Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hot Spotter's Report: Imagining alternate possibilities in a world in which toxicity and exposure are not the exception but the rule.

U.S. Department of Energy radiation hot spot detection equipment utilized at Rocky Flats, Colorado. Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Assistant professor of culture and politics at Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University

Growing up near two major plutonium processing facilities (Hanford, WA, and Rocky Flats, CO) in the nationally distributed U.S. nuclear weapons complex has profoundly shaped my way about the world—from my relationship with the outdoors and understanding of nature to my educational background and sense of humor. I came of age with an awareness that remote areas—areas linked to ideas about American freedom, democracy, and frontier—are often heavily controlled, made, and maintained as remote. I was also cognizant of invisible geographies of waste in the landscape around me: Toxicity had a way of seeping into everyday life, whether through local lore or official reports or workplace exposures.

As I have recounted elsewhere, this is one of the reasons I became a geographer—to consider the ways we might investigate such invisible geographies and unacknowledged military remains, and to figure out how to respond. One ethical response I’ve explored is what others might call a post-sublime and post-ecocidal understanding of nature. This has often positioned me outside of traditional American environmental conservation efforts to preserve “pristine” nature—to bound it and protect it from humans. My experiences have challenged ways of thinking that position nature opposite of waste, and encourage me to find creative ways to address the historical antagonisms between labor and environmentalists.

Hot Spotter’s Report draws on this foundation of ideas. The book is part of a larger body of work (academic projects, arts-based practice, and various public culture forms) focused on the domestic legacies of war—the marks of industrial production, the chemical revolution, WWII and Cold War military work. The category of “remains,” for me, crosses the conventional boundaries that delimit institutions, land, labor, law, animal, affect, and so forth. Empirically, the domestic remains of war can be difficult to see: Toxicity is often invisible (consider radiation); the vast U.S. military landscape—nuclear weapons facilities and chemical munitions arsenals, bombing ranges and test sites, etc.—are largely located in rural areas or deserts with marginalized populations that do not command public attention; and a history of secrecy and misinformation make it difficult to know about these places or to weigh evidence and make claims about exposure.

Additionally, a lot of representational remediation is going on, most notably the sanitizing effects of the “environmental turn” of the U.S. military and “greening” of the nuclear weapons legacy. The rhetoric of stewardship recasts the military as environmental protector. Furthermore, the administrative conversion of former military and nuclear sites to wildlife refuges has been one of the preferred ways to dispose of facilities deemed too toxic to return to any other use. Re-designating a contaminated site a wildlife refuge allows the Department of Defense or Department of Energy (DOE) to save money on the cleanup while harnessing cultural tropes that assert visibly natural spaces to be uncontaminated. The spectacle of nature at these military-to-wildlife sites obscures their material legacies and depoliticizes their labor histories and social controversies.

An even more contradictory “postmilitary” development, the DOE has inaugurated an office for the purpose of sustainably managing nuclear impacts on the land. In response to public demands for government accountability of nuclear waste, the DOE mandates that Legacy Management oversees nuclear hazards in perpetuity—that is, the office is supposed to manage sites, where contamination remains, indefinitely. Moreover, it is to find ways to manage long-term contamination sustainably, in order to minimize government waste. One of my favorite parts of the book is the satirical PowerPoint that opens Chapter 2; it captures the absurd logics at work, such as the way Legacy Management has reduced its own staffing and outsourced its oversight to contractors and remote technological systems, in the process earning a federal-level sustainability award for eliminating government waste in the long-term management of nuclear hazards. In doing the research for this chapter, I realized that I was actually constructing an archive of an organization that has progressively minimized itself to the point of merely making appearances of management.

To address this management endgame of nuclear waste and other efforts to green military remains and the toxic impacts of war, Hot Spotter’s Report employs a variety of performative geographical, feminist, queer, and environmental justice strategies, and utilizes creative documentary formats and satire. In a world in which toxicity and exposure are not the exception but the rule, and wherein sustainability, austerity, and normativity largely dominate our responses to environmental crisis, Hot Spotter’s Report attempts to imagine other possibilities, within even the most monolithic, lethargic, and toxic bureaucratic operations.


Shiloh R. Krupar is author of Hot Spotter's Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste. She is a geographer and assistant professor of culture and politics at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

"The nuclear remaking of the world is the ambitious theme of Shiloh Krupar’s innovative and often startling new text. Dispatches from a natural world saturated with the toxic products of the U.S. nuclear state perform the uncertain futures, mutant ecologies, and new subjectivities of a post-nuclear America—an important contribution not only to environmental studies, critical theory, and nuclear studies but also to narrative form."
—Joseph Masco, University of Chicago

"Hot Spotter’s Report is at once a devastating indictment of ‘green war’ and a hopeful search for new conditions of existence in and beyond the toxic residues of militarism. Written with wit and passion, Krupar’s irreverent experiments with fable, satire, and creative non-fiction do much more than disrupt the ongoing sanitization of military violence; they open space for new coalitions and political imaginings in domestic landscapes marked by the legacies of imperial war. A refreshingly novel approach to environmental and political geography."
—Bruce Braun, University of Minnesota

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