Thesis ID: CBB233980968

The Year of the Earth (1957-1958): Cold War Science and the Making of Planetary Consciousness (2021)


Benjamin W. Goossen (Author)
Johnson, Alison F. (Advisor)

Harvard University
Johnson, Alison F.
Publication date: 2021
Language: English

Publication Date: 2021
Physical Details: 485

Collective human knowledge about Earth as an environmental system has expanded since the Second World War in tandem with a rapid acceleration of human interventions in the natural world. Present-day environmentalists call for increased investment in environmental science and for the adoption of an Earth-centered ethic among publics and policymakers. Yet the history of Earth science suggests that, on balance, environmental research has deepened ecological crisis, not offset it. The tremendous recent growth of both Earth science and environmental exploitation can be traced to the 1950s. At the beginning of that decade, a small group of scientists with ties to the Western defense establishment initiated plans for a worldwide program to collect massive quantities of data related to more than a dozen research disciplines. The data harvested for this “International Geophysical Year” (IGY) were expected to facilitate sophisticated US weaponry, such as nuclear submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles, while also feeding a scientific-technical revolution that strategists identified at the heart of global competition in the burgeoning Cold War. Western policymakers coveted environmental information from areas outside of their territorial control and used the IGY to enlist cooperation from as many of the world’s countries as possible. They believed that even if all participants had access to all resulting environmental data, the wealthy United States could nonetheless harness them more effectively than its rivals. Postcolonial globalization characterized by the rise of a nation-state-based international order drove both an acceleration of worldwide development initiatives and broad enthusiasm for transnational Earth science. Western IGY sponsors sold their program to partners abroad through promises that new global pools of environmental data would bolster agricultural yields, shipping, aviation, weather forecasting, and other commonly hailed staples of economic progress. Most of the sixty-six countries that ultimately joined the eighteen-month IGY from July of 1957 through 1958 knew that the most affluent states would benefit more than smaller counterparts. Scientists and policymakers worldwide nevertheless leveraged involvement to ingratiate themselves to the United States, improve their regional clout, or otherwise further their own national objectives. Soviet negotiators proved most successful at turning the IGY to their advantage. For the Soviets, the IGY gave cover for robust oceanographic research, a new permanent foothold in Antarctica, and the launch of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik. Socialist participation transformed Earth science into an urgent sphere of Cold War competition, in turn spurring still more Western investment and yielding a host of enduring bodies, from NASA to the Antarctic Treaty System. The IGY left two seemingly contradictory legacies in global environmental politics. First, the extensive data gathered by tens of thousands of professional scientists and citizen volunteers helped nation-states, militaries, and corporations develop natural resources more efficiently than before. Second, environmental research became widely touted as a non-political and universalist undertaking, ostensibly unencumbered by interstate antagonisms associated with decolonization or the Cold War. Because the assembly of complete planet-wide data sets required cooperation between East and West, North and South, countries involved in global Earth science discursively framed their research in non-competitive terms, even as they deployed its results for purposes of national interest. This disparity between public perception and actual use of planetary knowledge has severely impeded humans’ capacity to meet the challenges of ecological strain. Urgent calls to reorient human activities around the needs of our environment will remain toothless until we understand how such impulses first emerged from state-sponsored projects to exploit, not protect, natural resources. Simply conducting more science or raising consciousness will not be enough. Addressing climate crisis and environmental collapse must forcefully center geopolitical power.

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Authors & Contributors
Randalls, Samuel
Aronova, Elena
Badash, Lawrence
Belanger, Dian Olson
Burke, Colin
Chapman, Graham
Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change
Annals of Science: The History of Science and Technology
Endeavour: Review of the Progress of Science
Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences
Social Studies of Science
Harvard University
University of Pennsylvania
Harvard University Press
I. B. Tauris
MIT Press
Princeton University Press
Science and politics
Cold War
Climate and climatology
Environmental sciences
Science and war; science and the military
Science and economics
Thornthwaite,Charles Warren
Time Periods
20th century, late
21st century
20th century
20th century, early
United States
Soviet Union
Polar regions
International Geophysical Year (IGY)
United Nations

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