Red phone left of the hook.

In this century our fates do not rest with a few superpower leaders with red phones. (Istockphoto.com)

By Adam Frank


So Marcelo led off this week of nuclear diplomacy with a paean to the change today's summit represents. It is wonderful that attention is finally being paid to an issue that slipped from public consciousness for too long. Today's event raises issues that hit ground zero of our Culture and Cosmos blog.

After all, nuclear weapons, nuclear warfare and nuclear annihilation are all products of a culture that learned, through science, to control the cosmos' fundamental modalities (a nuclear weapon depends on knowing fine details of three of nature's four forces).

First up, have we truly managed to dodge the bullet of full-scale nuclear war? For those of us who grew up with the cold war, our nightmares were shaped by dreams of immanent worldwide immolation. You kids today (God did I just write that) have no idea what that was like. After the Berlin Wall came down there was an audible sign of relief that we had, somehow, made it through the eye of the needle. In the intervening years many in the US and Russia worked hard to deal with the existing weapons (thank you Richard Lugar). The emphasis now is containing proliferation of these weapons. Keeping them out of the hands of terrorists or smaller states.

Proliferation is one part of democratizing (at least a local) apocalypse that these terrible weapons allow. This is the focus of much this week's summit. Still, with so many U.S. and Russian weapons still deployed, I wonder how far we really have come from the bad old days when images from the The Day After hovered in our imaginations.

The other issue that lurks in the background is the way science and technology has managed to give us other means to threaten the project of civilization. In this century, unlike the last, our fates do not rest with a few superpower leaders with red phones and red buttons. In the years since the cold war's zenith, we discovered another democratization of destruction appearing in a new Age of Limits. From climate change to resource depletion (fisheries, fresh water etc) the threats we face now come from our own choices. Its our cherished lifestyles that are now pushing hard on us and the civilization we rightly hold dear (note these new "Armageddon's" are ours alone not the planet's. The Earth will be fine under even large swings in climate. It's been through it before. We, on the other hand, could have a very, very hard time of it.) Such are dangers haunting imaginations the college kids I teach today.

We have gained so much power in so little time with so little cultural preparation (no cultural memory or myths or collective wisdom). So which threats have we learned from and passed over so far? Any at all? If so can we take those lessons and apply them to the new ones we now face?

categories: Science and Policy

10:01 - April 12, 2010