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Voices of Tomorrow

Why young people think nuclear weapons are history

11 March 2016
Chapin Boyer

Chapin Boyer

Chapin Boyer is a standardized-test tutor and game designer in San Francisco. He has worked with N Square on the creation of virtual-reality experiences to draw a younger generation into the...


Nuclear weapons have not been used in war since 1945. In 1989, the Berlin Wall began its long fall, and the border between East and West Germany opened. And in 2010, when I was 19, the presidents of the United States and Russia signed the New START treaty, vowing to reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads. I cannot remember a time when the threat of nuclear weapons seemed real.

In school, my classmates and I studied World War II. We discussed the ethics of dropping atomic bombs, and I even wrote a paper on how using those weapons enabled the United States to avoid a much more costly and lethal ground invasion of Japan. Our teachers did not shy away from these topics, but we thought of nuclear weapons as history.

My generation grew up believing that the problem of nuclear weapons had been solved. The United States’ main nuclear opponent, the Soviet Union, is no more. Our president has agreed to reduce the nuclear arsenal, and we no longer practice hiding under our desks in case the bombs drop. We have no context for the kinds of danger that these weapons present.

Civil rights revisited. Today’s nuclear non-proliferation activists face some of the same challenges as civil rights activists: Although society still has a long way to go in terms of eliminating racism, sexism, and classism, many people believe those issues to be solved. Look at the response to the Black Lives Matter movement, for example. Those who fight most ardently against it claim that racism is a thing of the past, and that the proponents of the movement are bringing race into issues where it does not belong. When people think a problem is solved, the last thing they want to do is revisit it.

Civil rights activists themselves have usually experienced or witnessed the effects of discrimination. Yet despite the fact that my generation has a clear context for racism—we have witnessed the protests in Ferguson, and the wave of demonstrations that followed over the killings of black men by police officers—movements like Black Lives Matter have had to fight and scrape for every gain. Consider, then, the difficulty that nuclear non-proliferation activists face: Nuclear weapons still exist, but for most Americans they only exist in the abstract. We see them in movies or in games. Sometimes we talk about nuclear weapons in school, but almost always in history class. We talk about them as if they are fictional, or past threats that no longer apply.

My generation has no context for nuclear weapons. We do not have the fear that our parents confronted; we do not have the stakes that our parents grew up with; and for most Americans, nuclear weapons seem like a non-issue. Things have yet to go terribly wrong, so why should we worry?

Attracting attention. I do not know how to garner the attention of young people. I would love to claim that my generation can be easily plied by this or that tactic, but I cannot. Without a context, how can young people hope to understand the issue of nuclear weapons? We see racism, sexism, classism, environmental destruction, immigration issues, refugee issues, economic issues, and so many more all around us. These are the issues that occupy my generation, because these are the things that we are most afraid of.

Maybe it comes down to fear. Perhaps that is what context provides for us, along with a spark to move toward a better future. I do not think there is any easy fix to make us fear nuclear weapons in the way we should. I have studied this issue, have worked with activists on this issue, and yet I still find myself more preoccupied with other problems. Even after all my work, I do not have the context.

Perhaps creating context should not be the goal. Our understanding of the world’s issues is built on years of experience, and trying to fabricate that experience seems like an exercise in futility. Our parents’ generation had to practice “duck and cover,” and heard about the possibilities of nuclear annihilation almost daily. My generation did not. We learned about different issues throughout our childhoods. We cannot build that level of context with articles and acts of protest, but we can catch attention—and while we have that attention, we can educate.

Blood and hammers. Do actions such as pouring blood on nuclear weapons attract the attention of my generation, as they did for an earlier generation described by longtime activist Paul Magno in this month’s issue of the Bulletin? To quote Magno: “We must begin somewhere.” So many people of my generation are apathetic about the threat of nuclear weapons not because they are lazy, but because they are unaware. I might not have the context to fear nuclear weapons, but I do now have the knowledge. I can think about these issues, and I can talk about the dangers that these warheads represent.

The actions Magno discusses are ones that can garner that kind of attention. If I see a nun pouring human blood on a nuclear warhead, you bet I will pay attention. The real trick is following that up with education—using that brief window of attention as an opportunity to educate. During the Cold War, everyone understood what the blood and hammers meant. Nowadays, without the context, it might just look like another viral video.

In my work with N Square—a two-year pilot program of the Ploughshares Fund intended to “ignite the public imagination” and spark new ideas—we commissioned some demonstrations to show how virtual-reality technology might help generate awareness of the threat of nuclear weapons. One of our demos relied on the shock value of experiencing a nuclear blast firsthand to catch the viewer’s attention, and then followed that up with a brief explanation of the nuclear issues we face today. Another demo allowed the viewer to navigate the nuclear-materials black market in order to learn how easy it would be for someone to acquire the pieces of a nuclear warhead. These projects focused on teaching people about nuclear threats that they do not see in history class or in fiction.

It might be impossible to give my generation the context to fear nuclear weapons, but it is not impossible to teach my generation, and to tie that knowledge to what we care about. We say we care about the environment, for example, but how can a person call himself or herself an environmentalist and not recognize the dangers that nuclear weapons pose to the natural world? How can someone care about improving the lives of the down-and-out without fearing the effects a nuclear catastrophe would have on the people with the least power? We have no context for fearing nuclear weapons, but we can learn about them, and about how they relate to the issues for which we do have a context.

So, “we must begin somewhere.” And then we must follow up with education.