Terraforming and the Production of Nuclear Sacrifice Zones:


I asked you to read selections from Joseph Masco’s new book, The Future of Fallout, and Other Episodes in Radioactive World-Making (2021) not only to highlight and deepen dimensions discussed by Luke in week 2, but to underscore and animate features of Broken World politics that have lived and material effects in everyday American life. I discuss Masco’s theory of nuclear world-making by building concepts from his empirical work. Specifically, I flesh out what I mean by ‘instrumentality’ – a concept from week 2, and show how this fits within Broken World politics and the production of unstable environmental futures. Instrumentality and Broken World politics play a role in the production of territories called sacrifice zones and I characterize how space is a product of politics and discuss how those spaces emerge through discourses of security. Thirdly, I show how technocracy and ‘science’ produce sacrifice zones and how those sacrifice zones are a product of broken world politics and contain material histories such that futures within those territories are unstable and the product of false negatives within security discourse. Finally, I discuss perception and narrative management as producing false negatives to further nuclear instrumentality and ironically produce planetary insecurity as a result of nation-state terraformation and geopolitics. 

The Planetary Order of Fallout and Instrumentality: 

One of Masco’s major targets within The Future of Fallout are the discourses of crisis and security. As we discussed with Luke, much of what Masco is doing can be considered a form of immanent critique and he pulls out material negatives throughout his ethnographic studies of the US nuclear-industrial-complex to criticize the discourses above. In other words, he attempts to show the crisis-inducing logics of crisis discourse as well as how ‘security’ means security for some and insecurity for others. The thrust of his criticism is to tie together collective planetary insecurity produced during The Great Acceleration and recognize the deleterious effects of nation-state capitalism defended by nuclear weapons and powered by hydrocarbon energy sources. At bottom his investigations, sketches and criticisms help us understand how technological development does not automatically imply ‘progress’ and can contain hidden violences in its material effects: “I am interested in showing how technological revolution is both world-making and world-breaking, installing new capacities in everyday life but also new forms of violence that can both become a norm and create new conceptual blockages to peace and collective safety (Masco, 2021. 7).”

Masco’s remark above concerns the normative and imaginative orders produced through and within a world characterized by the immanent threat of nuclear annihilation, and planetary biosphere collapse as a planetary order with its own space-time. For those of you who did not grow up during bomb drills, I speak from expereince that the threats of nuclear war characterized and influenced the everyday lives of people – especially in high value target areas like Long Island, NY in the late 1980s and 1990s – as the world as we knew it could be taken from us in under 30 minutes of nuclear standoff between the United States and Soviet Union. I, as Lewis Black remembers in the clip below, recall the bomb drills and going through the motions of hiding under my wooden desk – that could hardly stand up to regular use by a 9-year old – and being told that this was the best way to protect myself from an atomic blast. If the Ruskies decided to bomb Long Island, and annihilate some of the US’s forward observer radar stations, thus hindering further detection of more nuclear warheads to be dropped on Manhattan and the rest of the major cities on the Eastern seaboard, we children were to perform our duck-and-cover drills that might save us from becoming flashes burned onto a concrete wall. The simulated exercises of duck-and-cover drills at school were never replicated in another setting and my parents never briefed me on how to survive a nuclear blast with most of the folks in my town telling me that in the event of a nuclear showdown between our governments, I was to do my best to lean way back and “kiss my ass goodbye.” In other words, the technological apparatuses of governments and war machinery would not care if my life and millions of others ended in a flash because they would answer the USSR in kind and the planet that had supported life as we knew it would end under clouds of nuclear fire and irradiated dust. What characterized our thinking and the thinking of our governments, handing drills to us while drilling in our heads that they and their competitors had built ways of ending human life on the planet, was the icon of the bomb and the violences it could dole and organize. 

