robinson is one of our leading artists doing amazing work in imagining temporary Black utopia. What might he do with some of these tools that will influence and merge with his artistic visions? Sheree Thomas is a great writer already doing forecasting. But how will the signal scanning we’re doing with N Square influence her writing? What will she be bringing next? This kind of training brings us all up to a next level of thinking and creates an interesting platform for collaboration. It’s creating a new kind of futures ecosystem.
Q Next month, BSAM members and N Square are going to be building scenarios on the future of global security and how it might be differently and more equitably reimagined. Part of that will be thinking about a world beyond nuclear threat. Until now, how have nuclear weapons factored into Afrofuturism, if at all?
Anderson It’s important to point out that when futurists talk about the end of the world as public enemy, the end of the world has already happened for a vast number of people of African descent. African people are the only ethnic population in the world where one-third were taken outside of their continent of origin. The disaster, or the Maafa as African scholars have called it, has already happened. So, when you talk about nuclear weapons and major disasters, we’ve had a big disaster already.
Nuclear folks say it’s one minute to midnight. But in Afrofuturism style I would say it’s one minute till the juke joint closes. A famous Thelonium Monk jazz piece talks about how all kinds of stuff happens ‘round midnight. There’s also Amiri Baraka’s avante garde version of anti-nuclear criticism in his production Primitive World: An Anti-Nuclear Jazz Musical. As an Afrofuturist, though, the reason I have to care about nuclear weapons is not primarily the weapons themselves. I’m more worried about the people who have access to the button. So, I have to care, because we’ve seen people move into positions of power based upon ideologies that are not conducive to an advanced society. And that’s an example of the ethics of the citizenry not measuring up to the technology or necessary politics of the moment.
Brooks That’s where I think we need to develop ethics and restorative justice. So much harm can still happen, but so much has already been done. So many people feel that they’ve been harmed by the West, haven’t had their voices heard, or have been trampled upon by colonial practices. So, how do we have a global restorative justice reconciliation movement that develops the ethics we need now, and have always needed? The way to solve a problem is to evoke an inclusive humanistic solution, whether that problem is systemic racism or climate change or the threat of nuclear weapons. That’s where I think Afrofuturism can help, because it offers an immersive experience in global empathy and imagination that the nuclear community and others can tap into.
“THE WAY TO SOLVE A PROBLEM IS TO EVOKE AN INCLUSIVE HUMANISTIC SOLUTION, WHETHER THAT PROBLEM IS SYSTEMIC RACISM OR CLIMATE CHANGE OR THE THREAT OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS.”
Q This seems critical, rather than optional, to tackling wicked problems in a rapidly changing world.
AndersonThe world is changing faster than people can adapt. There will be 50 years of advancement over the next 10 years, and human beings are not hardwired to go through change that rapidly. This country and others did not make the educational investments they needed to make at the end of the cold war to prepare people for moments of rapid change and function as citizens in the 21st century. Not preparing people for these moments has created a very cynical population and stunted the imagination of those in public office who govern by poll rather than by creativity and imagination. Look at the age of the U.S. Senate. These politicians govern like we still shop at Blockbuster instead of streaming from Netflix. So, when I think of 2045, I think there’s going to be a whole bunch of ugly stuff happening before then, simply because so many people don’t have the tools to cope with change.
Brooks Integrating futurism and imagination into educational practice is what Afrofuturism offers as a blueprint for the future, because the way we teach history is the way that we can teach the future. We have to endow everyone with the ability to have a voice in forecasting the future, especially young people. At theCommunity Futures School, we teach young people of color about Afrofuturism and indigenous futurism, have them scan the news and social media for signals of the future, and then create art based on what they’re finding and imagining. Their work is energizing, hopeful, and humbling. This summer we have 45 students creating an Afrofuturism youth community manifesto envisioning Oakland in 2045 we call “Okanda Visions.” Imagine what that manifesto is going to look like, with the storyboards and art they’re creating.
QThe nuclear risk reduction community has long had trouble getting young people to care about nuclear issues. Engaging them in broader efforts to reimagine the future—their future—could spark that engagement. And it might even be fun.
AndersonOne of the most important aspects of Afrofuturism in particular is that it can be joyful. You can’t forget the joy. All I’m doing as an Afrofuturist today is replicating what I was doing at 12 or 13 years old, which was playing with the new technology of the time; enjoying early animation, folk wisdom, and culture from my Mississippi grandparents; and reading comics. From Falcon, I learned about the possibilities of democracy. From Black Panther, pride in my African heritage. And from Luke Cage, it was neighborhood politics. So, as an adult, I’m just articulating something that brought me joy at that formative age, and reimagining it. If you want to know where the culture is going, look at the 12- to 14-year-olds who get their news from TikTok and are coming out of a traumatic Covid-19 hybrid education environment. The kids going into college in the next three to four years will be the generation running things in 2045. We need to understand what they love, and we’ve got to plot that joy. Because when we engage young people in this work, we are planting a seed for the future.
Story thumbnail: Illustration by Alan Clark
Top: Book cover illustration for Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness, designed by John Jennings
In September, a new cohort of fellows joined the N Square Innovators Network (NSIN). With 32 members, it’s one of the largest NSIN cohorts to date. The new fellows are a mix of current and emerging leaders in the fields of nuclear nonproliferation, security, disarmament, and/or arms control. They hail from several countries and represent more than a dozen organizations. Nineteen of the fellows are women, many of them spearheading efforts to elevate women’s voices in the field.
