Jeff Schlegelmilch


On his book Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters

Cover Interview of July 22, 2020

A close-up

I feel like I should say that the chapter I would want people to read if they picked the book up in the store and opened it up to a random page is the chapter on cross-cutting threats and vulnerabilities, or the conclusions. This is where all of the lessons from the various scenarios come together. Or maybe the preface that links the book’s themes to the current COVID-19 pandemic. But my actual answer is the chapter on nuclear conflict.

The chapter on nuclear conflicts was one that Dr. Redlener felt was particularly important, because the threat of nuclear conflict did not end with the cold war, and in some ways has gotten worse. But, paradoxically, the nature of the threats today may make it more survivable than in the past.

I also found myself learning more and more about this topic due to an increasing number of inquiries I was receiving on the old fallout shelter signs around New York City, and elsewhere in the country. These inquiries usually coincided with testing of nuclear weapons in North Korea, and some heated rhetoric between the leadership of the United States and North Korea. Generally, the inquiries were around if these shelters were still viable, and if they would be effective in the event of a nuclear attack. The short answer to those questions is no, and maybe.

In the course of learning about this topic, I met Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science and nuclear weapons, and a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Professor Wellerstein is a fantastic scholar in this field, and my conversations with him were nothing short of fascinating and enlightening. His commentary in this chapter shines a light on a lot of the nuances of the history and the present era in nuclear conflict.

Essentially, the global killing nuclear posturing of the United States and the Soviet Union has given way to more nuanced threats, with, in some cases, smaller nuclear warheads. The increasing number of states with nuclear weapons has also widened the possibility of regional conflict, and the proliferation of black market nuclear materials has increased concern over nuclear terrorism. A smaller nuclear blast is much more survivable with the right kind of preparedness, but it requires better understanding the current threat, and approaches to civic engagement that are elusive, and somewhat problematic with the legacies of the civil defense approaches in the United States.

What is particularly important about this chapter, is that if it weren’t for the urging of Dr. Redlener, I probably would have left it out. And now in having written it, I find it indispensable. As long as there are nuclear weapons in this world, there is the potential for their use. And ignoring the looming threat and the vulnerability that our complacency creates, the more likely it is to be one of the megadisasters we experience in our lifetime. I hope for those that stumble onto this book, they are encouraged not to forget that even with new potential disasters on the horizon, the old ones haven’t gone away.