We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Lindsey A. Freeman, author of Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia. Tucked into the folds of Appalachia and kept off all commercial maps, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was created for the Manhattan Project by the U.S. government in the 1940s. The city has experienced the entire lifespan of the Atomic Age, from the fevered wartime enrichment of the uranium that fueled Little Boy, through a brief period of atomic utopianism after World War II when it began to brand itself as “The Atomic City,” to the anxieties of the Cold War, to the contradictory contemporary period of nuclear unease and atomic nostalgia. Freeman shows how a once-secret city is visibly caught in an uncertain present, no longer what it was historically yet still clinging to the hope of a nuclear future. It is a place where history, memory, and myth compete and conspire to tell the story of America’s atomic past and to explain the nuclear present.
In a previous post, Freeman recounted hearing news of the Fukushima nuclear disaster while visiting another nuclear town half a world away. In today’s post, she proposes the naming of a new geologic era.
The Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen suggests that the Anthropocene, our current geologic moment, began with a mushroom cloud at 5:29 A.M. in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. The Anthropocene is meant to signify the time in the planet’s history when certain geologic conditions and processes were forever changed by humans and their tinkering. Crutzen and others argue that the Holocene, the geologic era since the last Ice Age, a good 12,000 years or so of relatively stable climate activity, was pushed aside by this first fungal-shaped blast and all the gregarious blasts that followed. Scientists advocating this distinction say that it makes sense to start with the Trinity Test because it is easily measurable: this was when widespread artificial radioactivity began to circle the globe.
The Holocene was the geologic period when humans started living in cities. The Anthropocene emerged right before suburbanization. The Anthropocene began with a gadget named for an English poet. The Holocene had seen and contained all written human history up until that point. The Holocene was warm. The Anthropocene is atomic.
Russian scientists were already referring to the Anthropocene in the 1960s. Others were talking about the Anthropocene in the 1980s, during the time of my atomic childhood. The term caught traction again when it was brought up at a meeting of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme in 2000 by Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer. A formal decision by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) is still years away. When and if they decide to mark the new cene, they will drive a golden spike into the heart of the dead geologic period. This is not only a metaphor. The ICS is in charge of the Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP)—they are the spike drivers. When a new GSSP boundary has been agreed upon by the ICS, then a golden spike is placed into the geologic section to mark the boundary for future geologists: a fancy period in a sentence of time. Over forty golden spikes dot the globe.
Not everyone is happy with the term Anthropocene: the sociologist Jason W. Moore wants to call the epoch the Capitalocene. Moore argues that the changes to the modern world ecology are best explained by the changes that the pursuit of the accumulation of capital through the natural world have wreaked. He folds in class and imperialism and culture. His critique of the use of anthros, as an undifferentiated mass, is an important one. Supertheorist and feminist technoscience philosopher Donna Haraway prefers Cthulucene. The Cthulucene is a nod to the partly human, squid-like being created by the horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. Like Moore, Haraway sees capital as a dominating force, but she folds in other things as well: objects and hyperobjects (like nuclear weapons) that function as actors. Haraway wants to situate this time—the geologic now—as one of possibility, of ongoingness, where the damaging but compositional forces of the human and the inhuman tangle and turn.
As for me, I’m going to go with Atomicocene. I’m going with Atomicocene because what has changed with this new time is not only humans and their activities, but specifically, and most dramatically, the role some humans in atomic states have played in the spreading of “artificial” radioactivity across the globe. I’m going with the Atomicocene because the atomic is not going away. It’s here to stay. I’m going with the Atomicocene because I want to think with and of more than just the human. The atomic settles into and transforms the whole ecology, affecting not only humans, of course, but also flowering plants, conifers, and other gymnosperms; ferns, mosses, and the green algae; and the wolves of Chernobyl, the radioactive mice of western New York, the feral dogs and cats of Fukushima, the hot deer in Oak Ridge, and the whole radioactive greenhouse and atomic menagerie. The atomic circles and adorns the golden spikes that mark each new geologic age. The atomic made my first town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and I carry the atomic with me as I drive my Volkswagen and teach my classes on sociology.
The Atomicocene rode in with the Anthropocene and the Capitolocene and we picked up the Cthulucene waving with its many arms, hitchhiking along the atomic highway paved with uranium tailings. No one term needs to dominate; we can think of them together as a motley crew traveling to an unknown destination in a bus and a time called: Further.
Lindsey A. Freeman is assistant professor of sociology at SUNY–Buffalo State. Her book Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia is now available. Follow her on Twitter @sociologybomb.
- Other scientists argue that the change started much earlier, most often citing the Industrial Revolution. Still others argue for the time when widespread farming and agriculture cleared forests all over the globe. Some mark the shift with the proliferation of plastics.↩
- “Mushrooms that are in a close group but not close enough to be called a cluster are said to be in a troop. Mushrooms in a group that is a bit more scattered and irregular (loose discipline!) are said to be gregarious.” http://www.mushroomthejournal.com/greatlakesdata/Terms/troop269.html↩
- The #Misanthropocene was defined by two American poets, Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr. It begins with: “First of all. Fuck all y’all.” The rest can be found here: https://communeeditions.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/misanthropocene_web_v2_final.pdf.↩
- See: Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Will Steffen, and Paul Crutzen. “The New World of the Anthropocene” Environmental Science and Technology 2010, 44 (7), pp 2228-–2231.↩
- Voosen, Paul (2012). “Geologists drive golden spike toward Anthropocene’s base,” Greenwire, Sept. 17, http://eenews.net/public/Greenwire/2012/09/17/1?page_type=print.↩
- Jason W. Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis,” http://www.jasonwmoore.com/uploads/The_Capitalocene__Part_I__June_2014.pdf.↩
- Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Cthulucene: Staying with the Trouble.” 9 May 2014, Santa Cruz, CA, https://vimeo.com/97663518; See also: Making the Geologic Now, edited by Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse. New York: Punctum Books, 2012/2013.↩