“It’s an incredible group of people,” says N Square DC Hub director Sara Kutchesfahani. “We are blown away by the enthusiasm they’re already showing for learning and working together.”
The N Square Innovators Network attracts nuclear professionals eager to partner with creatives—and with one another—to gain practice in designing innovative solutions to pressing nuclear risk reduction challenges. “The network is built on the idea that we can get big leaps in innovation when we engage people with diverse experiences and perspectives to work together on prototyping new approaches and solutions,” says Kutchesfahani.
While prior NSIN cohorts have spearheaded a range of creative projects designed to advance the field’s mission—from forging new routes for engaging the public in nuclear issues, to leveraging emerging analytics to track threats to humanity, to creating pathways for connecting educators to nuclear experts and curricula—this new cohort has a slightly different brief. They’ll be advancing the field’s mission by turning their collective energy toward critical issues internal to the field.
As N Square’s 2019 Greater Thanresearch report revealed, basic challenges within the field are serving to inhibit its ability to innovate, collaborate, and attract and retain the best and brightest minds on the planet. The report surfaced the need and the opportunity to reimagine the nuclear risk reduction field in four key areas:
How might we redesign the culture and structures of work to enhance cooperation and improve outcomes, in the Covid-19 world and beyond?
How might the field begin to practice hiring and advancement with a DEI lens, valuing new and different types of professional and cultural competencies?
How might we ensure that the field has a shared definition of excellence in leadership and develops the best pathways for mentorship?
How might we build the field’s capacity to operate as a cooperative and collaborative system by creating (and training) cross-organization, cross-function teams that work together on projects?
Working virtually and in teams, the fellows are exploring strategies for driving change in these four areas, developing their best ideas into prototypes that can be operationalized. Each team has access to expert consultants in fields related to the four topics as well as a host of facilitators, designers, and creative professionals well-suited to realizing the teams’ ideas and goals.
“Our fellows and others in this space have expressed an overwhelming desire to improve how the field operates, so we’re taking a little bit of time to look inward,” says Erika Gregory, N Square’s managing director. The hope is that tackling these issues head-on will help strengthen the field at its foundations, ultimately accelerating the ability to innovate, collaborate, and deliver on its most audacious goals. Says Gregory: “This cohort is our big bet that working together we can spark the kinds of change that nuclear professionals want and need in order to do their best work.”
Financial investors don’t toss around phrases like “nonproliferation” and “nuclear detonation” very often—and almost none are factoring nuclear weapons or potential nuclear conflict into their decision-making. But David Epstein hopes to change that. Epstein spent 20 years as a research analyst on Wall Street, scrutinizing corporate fundamentals and advising investors on financial risk. But it was the risk they weren’t talking about that increasingly drew his focus. He spent thousands of hours studying nuclear risk, eventually turning his growing alarm into a plan to get investors—specifically, sustainable investors, who are eager to align their money with their values and make a positive societal impact—engaged on nuclear issues. “There are people who know more about nukes and there are people who know more about sustainable investing,” explains Epstein. “But there’s almost nobody focused on combining these two issues in a comprehensive way.”
In the last few years, Epstein has published articles and op-eds in everything from Barron’s online to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, making the case that investors have a role to play in reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. But it’s his new 74-page report, “Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe,” synthesizing much of his thinking on how to jumpstart investor engagement, that is creating a real buzz. Multiple leading financial publications focused on sustainable investing have picked up the report, and Inkstick also ran an article. Epstein finished the report soon after completing his N Square Innovators Network fellowship, an experience that helped inspire and further its core research. (The report was funded in part by N Square.)
Epstein has good timing. Growing numbers of sustainable investors aim to mitigate existential threats like climate change and conservation through their investments. And right now, like the rest of us, they are experiencing firsthand the limits of relying on government alone to anticipate and address societal threats like the COVID-19 pandemic. That makes this an almost ideal moment to get nuclear threats on their radar, reasons Epstein. “My goal is to get them to worry about not just the ability of nuclear weapons to kill millions but also their ability to bring down economies, debilitate markets, and wipe out sources of income and lifetimes of work.” And nobody knows how Wall Street might respond to a nuclear catastrophe, he says. “It would likely be unprecedented.”
Epstein’s report speaks to a range of sustainable investors but homes in on a few in particular. ESG investors—so called because of their concern for environmental, social, and governance issues—are a rapidly growing class of investors involved in the publicly traded equity markets. These investors are pushing companies to disclose information and create transparency on factors that matter to them and/or pose risks to their portfolios—everything from a company’s CO2 emissions per unit of production to whether they have an anti-bribery ethics policy in place or a demonstrated commitment to board diversity. Companies that fare poorly by these “screens” are either avoided by these investors or compelled to change their practices.
But beyond divestment campaigns, there hasn’t been a concerted effort to get ESG investors to screen widely for nuclear weapons and proliferation risk. “Nukes threaten every one of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, which many sustainable investors hold as something of a ‘north star,’” Epstein says. “But they’re just not factored in by ESG investors, particularly in the U.S.”
“NUCLEAR EXPERTS NEED TO EDUCATE THE FINANCIAL COMMUNITY. THEY NEED TO TELL INVESTORS, ‘JUST AS WITH COVID-19 AND CLIMATE CHANGE, THIS IS YOUR PROBLEM TOO AND YOU NEED TO HELP SOLVE IT.'”
