Science & Research

Prof highlights human influence on environment

Professor discusses ‘terraforming’ and human interactions with natural environment

By
Staff Writer
Friday, March 15, 2013

“We’re all post-nuclear creatures,” said Joseph Masco, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, as he stood in front of a world map with flashing circles representing all the nuclear tests and explosions that occurred between 1945 and 1998. He attributed this classification  to the background radiation that humans have been exposed to ever since the first nuclear weapons test.

In his lecture, titled “Engineered Worlds: Terraforming and the Future of Science and Technology Studies,” Masco used examples of nuclear testing and global climate change to describe how humans have changed the earth and created ecological crises.

Masco began his talk by describing various definitions of the term “fallout,” from precipitation to the results of drone strikes and counterterrorism. He highlighted that above all, fallout is a “form of history made visible by negative outcomes.”

The lecturer went on to speak about the “legacies of environmental toxins,” particularly those created by the nuclear age. He incorporated the world map video timeline, created by artist Isao Hashimoto, into his presentation.

Nuclear tests are not alone in changing the biosphere, Masco said. The cumulative effects of industry in the 20th century have also contributed to rising sea levels, weather patterns and overall climate change, he said.

Masco compared current geoengineering plans intended to combat climate change by changing clouds’ composition or diffusing sunlight with space to the U.S. Project Plowshare of the 1960-70s, a program intended to use nuclear explosives for construction purposes. “These projects sound eerily familiar,” Masco said.

The nuclear age and the growth of industry were not the first times humans used geoengineering, Masco said. “We’ve been feverishly terraforming planet Earth now for generations,” he said. Masco gave examples of geoengineering that predate modern technology, from roads discovered that connect the southwestern U.S. to Mexico, to small canals people built along the Amazon river that eventually turned into significant tributaries. The difference between these and modern changes, he added, is the “cumulative scale and scope” of current geoengineering.

Though “nuclear war was perceived as brutal and short,” its effects have remained, he said. Similarly, “climate change, despite such imaginative industrial activity and scientific insight, was not planned,” Masco said. These two major earth-changing processes make the present day “nothing less than the age of fallout,” he said.

Tying these topics to the future of science and technology studies, Masco said the implications of “ecologies everywhere … affected by humans” will have to be examined. “Global ecologies are now being constantly reengineered,” he said. Due to the current and future effects of past human actions on the earth, science and technology studies also works in “multiple temporalities,” he said.

Masco referenced several current projects he said represent the future of science and technology studies, including Tufts University professor Alex Blanchette’s work on how animals like pigs have a genetic makeup “tuned to human tastes” and Stanford University professor S. Lochlann Jain’s work on viewing cancer as a culture as well as a disease. He also referred to University of California at Berkeley geography professor Jake Kosek’s work on how honeybees are engineered by humans and are a “metaphor of social organization.” Masco said the academic area takes many disciplines into account, including anthropology, science studies and security studies. But a central issue of these projects is recognizing the “coproduction of environment through interaction of the human and nonhuman.”

Masco’s lecture drew around 30 audience members, including Michael Bouchey, a graduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Bouchey said he was interested by Masco’s global approach to the issues he spoke about. “Usually you localize issues rather than globalize issues in STS,” he said. Bouchey also said he was hoping for “more of a connection to terraforming that wasn’t really there.”

“I think we all live in an age when we can see the connection between things that are frankly depressing,” said John F. Nickoll Professor of History Harold Cook, who was in attendance at the event. “One of the questions that is lurking in the background is the first world question,” he added. People in the rest of the world are suffering the direct consequences of other humans’ actions, he said.

Jessica Hallock, a prospective student for Brown’s English Ph.D. program, said she thought the lecture brought up the question of the “ethics of visualization,” including how to make huge amounts of scientific data accessible to everyday people to motivate them to make changes in the world.

The lecture was the second in the spring lecture series “Beyond the Two Cultures: the Future in Science and Technology Studies” and was sponsored by the Starr Lectureship Fund.