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e live in an era suffused by a feeling of never-ending apocalyptic crisis---rising sea levels, disappearing glaciers, ever-intensifying forest fires, the collapse of nuclear arms control treaties, and now a pandemic. The central 20th-century apocalyptic fear (but not threat) of nuclear war has receded and been replaced with a concern over climate change as an apocalyptic planetary process, albeit one without any imminent political resolution. What are we to make of this situation? In Joseph Masco's ambitious new book, The Future of Fallout, and Other Episodes of Radioactive World-Making, he seeks to interrogate what it means to live with the twin planetary conditions of climate change and nuclear war. In this sprawling book, Masco takes the reader on a richly textured journey from the consumerism of bomb shelters to the negotiations between indigenous nations and the nuclear security state to the meaning of Liberace’s glamorously performing occurring against the backdrop of nuclear tests several dozen miles away. Altogether, Masco provides a wide-ranging examination of the processes by which we came to live in an era in which planetary and/or existential crisis is politically mobilized without any hope of resolution.
So, what are we to make of the contemporary condition? Masco's core argument is that these existential planetary crises are the consequence of U.S. nuclear statecraft following the Cold War, in particular, the mobilization and channeling of existential threat to enable the interpenetration of national security infrastructure with domestic ways of life. A core organizing concept for understanding this process is what Masco calls the politics of fallout---the ``lag between the environmental event and the recognition of its long-lasting effects is a major psychosocial achievement of the industrial age wherein the name of commerce or security consequences are loaded into an uncertain future and thus expelled from the realm of the political discourse until they resurface as injury at a later date.'' The Future of Fallout reveals how the long-term environmental consequences of nuclear warfare and petro-capitalism were evacuated and/or articulated vis-a-vis existential threat from post-World War II to the contemporary War on Terror. Thus, Masco argues the seeds of our intersecting crises can be found in the conjunction of nuclear terror with postwar consumer capitalism. The global distribution of biological harm by the dispersion of radioactive isotypes via nuclear testing exists alongside and intersects with the massive strain placed upon planetary systems by American consumerism. The present, however, is defined by all harm and no welfare as Masco observes that there is a crisis in crisis: we are left with the mobilization of existential dread without any promise of a better life.
Masco's exploration of the politics of fallout is conducted across seventeen chapters divided into four sections which take the reader on a tour of various dimensions of the mobilization of existential fear. The prologue and first chapter introduce the core concept of the politics of fallout by exploring the meaning of nuclear fallout as both producing a new-post nuclear biological reality and driving the construction of a planetary environmental surveillance regime that enabled the monitoring of climate change and recognition of the Anthropocene. Then, the first section zooms into how the American nuclear complex physically and psychically colonized New Mexico. Of particular interest in this section is Masco's exploration of how indigenous nations negotiate the encroachment of the nuclear state. In the second section, Masco examines how existential fear of nuclear weapons was managed and fused with consumer culture in the early nuclear age. The exploration in chapter 8 of how physical and mental health were articulated to evacuate the harm caused by domestic nuclear testing in the face of a potential Soviet threat is crucial. The third section uses a series of films to unpack how apocalyptic images are constructed across nuclear war, the war on terror, and climate change. Chapter 12 in this section provides a compelling analysis of how fictional portrayals of a fast, clean, and high-technology apocalypse created by nuclear war have inhibited our ability to understand the time and space of climate change. The final section explores why, in the face of existential threat, the U.S. as a state and society has lost the capacity to imagine and provide for a better life. One of Masco's crucial insights is how contemporary crisis discourse focuses on the present stabilization of existing conditions and relationships by occluding the multiple and overlapping temporalities of climate change and nuclear harm.
Chapter 9 stands as one of the most compelling in this book by exploring moments in which U.S. national security culture could have been otherwise. Masco recounts how one of the core narratives of the early Cold War---the "missile gap" wherein the Soviet Union had a vast and expanding ICBM arsenal---was challenged by the advent of satellite reconnaissance in the early 1960s. Politicians and military leaders had spent the 1950s using the supposed missile gap to justify the expansion of the nuclear security state. Despite the CORONA reconnaissance satellites showing that the gap was a myth and that the U.S. held nuclear strategic superiority, the revelations were kept secret and the "missile gap" was never publicly disavowed enabling the continued rationalization and construction of a high-technology apocalyptic infrastructure. Thus, Masco shows that the U.S. nuclear warfare state is not purely the product of a run-away arms race that can be justified on its own terms, but that the U.S. simultaneously suppresses realities and mobilizes affects in the pursuit of nuclear "security."
At the same time, the book would have benefited from further exploration of the intersection of the crises of climate change and nuclear war. Masco's incisive concept of the "politics of fallout" is well suited to exploring the temporalities and processes of climate change. Despite this promise, the book only makes occasional forays into, for example, the origins of climate science in nuclear test monitoring or how it is portrayed. Additionally, Masco's study of the mobilization and consequences of existential threat could provide lessons for how national security affects constructed through fears over climate change could justify a post-war on terror global security project.
Overall, The Future of Fallout provides an incisive view into how the U.S. national security state justified itself and expanded its reach into every aspect of global life. Anyone who has an interest in the history of the Cold War, nuclear politics, or wants to begin thinking about the role of existential threat in contemporary politics should read this book.
Bryan Nakayama is a visiting lecturer in International Relations at Mount Holyoke College. His research focuses on how the U.S. military creates and operationalizes new spaces of warfare.