It’s time for that to change, he says—and not just when the potential investments are in aerospace and defense companies. Lots of industries can wittingly, or unwittingly, contribute to the nuclear supply chain or the possibility of nuclear conflict, Epstein says. What if these investors required banks to have stronger counter-proliferation financing policies? Or compelled social media companies to enact better protections against disinformation and hacking that might lead to a nuclear confrontation? Epstein also lays out an argument for why engaging companies to improve their performance and disclosures might be a better alternative to blanket divestment. “You can effect more change if you say, ‘Look, there are conflicts of interest in your lobbying activities and your cybersecurity measures are inadequate. We strongly encourage you to change your practices.’”
Epstein’s report also targets impact investors, who put their money in for-profit companies that promise to generate positive environmental or societal impact alongside a financial return. Impact investors have long ignored nuclear issues, but with good reason: the nuclear risk reduction field is dominated by nonprofits and government entities, not revenue-producing enterprises. But Epstein devotes a chunk of his report to explaining how the field can build a pipeline of for-profit projects and startups capable of attracting impact investors and their considerable capital ($719 billion in 2019). These include film and media projects featuring nuclear storylines and projects in technology, AI, cybersecurity, and blockchain that play a role in reducing nuclear risk and have broader commercial application. Epstein also ticks through a host of novel funding mechanisms—from combined nonprofit/for-profit entities to idea accelerators to blended finance models where philanthropic funders offer grants to develop an idea to the point where it attracts investment—that could fuel new entrepreneurial and investment activity.
But these investors won’t come without prompting, Epstein warns. “Nuclear experts need to educate the financial community,” he says. “They need to get out into the financial and business media and tell investors, ‘Just as with COVID-19 and climate change, this is your problem too and you need to help solve it.’” Nuclear experts also need to help set standards for what sorts of nuclear risk sustainable investors should begin factoring into their screening tools, and to lay out all the issues that are potential pathways to conflict for entrepreneurs and investors so that they can help drive solutions.
Luckily, Epstein will be on hand to advise them. He recently launched the Cross Capital Initiative, which he hopes will become a platform for pursuing the kinds of work detailed in his report. “My goal is not a personal goal,” Epstein says. “I just want to help the financial world see that nuclear is an investable issue.”
Movies can play a powerful role in raising public awareness of the threats posed by nuclear weapons. The cluster of nuclear-themed films released at the height of the Cold War—from The Day After and Testament to Threads and War Games—left a particularly indelible mark, awakening millions to the human impact of nuclear detonation. But that was 40 years ago. Ryan Beickert thinks it’s time for a fresh wave of films that spark engagement among a new generation—and who better than a millennial filmmaker to lead that charge?
Beickert, 33, is a storyteller at Courageous, the branded content studio for CNN and Great Big Story, where he creates films, shows, and other visual experiences designed to build emotional connection between audiences and brands. In 2018Beickert joined the N Square Innovators Network as a fellow. During his fellowship, he developed a new series about a post-nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States that draws on the wisdom of nuclear risk reduction experts—and he’s determined to bring it to the screen. In this interview, Beickert talks about the power of film to create nearly real-life moments, what “branding” has to do with nuclear nonproliferation, and how the field can better engage creatives.
Q What drew you to filmmaking?
A I grew up in a small town in Long Island called Patchogue, and was raised by a single mom. I have four brothers, and she didn’t have the means to pay for childcare or backup support. So we were a self-regulated system of five boys just surviving. She made sure we had a house and we had food and we were happy. But mostly we were just let loose; the world of the neighborhood basically raised us. We would play all the time and make up adventures. I loved creating stories. When I was seven or eight, we got our hands on a crappy VHS camcorder and started making home videos.
My mom worked two jobs. At night, she was manager at a United Artists movie theater. Instead of going home after school, we went to the theater, did our homework in her office, then watched movies until her shift was over. I’d watch a movie over and over and over again. Sometimes I’d go up to the projectionist booth and help run the film reel through. The entire workforce was like, “Okay, here’s the manager’s kid, we’ll try to help out. There’s five of them.”
It was such an escape. But I remember realizing early that movies can change your experience. You sit in a dark room for two hours, and you leave feeling like you’ve just had some type of life moment. A movie can be almost comparable in impact to a major life event, which is crazy to think about. But that drew me in. By the time I got to high school I was actively making short films. So that was the origin: too much time on my hands, brothers, Long Island, a camcorder, a movie theater. It was like, yeah, of course I’m going to make movies.
Q What happened next?
A I went to the School of Visual Arts to study filmmaking. I was the first person in my family to go to college and had to put myself through school. I ended up managing a bar in the East Village, which was crazy, because I was 19 and not legally able to drink. This was 2006, and a lot was changing in the world of film. YouTube was just coming out. So was the iPhone. The filmmaking industry was going digital. And digital editing was getting easier, thanks to a program called Final Cut Pro, which replaced this hard-to-use system called Avid. I realized that if I knew Final Cut Pro, I could get editing gigs even while I was in college. So, I put a bootleg copy on my computer and started hunting for opportunities.
One of the regulars at the bar was a freelance editor. He said he knew an old-school Avid guy, an Emmy award-winning editor, who didn’t know how to run Final Cut and was looking for help. I worked with him for a year, and it was like a master class; he taught me about beats and rhythm and story structure and how you shape story in an edit. My confidence with editing kept growing, and soon I was working on documentaries, commercials, and reality shows for clients like BBC, A&E, Food Network, and Google. Through that work, I also started transitioning from editing to producing and directing—so, moving from the end of the production process back to the beginning.