The Nuclear Age, as it is known, serves as a marker within planetary political-environmental order. The bomb itself became a feature of the planetary environment in that its existence and the technical regimes that produced the thousands in ready-reserve, linked together the fates of humans and non-humans through decisions that could, presumably, be left to only a handful of people. They haven’t killed us yet, but it is important to recognize the organizing influence of the bomb, not simply in the small drills done by children, but in the cultural and political effects of regimes under nuclear power. Masco has studied nuclear state-making throughout his career as an anthropologist but his discussion of the bomb as a study subject prompts a discussion of how nuclear power (in the ways of both mass-scale energy projects and mass-scale violence projects) produces both an imaginary framework from which security discourse has not escaped, and how worlds themselves are made through the introduction and large-scale adoption of technologies. More importantly, however, the world of the bomb offers a study in large-scale, planetary technics speaking to the enmeshment of political and environmental orders as nuclear annihilation is a phenomena of larger systems of rule and nuclear power requires massive logistical networks that have real, material effects. As Masco writes “A terraforming project has already been conducted on planet Earth, one drawn from the cumulative and recursive effects of nuclear nationalism and petrochemical capitalism. (Masco, 2021. 41).” One should notice above, that nuclear annihilation and the production of what could be considered a broken future (a world so fundamentally destroyed that The Book of Eli (2010) presents a positive environmental future) is attached to the notion of ‘national security’ and this presents an irony Masco notices in that the discourse used to produce this world and its futures is about ‘security’ while it simultaneously presents and furthers ‘insecurity’. The inventions that were supposed to help secure a people, their country, and their futures, could end in an ironic flash of insecurity that would only speak back to the massive technological assemblages producing such destructive power and the agendas pursued by those who would use that power.    

The above speaks to the nucleation of planetary lifeworlds as the instrument of the nuclear bomb became a nexus through which whole political-environmental orders were produced. As we saw with Luke in Week 2, political orders produced insecurity for some of their constituents and subjects as they tested their weaponry – simultaneously linking the bodies of downwinders with the planetary updrafts of nuclear fallout that has spread in traces to every spot on the planet. Downwinders were not the only people affected by atomic order and Masco has studied cultures of bomb production through their political logistics showing the environmental effects of nuclear nationalism within spaces typically overlooked by security studies and international relations, such as dependent foreign nations within the United States, Indian reservations in the Southwestern US – particularly New Mexico (Masco, 2021. 81). He charts the production of global order through a recognition of fallout as a flow connected to multiple points within political technics and planetary health “Fallout is thus an environmental flow that matters to health and safety but that also demands a new form of everyday perception and governance (Masco, 2021. 22-23).” In other words, the world of fallout produces and produced ways of thinking and understanding environmental relationships such that the bomb as an icon helped organize that world through influencing multi-scalar relationships such as, and including, relationships of people among each other, relationships of institutions to people, relationships of land to institutions and people, relationships of governing bodies to people, and governing bodies to each other. 

The bomb and fallout influenced understandings of ‘the environment’ as scientists and engineers charting their development watched atomic signatures through the planetary circulation of radioactive isotopes. This helped produce a scientific visual order as atomic signatures, not simply through atmospheric fallout but also through seismic detection, assisted nation-states in understanding and communicating nuclear power to one another. This formed a planetary network for understanding and articulating atomic tests that were at the bedrock of strategic nuclear deterrence that fomented both nuclear fear as a ‘productive’ element in nuclear nationalism, but also the planetary order of the bomb and the capabilities of nation-states to erase life on the planet. The instruments used to detect atomic tests and nuclear missile launches, as well as understand and evaluate the destructive power of weaponry, became part of ways of understanding planetary futures while simultaneously crushing abilities to think of futures without nuclear weapons and industrialized nation-states. “These emerging visualization infrastructures were tied to direct and indirect ways to US efforts to monitor foreign nuclear test regimes, as well as develop more powerful infrastructures (from missiles to early warning systems, to satellite-based command and control technologies) for fighting nuclear wars (Masco, 2021. 23).” Masco, in the parts of the book I didn’t ask you to read this week, investigates visual orders of the bomb through multiple sites ranging from laboratories to tourist sites and Las Vegas, and each one of these speaks to a space constructed and calibrated to understanding the nuclear lifeworlds of the Atomic Age while simultaneously remaking worlds under the auspices of the bomb and its power.   

