N Square network member Bukola Jejeloye has a unique perspective on the tangle of global challenges facing humanity and how we might address them—including the threats posed by nuclear weapons. A nuclear/electrical engineer and international lawyer by training, Bukola has spent his career applying these disciplines to his work for the United Nations, the African Development Bank, and other storied global institutions especially in Africa. Now based in Nigeria, he currently advises public and private organizations through Offline Diplomat LLC, a firm that he founded. In this interview with N Square network weaver Lyndon Buford, Bukola talks about his upbringing in Nigeria, his perspectives on nuclear disarmament and on N Square, and why he thinks we could be on the cusp of significant systems change that moves us all into a better future. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q Let’s start with your background. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
A I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. But in my culture we do not say you are from where you are born or where you live. It’s really where your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are from. So, I am from a village called Iludun-Oro in mid-west Nigeria. I have been going there often since I was a child. But I was raised in Lagos and went to elementary school there. For high school, I attended the Air Force Military School in another part of midwestern Nigeria in a city called Jos. That experience really shaped me as a person, because I was the first in my immediate family to be so far away from Lagos and because I was part of this military school experiment. There were an equal number of children from each state in Nigeria in each class. Talk about Nigerian diversity. I got to meet folks from all over the country for the first time, all different cultures. Our training was equally academic and military.
It was a very tough environment, to be frank. It was not easy for 10-year-olds to be dropped in the middle of nowhere. So it was not a spoon-fed environment, but it was also a very interesting place to learn and grow. In that period, Nigeria was being ruled by the military. There was that worldview in the institution that “power is really in the hands of those with weapons.” That was the view of the country I lived in then and that was the view of the education I was getting in military school.
The Third Mainland Bridge in Nigeria, one of three bridges from Lagos Island to the mainland
Q That’s very young to be introduced to that worldview, and to have to think about weapons and their meaning. What happened after military school?
A I spent a couple of years at home because the military government had shut down all the universities. That’s when I got really interested in international literature and cultures. It expanded my view of what I wanted to do and what I wanted to see. I yearned to get out of the country and to further my education elsewhere. I chose the US because Nigeria had already been inundated by American TV and entertainment. I had the feeling that the US was truly the global melting pot.
I started off studying aerospace engineering at San Diego State University. But after two years in San Diego, the itch of wanting to see the world more was hitting me. Also my major was too much like civil engineering and I didn’t find it exciting or interesting. I heard about this strange foreign land called Northern California and transferred to UC Berkeley. The culture shock for me from Southern to Northern California was greater than the shock from Nigeria to Southern California, if you can believe that. My interest was in chemical engineering because I loved chemistry at San Diego University. Luckily for me, UC Berkeley is the only school I know of where the chemical engineering department is under the school of chemistry rather than the school of engineering. From there, I thought nuclear studies looked interesting as a subsidiary of chemistry, so I ended up in nuclear engineering.
Q How did you end up at MIT, and then in law school?
A I went to MIT to study nuclear engineering and technology and policy. But whenever I was in policy discussions, I noticed that the lawyers always seemed to be more respected; they seemed to own the room and I wanted to be one of those people. So, after MIT, I went to Columbia Law School. Everybody thought I would study nuclear law, but I was more interested in human rights and public law. The Columbia program was broad enough that it allowed me to dabble in everything. I studied and worked in patent law. I also worked in international law and studied quite extensively Islamic law, Germanic law, and Japanese law.
Q Did you ever practice nuclear engineering, or did you transition across to law before practicing?
A At MIT I was in a graduate assistantship program where I worked with an electrical power company in Japan. Basically, I had to come up with a nuclear power plant risk assessment in case of an earthquake/tsunami. One thing that really struck me was that the biggest stakeholders in the work I was doing around the nuclear power plants was the public, but the public was not invited into the discourse of policymaking around nuclear power. So they face the consequences and the results of the policies that have been made, but they are not informed about what led to the policies. They are not allowed to bring in their voice on the future direction they wanted to go. That was rather striking to me.
“AT THE END OF THE DAY WE’RE STILL NO BETTER THAN HISTORIC SO-CALLED BARBARIANS IN THE WAY WE POSSESS AND WIELD POWER.”
Q After law school you worked for the African Development Bank in Tunisia, the African Union in Somalia and Ethiopia, ECOWAS in Nigeria, the World Bank in Washington, DC, a private company in Senegal, and the United Nations in Kosovo and New York. That’s quite a lot! And then you make the leap from development and humanitarian affairs to becoming an investments principal at Skoll Foundation. Why?
