Radioecology and the ecosphere
Scholars have long recognized that fallout radiation during the years of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing poisoned the global environment and threatened human health. Far fewer are aware of the critical scientific importance that radioactive tools had for ecological investigation. Prior to the advent of radiotracer practices, aquatic ecologists (especially limnology) dealt with the problem of ecological complexity by centering their field work on relatively small-scale, closed-system aquatic features such as lakes, ponds, and bogs. In working with these smaller, bounded units, they uncovered ecological processes that could be generalized for larger, more complex systems. With the rise of ecosystems theory and the growing use of radioactivity as a means by which to investigate the metabolism of the ecosystem, ecologists were much freer to between ecosystemic units. In ecosystems theory, ecologists could theoretically work at the level of individual interactions or at a global scale. In the case of the latter, radioactivity, in the form of nuclear bomb tests, provided the empirical foundation for understanding the globe as a single, interconnected biogeophysical system, which ecologists LaMont Cole termed the “ecosphere” in 1958. The ecosphere idea would be profoundly influential in convincing government agencies to expand support for ecosystems ecology and would animate the holistic discourse of the emerging environmental movement.
By investigating the means by which radioactive tools transformed ecological practice, this paper challenges conventional environmentalist thinking that too often disparages the technological basis for the generation of natural knowledge. In so doing, it argues that the categorical distinction that we place between nature and culture prevents a more fruitful understanding of past environments and the means by which environmental knowledge has been produced. This paper also shows how the fusion of ecosystems ecology and physical science (“radioecology”) helped transform ecology into a “useful” managerial tool for regulating the nuclear industry. Such governmental support was critical, I conclude, for understanding the tremendous growth and professionalization of ecology in the mid-twentieth century.