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Recovery after attack: 1960s radioecology and shifting conceptions of humans as agents of ecosystem change

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When ecologist Lauren Donaldson was hired by the Manhattan Project in 1943 to study whether radioactive effluent from Hanford Works affected Columbia River fisheries, most scientists considered nuclear contamination to be a localized threat. But by the time of the Castle Bravo detonation in 1954, scientists and the public had begun to conceptualize radioactive fallout as a regional, even a global, concern. As a number of environmental historians have argued, fallout studies played a central role in the rise of ecosystem ecology and the idea of an interconnected biosphere.

In this paper I likewise aim to illuminate the relationship between the Cold War, the rise of ecosystem ecology, and the postwar environmental movement. But my objects of analysis are not fallout studies, but rather studies in which ecologists simulated nuclear attacks. Alongside the Cold War era concern over nuclear fallout was the blunter fear of World War III . In 1950, the United States had 299 weapons in its stockpile. By 1960, it had 18,638. And by 1965, it had 31,139. As the United States and Russia increased both the power and the range of their nuclear weaponry, it became possible to conceive of a catastrophic, global-scale war, and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) funded studies to investigate the economic and environmental consequences of such a war. While ecologists and military planners were tasked with recognizing the immense destructive power of nuclear weaponry, they did not imagine the outcome of nuclear war as the total annihilation of life on earth. In a very definite way, there would have been no point to such a vision. Instead, ecologists and military planners envisioned the period of environmental and economic recovery after WWIII and considered how the government could hasten that recovery. Their visions both drew on and advanced ecological theory about the capacity of nature to self-regulate and to repair itself when damaged. Thus I argue that those Cold War narratives about ecological destruction, which have had such staying power, must be considered alongside those about ecological restoration. Both narratives emerged simultaneously from the ideational and material entanglements between atomic warfare and ecological science. And both would come to shape environmental management worldwide, and therefore, the material environment itself.

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