After the release of Downwind in 2014, I spent a year and a half touring the book and speaking to as many audiences as I could arrange to meet. My friends held a community fundraiser, university professors cobbled together honorariums, and humanities organizations lent their support. I was still waitressing full time, with a young family, and I was still conducting oral history interviews with downwinders. The juggling act was not sustainable, and I worried I wasn't doing enough to launch the book and its stories out into the world.
A new opportunity arose. Friend and colleague Rachel DeMotts, Mellon Assistant Professor of Global Environmental Politics at University of Puget Sound, invited me to develop an upper-division environmental studies course based on my research. "Nuclear Narratives of the American West" is the course that emerged, and I've now had the privilege of teaching it three times to students in the Environmental Policy and Decision Making program at UPS. These students don't just read Downwind; they study oral histories from uranium workers and downwinders, historic AEC documents, popular media, scientific studies, poems, legal briefs, and epidemiological reports. They discuss research by scientists, sociologists, historians, and folklorists, poetry by Simon Ortiz, Sherman Alexie, Kathleen Flenniken and Michael McLane. They view original art by Ed Singer, take in documentary film, and pore over nuclear-impacted regions using google map technology. Some of them even folded paper cranes.
From the syllabus:
This course will examine the history of Cold War era nuclear testing and uranium extraction in the American West, in order to understand the environmental, cultural, political, and health ramifications of these activities. Using nuclear history as a case study, we will explore interdisciplinary methodologies for gathering and studying narratives about human relationships with the environment.
For nearly five decades, the American West served as the primary staging ground of United States nuclear weapons production. Vast swaths of land were appropriated by the military, the federal government, and the uranium industry, and massive amounts of toxins were released into the environment. Severe contamination persists in many regions, and citizen populations have been struggling to make sense of the impact of this contamination for generations. How do we as scholars of environmental studies assess this chain of events? We must critically assess multiple narratives, including federal documents, small town newspaper coverage, oral citizen narratives, and peer-reviewed scientific studies. What analytical tools are most useful for sifting through this array of accounts? How have industry and government experts exerted their power to shape research, reportage, and public perceptions related to nuclearism? How have the residents of affected areas come to understand the impact of nuclear industries in their regions, and how can we as scholars best analyze this local knowledge? More broadly, how can the information we draw from place-based environmental histories and the methodologies we employ in doing so inform our approach to other global environmental issues?
The sixty students who have made their way through this class have produced remarkable reports on nuclear sites around the world. They have produced original art, economic analyses, and legal critiques. Students have come to this class from fields as varied as health sciences, business administration, politics and government, music, biology, geology, sociology. Each of them has applied their major disciplinary tools to the complex research and ethical questions nuclearism poses, and I have learned from every single one of them. I hope to feature some of the remarkable work they have produced here in the future. In the meantime, I'll to leave you with some of the final reflections from students who took the course in the Fall of 2017. (See below). Their work gives me something different than hope. It gives me faith. (Thank you Rachel DeMotts for putting this into words!) Faith that they will keep these stories alive, think more critically, ask more questions about knowledge and power, and reach across disciplines to find more data, faith that they will bring this knowledge into their work as professionals and as citizens and as members of communities.
It's been an honor to teach this class the past few years and I look forward to doing it again soon. With gratitude... Sarah
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"History has never been something I've had interest in; however, this course captivated me and kept me engaged throughout the entire 16 weeks. One thing that's stayed on my mind... is the role of scientists in society. I have always thought of science as meaningful work for public safety and awareness; but, as we've seen, science can also be used to manipulate citizens into thinking what other may want them to think. As a future environmental scientist, this has made me think about how I can ensure that this manipulation does not continue, and how I can work with others to present truthful, and impactful science for the general public.
This idea of science also carries over to another important topic I learned: how we value people's narratives based on their background. I really appreciated the discussion we had regarding how people believe scientists because of their education, more than they do downwinders. To be quite honest, I feel as though this might have also been my mindset coming into the class as well. But after reading Downwind, I understand now that even stories that may not be scientifically corroborated can still be meaningful. These narratives can still provide insight into information that we cannot find in a scientific paper or report, such as local demographics, history, and culture. I cannot go into environmental studies in the future without considering the position of those who may not have a white-collar job. Although I picked up a lot of information in the class (and a slight distrust of the government now), these two points have impacted me the most, and have given me a lot to think about for the future. Seeing how nuclear testing may be resurrected soon, what I've learned will certainly be applicable in the next coming years. I am so thankful to have taken this class."