When I was still a senior, I was offered a job at MKTG, which produces big events for major companies like Nike. I was in charge of the video department, managing the production of photography and videography at events happening all over the country. But the work started to feel far away from filmmaking. In 2013, halfway through my six years at MKTG, I went back to School of Visual Arts for a master’s in branding. Soon after that, I helped create the branded content studio at Mic and then joined Courageous.
Left to right: Ryan Beickert, former N Square advisor Paul Carroll, Nuclear Threat Initiative president Joan Rohlfing, and journalist and author Eric Schlosser at a 2019 N Square Innovators Network gathering. Photo: Dave Cooper Photo
Q Many of the people who’ll be reading this are nuclear risk reduction professionals who have no idea what you mean by “branded content.” What is it, what does it have to do with filmmaking—and what does it have to do with them?
A We’re all familiar with brands in the commercial sense. Subaru, Coca-Cola, Apple, etc., are all brands. But a brand isn’t a name or a label or a logo. A brand is a relationship. And like any relationship, it comprises an entire set of expectations and experiences. You pay a premium for Mercedes or Land Rover or any luxury car because you want that intangible thing that it evokes in others, evokes in yourself, and that it makes you feel. Companies create marketing, ads, and associations that help reinforce all these feelings and expectations and build connections between people and brands. At the end of the day, that’s what a brand is.
“WHY SHOULD NUCLEAR PROFESSIONALS CARE ABOUT BRANDING? BECAUSE BRANDS AREN’T JUST ABOUT PRODUCTS. NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT IS A BRAND. JUST LIKE LAND ROVER. JUST LIKE COORS LIGHT.”
Creating branded content is about telling visual stories that communicate and promote these intangibles. The tools of filmmaking, the tools of theater, the tools of storytelling—these all ladder up to what you need to make a brand; they’re all tools for creating emotional connection. So, the branded content studio I ran at Mic, and the one I now work in at Courageous Studios, tell stories that help build out that emotional connection between a brand, what it represents, and the people watching—whether it’s through short films, long-form features, virtual reality, or live television.
Branded content is exciting. Drawing on market research and consumer insight, we get to tell compelling stories with the tools of the filmmaker that reflect the brand, reinforce brand relationships, and are also great to watch. So I don’t think about branding and filmmaking as separate. I see them as two decks of cards that are being shuffled; it’s inevitable that they blend. And I believe Courageous is going to be one of those studios amongst a bunch of others that will be right there trying to figure out and make stories that are blended in that world. So that’s why I’m at where I’m at.
Why should nuclear professionals care about this? Because brands aren’t just about products. They can represent movements, or policy. Nuclear disarmament is a brand. Just like Land Rover. Just like Coors Light. And my goal would be the same—to tell compelling stories that help audiences connect emotionally and urgently with that brand.
Q How did you get connected with N Square?
A Gena Cuba, who is a partner at Nucleus, was in my class at the School of Visual Arts’s Masters in Branding program, and Nucleus’s Elizabeth Talerman was one of the professors. They were both in the first cohort of N Square Innovators Network fellows. Gena tried to rope me in then, but I couldn’t commit to it at the time. The following year, when I was deciding whether to take the job at Courageous, I sought out Elizabeth’s advice. Is this a smart move? Should I do this? Ultimately she said, “Ryan, I want you to go to Courageous. And I need you to get involved with N Square.” So she recruited me and I’m happy she did. I’ve met such amazing people that I would never have met and never have thought I wanted to meet. Plus, nuclear accidents or detonations now top the list of things that I fear.
Q Did you know much about nuclear threats going into it?
A Not really. I had a list of major things I was worried about, like climate change, and nuclear wasn’t on it. But the fellowship curriculum brings you up to speed on nuclear issues and what kinds of threats they pose. After dedicating 20 or 30 hours of time and energy to learning about these issues, my inevitable response was, “Oh, shit.” But you can’t do that for everyone. That’s literally the problem, right? That’s the thing we’re trying to solve. How do we get everybody else to that “oh, shit” moment without that 20 or 30 hours? Approaching it with a filmmaking and branding lens, I thought, well, this is a campaign. What types of stories can we tell that would create that “oh, shit” understanding without us having to actually live through a nuclear event?
“ALMOST NOBODY IS INVESTING IN STRATEGIC NARRATIVES ABOUT NUCLEAR FUTURES RIGHT NOW—AND WE CAN CHANGE THAT.”
The nuclear community has a thorough understanding of the complexities of the threat. But they tend to shorthand it, creating language that either isolates others from getting involved or oversimplifies it to the point that it gets almost romanticized. And then you start getting storytelling around a post-apocalyptic kind of romance, where the hero survives and lives an exciting adventure as a vigilante cowboy. And that’s dangerous because it turns an existential threat into a plot device rather than something that’s painful, urgent, and real. It becomes deus ex machina, right? An unavoidable act of god. Those types of manifestations reinforce this sense of it being inevitable, which is terrifying to this community, and rightly so.
But that, to me, is the biggest opportunity. This community can leverage the tools that modern brands and modern storytelling use to try to correct that error. And the timing is opportune. Covid-19 has robbed us. People are starting to say, “We’re not getting robbed by things like this again.” We’re seeing how events that one could argue were “acts of god” or inevitable could have been prevented with policy, awareness, planning, and oversight. So, I think we’re at a time when the culture is being primed to handle these narratives and to receive that message. There are so many companies and creatives that can help with that effort, too. There are brands that can enter these conversations. There are celebrities and studios that can enter these conversations. But almost nobody is investing in strategic narratives about nuclear futures right now—and we can change that.
