How I Learnt To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (Kinda)

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

I felt alienated from The Guardian’s graphic about stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Was there a better way to depict the data?

UPDATE: Aug – I’m in the process of revising this diagram in light of all the comments (and flames!). Thanks all. If you can help me research the data, please email

Guardian's Nuclear Weapons graphic

I felt the use of abstract figures made most of the data meaningless. Russia has 5192 warheads. America 4102. France 300. What does that mean? Is that a lot? I can’t relate to that.

There’s a single way I relate to nuclear weapons. By their destructive capability. I grew up watching Threads and The Day After. We were even made to watch those nuclear horror films at school. Those films branded our minds with the idea that nuclear weapons could destroy the world. They are Doomsday devices. They kill everybody. Nuclear War = End Of The World.

So, I thought of a better way to understand the data. Dump the raw totals. Instead visualize the stockpiles by how many times over they could destroy the world.  Yeah cool! And that would actually expose the ludicrous stupidly of nuclear weapons at the same time. *So clever*.

However, the idea rapidly unravelled. Here’s why…

How Many Nukes Will Destroy The World?

I wasn’t expecting that. We only actually have 0.83% of what’s required to completely wipe out civilisation. We couldn’t do it if we wanted to.

10 years ago we had 32,512 nuclear weapons. That’s a much better 2.6%. God damn you Non Nuclear Proliferation Pact!

Ah but we all live in cities now

I tried to recover a eye-popping stat with another quick calc. 50% of us live in densely populated cities now. Maybe we could wipe out all city-dwelling humanity. YES!

Nope. Still no good.

Unexpectedly, in making this image, the data forced me to change my mind.

In this case, it exposed the myth in my head, scorched long ago into my childhood imagination. The scene of many nightmares. That nuclear weapons could kill everything. Could wipe out civilisation.

No doubt, nuclear weapons are crazy devices. In the hands of mad people and mad regimes, they have a nightmarish potential for devastation. But they are not the end of humanity.

As the data reveals, we simply don’t have enough of them.


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Show Comments ( )

  • Ayatollah R Khomeini
  • Alex
  • Jotto999

    As has already been pointed out…isn’t this painfully misleading by not including the planetary irradiation it would cause?

    I see that the author has placed a message saying that they have read the comments, and that they are in the process of improving this. Good work. :)

  • Savannah

    Ah, nice to see an optimist trying to reassure people instead of send them into a panic for once. Thank you for that

  • Lex N

    Honestly this is vastly inaccurate. You fail to consider quite a few considerations. You would obtain a better estimate if you would create a computer model, with weather patterns spreading fallout, contaminating water, and thus form the basis for your hypothesis. A fair assumption is that the major cities get struck first. And thus fallout would spread in the surrounding area depending on weather. Any excess nuclear devices could then strike at blind spots not covered by lethal fallout and thus wipe out food and water supply. The humans that would survive the initial blast would die from radiation poisoning, or from hunger and thirst. Maybe someone would survive, possibly, but the human race at large would be devastated. And this is even disregarding the hypothetical nuclear winter – that would vastly worsening the conditions for any hypothetically surviving humans.

  • Mr Reese

    Well, I’ve just come back from your future and apparently it’s a company called “skynet” who start the war.

    Does anyone here know of a Sarah Connor? It’s paramount that I find her, so I’ve been told. Thanks.

  • G Scott

    I had a similar (but less, er, “graphic,” and merely private) epiphany a long while ago, and appreciate seeing others follow the same trail. What you’ve done here is awesome, nevermind the flames you’ve received. I get that arriving at this conclusion doesn’t mean you want to have a warhead from an SS-18 land on your country.

    I’d love to see the follow-up on radiation, because I suspect it would also be illuminating. It’d be bad, but I suspect there’s a lot of overblown rhetoric about how long it would remain bad. The conventional image of the Earth being a lifeless cinder half its original weight (or of the actual whole physical planet being totally destroyed several times over, which some people take literally) has messed with a lot of heads.

    Then again, maybe the hysterics are a good thing. I watch people shrug at fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado warnings. But tell them a nuke might hit, and suddenly they’re stockpiling water and digging a hole. Maybe the hyperbole is good for survival instincts.

  • Kevin Hall

    It’s been calculated several times over (Doomsday, War Plan UK, etc) that it would only take a fairly small percentage of existing nuclear stockpiles to cause such systemic failures that mankind would cease to be the dominant species on this planet. You really don’t need to target every human being with a weapon or devastate the entire planet’s surface. Concentrate on primary infrastructure, agriculture and energy and human society would be devastated.

  • Boo

    To all the posters who believe the radioactive fallout will exterminate humanity I’d like to point out that over 2 million people are living in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki today. There is evidence for long term negative health effects but nothing on a civilization ending scale.

  • Aubade

    This infographic is *awesome*. Warts and all. Just look at all the discussion it generated.

    I feel like I just read 100 or so Phil K. Dick short stories. WIN.

  • Aubade

    I made a wordle of all these crazy comments. (my first wordle ever – don’t laugh!)

  • Aubade

    I made a wordle of all these crazy comments – my first wordle ever!