The Nuclear Threat

This is part of a series of blog posts highlighting objects and archival documents from Social Climates: Power and the Environment in the Archives, an exhibition currently on view in the Kempner Gallery at Columbia’s RBML. Drawing on a wide array of RBML collections and materials, Social Climates explores the interconnections between culture, history, politics, and the natural world. 

The following is adapted from the Social Climates exhibit essay text by Thai Jones, Curator of American History.  

“Facts That You Should now About Fallout” National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy Pamphlet, ca. 1960

The promise and menace of nuclear power pervaded social thinking long before the creation of a practicable atomic bomb; at the turn of the twentieth century some scientists already predicted an inexhaustible energy future, while others, such as novelist H.G. Wells, imagined the Earth torn apart by atomic bombs. For environmental scientists, the achievement of fission added a new human-created data point to the study of earth’s soil history – a “marked sedimentary divergence,” in the words of Jason M. Kelly – radioactive isotopes, a “nuclear Anthropocene,” created by fallout blanketing the surface of the planet.

“Rally Against Nuclear Power” Ad Hoc Nuclear Opponents Handbill, 1975

For today’s climate activists, the anti-nuclear movement provides one of the best precedents of a sustained, decades-long campaign to control and contain a worldwide environmental threat. The nuclear arms race confronted the world for the first time with the realization that science, industry and war had globe-wrecking potency. The movement’s successes and failures remain difficult to quantify, but anti-nuclear activists certainly succeeded in solidifying in the public mind the fear of global apocalypse rooted in feckless geopolitical decision-making, as well as an emotional awareness of the tenuousness of world systems and human survival.

“Questions and Answers About Nuclear Tests” Friends Committee on Legislation Pamphlet, 1957

Social Climates runs through September 30, 2022 in Kempner Gallery at Columbia’s RBML, 6th Floor Butler.