This past week George Mason University students Michael Jordan, Joe Butt, Elena Bragg, Natalie Niemeyer, Erica McKenney and I attended the “Reaching Zero Conference” at Yale University. The conference was a meeting of ambitious minds coming together to discuss the most reasonable route to zero nuclear weapons. We met at Yale hoping to liberalize knowledge and share ideas that better help us achieve a world without the threat of a nuclear holocaust.

We took our seats Saturday morning in the art gallery within a sea of notable politicians and diplomats, conversing casually with them about the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Sitting to my immediate left was Hans Blix, formerly head of both the International Atomic Energy Agency and of the U.N Monitoring, Inspection and Verification Commission. Ahead of me was Yale’s president, Rick Levin, and to the right were Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute and co-founder of Global Zero, along with Matt Brown, former secretary of state of Rhode Island and the companion founder of Global Zero.

President Levin began the conference with a presentation in which he warned us of the dangers inherent in ignoring nuclear proliferation. The first panel consisted of Blix, chief negotiator of the first START Treaty Richard Burt, former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran, nuclear weapons scholar Jonathan Schell and director of strategy and campaigns for Global Zero Galit Gun. They spoke about the Global Zero movement, answering questions regarding what Global Zero has done to initiate reductions in the worldwide nuclear arsenal and the feasibility of reaching that goal.

While moderating the discussion, Brown offered a very clear metaphor about how individuals can work together to change the world. He evoked the children’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to illustrate what can happen in a world run by presumptuous cognoscenti. According to Brown, if all of us could look at international nuclear arsenals, which are capable of destroying the world 100 times over, we could be the ones who say “Something about this doesn’t make sense,” much like the lad who points out that the king in the fable is not bedecked in royal finery, but is walking through town stark naked. If just 300 such weapons between Russia and the U.S. maintain the same climate of deterrence, what is the purpose for the excess 18,000 warheads held by these two countries?

Rose Gottemoeller, the chief negotiator of the New START, followed the first panel and spoke on behalf of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was unable to attend. She shared her opinion of the movement and noted how we, as international activists, have contributed to the negotiation processes. She answered a very interesting question regarding how countries that do not have nuclear arsenals can contribute to the movement in a very compelling way. In her response, Gottemoeller reminded the curious crowd that, regardless of a country’s absolute leverage, it’s still important to get informed and spread the message. This is a global problem that requires a global solution, not a state problem requiring domestic solutions; we’re all at risk.

The next panel included many prominent international figures, including president of the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control Initiative Steven Pifer, as well as former U.S. Atlantic Command commander in chief General Jack Sheehan. The panelists discussed tactical, relatively low-yield weapons of mass destruction acquired by European states after the fall of the Soviet Union. Sheehan, who personally oversaw that strategic placement of the weapons, insisted that if it were “just that easy” to pull them out of the countries, he would have done it. He said that many countries in the area have little reason to trust the international community and worry about the security of their state, especially those who were once part of the Soviet Union.

Later, we heard from former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian concerning the climate of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, followed by Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan, concerning the cost of maintaining wastefully expensive nuclear arsenals.

At the reception that night, I spoke with Blix concerning his roles in the IAEA, the Iranian nuclear program and what he angrily deemed “the illegal Iraq war,” while Joe got his opinions on alternative energies.

Pifer, Blair and I talked briefly about the roles of biological and chemical weapons and what variables they added to the movement for arms reductions. And have no doubt that, before we left, we asked Yale’s president which pizza shop in New Haven really was the best.

Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA agent outed by the White House and the subject of the book and movie “Fair Game,” ended the conference with a talk about having the courage to serve. She reminded us that it was important to question things and to make bold assertions and bold moves. And so we left the conference with a wealth of knowledge, which I’m sure we all will use in our push for a world free of nuclear weapons.

In short, the thrust of this article goes back to the need for action. We live in a world where it often seems impossible to make a difference, but organizations like these are blatant proof that being involved with a cause and voicing an opinion really can make a bigger difference than you think. Brown closed the summit with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.” A 3-month-old organization brought six students to a conference where they spoke, as friends, to people many others have only read.

So plant yourself on a goal, on an opinion, stick to it and change people’s minds. And if someone tells you it’s not possible, ask them if they’ve tried.