Think of it this way, the effects of fallout – tracing radioactive isotopes atmospherically – influenced the way climate science developed because it offered some of the easiest ways to visualize and understand atmospheric particulate circulation. In this sense, nuclear weapons and climate science grew up together such that the latter is influenced by the former historically and instrumentally. Studying the bomb as an instrument revealed other avenues for understanding the planet and how things move throughout it giving scientists other ways for understanding flowing planetary economies. This also generated, in part, understandings of particulate flows, such as carbon dioxide, and both the bomb and industrial production came into sharper focus scientifically because the bomb and its effects helped scientific communities map atmospheric flows. The instrument of the bomb also influenced the space race as nuclear fear spread into near-orbital space thus extending the purview of nation-state security into realms previously untouched by nuclear arsenals. In this way, atomic weaponry was not only a product of Big Science – birthing the bomb, nuclear reactor power and the Internet [ARPANET] but also accelerated, refocused and extended ‘science’ into new domains as a matter of expanding technological frontiers organized around nuclear death, and the logics of Mutually Assured Destruction later in the 20th century. The above signals that the bomb became not only an organizing icon materially, but also one that helped organize entire scientific fields and projects. This includes the discourses of security studies and international relations that Masco criticizes for marginalizing people whom the US nation-state had colonized – as Wildcat from last week discussed – and for creating whole ways of understanding and interacting planetarily, such that they contain the seeds of their own undoing within and through the technical regimes they sediment and empower (Masco, 2021. 51, 56, 62, 68, 78-82).

The dynamics above speak to the normalization of violence as part of disciplinary orders connected to the nation-state as a formation with the sole monopoly on violence domestically in the territorially bounded rule of their populations. Disciplinary orders can be seen not only in how specific scientists are squeezed into producing ‘facts’ guided by disciplinary structures for producing knowledge, but also in how nation-states behave internationally, and, perhaps most importantly, what theoretical and disciplinary fields will be seen as most useful to the maintenance of nation-state world order and thus have the greatest chances at becoming wide-spread formalized methods for approaching and understanding ‘the Real’ – the world, if you prefer. Throughout the text, Masco points to multiple slow and polyvalent violences that slipped the optics of security studies and IR within the nation-state itself and the linguistic and theoretical poverty for understanding the production of precarious world-order and the landscapes of the nuclear age (Masco, 2021. 6, 10, 11, 22-23, 33, 40, 340, 342, 352, 359, 361-362).

Specifically, Masco calls our attention to the status of Native American nations, produced through conquest and colonialism, and created as dependent nations within the host of the United States. In particular, he calls attention to a blind spot within security studies that typically sees ‘insecurity’ as arising from outside of the nation-state and not the nation-state as producing insecurity within and through itself. This blindness, Masco claims, has led to the poisoning of communities and landscapes sacrificed at the altar of ‘national security’ where that refers to the security of the United States state apparatus and its survival almost exclusively. This has overshadowed concerns raised by those living within sacrifice zones and thread a sort of environmental colonialism into the everyday lives of people living with the effects of the nuclear-industrial state and their inherited futures connected to regimes they did not make. This speaks back to Wildcat and his concerns for new scientific understandings taking holistically the worlds of experience and the worlds of technoscience “Nevertheless, the truth is that today many American Indians and Alaska Natives are living in ways and places that, strictly speaking, they did not choose, but that the US government’s policies and laws chose for them (Wildcat, 2009. Pages 5-6, Chapter 2).” 

Masco is able to show how Native American nations became instruments indexed to the development of the bomb both materially, and within security studies discourse. Specifically, this speaks to understanding Native American nations as colonized spaces that have been ignored in larger discourses about planetary health, geopolitics and the worlds of the nation-state as specific historical formations – even after the Navajo helped the US and its allies defeat the Euro-American imperialistic fascism of the early and mid-century. The quote below helps seat Masco with Wildcat in that dependent nations are living through and within the worlds created by the nuclear state and industrial capitalism without much of a say in how those worlds are built, thus creating an internal inequality within discourses of security, vulnerability, sacrifice, risk, the nation-state and planetary world order: 

One answer is to decenter security studies, to explore how neighboring communities alternatively experience vulnerability and risk, and to investigate how they articulate experiences of danger in relation to one another…By including indigenous sovereignties, acknowledging subaltern legal formations, and placing cultural logics in a comparative settler colonial perspective, one can not only appreciate how these diverse national-cultural imaginings in New Mexico are mutually dependent and interconnected, but also realize how people occupying the same territorial space can nevertheless live in ontologically different worlds (Masco, 2021. 56).