Q During the fellowship, you were part of a team of fellows looking at ways to make nuclear issues more personal and resonant for the public. How was that experience?
A Honestly, it was such a cool array of humans. We had Joan Rohlfing from Nuclear Threat Initiative, Eric Schlosser, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book Command and Control, and Maxwell Downman, an amazing nuclear policy analyst. There were about 12 of us on the team, and we split up to work on different projects. As part of that effort, I started developing the concept for a series about a post-nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States. I wanted to create conditions, for narrative reasons, that would work as a larger analogy to the state of division within the US, and a visual motif of a country folding in on itself. Maxwell and Joan did a ton of research, coming back to me with things like “Here’s precedent for an exchange and how and why it could happen” or “Here are the targets North Korea would aim for” or “Here’s what that damage would be.” And that was invaluable. It wasn’t me, the filmmaker, just making stuff up. Eric was able to round out the narrative and how the story might unfold. Lindsey Harper, executive director of Georgia WAND Education Fund, looked at it from a minority narrative and the relationship communities of color have with nuclear power. All of that made the storyline extremely realistic, compelling, and different from what we’ve seen before.
A sneak peak of the treatment for Midnight, Beickert’s series about a post-nuclear exchange between North Korea and the United States.
Q Let’s say you were in charge of a nuclear risk reduction branded content studio. What are you putting out?
A That’s simple—films. It’s easy to generate compelling ads or short pieces. They’re important because they can help galvanize a sentiment and make it feel more urgent. But you have to get people over to that side of the equation first in order for that to work. The painted sidewalks and the signs and symbols that are coming out in support of Black Lives Matter are galvanizing. But the thing that won everyone over was being forced to stay at home, with no sports, no distractions, and see a lynching on TV. That is what pushed us over. That’s why the whole world decided that this is a conversation we need to have.
That experience pushed millions of people onto one side. Now the tools of social media and ads and short films can galvanize that shift into action. Social media is like LSD; it’s an amplifier. It doesn’t change minds—it just solidifies our bubbles. When have you ever reversed your opinion about something because of a Facebook post or a tweet? It doesn’t happen. First you need something bigger, real, monumental, to shift people over. And then you amplify.
“YOU HAVE TO SHIFT AND CHANGE HEARTS AND MINDS FIRST, AND THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN IN 30 SECONDS. THAT’S WHERE FILMMAKING AND STORYTELLING COME INTO PLAY.”
So, what are things that can shift people over? Films and storytelling can, because of their ability to create almost real-life experiences. If I go to an old Art Deco style hotel, and I walk down the hallway, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time, because of The Shining. I’ve never been haunted. I’ve never seen ghosts. But if you told me to go in the basement and put on the boiler, I’d be freaked out. Why? Because I had an experience so visceral that it felt like it was real.
When it comes to nuclear threats, filmmaking is the only safe way to create that shift and push everyone to one side. It’s the only tool we have for that, short of a nuclear event. So, you could pour all of your budget into social media. But all you’ll do is galvanize the people who are already on your side. You have to shift and change hearts and minds first, and that doesn’t happen in 30 seconds. That’s where filmmaking and storytelling come into play.
Q What do you think would attract more filmmakers and creatives to cracking this problem?
A If you want more filmmakers making films about nuclear issues, you have to understand their universe and find ways to strategically support that. Most people think it’s in a filmmaker’s power to make movies, as if we’re a band of magical artists who can just generate things. But artists have always needed a benefactor. We’re not lacking the energy to tell stories on a grand scale. What we’re lacking is funds; we need financing. Movies are hard to make and really expensive. If an investor said, “If you could tell a story about nuclear, and do it properly, I’ll pay for it,” and that’s the brief? You would have a laundry list of high-quality, talented filmmakers coming up to bat.
If the nuclear risk reduction community wants to get serious about this, they should put out grants, put out support, put out development funding. But I don’t think they should dangle funding without first ensuring that these filmmakers have a strong baseline understanding of nuclear issues and threats. You need them to be on the “oh, shit” side first, for all the reasons I mentioned already. You could have filmmakers go through the N Square fellowship program and then start writing and creating some films. Give more creatives an N Square-like experience, offer that in tandem to funding so that they have to participate and engage in the issues first, and then let them find the stories they want to tell.
Without a doubt, having real experts onboard as advisors would give filmmakers huge competitive advantage. You might pitch to a producer who says, “Nuclear post-apocalyptic narrative? I’ve seen that a thousand times.” But then you could say, “Sure, but this is based on what actually would happen. And here is the fleet of experts that have all stood up to counsel on this pro bono, and this invaluable set of experts is the reason why this series will be unlike any other post-apocalyptic narrative series ever made.”
Q What’s next for your series concept?
A It’s been developed into a treatment under the working title Midnight. Right now I am tapping all sorts of people in my network to help make the pitch, knock on doors, and make this series as salable as possible. But I’m aiming high. It has to be big. We’re talking at the level of Westworld or Chernobyl. That’s the arena this needs to be in if we want to impact culture. That’s my hope with Midnight. Develop the series, enlist writers and directors with weight behind them, and create an experience that gets people thinking, and gets them engaged.
The pandemic has plunged the world into a new kind of uncertainty. So much has changed, and so fast. If someone had said last summer that by March 2020 thousands would perish daily from a new virus, 2.6 billion people would be locked down in their homes, 16 million people in the US would be out of work, and occupants of a California town would be howling at the moon together each evening, it would have seemed like crazy talk.
