Nuclear Harm: Ecology at Posthuman Scales

People tend to think of “harm” as limited to the individual human body or psyche. For Andrew Linklater and other contemporary cosmopolitans, such shared vulnerability forms the basis of a common or universal solidarity. However, the meaning of harm and its relationship to shared vulnerability was transformed with the detonation of the world’s first nuclear weapon at the Trinity test site, in Alamogordo, in New Mexico, and the subsequent nuclear attacks on the city and people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is because nuclear harms violate not only the human body, but also the biosphere on which all life depends. Despite this, ethical thinking on the nuclear age remains human-centred. To render these human-biosphere connections visible in nuclear discourse, this project problematizes our existing moral category of harm by (re)constructing the Antipodean nuclear philosophy of the late environmental philosopher, Richard Routley, from his personal archives. In so doing it stages an encounter between Routley’s famous Last Man Example and the problem of nuclear harm to question the commonplace binaries between present and future obligations, the local and the global, as well as humanity and nature. 

The notion that nuclear harms are fundamentally ecological invites us to interpret anew—or reimagine—the prevailing understanding of human relations with the non-human world. Within this context, I call for a new, multi-centred, Nuclear (Weapons) Ethics for humanity and the biosphere. I argue that doing so requires nothing less than re-imagining the conceptual, empirical, and normative characteristics of harm in the nuclear age, but also our understanding of subsequent efforts to variously prohibit the pain, suffering and vulnerability that accompanies them. Empirically, it involves reimagining the problem of nuclear harm so as to encompass not only the harm that is inflicted on human beings, but also those that violate non-human beings and things. Conceptually, it awakens us to the fundamental fact that such nuclear harms reaffirm the co-constitution and mutual-implication of humanity and Earth’s biosphere. Further, that nuclear harms occur on greater-than-human spatio-temporal scales casts doubt on the continued distinction between the human and non-human, or natural, worlds. Normatively, it prompts us to take seriously the need for a new, multi-centred, nuclear ethical theory that neither de-centres the idea of humanity nor relegates it to the periphery, but rather (re)situates nuclear harms to humans in ecological terms and the ecological dimensions of nuclear harm in ethical terms. This manuscript therefore contributes a less hubristic, biospheric vision to our scholarly understanding of the problem of nuclear harm.

Sole-authored book under review at a major university press, to be delivered in December 2020.