Accepted paper:

Ubiquitous Elements


Joseph Masco (University of Chicago)

Paper short abstract:

Plutonium was only invented in 1940 but now is found everywhere on planet earth because of atmospheric nuclear testing. This paper considers both the ubiquity and the emerging terms of accountability for globally distributed toxic elements.

Paper long abstract:

The paper explores the ubiquity of new toxic elements in the world and the emerging terms of accountability for planetary-scale environmental impacts. Plastics, synthetic chemicals, and radionuclides that were invented mere decades ago are now distributed through the global environment, creating a wide range of effects across species, ecologies, and earth systems. This paper tracks the life course of one such element - plutonium. One of the latest additions to the periodic table, it was invented in 1940. Oddly mutable and unstable, plutonium is now distributed globally via decades of atmospheric nuclear testing and industrial production. In the earth science search for the marker of a new geological period associated with human industry, plutonium offers a clear stratigraphic signature of human impacts on the planet. As a ubiquitous but also artificial element, plutonium now offers up a new space for planetary accountability, as the authors of nuclear weapons science are well known. Tracking the glow of this nuclear material as it remakes both social contracts and world systems, the paper asks what if we do more than simply document anthropogenic industrial effects? What if ubiquitous elements also offer a new domain of accountability for planetary ecological damage? The paper considers plutonium then not as an element of national power but rather as visible signature of industrial damage, one that offers an emerging new kind of accountability for anthropogenic-industrial regimes.

panel T122
Elements Thinking