He provides support throughout by looking at how the nuclear state operates in understudied spaces like New Mexico and the Indian Nations hosting it through providing workforces, spaces and territories needed to develop, dispose of and understand nuclear weaponry. Though the easy answer of ‘they invited it upon themselves’ is an available explanation as to why there are many irradiated spots around the country on Indian reservations, Masco’s reply is simply that these nations had the choices of picking which ways they would like to perish – either economically or through slow and difficult to detect radiological poisoning. 

Speaking to the above, Masco shows how laboratory life is both divisive and binding for Northern New Mexico and the differences in sacrifices are starkly unequal, hitting at intersectional registers such as race, poverty, tribal affiliation, and place of birth or residence. While some benefit from the operations of Los Alamos – a site instrumental in developing the bomb and atomic world order – others do not and some, it would seem, receive detriments through the operations of the laboratory and the nuclear technoscience carried out there “Many in Northern New Mexico fear that the laboratory has poisoned the land and people. This concern is exacerbated by the fact that current epidemiological models are unable to evaluate statistically the cancer rates in small-scale communities of northern New Mexico, leaving these fears on an ambiguous scientific terrain (Masco, 2021. 65).” In other words, scientific governance, as we have seen, has difficulties governing if it cannot adequately articulate and understand phenomena experienced within other domains of existence and discourse. The difficulty is when the problems experienced by people conflict with national needs such that governing agencies have limited incentive to investigate or refine their data collection methods to produce ‘the facts’ necessary to confront other governing agencies and cajole state action. Paul Feyerabend wrote in Against Method (1975) that there is freedom in ambiguity, and the ambiguous relationships of people within dependent nations or impoverished places to the demands of the nuclear state and security discourses constitutes fields of relations through which power can operate. Without the countervailing forces of public health data, the nuclear state has little reason to adjust or halt its operations and remains a dominating agency for a region. 

The above shows the bomb as an instrument within security discourses that changed and charged fields of relations with new meanings. In a sense, the bomb is an organizing instrument through which new worlds and possibilities can be imagined and perceived. If one were able to show cancer clusters sprouting up around Los Alamos such that the nuclear state could be petitioned, one would run into political backlash from the populations dependent upon and served by Los Alamos. One of those groups would be well-paid scientists and it’s not difficult to see how massive projects, such as nuclear weaponry, necessitate and produce workforces of experts who are interested in continuing their expertise, and, under capitalism, being paid to advance and maintain their expertise relative to their instruments and the infrastructures supporting them. In this sense, the bomb, as an instrument, helps sediment world orders in the ways of seeing and understanding not simply the relations among nation-states and the changing contours of sovereignty under technological stress, but the ability to generate meaning in ones life and see oneself as part of a collective. In other words, the bomb also helped invent the generations of nuclear scientists coming after the Manhattan Project and the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagaski. This means that the bomb is an instrument organizing percpetion and disciplinary gestalts intergenerationally, conditioning and building whole worlds through its materiality as part of global nation-state infrastructure. This is what I mean by instrumentality: an instrument’s ability to organize perception such that whole ways of seeing and understanding ‘the world’ are understood, enacted, normalized and mediated through it. Masco, in longer form, can help me explain my meaning: 

For many in these organizations, the real achievement of the Manhattan Project was not the atomic bomb, but the institutionalization of a system of government secrecy and with it the curtailing of democratic process when it comes to US national security policy…Thus, for antinuclear activists, US citizens are eliminated from the decision-making process because federal authorities can argue that by definition citizens never have the information necessary to make informed statements about US national security policy…This act not only undersocres a profound distrust of the United States when it comes to nuclear weapons policy; it also exemplifies how the local is now intersecting the global, how individuals are beginning to imagine their community as part of post-nation-state world order. Through such actions, antinuclear NGOs publicly challenge and reject the state’s right to define authoritatively the meaning of security and danger for their communities…For members of these groups who fear environmental contamination from the laboratory and identify nuclear weapons as the greatest threat to personal security, the US government remains the most immediate danger in the region (Masco, 2021. 76).

