20th Century US History Workshop

Friday, December 5, 2014
2:00 - 3:30pm
Event Location: 
Nau 342

Meaghan Beadle and Justin McBrien will present their dissertation prospecti. 


 Meaghan Beadle: TBA

Justin McBrien: "Making the World Safe for Disaster: Cold War Science, Crisis, Environmentalism, and the Globalization of Catastrophe, 1945-1970"

 My dissertation examines how Americans conceived global environmental risks during the early Cold War era, arguing that an emergent discourse of planetary catastrophism collapsed the distinction between anthropogenic and natural disasters and created a narrative of humanity in a fight against extinction. This frame gives a more synthetic perspective on the relationship between the rise of the military-industrial complex, international modernization programs, and global environmentalism. The concept of planetary catastrophism allowed for the formation of what I call the “Biosecurity State,” an idea of governance premised upon the threat of global environmental risks induced by modern industrial technologies and the promise to contain these threats through rational application of scientific knowledge. Yet in an age of unprecedented technological development and the deep uncertainty regarding its impact on the planet, speculative predictions of potential disasters frequently hid behind a veneer of objective analysis. This uncertainty justified the emergency mentality of the early Cold War state as well as a new crisis-oriented environmentalism embodied in Silent Spring.  While often in direct conflict with one another, environmental and social scientists both inside and outside the national security apparatus forged a narrative of the human being as a planetary actor in a fragile system we were threatening to annihilate, a strange paradox of increasing power at the price of increasing vulnerability. This dialectic was nowhere more apparent than in problems concerning the atmosphere during the 1950s, when disputes over weather modification, smog, climate change, nuclear testing, and arid land development converged on the issue of who possessed the right to determine acceptable risks for billions of people across the globe. The experiences of these controversies would influence both expert and public perspectives on the necessity of international modernization programs, effectively globalizing catastrophe in belief and practice.  As the acceleration of global capitalist production intensified resource depletion and ecological degradation, concerns about ensuring the continued stability of the system produced the concept of "sustainable" development. Scientific experts promoted the idea of the Biosecurity State as a solution to the risks precipitated by globalization, declaring that only they possessed the power to make the world safe for disaster.