Nevada Test Site
Blinded by the Apocalypse
I am aspiring to an academic career because I have an insatiable curiosity. I have found science and history to be fundamental disciplines in answering my questions about the origins of the society and universe I find myself a part of. I hope that through the study of the history of science I would better understand it’s practice, revelations, and role in society. One way that science has impacted me personally is as an outlook upon the world. This outlook was conveyed to me by Carl Sagan in the 1980 series Cosmos. The words “we are star stuff” and “we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself” have always resonated strongly with me.i Sagan communicated another message that was in tune with beliefs I already held. The fragility of life on Earth was a prominent recurring theme throughout the series. My belief in the need for environmental responsibility was reaffirmed by the interwoven thoughts of our interconnectedness and the fragility of our world. Sagan gave every appearance of believing the message he communicated and several years after Cosmos first aired, at a time when Carl Sagan was a household name, he acted on his beliefs by participating in an anti-nuclear protest at the Nevada Test Site.ii
The Nevada Test Site was the scene of roughly one thousand atomic weapon detonations from 1951 to 1992.iii Carl Sagan was arrested in the Fall of 1986 for trespassing on the site along with 138 other protesters. These protests were notable for being organized by public health professionals not affiliated with established anti-war groups. The protests were intended to push the United States into accepting the nuclear test ban and joining the Soviet Union in placing a moratorium on nuclear testing. Sagan spoke to the American Public Health Association prior to the 1986 protest and expressed his belief that a ban on nuclear testing would slow the arms race.iv The APHA were the primary organizers of the protest and an organization which combines scientific investigation, education, and advocacy to improve the health of communities.v In February 1986 the APHA Peace Caucus conducted another protest in which Sagan participated and was again arrested. The number of arrested person more than doubled to 438.vi
These protests at the Nevada Test Site raise several questions about Sagan’s environmentalism which I wish to explore. What was the scope of Sagan’s environmental thinking? Did he consider a wide spectrum of environmental problems or was he solely focused on those which posed an existential threat? In concrete terms of the environment around the Nevada Test Site did he have any concern for the effect that the radiation released may have on nearby populations? If he was only concerned with the existential threats then how might this focus have blinded him to more localized concerns? Sagan’s conception of humanity as part of the Cosmos, and by extension nature, is distinct from the traditional mainstream environmentalism that separates the “environment” from the places in which people live and work. How did this distinction position him in the environmental discourse? Finally, who was Sagan’s audience? Who did he think he was communicating his message to and who was receiving that message?
Although the threat of nuclear apocalypse seems very distant at this point in the 21st century it remains true that there are still enough nuclear weapons in stockpiles around the world to inflict global catastrophe several times over. The US and Russia seem to be engaging in a new arms race and North Korea has become a confirmed nuclear power. A more frequently discussed existential threat is climate change, something which Sagan spoke about with increasing frequency through the 80s and into the 90s. I hope to learn whether there are applicable lessons from Carl Sagan’s environmental views, the actions he took, and the way he communicated those problems.
I am researching the environmentalism of Carl Sagan. I want to find what his environmental beliefs are, how he acted on them, and who he communicated them to. I want to locate Sagan’s environmentalism in the broader environmental discourse. Through this research I hope to better understand those who discuss existential environmental problems, the way they discuss those problems, and what audience they reach when attempting to mobilize support to combat those problems.
i Cosmos; a Personal Voyage, episode 1, “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean,” directed by Adrian Malone, aired 1980, on DVD (Cosmos Studios, 2000)
ii Applebome, Peter, “139 Arrested at Nevada Nuclear Test Site.” New York Times, October 1, 1986 https://www.nytimes.com/1986/10/01/us/139-arested-in-protest-at-nevada-nuclear-test-site.html
iii DOE-NV–209, United States Nuclear Tests. U.S. Department of Energy: 2015. https://www.nnss.gov/docs/docs_LibraryPublications/DOE_NV-209_Rev16.pdf
iv Applebome, Peter, “139 Arrested at Nevada Nuclear Test Site.” New York Times, October 1, 1986 https://www.nytimes.com/1986/10/01/us/139-arested-in-protest-at-nevada-nuclear-test-site.html
vi Lindsey, Robert, “438 Protesters Arrested at Nevada Nuclear Test Site.” New York Times, February 6, 1987 https://www.nytimes.com/1987/02/06/us/438-protesters-are-arrested-at-nevada-nuclear-test-site.html
Tags: Nuclear, Global, Air, Environmentalist, Popular Culture