And yet here we are, living a new reality that no one yet fully understands. Some of us can even attest personally to the howling.
For those who work on nuclear weapons threats, the pandemic has an eerie tinge to it. As the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’s Jeffrey Lewis recently said, the pandemic is a “nuclear war in slow motion.” Some of what we’re seeing right now resembles the kind of large-scale reworking of the world that will unfold if—or when—nuclear weapons are deployed again, whether by accident or by design.
We can’t yet know this pandemic’s full toll. But we can be sure that the consequences for the nuclear threats field will be significant. As we rebuild the economy, address inadequacies in emergency response systems, and anticipate the evolution of biological threats, nuclear weapons are unlikely to be top of mind for policymakers, funders, or the public. Yet in this crisis lies an opportunity to connect nuclear weapons both to an increasingly complex threat landscape and to our aspirations for global well-being.
By exploring intersections between nuclear weapons and other global phenomena—health and climate insecurity, the rise of artificial intelligence, racism and poverty, advancements in brain science—we can reframe nuclear threat reduction in terms of greater human and global security. We can draw resources and ideas to the field that would be elusive if we continued to silo nuclear weapons from other pressing challenges. The field’s ability to adapt to a more intersectional and complex environment, however, will depend on its capacity to embrace change and to innovate.
“IN THIS CRISIS LIES AN OPPORTUNITY TO CONNECT NUCLEAR WEAPONS TO AN INCREASINGLY COMPLEX THREAT LANDSCAPE AND TO OUR ASPIRATIONS FOR GLOBAL WELL-BEING.”
During our 2019 Listening Tour, many nuclear threat professionals we interviewed talked about the urgency of improving and innovating how the field itself works. They expressed a desire to embrace new tools and approaches—as well as concern that not doing so would make progress harder to achieve. The shock we’re living through now presents the field with a challenge: Will our organizations be sufficiently agile to survive? Will we “make due” so we can get through the crisis, or will the whole field be more resilient and resourceful afterward because of the adaptations we make now?
At N Square, we are reworking our own approach from top to bottom. Our mission remains the same: to accelerate the achievement of international goals for the reduction (and ultimate elimination) of nuclear weapons threats by attracting new human, technical, and financial resources; introducing innovation and design methods; creating collaborative environments and frameworks; and hosting an interdisciplinary, cross-sector network working to develop new solutions to concrete problems. But we also see an urgent opportunity to help nuclear threat professionals develop and hone critical skills for managing uncertainty and anticipating the future.
Here’s some of what you can expect from N Square going forward:
Remote Collaboration For the next 12 months at a minimum, we are moving all our programming online. While we don’t take this decision lightly—convenings and face-to-face interaction are core to our work—we see so many potential offsetting benefits that we are committing ourselves wholeheartedly to the challenge. Fully remote collaboration will keep our extended community of fellows and partners connected and productive during whatever lies ahead and ensure that our projects move forward with full momentum. But we believe our experiment will prove useful to the field in other ways as well.
N Square already has an established track record of successful online collaboration. Our innovation fellows work largely in geographically distributed cohorts using distance collaboration tools; our staff also work remotely, giving us practice in how to run teams from a distance. But now we are taking that further. Already, we are analyzing and experimenting with new leading-edge platforms that use augmented reality and/or advanced interactivity to enhance remote collaboration and innovation processes. And we plan to share all that we are learning with the field, in service of fostering more flexibility and a new capacity to collaborate remotely.
You can expect to learn about these new tools through DC Hub brown bags, workshops, and virtual mixers in the coming months, as well as through new professional development opportunities using N Square’s learning exchange program on the distance learning platform TechChange. We will also share information about the compelling tools and platforms we’re discovering in our upcoming newsletters.
Foresight: Scenario Planning and Futures Thinking The pandemic is a shock—but it’s not a surprise. For decades, scenario planners have been calling the outbreak of a global pandemic “predetermined”—not a “wildcard” event but one that was certain to happen at some point. Some of us at N Square have deep backgrounds at the intersection of scenario planning, strategy, and design. In fact our editorial director, Jenny Johnston, and I have worked for decades on futures projects in which bio-threats featured prominently. In 2010, as senior editor at Global Business Network, Jenny opened one of many scenarios on the topic with language that—while some details have played out differently—now seems generally prescient:
In 2012, the pandemic that the world had been anticipating for years finally hit. Unlike 2009’s H1N1, this new influenza strain—originating from wild geese—was extremely virulent and deadly. Even the most pandemic-prepared nations were quickly overwhelmed when the virus streaked around the world, infecting nearly 20 percent of the global population and killing 8 million in just seven months, the majority of them healthy young adults. The pandemic also had a deadly effect on economies: International mobility of both people and goods screeched to a halt, debilitating industries like tourism and breaking global supply chains. Even locally, normally bustling shops and office buildings sat empty for months, devoid of both employees and customers.
The pandemic blanketed the planet—though disproportionate numbers died in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America, where the virus spread like wildfire in the absence of official containment protocols. But even in developed countries, containment was a challenge. The United States’s initial policy of “strongly discouraging” citizens from flying proved deadly in its leniency, accelerating the spread of the virus not just within the US but across borders. However a few countries did fare better—China in particular. The Chinese government’s quick imposition and enforcement of mandatory quarantine for all citizens, as well as its instant and near-hermetic sealing off of all borders, saved millions of lives, stopping the spread of the virus far earlier than in other countries and enabling a swifter post-pandemic recovery.…
The value of scenarios doesn’t lie in the degree to which they prove true. Scenario planning is about preparedness. It’s about envisioning a range of plausible futures in order to inform strategy and “rehearse” responses to change before it happens. Scenario planning and other forms of futures thinking also help to override the human inclination to avoid exploring downside scenarios. They help us face and prepare for a range of circumstances.