The destructive power of atomic weaponry and the concerns for nation-state sovereignty trump local concerns and invisibilize local effects of nuclear deterrence among nation-states simply because the instrument of the bomb requires both state secrecy as part of national security, and the continued sacrifice of populations through zones necessary for the production of nuclear order. Politically, this is cashed in the blindspots of security studies and international relations characterized and influenced by nuclear fears to be addressed by ‘experts.’ The sad irony is the failure of expertise to understand the local effects of nuclear weapons development as well as understand expertise about the bomb as producing and carrying a world order both dangerous in its possible immediate effects, and the defense of hydrocarbon infrastructure eroding lifeworlds and living conditions planetarily in a slow violence. The perception of an ordered world is both influenced by the bomb and the logics of mutually assured destruction and ironically animates an emergency culture characterized by crisis tendencies and crisis thinking that is never truly eliminated because of the production of false negatives.

The Technonaturalization of Crisis: 

As we saw in Week 2, false negatives are things that present themselves as solutions to problems but, in actuality, are not the true negation of the thing addressed by them. In the above, nuclear weapons were an answer to insecurity as the logics of MAD helped perpetuate nuclear arms races throughout the Cold War. If you’re following the above, this means that some places, people and nonhumans were sacrificed for ‘national security’ that simultaneously introduced insecurity locally in their lives and regionally by ensuring landscape loss due to nuclear contamination. Much of the above was characterized by a discourse of crisis and it is that discourse which Masco blames for the perpetuation of existing relations and the production of sacrifice zones across the United States and planet. In a sense, he is concerned that crisis talk merely creates an emergency response that does not address the underlying logics and infrastructures from which problems emanate. This means that the wound is not addressed despite not seeing the bleeding, and this allows for problems to persist such that they influence future generations. This is what he calls the crisis in crisis as communities are stuck in feedback loops between existential danger, national needs, and personal or community sacrifice and security.

Masco isn’t the only one to study sacrifice zones and the term has a longer history than he implies but recent work by Steve Lerner (2010), for example shows sacrifice zones are being produced through governmental neglect and state corporatism in a similar way to Masco (Masco, 2021. 354, 356, 358). A dimension Masco explores is the inability to think beyond crisis due to the immediacy of it and how this sediments relationships that continually reproduce nuclear and climate driven existential danger: “Put differently, the crisis in crisis today marks a new political modality that can experience repeated failure as well as totalizing external danger without generating the need for any structural change. Crisis, in other words, has become a counterrevolutionary force in the twenty-first century, a call to confront collective endangerment that instead increasingly articulates the limits of the political (Masco, 2021. 343).” That is, ‘crisis’ as a discourse and way of relating to things has a thoroughly depoliticizing effect that aids the anti-democracy driving the production of sacrifice zones and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It’s almost easier to think of how crisis language is circulating currently as the world under global capitalism braces for a recession after only emerging from one between 2008-2012 – depending on the economist one asks. You’ll notice that little, if anything, is done to address the crisis tendencies of global capitalism as more people lose property and fewer people benefit from each market crash. In other words, the imaginative horizons for new and different futures suffer under the discourse of crisis that only seeks to sediment and maintain the status quo rather than question and interrogate it. A dynamic identified by Masco as worsening ‘crises’ are the material effects of techno-fixes that merely slap a band-aid on one problem to the ignorance of larger systemic issues. Techno-fixes, simple techno-fixes such as Yucca Mountain, often worsen problems or generate new ones out of technocratic and technological failure. While this is great for technologists who benefit from opportunities to ‘solve’ crises, this often has degradative effects on marginalized populations and does nothing to adjust or halt the production of sacrifice zones, exploitative relationships, or disposessive politics and simply reinforces the status quo producing them.   

If you notice, the above criticisms are aimed at understanding crisis, and crises, as arising from political-environmental infrastructure and not simply from ideological problems. The crisis tendencies worrying Masco are deeply material and attached to extra-human agencies such as nation-states and other organizations. This implies an historical materialism of crisis that includes the actions of agents reacting to and trying to solve those crises. When it comes to techno-fixes, this means that systems become more complicated historically as fix after fix is introduced, changing the development trajectories of systems each time in unpredictable ways. Geoengineering of the Anwar Dam in Egypt, for example, had ironic effects in that it was designed to promote better trade, health and welfare for the people of that region, but instead produced one of the worst malaria outbreaks in recorded history, killing tens of millions of people as an indirect result of technological development and national need (Timothy Mitchell, ‘Can the Mosquito Speak’ in The Rule of Experts, 2002). The difficulty is that technocracy cannot adequately predict technological development trajectories once a technology has entered a system of technics and massive infrastructures can have globally massive and regional effects despite their best intentions and abilities to fix and dominate narratives. The difficulty in seeing these dynamics is, in part, because technologies have the ability to fade into the background environment such that they become part of it. As we saw with Wildcat, technological rule is something more and more people are becoming acquainted with as life within the G-20 goes through increasing technification necessary for the growth of informational capitalism and thus nation-state power. That is, it is possible for technologies to become naturalized as environmental features such that they produce living conditions that can be called technonatural.

