Author Archives: Leah Aronowsky

About Leah Aronowsky

i'm a graduate student in history of science.

synchronicity and scale in the logic of the Anthropocene

As I explained in my last post, one of the biggest debates currently engrossing the geoscientific community concerns the concept of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch in which the environmental effects of human activity can be detected in the Earth’s strata and in the atmosphere on a global scale. The epoch has yet to be officially recognized as an epoch by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (the group who has the last word on such matters, at least among geologists), but many scientists have moved beyond questions of whether the Anthropocene exists, and are now interested in trying to determine when the epoch first began.

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Politics of Nature

sn-plastiglomerate

Plastiglomerate, a new type of rock made of volcanic rock, sand, and plastic.

“It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism…” – Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time.
A few weeks ago, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report calling on the world to end its reliance on fossil fuels by 2100. “Since the 1950s, many of the observed changes [in the climate system] are unprecedented over decades to millennia,” the report’s authors wrote, concluding: “human influence on the climate system is clear.”[1] The report is one of many documents that speaks to a question currently plaguing contemporary science: To what extent have humans impacted the earth’s processes, and how can we document those impacts? One answer to this question is the concept of the Anthropocene. “Anthropocene,” as a scientific term, gained traction around 2000 when atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer used it to describe a geological epoch in which human activity has led to environmental, geological, and atmospheric change on a global scale. In the Anthropocene, the two argue, humans have assumed the role of a major geological force.[2] Crutzen and Stoermer locate the origins of the Anthropocene around 1784 (making it coeval with James Watt’s steam engine, itself a metonym for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) and argue that it is an epoch in which we still live.[3] Since the article’s publication, the concept has sparked heated debate across the sciences: Is there such a thing as the Anthropocene? If so, what kinds of evidence should we marshal to substantiate it?

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Remembering Hiroshima

The editorial that accompanied John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” when it appeared in a 1946 issue of The New Yorker.

This coming August will mark the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The way we choose to memorialize particular historical events is of course a fraught and complex process (case in point: the recent debates over the meaning and message of the World Trade Center Memorial).[1] Come August, I’m certain there will be a profusion of thoughtful commemorative events both both in the US and abroad, but I’d like to propose a more humble way to memorialize the bombings: read (or re-read, as the case may be) John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Hiroshima first appeared as an article in the August 31, 1946 issue of the New Yorker. At the time, the editors felt so strongly about the story’s narrative power and political import that they devoted the entire issue to it.[2]Later that year Knopf published it as a book. Hiroshima follows six survivors from the moments immediately preceding the bomb’s detonation to one year after. We meet Toshiko Sasaki, a local factory worker, Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a pastor at the Hiroshima Methodist Church, Willhelm Kleinsorge, a German Jesuit priest, Masakazu Fujii, a family doctor, Hatsuyo Nakamura, a widower seamstress, and Terufumi Sasaki, a hospital physician, as they navigate the confusion wrought by a city that had been suddenly obliterated in a matter of seconds. Most immediately striking about Hiroshima is its level of detail. Hersey’s interlocutors recall scenes of human carnage and horror with remarkable clarity. Hersey’s lucid prose style amplifies the immediacy of the narrative; it is as though the survivors are recounting their stories directly to us, with Hersey merely acting as the medium of transmission.

 
The book was an immediate bestseller, and its publication is often pointed to as an event that forced Americans to come to terms with the morality and meaning of atomic bombs. And indeed, Hiroshima did indeed do the important work of giving a human face to the realities of nuclear war. Thinking about the book in the context of broader contemporaneous culture, however, I wonder if we haven’t overstated the book’s impact. In fact, by continuing to follow the life of one of Hersey’s informants into the years after the book’s publication, we can see just how ambivalent Americans remained about their complicity in the bomb.
Ten years after Hiroshima’s publication, Kiyoshi Tanimoto, the Methodist pastor whose story Hersey told, was featured as the subject of an episode of “This is Your Life,” a television show that surprised guests with figures from their past who had in some way influenced the way their lives had turned out.  In Tanimoto’s episode (which can be viewed here), we meet his former classmates from theology school, his wife, and a mentor from his youth, but the climax is his introduction to Captain Robert Lewis. Lewis was one of the co-pilots of Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. In this moment, Tanimoto is stone-faced and visibly uncomfortable, saying only a few words to Lewis. Lewis nervously describes the experience of receiving the order and dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, explaining that after the mission was complete, he wrote in his log book: “My God, what have we done?” Lewis’ appearance is the only point in the show where we see an expression of remorse. Otherwise, the bombing is described almost as if it had been a natural disaster: something that had caused death and destruction on an unfathomable scale, but that no one could have prevented. In its sentimentalizing of Tanimoto’s life experiences and the reduction of blame to a single pilot, this “This is Your Life” episode, in my mind, is more emblematic of the state of American thought on the bomb than Hiroshima. Taken together, Hiroshima and “This is Your Life” represent the conflict Americans faced in grappling with the bomb: a recognition that what had happened had caused profound death and destruction, but an inability to accept that their citizenship made them in some way personally complicit in the act.


[1]In fact, these debates have often proven to be productive sites for historical analysis, as evidenced by a 1999 Osiris issue on “Commemorative Practices in Science: Historical Perspectives on the Politics of Collective Memory.”
[2] For those readers looking for a more explicitly history of science-related book, Susan Lindee’s Suffering Made Real is a good place to start.