A I was working with all these structural organizations, the big ones, created at the end of World War II, the Bretton Woods institutions. It was always about structural power—who has the power, which country you are representing, which family you are representing, who you are being used to represent. In all my professional life, what I have seen is that no matter how much grammar we utilize, or how intellectual we seem, at the end of the day we’re still no better than historic so-called barbarians in the way we possess and wield power. Because otherwise, how do you explain the United Nations, which is supposed to be there to keep global peace? Yet all its Security Council permanent members are the biggest arms dealers, and the biggest nuclear weapons proliferators. Since World War II, the nuclear bomb has been very central to the idea of who is powerful and who gets to control global security.
So cynicism began to creep into my life. And yet, I also became a parent. Having a child was one of my greatest achievements. I chose to have a child on my own and that gave me new life, gave me new vigor. Then, a couple of years later, COVID happened. There were a lot of issues coming up that were just overwhelming for me. I decided that I needed to be amongst optimists—people who feel that they can still change the world, even if it looks like it can never be changed. That was what led me to join the Skoll Foundation.
It was very enlightening to be amongst this group of optimists. When I joined Skoll, Bruce Lowry, now the VP of investments, who came from Skoll Global Threats Fund, said, “You know, we have a portfolio of nuclear organizations.” And I was like, “Hey, those are my people, hahaha.” I was very interested in seeing how nongovernmental bodies were trying to make change in the nuclear space because I’d been amongst governmental bodies and engineers and technocrats who were nonchalant and felt they knew best because they were in charge of all these nuclear weapons.
Q And that’s how you became involved with N Square.
A N Square was part of Skoll Foundation’s nuclear nonproliferation portfolio, and I was just fascinated with the organization. I loved the focus on creating future leaders who think differently and on creating diversity by bringing in voices that have never been called on or listened to in the nuclear space. Bringing in artists, bringing in economists, bringing in speculative writers. When I got involved with N Square, I was really encouraged, because N Square was trying to engage the system as it exists, but it was also creating a path for bringing nonlinear, nontraditional thinkers to this space.
N Square also introduced me to futurism—and suddenly I was going out of my own skin, thinking about what the future could look like. How can we try and set the space for future generations? As a realist, I can see that nobody’s going to give up their nuclear weapons as long as nuclear weapons give them power. But how do we not think of a future beyond that? It is not as if Earth was created with nuclear weapons. We invented them. So if we invented them, we can disinvent them or we can invent something else. And that is where I see futures coming into play. You can dream of the world and not be worried about the powerful institutional and structural blocks that are in place.
“IN THE FIGHT TO CHANGE THE STRUCTURE OF THE WORLD, AND IN THE FIGHT TO MAKE THE WORLD BETTER, I THINK NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT MIGHT BENEFIT IN THE SENSE THAT THE WHOLE NUCLEARIZATION OF THE WORLD WILL BECOME COLLATERAL IN THIS BATTLE FOR GLOBAL CHANGE.”
Q You’ve also become involved in Horizon 2045, an initiative led by N Square, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and Rhode Island School of Design. A core feature of Horizon 2045 is looking at the ways in which global threats are interconnected. What do you see as the promise of looking across threat areas, versus looking at the nuclear threat in isolation?
A The Horizon 2045 initiative offers a framework for dealing with the whole world of global threats we have. It’s not just about nuclear threats. How do we deter all of these global threats? If we can look at it holistically, the nuclear weapons industry is a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole picture. Because of the work I do now, mostly in international relations, I find that the whole idea of trying to confront nuclear disarmament directly is almost a non-sequitur—we’re not going to go anywhere with that if we’re trying to meet it head on. But indirectly, I feel like it can be dealt with—if we do not think about nuclear disarmament or nonproliferation as a source but rather we think more about how we want to change the world we live in more broadly. How do we change the structural systems that we created post-World War II? How do we change the whole thinking of what is power, what is the future, and how those relate?
Q We’re seeing more and more people question or reject the whole underlying structure or philosophy that the system is built on, which you must see as promising.