This means that more people are living within supermassive technological networks such that their lifeworlds cannot be thought of as apart from them and their thinking is radically curtailed by their everyday existence working through ‘found objects’ or ‘givens’ none of which are necessary in a natural or ontological sense. Thinking of a world without industrial capitalism or the nation-state or nuclear state is increasingly difficult as thought comes to rely on and become structured by the material present of crisis discourse. 

The link between nuclear crisis and climate crisis is industrial agency: both of these existential dangers have been incrementally built over generations of labor in pursuit of security…These emergencies are thus infrastructural achievements of an American Modernity, modes of endangerment that are the unwanted effects of modern military and industrial systems. Following Roitman’s (2014, 94) suggestion that crisis constitutes a ‘blind spot’ that restricts narrative explanations as well as limiting the kind of actions that can be taken, we could interrogate here how crisis states become lived infrastructures, linking imaginations, affects and institutions in a kind of total social formation. The crisis in crisis from this point of view is the radical presentism of crisis talk, the focus on stabilizing a present condition rather that engaging the multiple temporalities at stake in a world of interlocking technological, financial, military and ecological systems…Put differently, there are no natural disasters anymore, as the imbrication of technology, economy, and nature creates ever emerging conditions for catastrophe, making crisis seem a permanent condition when it is in fact the effect of financial, technological, militaristic and political processes interacting with earth systems…Crisis talk today seeks to stabilize an institution, practice or reality rather than interrogating the historical conditions of possibility for that endangerment to occur. In our moment, crisis blocks thought by evoking the need for an emergency response to the potential loss of a status quo, emphasizing urgency and restoration over a review of first principles and historical ontologies (Masco, 2021. 335).

In other words, the only relations and crises that are ‘natural’ are the result of planetary interactions among massive extra-human agencies, such as nation-states, and this is to the point that global living conditions are beyond the agency of ‘nature’ because the very history of that object shows the hybrity of technology within it materially, and vice-versa. Crisis might be a technonatural phenomenon and thus the ‘climate crisis’ is something produced from the nexus of technological influence within lifeworlds across the planet. 

Speaking from his place within technonature, Masco recognizes technonaturalization as driven through the instruments of petrocapitalism and the nuclear-nation-state. A primary discourse indexed to crisis is the notion of ‘progress’ through ‘technology’ and this discourse must be questioned and overhauled if one is to follow Masco: 

In the twenty-first century, US society had naturalized technological revolution as a form of endless progress – living in an age of constantly changing technical capacities (a register of the incredible vitality and creativity of contemporary science and engineering) – but it has also naturalized permanent war as the basis of American Power – restricting infrastructures, imaginaries, and affective circuits to negative futurities. Perhaps now with nearly perfect digital archives and instant systems of information retrieval and global communication, Americans could focus on remembering a time, actually not so long ago, before war became defense and when peace could be evoked as a collective good (Masco, 2021. 370). 

In other words, don’t naturalize more violence and more technology just because the language of crisis seems so natural. Echoing Sheldon Wolin’s observations of living within Superpower and an inverted totalitarian society (Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, 2008), Masco too points to the costs of naturalizing relations through the nexus of technology by showing us the false negatives within security discourse that merely further planetary insecurity for anyone not ready and willing to profit from fading planetary orders. God help us. If The World Bank is to be believed, the next world war will be about water – which may become irradiated and undrinkable after the nation-state order has eliminated other possible arrangements for collective and planetary life. But that too may be just another technonatural ecotone coming into existence before fading in the glowing halflife of extra-human error and technonatural crisis.

This clip is form the cult-classic, SLC Punk!. It does contain racey imagery but the point is illustrative. Was the end of the world created back during WWII?