The Day Before

Most people discounted the possibility of a viral pandemic sweeping the world and killing millions—until it happened. Are we making the same mistake again about the threat posed by nuclear weapons?


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Sometime in the spring of 2020, as COVID was devastating New York City, I started noticing people on Twitter sharing quotes from the epilogue of The Ghost Map, the book about London’s 1854 cholera epidemic that I’d written about fifteen years before. The epilogue was called "Broad Street Revisited"—after the street in Soho where the outbreak began—and it included a few sections that imagined a future viral pandemic sweeping through New York, and the race that would likely ensue between biological and technological evolution, predicting that future gene sequencing machines and other bio-tech innovations would enable us to track variants and develop vaccines at unprecedented rates. The tweets prompted me to go back and take a look at the chapter—I probably hadn’t read it for at least a decade—and when I did, I found the sections about future pandemics mostly aligned with how I had remembered them. The predictions had indeed turned out—tragically—to be accurate ones, but not all that impressive really. Anybody who had spent any time thinking seriously about the history of pandemics knew that something like COVID was a real possibility, maybe close to an inevitability.

But there was one thing that did surprise me, re-reading that epilogue: the most terrifying future scenarios I described were not actually about disease outbreaks at all. They were about nukes.

Ghost Map was very much a book written in the shadow of 9/11. My wife and I were living in the West Village during the attacks, with a three-day old baby. (My wife heard the first plane thunder overhead seconds before striking the north tower, and thought: that plane is flying way too low for a route along the Hudson.) Feeling at peril in a dense metropolis—thanks in part to the settlement patterns of big city living—was a common mental state back then, for me at least. Before I found my way to the cholera story, I’d thought about writing a book simply called Density: a cost-benefit analysis of sorts, analyzing all the ways we were better off by choosing to live in such crowded spaces, and all the ways we’d made things harder for ourselves. Density had made us more vulnerable to explosions, just as it had made us more vulnerable, in the days of cholera, to pathogens that thrived in contaminated drinking water. The 9/11 hijackers, after all, had needed three different kinds of weapons to orchestrate their mass killing: box-cutter knives and jet planes of course—but also the complex of technologies that allowed 50,000 people work in just two buildings, suspended a thousand feet over the ground.

Density is the crucial ingredient often left out in discussions of asymmetric warfare. It is not merely that technology has given smaller and smaller organizations access to increasingly deadly weapons—though that is surely half the story—but also that the massive shift towards urban living over the past two hundred years has made those weapons far more efficient, in terms of their potential body count. Just 2% of human beings lived in large cities at the start of the nineteenth century. Today, more than 50% of the world does. Even if you could have hijacked an airplane back in 1800, you’d have been hard-pressed to find an urban area crowded enough to kill a hundred civilians on the ground. Today, the planet is covered with thousands of cities that offer far more vulnerable targets.

9/11 made it clear that urban density could be used against us, but it was nothing compared to the threat posed by nuclear weapons. In that epilogue to Ghost Map, I sketched out the magnitude of the disaster if the site of the London cholera outbreak were to be ground zero for a nuclear attack. A one megaton bomb detonated in Soho would vaporize the entire area from the eastern edge of Hyde Park to Waterloo Bridge. A weekday attack would effectively wipe out the entire British government, reducing the Houses of Parliament and 10 Downing Street to radioactive ash. Most of London’s landmarks—Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey—would simply cease to exist. A wider zone extending out to Chelsea and Kensington and to the eastern edge of the old City would suffer close to a hundred percent loss of life. Move a few miles farther out—up to Camden Town, out to Notting Hill or the East End—and half the population would die, with most buildings damaged beyond recognition. Anyone who happened to see the blast directly would blinded for life; most survivors would suffer hideous radiation sickness that would make them envy the dead.

Then there would be the secondary effects, the collateral damage. The entire government would have to be replaced overnight; the damage to the financial centers in the city would be catastrophic for the world economy. The detonation site itself would be uninhabitable for years, if not decades. Every resident of a major world city—every New Yorker and Parisian, every person in every street in Tokyo and Hong Kong—would find his or her habitat transformed: from safety in numbers to mass terror. The great cities of the world would start to look like giant bullseyes: millions of potential casualties conveniently stacked up in easily demolished high-rises. One such attack would probably not impede our long-term migration to cities—after all, Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t stop Tokyo from becoming the world’s largest city. But several detonations might well tip the balance. Turn our metropolitan centers into genuine nuclear targets and you risk a whole other kind of "nuclear winter": a season of mass exodus unrivaled in human history.

And all of this terror could easily arrive courtesy of a walk-on part on the world-historical stage, somebody driving a rigged van into Soho and pulling the trigger. There are more than ten thousand nuclear weapons in the world. On a planet of more than 7 billion people, there have to be thousands and thousands of lost souls ready and willing to detonate one of those weapons in a crowded urban center. How long before those two sets intersect?

Needless to say, the events of the past few weeks have brought me back to that nightmare scenario from Ghost Map. Most people discounted the possibility of a viral pandemic sweeping the world and killing millions—until it happened. Are we in a similarly naive state now about the threat posed by nuclear weapons?

A few hours after the Ukraine invasion began, Philip Gourevitch wrote something on Twitter that has stuck with me ever since:

I grew up in the same period, and I remember the centrality of the anti-nuke movement back then vividly: Sagan’s impassioned pleas for nuclear disarmament, the immense European anti-nuke marches of the early 80s, the terrifying ABC made-for-TV-movie The Day After, which envisioned a nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union. But then the fall of the Berlin Wall made the threat seem less imminent, and the cause lost its momentum. The doomsday clock began ticking backwards. The "no nukes" movement redirected its focused to eliminating nuclear power plants, even though modern reactors are far safer than traditional coal or gas-powered plants.

Somehow we ended up spending three decades focused on the wrong nuclear threat—a mistake that has only empowered the petro-dictators of the world, Putin most of all. Toby Ord, in his excellent recent book on existential risk The Precipice, argues that a full-scale nuclear war between two great powers almost certainly poses more of a threat of civilizational collapse than climate change does. And for most of the past six years, the decision of whether or not we should engage in such a war has been squarely in the hands of two deeply unreliable men: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Just think about that for a second. That is an intolerable amount of risk to take on as a society. Maybe, over time, we can figure out a way to keep people like Trump and Putin from becoming heads of state. But as a Plan B, it’s time we recommitted ourselves to taking the nuclear option off the table.

[Note: the discussion of density’s risks and the imagined attack on London are adapted from that original chapter of Ghost Map. The image is from a 1981 anti-nuke protest.]

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© 2022 Steven Johnson
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