A The existing systematic power structures we have are very good at holding on to power. The whole nuclear industry, from my point of view, is really tied into the military industrial complex, which is tied into capitalism at the end of the day. If you are aiming for nuclear disarmament, that means you are going against western economic power, because that economic power is backed by a lot of powerful missiles. So if you really want those nuclear missiles to go down, that means you’re telling the capital markets that, hey, you need to go down also. And what are the chances that that will happen if you do that directly?
The generation before me went through World War II; their worldview was pumped into my head. But with the younger generations, many are refusing to accept and believe in the structural system that we’ve created and propped up. I’m talking about structural systems that you and I were educated in. We were told that believing in these systems is what it means to be educated, what it means to be civilized. And I think there is a critical mass of young people who are like, “No, screw that! (Pardon my French). I do not accept your idea of what it means to be rich. I do not accept your idea that I need a means to start an organization before I can deal with something. I will march on you, even if you kill me. I’m trying to create alternative institutions that are not based on these foundations.”
So in the fight to change the structure of the world, and in the fight to make the world better, I think nuclear disarmament might benefit in the sense that the whole nuclearization of the world will become collateral in this battle for global change. The nuclear weapons system is a component of the all-war machine. So if we can change the system, if we change the idea of what it means to be powerful, we change the gatekeepers, and we move them out. Then we can turn all our nuclear silos into amusement parks or museums maybe (just imagine).
Q In your opinion, is nuclear disarmament possible?
A I mean, anything is possible in the world we live in. Anything is possible, as long as it is made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. But in my limited knowledge of this space, is it possible in the near term? No. But that is why I’m so grateful that I live in these times. I live in a period where there are so many outliers happening compared to the generations before me. I remember when I was in college in the ‘90s and we were talking about how the computer will not advance. Nobody would have thought that it would all be on our phone. And this has taken less than 20 years.
So is it possible? I believe so. Now, how is it going to be possible? I am wary that it will be through negotiations and discussions, because power is never given up. It has to be taken. A lot of change comes because of events that are beyond our control, events that we do not think possible. But usually when we need to survive, we innovate. So yes, it’s possible in that sense. Is it desirable? It depends on who you ask.
In my heart as a person, yes, I would desire it. I feel like the idea of what it meant to win in the 1940s, and the idea of what the related future meant, are keeping us from moving forward. The nuclear generation believed that their ideas were the way the world should go on forever. Nuclear weapons were a tool for them to do that. We need to devalue the need for nuclear weapons. So, yes, I do desire a nuclear-free world. I desire it for my kid and for younger and future generations. I do not want them to live in a world of nuclear weapons game theorems. But I feel like nuclear weapons are the tip of the iceberg.
At the same time, we need to be really careful about how we go about imagining and building new systems of the future. We should imagine systems that are more equitable. But at the same time, that is not how it’s been in the past. And so where in this world do we account for the reality of ongoing post-colonial injustice, ongoing inequity, and ongoing power imbalances? So, in one sense, we can imagine an idealized version of the future. And in another sense, we must also stay keenly aware of and be responsive to historical and political realities. How do we address these injustices as we work to build that bridge to the future that we want to see?
Q What do you think would be different about a nuclear weapons-free world?
A I do feel that it will free up a lot of resources that are being used to maintain the nuclear weapons system. And when those resources are freed up, we can imagine what we can get up to as human beings and what we can make of our world. People will not be able to hold their own people hostage because they have a red button. There are some megalomaniacs right now that the world keeps tolerating because they have red buttons. If we do not have nuclear weapons, we will not be under the constant threat that World War II could come back again. Nuclear weapons are a very powerful tool that can be very symbolic. If we as human beings can give up nuclear weapons, it shows that we are looking forward to a better future. Disarmament will be a signal of a new and less deadly global order. Hopefully it is a better one.
In early April 2023, N Square held its sixth annual Innovation Summit, featuring the work of the latest cohort of N Square innovation fellows, a diverse mix of academics, activists, military instructors, and experts in finance and media. While past cohorts have presented multiple projects and prototypes at their summit, this cohort organized its work around one big speculative question: What might a world in 2095 without nuclear weapons look like? What would need to be true? What would we need to overcome, invent, or do differently to get to a new framework for global security? Over the course of several months, the fellows pushed the boundaries of what’s imaginable today in order to punch through to a vision of a far different future. The end product of their speculative work was a kind of guidebook exploring and detailing a new operating system for the 22nd century.
At the Innovation Summit, which was held online, the fellows described the operating system as a framework of structures and systems that organize global efforts to maintain planetary and human security, focused on four main elements: a new security architecture, new policies and forms of citizenship, new ledgers and accountability, and new agreements and signatories.
