BY SHILOH R. KRUPAR
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.