"I plan to become a scientific researcher, so it was very eye-opening to see the ways in which science was biased and suppressed during the nuclear era when findings conflicted with government interests. I think that learning about this will make me more critical of studies conducted by the government, pharmaceutical companies, etc. when there are obvious conflicts of interest. I think it will also make me more cognizant in general of what types of research are being conducted, and who is deciding to fund this research. This course has also given me a more nuanced picture of the costs and benefits of nuclear energy. Before taking the class, I thought that nuclear power sounded like a great alternative to fossil fuels, and avoided a lot of the problems of scale and efficiency that come with renewable sources of energy. However, this class has shown me how dangerous nuclear energy can be, not only in terms of accidental meltdowns, which are rare but may increase in frequency as the rates of natural disasters increase, but also in terms of the radioactive waste produced. As of now, it seems that there are no good, long-term solutions for dealing with radioactive waste, and instead this waste often ends up being ineffectively stored near poor and marginalized communities."
"Undoubtedly one of the biggest takeaways from this class is an entirely new understanding and perspective about the Cold War, and the realization of my previous ignorance regarding it. So often we get caught up learning the narratives provided for us by major news sources, textbooks, and others who have very specific knowledge and understandings. This course has taught me to search elsewhere, to seek out the stories of those who may have a harder sharing them. Additionally, the further exposure to the overwhelming environmental racism in this world is detrimental and has pushed me in a different direction in my studies here than I had expected, but am grateful for, and plan to focus on and work towards helping in different ways for the rest of my life."
"I absolutely loved taking this course, I really appreciated how I was able to apply a broad range of my own interests to it which is unfortunately rare. One of the biggest takeaways that I am getting is my own research on the Marshall Islands. I had never put much thought into this area of the world but have become captivated in it through my research. It is one of the first cases studies that I feel like really taps into many of my academic and extra curricular interests. I’m not sure right now if I will continue this research in an academic setting, but I plan on carrying a notebook with me after college that is on this topic and just seeing how full it ends up getting. The second biggest take away from this course is the research skills that I gained. I feel like the paper reviews were very beneficial and really got me in the habit of researching the people who where writing the sources I was looking at. I hope to take this into future work that I do."
"From this class, I will take away how governments can designate certain people (usually minorities or people from lower socieoeconomic classes) expendable. I think it is easy to oftentimes look at disasters or events that negatively affected people from a numbers perspective and see that “only x amount of people died, it must not have been too bad” but this class helped me approach these events from a more human side, one that looks at the stories the individuals have to tell. I knew very little about the nuclear testing that had gone on in the United States before this class and to learn about the atrocities that our government inflicted on its own citizens for the 'greater good' was horrifying for me. This class has helped me understand that there are many events in our history that are not taught in most classes or talked about by most people and so many people can grow up with no understanding of many of the atrocities that have occurred. I think that this class will help me dig a little deeper when looking at current events, especially those with environmental impacts to be able to see the full story about its impacts."
"This course has actually taught me so much, that narrowing it down to 2 or 3 learning points is quite difficult. But, the biggest takeaway I got from this class was my passion for environmental justice. I honestly learned so much more about the injustice that takes place in our world, apart from other issues, and I am excited to share my knowledge with the people around me. I want to make this environmental crisis into a social issue so more people are aware of the corruption our current policy holds. I had also thought that I had a pretty good critical eye when it came to scientific research prior to this class, but I have now been able to develop the skills to actually dissect the rhetoric reports use, where the funds are coming from, and able to find alternative responses to reports conclusions. Finally, this class has really solidified my affinity for the research world."
"I valued learning about an event that took place within the 'middle' part of the U.S. So many of my courses talk about decisions of large governments or political organizations, of if they discuss events occurring to people, those people are located in large cities, or other centers of people and money. I enjoyed taking a course that actively worked to center the experiences of people who are not near money or power--both in the U.S., and in some cases, outside of the country as well."
"I can say with confidence that I learned something new every week. I am so so excited to be taking your community environmental research course next semester to gain even more understanding of the world of environmental justice. You have been one of the best professors I have had at this school because you are able to teach students basic understanding of the society we live in, while not having students feel discouraged because they don't know much about a topic."
"Some of the most important things I’ve learned from this course is that the American government does not care for the safety and health of its citizens when national security is in question. The government will also try and hide its mistakes rather than share information that may save people. Also, this class has taught me that there is much more radiation left in the environment than the US government would like us to believe, and that Native Americans have especially had to deal with more radioactive waste than almost any other minority group. I have also learned how important it is to consider all types of sources when researching a subject, and that anecdotal sources are just as important as scientific sources in understanding a situation like nuclear testing."
"Most all of my classes have focused on quantitative research and with the introduction to your book and the other material I enjoyed learning about ethnographic focused research and its accompanying characteristics. I found that it was intensely personal and in this case heavily reliant on peoples relationship with their government, land, and bodies. In thinking more about this another important takeaway was that relationship I described earlier. Before I had read any of the material I had no clue about the nuclear legacy of the American west. A nuclear legacy that seemed to take place right in my backyard around where I grew up. This has shown me that I cannot stand by idly and take my situation for what it is. It has taught me to look deeper into my home and surrounding area, wherever that may be, seeing that the nuclear legacy is not only specific to the American west but also the Pacific Northwest."