“WHAT ARE WE NOT THINKING ABOUT TODAY THAT WILL AFFECT OUR CAPACITY TO RESPOND EFFECTIVELY TOMORROW?”
In the nuclear threats field, we need to be thinking about the ways in which social, technological, environmental, economic, and political forces will combine to change the context in which we do our work over the coming months and years. How will our challenges change—and how will we adapt—if bio-threats like this pandemic combine with natural and climate-related disasters like wildfires and earthquakes? How might the politics of nuclear threat reduction shift? In what ways must we be better prepared? What are we not thinking about today that will affect our capacity to respond effectively tomorrow?
In collaboration with colleagues from the professional futures and design worlds, N Square is fast-tracking plans to offer virtual trainings, interviews, and workshops on strategic foresight. We expect these to be available in the summer of 2020.
A few closing thoughts:
This photograph was taken on a street corner in my hometown in 1918, during the influenza pandemic. It seems that over a hundred years later we are using some of the very same solutions to protect ourselves from an invisible enemy. Will we be using the same solutions a hundred years from today? Isn’t it our job to make sure that in the next century we have new tools to cope with evolving threats?
We are a long way from knowing how life will play out right now. But we do know this: More shocks will come. Each will reveal systemic fragilities. The key is to strengthen our ability as a field to communicate and respond to the ways in which nuclear threats interrelate with those fragilities, and to become more resilient, resourceful, and influential as we do.
Story thumbnail photo: Patrick Criollo; top photo: Marius SSR, Shutterstock.com; bottom photo:Courtesy of the Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Public Library
Emma Belcher grew up in Australia at a time when anti-nuclear movements in that country were flaring—an experience that shaped both her perspectives on nuclear weapons and her career. An early interest in nuclear policy led her to Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she earned a PhD in international security with a focus on weapons of mass destruction. While there, she also served as a research fellow at the Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom. Belcher’s academic career took a surprise turn, though, when she was presented with the opportunity to join the MacArthur Foundation, where she now directs the nuclear challenges program. Here, she shares how being an Aussie informs her work, and how she’s working to find common ground—even among unlikely partners—in service of ending the nuclear threat.
QHow did you get started doing this work?
A You know how people remember where they were when a big event happens, like JFK’s death or 9/11? I remember the room I was in when I learned about nuclear weapons. I was 14, sitting in social studies class. I remember being astonished by the damage they could do. To be honest, I was appalled and awed at the same time. The logic of deterrence and mutually assured destruction seemed kind of brilliant, even though it was horrific. This was toward the end of the Cold War, but growing up in Australia I hadn’t heard much about it. At 14, I was shocked by the state of the world.
At the end of high school, though, I got interested in Cold War history. At university I did an arts degree and studied politics, history, and languages—specifically, Russian and Arabic. I also became interested in the ethics of the use of force. Questions about nuclear weapons and whether they conformed to the laws of war started to grip me. My first job out of university was in public affairs at the Australian Embassy in Washington, DC. Then, just as I’d decided to go to grad school and get more involved in policy, 9/11 happened. That tragedy solidified my interest in weapons of mass destruction, and the possibility of nuclear terrorism brought new urgency to my work. Ultimately, I did a master’s in law and diplomacy at Tufts University, and after working as an adviser in Australia’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, returned to Tufts to complete a PhD in international relations, with a focus on weapons of mass destruction.
“QUESTIONS ABOUT NUCLEAR WEAPONS AND WHETHER THEY CONFORMED TO THE LAWS OF WAR STARTED TO GRIP ME.”
While at Tufts, I also had a research fellowship at the Belfer Center at Harvard, at the Project on Managing the Atom, which is still funded by MacArthur. I was part of a cohort of PhD students from a range of institutions working on similar topics. We learned from one another in ways that we couldn’t at our own institutions, where there weren’t a lot of other people working on the same topic. I remember I could always go to my friend Tom, who is a physicist, and ask him if my ideas made sense from a physics perspective, and I could help him see his work through an international security lens. That experience taught me the importance of being in community with people who are working on similar issues but from different perspectives. Of course, that’s the premise behind N Square as well.
Q How did you get into philanthropy?
A When I finished my PhD, I did a post-doctoral fellowship in nuclear security at the Council on Foreign Relations. While there, I got a call from the head of the Managing the Atom project. He said that MacArthur was looking for a nuclear program officer. I had never thought about a position in philanthropy, which isn’t established in Australia in the same way that it is in the US. At first I thought it sounded kind of boring. How hard could it be to give away money? How was a PhD going to help with this? But the more I talked with people, the more I realized how interesting it was. The research skills I had developed were helpful in analyzing the quality of proposals. I realized philanthropy could combine my academic interest in nuclear policy with a more practical policy focus.
“HOW HARD COULD IT BE TO GIVE AWAY MONEY? HOW WAS A PHD GOING TO HELP WITH THIS?”
Q Do you think you have a different perspective on nuclear security because you didn’t grow up in the United States?