The summit featured three panel discussions. In the first panel, fellows introduced the OS and discussed the first element: a new security architecture. Fellow Aditi Verma, an assistant professor in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences at the University of Michigan, explained that in order to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons, security needs to be redefined as the intersection of human and environmental security. She also said that equitable and participatory design of the requisite technology for that redefined security is essential.
Julia Gorbach—filmmaker, creative director, strategist, and founder of Wild Minds—talked about decentralization and the intersection of nonhuman species communities, digital communities, and cultural communities. What if, for example, the digital group Afropolitan became sovereign? Learning how to communicate and sustainably coexist within a spectrum of community types will be a feature of the future these fellows envision.
“We’ve been looking at the world through a human-centric lens and there are so many different species that coexist with us,” Gorbach said. “So if today, in 2023, people are able to know when a plant is thirsty and when they should water it, think about what [the future] looks like when we also have nonhuman species who have sovereign power.”
Lyndon Burford, N Square’s network weaver and cofounder of Path Collective, added that a decentralized future requires greater transparency. Humans depend on ecosystems for food, clean water, and air so it’s important to understand how those ecosystems are being impacted. Burford suggested viewing coexistence in a similar way to how we think about sharing air and rivers.
“River systems flow from one nation’s territory into another. The air passes from a nation’s airspace into another and they recognize that inherent interconnectedness,” Burford said. “If we move to a system where we have a greater awareness of these types of flows of water or air, we’ll have to also move it into a political system whereby we recognize that in our agreements and make space for that with each other.”
In the second panel, the fellows discussed other ways the world needs to change for this new operating system to be possible. Lieutenant Colonel Brian Novoselich, chief of staff at West Point and an innovation fellow in this cohort, said those changes include enabling societies to secure themselves not just militarily but also fundamentally in terms of meeting basic human needs. He highlighted some of the ways that current threats impede the path to a more secure future.
“If you look at disrupting national elections, persistent cyber threats to national infrastructure, and the degradation of trust in the idea of truth, not only do we have substantive challenges on the horizon for human welfare, but now we have challenges to the very societal structures that have been put in place for nations to mitigate those threats,” Novoselich said.
Burford suggested that mindsets will shift gradually as people see the increasing intersection of challenges. He gave an example of inkblots coming together on a sheet of paper. “As the inkblots spread, they start to intersect. Any one of these [challenges] might not be enough to shift thinking in dramatic ways, but as they start to intersect, populations of real human beings start seeing these things coming at them from different directions and realizing that the systems that we’re trying to think in today are not working, because there are all of these new challenges arising.”
The changes that need to happen can be overwhelming to think about, noted Katherine Collins, head of sustainable investing at Putnam Investments and another member of the fellowship cohort. She emphasized the importance of having hope and being able to switch from the head to the heart when dealing with these concepts.
“I think of hope as something that’s increasingly important in a lot of our settings. Hope not like sunshine, puppy dogs, and teddy bears hope, but a tough kind of hardened hope,” Collins said. “If you’re thinking of Pandora’s box after all the evils of the world play out, it’s what is left at the bottom—it’s this battered-up tiny creature with wings.”
“I THINK OF HOPE AS SOMETHING THAT’S INCREASINGLY IMPORTANT IN A LOT OF OUR SETTINGS. HOPE NOT LIKE SUNSHINE, PUPPY DOGS, AND TEDDY BEARS HOPE, BUT A TOUGH KIND OF HARDENED HOPE.”
Finally, in the third panel, the fellows talked about using the operating system as a tool for provoking different ways to think about security, a lens for observing and making sense of emerging conditions, and a guide to contextualizing current efforts.
The fellows designed the operating system to be accessible to diverse audiences, hoping to draw more people into sharing and contributing to it without having to be security experts. “Invit[ing] people from all different parts of the world, all different industries to come and play together” might be a challenge, Gorbach said, but everyone should have a hand in designing a more secure future. “When it comes to security, we’re all impacted.”
The fellows included Leo Blanken, Jeanne Bourgault, Jess Brown, Lyndon Burford, Katherine Collins, Julia Gorbach, Brian Novoselich, Kiki Nyagah, and Aditi Verma.
Explore the fellows’ operating system for the 22nd century.
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.
Story thumbnail: Dave Cooper Photo
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