On a tandem bike into the future

Disarming Doomsday: The Human Impact of Nuclear Weapons since Hiroshima
Forfatter: Becky Alexis-Martin
Forlag: Pluto Press (Storbritannia)
Nuclear Weapons: Despite repeated demonstrations, nuclear weapons are still with us, and they are at least as dangerous as before. This book contains what you need to know about the history of nuclear weapons.


In the 1980 century I cycled for peace. From Moscow via Finland, Sweden and Norway before taking the plane and cycling from New York to Washington (DC). Russians, Americans and Scandinavians participated Bike for Peace. We protested against nuclear weapons. The big gimmick along the way was an American and a Russian on a tandem bike. If they got to the finish, they came together. They collapsed, they collapsed. The world was partly ready for such simple metaphors at that time. But today?

The 1980 century was the time of the major peace demonstrations. But nuclear weapons are still with us, and they are just as dangerous as before. Yes, maybe even more dangerous? In the book Disarming Doomsday, The Human Impact of Nuclear Weapons since Hiroshima we get with us the whole history of nuclear weapons from every conceivable angle. For anyone who wants to read up on the topic, this is a small Bible. But it is not necessarily easy to read and is perhaps reserved for the most interested, such as peace scientists, peace activists or students in geography or political science.

Geography that wants something

Becky Alexis-Martin has committed an important piece of work on 192 pages. She is a lecturer in political and cultural geography at the University of Manchester. Alexis-Martin is an expert on long-term effects of radiation and what in English is called "nuclear culture". She is widely used as a commentator on nuclear issues in the newspapers The Guardian and The Independent, and in the BBC program The Conversation (by the way, an excellent conversation program, recommended!).

In other words, it is a knowledgeable writer we are dealing with. The book she has written is in the tradition of "radical geography", a direction that seeks to understand social and geographical problems and propose solutions. Within the radical geography, it is often about everyday life and experiences. Therefore, researchers in the field want to disseminate research that is relevant to people's everyday lives and to society as such. Radical geographers are therefore often even involved in social justice campaigns.

Many victims

Disarming Doomsday  deals with the secret scare behind the research and construction of nuclear weapons. It addresses the geographical locations of the bombs being constructed, such as Los Alamos. We come close to the researcher, the environment and the atmosphere. Then we get there with the bomb used for the first time: in Hiroshima, August 6, 1945. What happened to those who survived and suffered wounds for life? We know a lot of this from before, but I like that it is presented in one book, which is also a political analysis of where the world is today. For what will happen to nuclear security at a time when cyber-attacks are becoming more and more common?

Becky Alexis-Martin has studied people who have survived nuclear tests. The story is full of sad stories of indigenous peoples and islanders who were partially forced away from their homes, or who themselves were exposed to radioactive radiation. But also thousands of military personnel and scientists are victims of what happened, at least in retrospect. Several of these have organized themselves, some of them have traveled back to where they were posted. They are all part of the story, everyone is bothered by something, and Becky Alexis-Martin covers this in a broad and insightful way.

A new cold war

But this is history now, you may want to object. Not once. Much may indicate that we are heading into a new Cold War, or at least a period of increased risk of nuclear proliferation. Unlike biological and chemical warfare, nuclear weapons remain the only weapons of mass destruction that are still not banned internationally. International arms control and non-proliferation agreements are the only restrictions that exist.

And it has worked – at least until now. According to Becky Alexis-Martin, the number of nuclear weapons has dropped from 70 during the Cold War to 300 in 14. That is formidable. But the number of countries with nuclear weapons, and the danger of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, has increased ever since. Initially, only the US and Russia had the capacity. Then came the United Kingdom, France and China. Then followed Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Tensions have increased, and the book provides many examples of near-accidents and false alarms that could have triggered an uncontrollable war.

Unstable leaders

Both the peace movement, many countries, institutions and politicians therefore want better precautionary arrangements. It does not matter that there are fewer weapons than before if the leaders of the countries that have the weapons are considered more unstable or authoritarian.

An example of this is when two Democrats on January 25, 2017 attempted to introduce the Restricting First Use of Nucear Weapons Act bill to Congress. They fail. The idea was to secure the process of a possible first use of nuclear weapons – and thereby reduce the likelihood of nuclear war – by giving Congress the right to declare such a war. We know Donald Trump's tendency to hit the send button on Twitter, no matter how stupid it is, what's coming. Same how provocative, for both friend and foe. It happens on impulse.

There are many examples of near misses and false alarms like
could have started an uncontrollable war.

This is familiar to me the first time the US President's Nuclear Weapons Prerogative has been questioned. Now, the process behind sending a nuclear weapon charge is far more advanced than sending a tweet, but it still says something about the time we live in.

Can nuclear weapons be banned? The current nuclear disarmament agreement is valid until 2021. Trump, as with so many other agreements the United States has entered into, is "very unfair to the United States." Russia has deployed new intercontinental rockets. Trump has also talked about advocating for less potent "mini" nuclear weapons as an alternative to conventional warfare. Should such weapons be used, there will be a smooth transition to the use of "proper" nuclear weapons.

This also shows Trump's total lack of interest in taking an international lead on such issues, something his predecessor, Obama, was far more open to and interested in doing. (It also led Obama to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. The posterity has shown that it was premature.)

That we are able to reinvent nuclear weapons is a utopia. Me and my peace-loving friends were naive in 1983. But they are working just as hard and naively today for a separate nuclear treaty ban. ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work for this in 2017.

Several countries and regions have declared themselves nuclear-free zones, both in Asia, in Africa and in several cities in Europe. Therefore, the world must be naive. Both Russia and the United States need a tandem again. The same goes for India and Pakistan, Israel and Iran.

Alexis-Martin's book is a good update for why it is important to be engaged and informed.

Subscription NOK 195 quarter