Governance of the Inconceivable

Essay by Lisa Margonelli: “How do scientists and policymakers work together to design governance for technologies that come with evolving and unknown risks? In the Winter 1985 Issues, seven experts reflected on the possibility of a large nuclear conflict triggering a “nuclear winter.” These experts agreed that the consequences would be horrifying: even beyond radiation effects, for example, burning cities could put enough smoke in the atmosphere to block sunlight, lowering ground temperatures and threatening people, crops, and other living things. In the same issue, former astronaut and then senator John Glenn wrote about the prospects for several nuclear nonproliferation agreements he was involved in negotiating. This broad discussion of nuclear weapons governance in Issues—involving legislators Glenn and then senator Al Gore as well as scientists, Department of Defense officials, and weapons designers—reflected the discourse of the time. In the culture at large, fears of nuclear annihilation became ubiquitous, and today you can easily find danceable playlists containing “38 Essential ’80s Songs About Nuclear Anxiety.”

But with the end of the Cold War, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the rapid growth of a globalized economy and culture, these conversations receded from public consciousness. Issues has not run an article on nuclear weapons since 2010, when an essay argued that exaggerated fear of nuclear weapons had led to poor policy decisions. “Albert Einstein memorably proclaimed that nuclear weapons ‘have changed everything except our way of thinking,’” wrote political scientist John Mueller. “But the weapons actually seem to have changed little except our way of thinking, as well as our ways of declaiming, gesticulating, deploying military forces, and spending lots of money.”

All these old conversations suddenly became relevant again as our editorial team worked on this issue. On February 27, when Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear weapons put on “high alert” after invading Ukraine, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared that “the mere idea of a nuclear conflict is simply unconceivable.” But, in the space of a day, what had long seemed inconceivable was suddenly being very actively conceived….(More)”.