Announcing the Reinventing Civil Defense project

The Reinventing Civil Defense project, at the Stevens Institute of Technology, has been created thanks to a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY). It is one of 11 projects funded by a joint effort between the CCNY and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “to support projects aimed at reducing nuclear risk through innovative and solutions-oriented approaches.”

Reinventing Civil Defense is a project dedicated to developing new communication strategies regarding nuclear risk. It brings together a diverse group of experts from academia, government, public policy, entertainment, journalism, and the arts, and will seek to fund many smaller sub-projects that will serve as focal points for thinking about how to increase “nuclear salience” — the lived experience of nuclear weapons risks — among a variety of audiences.

Professors Kristyn Karl, Julie Pullen, and Alex Wellerstein, at Castle Point Lookout at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Photo by Lina Kirby.
Professors Kristyn Karl, Julie Pullen, and Alex Wellerstein, at Castle Point Lookout at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Photo by Lina Kirby.

The principal investigators are three faculty members at Stevens from different disciplines: Kristyn Karl, an assistant professor of political science; Julie Pullen, an associate professor of oceanography and meteorology; and Alex Wellerstein, an assistant professor of Science and Technology Studies and a historian of science. They will coordinate interdisciplinary investigations crossing through the social sciences, the arts, science communication, and the physical sciences.

Reinventing Civil Defense gets its name in reference to the Cold War policies of Civil Defense, which were attempted by various governments, notably the United States, to educate their citizens on the means by which they could improve their survivability in the event of a nuclear detonation or nuclear war. It is often associated with the “Duck and Cover” drills of the 1950s, or the fallout shelters of the 1960s. Civil Defense became increasingly controversial and politically polarized over the course of the Cold War: opposed by some as misleading and complacent, invoked by others as a moral and strategic necessity, the policies died a quiet death in the late 1980s. With the end of the Cold War, US governmental efforts at Civil Defense essentially ended, being transformed into the discipline of Emergency Management.

Duck and Cover drill, 1950s

The Reinventing Civil Defense project deliberately invokes Civil Defense, despite its controversies, for several reasons. For one, Civil Defense programs embodied a major way in which American citizenry understood and encountered the real questions of nuclear risk in the Cold War. “Duck and Cover,” for example, was not merely about hiding under desks — it was about internalizing the reality that nuclear war was possible, and perhaps even likely. This is a sensibility that, with the end of the Cold War, is entirely missing from younger generations of Americans, despite the fact that nuclear risks still remain.

Second, we are also interested specifically in exploring what level-headed, non-partisan, empirically-informed approaches to Civil Defense might look like in the 21st century, especially with respects to single-city nuclear detonations (e.g., nuclear terrorism, or single missile attacks), as opposed to the all-out nuclear war scenarios of the Cold War. It would be a mistake to assume that the Civil Defense strategies of the 1950s and 1960s would work today: trust in government is lower, technological infrastructure has in many cases changed dramatically, and the nature of the threat has also changed.