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Anticipations of the ocean: technological futures of the Cold War ocean

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The UN Law of the Sea (1968–1984) was intended to legislate for the new capabilities that developments in underwater science and technology opened up for developed nations. In reality the negotiations became a point when the superpower technological hegemony of the global ocean was challenged by the ‘Group of 77’ – nations that saw the negative potential of new technologies in terms of the external exploitation of their resources. Science policy was formed in response to the anticipated capabilities of such technologies which far outweighed the realities of extracting deep-sea minerals and resource exploitation in remote and inhospitable environments. Thus, the discussion of ocean science and technology within the treaty negotiations were built on anticipatory understandings of the potential exploitation of the oceans.

This paper will argue that international law-building for science and technology can be framed as an anticipatory response to claims made for potential future use. Thereby these negotiations, based on unsettling scientific futures, are themselves forms of scientific imaginaries. The navigation of potential uses of science, by diplomats, reveals the role of science communication within complex negotiations, and the importance of the distinction (and sometimes the blurring) of the real and the imagined in international relations. The Law of the Sea was a site where scientific futures were imagined in several contexts; a uniquely challenging moment in international law creation where lawmakers looked to the future rather than responding to their past or present situations.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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