A I think it gives me a sense of how nuclear weapons in the United States are viewed by outsiders, which is something that can get a bit lost here. Growing up in Australia, there was a strong nuclear disarmament movement, particularly in the ’70s and ’80s. I was in high school when the French were doing their testing in Mururoa Atoll, and we were up in arms. Seeing the impacts of nuclear testing and fallout on people and on the environment was quite formative. At the same time, I also understand the issues and the concept of deterrence and how difficult it can be to imagine a world without nuclear weapons. In the US, many people on both sides of the issue are deeply entrenched in their positions; they’re not willing to talk with each other in a meaningful way. As a funder it is crucial to see both perspectives and support constructive dialogue.
Q MacArthur is one of the few foundations with a specific grantmaking program to reduce the nuclear threat. Why aren’t more foundations funding this issue?
A When the Cold War ended, many people assumed that the threat was over. The US and Russia dismantled a great number of weapons. At the height of the Cold War there were between 60,000 and 70,000 nuclear weapons, and it’s down to around 14,000 today. People thought these weapons would become a relic of the past, and with a number of other important issues rising to the surface their attention was diverted away. But now these issues are back with a vengeance—and we need to rally more people to invest in finding solutions. Foundations are collectively investing around $40 million in nuclear policy, versus nearly $1 billion a year in climate issues. So we’re hoping to bring more funders back into the field and new ones to it—and to help everyone recognize this as a dangerous, existential threat. A nuclear event could happen very quickly with very little warning.
Q What has MacArthur been funding in this area?
A Our grantmaking has been focusing on trying to make sure that members of Congress and their staff have a good understanding of contemporary nuclear issues. Just as we’ve seen funding levels drop since the end of the Cold War, we’ve seen a similar drop in general awareness about the nuclear threat in Congress. Champions like Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar have retired or are no longer with us. We are starting to see new champions emerge, which is promising. There’s now a bipartisan nuclear security working group on the Hill, co-chaired by Republicans Jeff Fortenberry and Chuck Fleischmann, and Democrats Bill Foster and Ben Ray Luján. We provide funding for fellows to serve as advisors on nuclear topics. They don’t work on legislation, but they’re embedded in both chambers as a resource for members. We also support experts who provide technical and practical advice to government officials here and in other countries on how best to solve a range of nuclear problems.
QHow has being part of a nuclear security funder collaborative—which is funding N Square—advanced your work?
A Each funder in the collaborative brings something different to the table. Our differences complement each other and help us explore the potential for overlap. Being part of a funder collaborative is also about sharing risk. Being “in it together” means we can make venture-style investments without having a failure devastate any one of our portfolios. It also sends a signal that a group of us are interested in funding more innovation and creativity in the field. We hope it helps many more individuals and foundations see themselves as having something to contribute here. Nuclear weapons can seem like this big secret national security topic, which makes the issue uninviting for some. If we could start to change some minds and have people see where they do fit in, even if they don’t have a nuclear background, that’s valuable.
Q In a recent TED talk, you outlined a set of questions that everyone should be asking right now about nuclear security and nuclear weapons. What sorts of questions were on your list?
A I put that list together as a way to help people begin to work past fear or a sense of being overwhelmed and instead start doing something to ensure that this issue gets the attention it deserves—questions like, How much nuclear risk are you willing to take? Or, Who should be responsible for nuclear weapons decision-making? For example, in the US, having one person, the president, decide the fate of millions of people without any requirement to consult with anybody seems particularly undemocratic. Also, What do your elected officials know about nuclear weapons, and what decisions are they likely to make on your behalf? Members of Congress represent their constituents, but right now there isn’t a constituency for nuclear issues. We need to create it. We need our elected officials to understand these issues, because they’re voting and making decisions about our future.
“RIGHT NOW THERE ISN’T A CONSTITUENCY FOR NUCLEAR ISSUES. WE NEED TO CREATE IT.”
Q Can nuclear security be depoliticized? Is there room for compromise?
A Everyone can agree that we need total security around weapons and nuclear material, and nobody wants to see nuclear terrorism. So that’s a starting point. Over the next several decades, about $1 trillion is projected to be spent on nuclear weapons, which is a lot of money. Even where you don’t get bipartisan support on some of these bigger issues, we might see unusual partners coming together around shared goals, even if they’re coming at them from different perspectives. That is, while disarmament is seen as a liberal imperative, fiscal conservatives are less likely to support a massive modernization effort, given the associated cost. Where there is room for bipartisanship, we’ve got to push for it.
Q What do you think the nuclear field will look like in 10 years?
A I think it will look significantly different. We’re seeing increased diversity at the early career and even mid-career stages—and we’re actively working to foster more of it. N Square is providing young, diverse, talented people with new opportunities to engage in the field. If we take that out 10 years, we’re going to see much more diverse representation in the field. That’s critical because these issues affect everyone; everybody needs a voice. So I’m optimistic because I’m seeing this change happening and I’m seeing people demand it. I’m also seeing people who’ve been in the field for a while support these changes. They’re lending their gravitas and experience to this in a way I might not have expected. That’s been a fantastic development.
Q What would the future look like if everything goes well?
A We would see greatly reduced nuclear risk, greater creativity, innovation, and excitement around this issue, and a sense that people can create positive change. I’d like to see us pulled back from the brink of disaster. But we’re only going to get there through approaches to problem-solving that are creative, inclusive, and innovative.
Top photo, from left to right: Michelle Dover, Emma Belcher, and Eric Schlosser speak at Ploughshares Fund Chain Reaction 2019. Story thumbnail and top photo: Drew Altizer Photography