About the project

Reinventing Civil Defense is a project at the Stevens Institute of Technology, funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Below is an extract from the original project proposal, which gives an overview for the context and goals of the Reinventing Civil Defense project. 

At the conclusion of the most recent Nuclear Security Summit, United States President Barack Obama said, “the danger of a terrorist group obtaining and using a nuclear weapon is one of the greatest threats to global security.” Around the world, there are currently nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons held and 1,800 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials stored. Whether by intent, unauthorized, and/or accidental, nuclear weapons use could dramatically change the world.

Despite this, the broader American attitude toward nuclear risk reveals little sense of urgency, and a dearth of knowledge and understanding. For a generation of Americans, the tangible and existential fear associated with nuclear weapons was ever-present and mainstream. The effect of the Cold War on Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) has been far-reaching, impacting their political attitudes toward environmentalism, war, and nuclear power, among others. This is in stark contrast to Millennials (born 1981-1997), who grew up largely unaware of the history and danger posed by nuclear weapons, and as a result, are largely complacent in this domain. The post-Cold War disappearance of discourse and lack of meaningful concern for existential nuclear issues arose, in part, from the absence of concrete, mundane thinking about the consequences of nuclear threats.

Though this situation may be self-evident, identifying the causes and potential solutions is more nuanced. Indeed, discussions of nuclear terrorism, proliferation, and arms control are still regularly in the news. And in many ways it is far easier today to get formal information about nuclear weapons stockpiles, capabilities, and effects than any previous time in history. Yet something fundamental is missing: the lived experience of nuclear risk has receded for an entire generation of Americans. Many surveys have shown that Americans have lost track of the fact that they live in a nuclear world.

How can that sense be restored? We look to the much-maligned policies of Civil Defense from the Cold War for insight. In the United States, Civil Defense was a government-sanctioned effort, often with industrial, educational, and media partners, to prepare the civilian populace for nuclear war. The goal was to increase survivability by reducing avoidable casualties, thus strengthening American political and strategic resolve with regards to the Cold War nuclear threat. Always controversial, it became a strong target of criticism and satire in the 1960s, and by the 1980s it was popularly derided for being at best ineffective, at worst a plot to increase complacency. Whether these criticisms hit the mark, Civil Defense encouraged several generations of Americans to believe that the nuclear threat was a real one. It made “the bomb” part of their lived experience. By the end of the Cold War, Civil Defense had transmuted into Emergency Management, which largely ended up avoiding direct civilian education while also decreasing the emphasis on the nuclear threat in relation to natural disasters.

The elimination of nuclear risk from the lived experience of Americans has relegated nuclear issues into a near mythical realm, one that has led to both fatalism and apathy. Talk of possible nuclear terrorism often falls on deaf ears outside of expert and activist circles, and inspires no practical action. As a result, it is very difficult to convince the broader public to support policy efforts, and similarly difficult to foster interest that might lead to the next generation of talented arms-control practitioners.

Therefore, the need to restore a broad, cultural understanding of nuclear risk has never been greater. The United States’ recent political transition, and the explicit statements made regarding nuclear weapons, add to the salience and urgency of nuclear risk communication. Yet it also produces an opportunity: nuclear fear is, for better or worse, back again.

It is important to find ways to channel this attention productively, at multiple levels of society, and we believe that finding ways to reintroduce a measured, informed, non-sensationalistic, non-partisan sense of the lived experience of nuclear risk will produce a dramatic shift in the American political landscape around this issue. Without this deep awareness, nuclear issues will not command the popular support necessary to inspire meaningful public action. Such engagement was historically part of what led to such breakthroughs at the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and was conspicuously lacking by the time of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It is vital that we take steps to produce a meaningful generational shift in the public understanding of nuclear risk.

Millennials are a powerful political force, recently overtaking Baby Boomers as the largest living generation. Research has suggested that they avoid traditional party labels and forms of civic engagement in favor of volunteerism, activism, and civic use of social media. As a result, developing effective non-partisan nuclear risk communication targeted at Millennials represents a unique opportunity to create demand for change from the public. As such, much of our effort will focus on a generation that grew up in the Information Age. Successfully targeting Millennials will require new media deliverables such as apps, video games, and virtual reality, and must reach out across the news platforms and even physical devices that are heavily used by these groups.

The challenges most clearly faced when doing this type of work are two-fold. First, there is risk associated with new media deliverables. In the highly-connected and ever-changing new media environment, saturation means “the best new thing” is always just around the corner. Second, projects aimed at creating societal involvement on a topic can face challenges in gauging success.

First, to break through the saturated media environment, effective new media targeted at Millennials ought to follow several key lessons: 1) listen to feedback to develop good content, 2) build trust to foster word of mouth advertising, 3) remain authentic, and 4) make it relevant/personal. To maximize impact, these lessons will explicitly guide decision-making from our Advisory Committee with respect to the work produced in the workshops and in commissioned projects.

Second, we intend to measure success at each stage of the project by identifying the expected concrete outcomes prior to evaluating effectiveness. Before each stage of the project, we will collaborate with the sub-grant winners to determine what markers of success are both achievable and ambitious. The goals of the first workshop will bring new communities together to enhance our understanding of past lessons, and gain knowledge about current nuclear risk and its perception within the public. The second workshop will seek to leverage the insights gained to develop novel and effective tools for nuclear risk communication targeted at Millennials.

Our project is unique in that the concrete markers of success will vary across sub-awardees. For example, a graphic novel might be deemed successful based on endorsements or awards, whereas a new app might be deemed successful based on number of downloads or positive user feedback. Since many of the deliverables may be proof-of-concept or pilot projects, we are optimistic that the most novel and efficacious projects can be targeted for further development.

The action for soliciting proposals for subcontracts will be handled through the connections and recommendations of the co-PIs, the Advisory Committee, and the N Square Collaborative, as well as the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Proposals will be reviewed and approved of by the Advisory Committee (members of Advisory Committee, and the co-PIs, who might benefit personally from any particular project will recuse themselves from this decision). Where possible, external or matching funding for projects will be solicited from other funding bodies to maximize our funding capabilities.

Third, we will use a “whole framework” approach in the development of deliverables and insights at all stages. Put differently, many creations in the vein of nuclear education fail to have satisfactory impact on broader cultural attitudes because they are isolated, one-off productions. We seek discussions and cooperation from many different areas of media, government, and society at large to converge on mapping and executing within the solution space.