‘“Left of boom” is a military idiom adopted by US forces during the Iraq War that originally referred to efforts to disrupt insurgents before they planted improvised explosive devices (IED) that could kill American troops; in other words, before the IED went boom.
It has since grown to become an all-purpose corporate buzzword, in everything from cybersecurity to disaster planning, for actions that can be taken to anticipate and prevent a catastrophe before it happens.
There’s a (literal) flip side to this concept: “right of boom,” which covers everything that can be done to mitigate the effects and enhance resilience after disaster strikes. While “left of boom” strategies in their original meaning involved everything from better intelligence of insurgents’ movements to plotting out safer patrol routes, “right of boom” meant hardening armor, improving medical care, and even boosting psychological resilience.
If “left of boom” is meant to prevent the worst from happening, “right of boom” is meant to prevent what happens from becoming the worst.
Thinking about nuclear war has been dominated by “left of boom” concepts. Deterrence, arms control treaties, nonproliferation — they all aim to prevent that ultimate boom from ever occurring. And so far, the world has largely been successful. Since the US dropped the 21-kiloton “Fat Man” atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, killing as many as 70,000 people, no nuclear weapon has been used in war, though there have been enough close calls to fill a book.
While the early days of the Cold War saw Strangelovian thinkers like RAND’s Herman Kahn theorize about “tragic but distinguishable postwar states” — galaxy brain-sized ways to fight, survive, and win a nuclear war — the idea of preparing for a nuclear war seemed increasingly ludicrous as arsenals grew to tens of thousands of warheads and studies raised the prospects of a “nuclear winter” post-conflict. When the Cold War ended and warheads were decommissioned by the thousands, the fear — and the need to take that fear seriously — wound down like the hands of the Doomsday Clock.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the tacit threat of nuclear weapons lurking in the background of any conflict between Moscow and the US and its NATO allies, has changed all that. In European countries, which sit closer to the battlefield, fear of a nuclear catastrophe has led to a rush on fallout shelters and anti-radiation potassium iodide pills.
A recent post on the Effective Altruism forum — a site that hosts posters interested in effective altruism and averting existential risks — examined a number of forecasts and put the aggregate chance of death in a nuclear explosion in London over the next month at 24 in a million, with probabilities 1.5x to 2x less in more distant San Francisco.
That’s a “low baseline risk,” as the authors put it, and the chance of nuclear weapons being used purposefully remains highly unlikely. But it’s clearly a baseline risk that has increased, and as UN Secretary General António Guterres warned this past week, “the prospect of nuclear war is now back within the realm of possibility.” As the existential risk expert Seth Baum wrote recently, it’s “a prospect worth taking extremely seriously.”
Taking that prospect seriously requires some “right of boom” thinking, to try to do what we can to mitigate the harms and improve human resilience if the worst of the worst does occur, all the while walking a careful tightrope between being alert and being alarmist….’