"Downwinders took note of things such as settler colonialism and environmental racism which a lot of books I’ve been assigned in college don’t. I also really appreciated the pieces by Sherman Alexie. He is an author I really like a lot and it was really interesting to see the way he incorporated his nuclear past in his work. I also really appreciated all the poetry we read. Its so interesting to read poems that have such personal and political meaning."
"This class has left me with several valuable takeaways. One is distinguishing between the advantages and disadvantages of narrative as a way to justify a perceived environmental justice vs. scientific method/data as a way of justification. Another is understanding information flows and how media and certain power dynamics can manipulate stories/events so as to play along (or not play along) with governmental influence. Lastly, I have been left with a greater understanding of how corrupt government agendas negatively affect culture--particularly the cultural aspects of land and food--and especially how they negatively affect people of color."
"Before this course, I had never talked about in a course before was the way in which it is possible to critically evaluate oral histories of people within academic contexts. Most of the other classes I have either held oral histories as either unworthy of acknowledgement as unauthoritative knowledge, or otherwise, framed as infallible sources of radical information. I appreciated this course's more practical approach, particularly the way in which we discussed how to consider inaccuracies in information as further opportunities to study events. I also appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of the class, because the opportunity to compare formal documents, oral histories, artistic narratives, etc, helped me to understand a fuller and more accurate picture of what happened to folks living in Downwind regions of the world."
"What impacted me the most was hearing personal testimonies from people who had either experienced cancer themselves or had watched loved ones slowly die as a result of radiation exposure. It was heartbreaking to hear these difficult stories, and made me angry that our own government had caused this. I also thought it was very interesting to investigate the way in which women played a large role in the efforts to stop nuclear testing, and how they were faced with so many double standards - they couldn't be emotional or they were dismissed, but they couldn't be stoic because then they would be labeled as unloving and cold. The most influential aspect of this class was writing my research paper because it allowed me to dig really deep into a specific site. The case of the Marshall Islands, my chosen site, is both very interesting and very tragic. Learning about the forced (multiple) exiles of the Marshallese people, the sheer magnitude of the nuclear testing, and the way in which the US government used and promptly forgot about the native people was an eye-opening experience. Overall, I simply cannot believe how few people know the true story of US nuclear testing, and it makes me want to inform myself and everyone I know. This is so important!!!"
"Learning about the hierarchy of risk of the Soviet Union reminded me a lot about the hierarchy of risk of the AEC. How the AEC covered up the sheep death to avoid embarrassment is exactly the way the leaders of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant tried to cover up the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster. It clicked in my head that governments don’t pursue what is in each citizens interest when they pursue nuclear weapons or nuclear energy. In the United States, the government chose marginalized people to expose to environmental hazards... I usually believe that people are doing the best they can and that sinister behavior is just rumor and that this extends to officials in power. This class has taught me that those officials in power are only doing the best for their constituency, the people that keep them in power, not all people, not the people negatively affected by their decisions."
"Coming into this class, I knew pretty much nothing about nuclear activities or narratives, aside from the two bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I did not know anything about Downwinders or their testimonies, nor did I know about the U.S. government testing nuclear bombs in the American West."
"I personally have learned a great deal about radioactivity and elements that should not be played with unless taking appropriate safety measures to handle. Elements consisting of Plutonium and Uranium. I have learned that I should pay more attention to nuclear talks on the news hour, because their outcomes can decide the fate of millions of people. It was very informational to learn about the four major accidents that have happened at nuclear plants, like Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the other one. Before this class I had heard of Fukushima because it happened in 2011, but I did not understand the extent of damage that had actually taken place. This class has definitely taught me to be more suspicious of U.S. government documents and the idea of “national security.” I had a lot of fun learning about NASA, Cassini, and the Department of Energy’s role in creating the nuclear site on Saturn. It is scary to think that their have been nuclear accidents hidden from the public because they were not reported in the media. When I was researching media headlines for the Chernobyl accident, in my head I though I would find tons of headlines, much like there were for 9/11. But, instead I barely found any reporting at the time of the accident, which also taught me a lot about the media. Overall, this class was mostly depressing to learn about all of the sad Downwinder stories, and all of the wrongs the U.S. government has done, especially against indigenous peoples. But it also had a lot of very important information that needed to get out to public ears."
"I think it is really important to offer a class that teaches this subject material to future generations, because eventually... there will be no one who knows this history to stop the U.S. government from performing these tests and exposing people to radiation again. This class can help to prevent that from ever happening by getting the information the government does not share, out to the public."