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The Final Frontier (of Environmental History): Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Environments Beyond Earth

Sat, April 1, 3:00 to 4:30pm, The Drake Hotel, Walton So.

Session Submission Type: Panel


Environmental historians usually assume that the environments they study are part of Earth. Yet recently, some among them have pointed out that the boundary between Earth and the rest of the universe is more imagined than it is real. They have developed an entirely new kind of environmental history, one that investigates humanity’s historical relationships with the nonhuman universe, not just the nonhuman Earth. This panel is the first in the history of the ASEH conference to explore this emerging field in environmental history.

In its first paper, Dagomar Degroot (Georgetown University) explains how changes in the Martian environment affected nineteenth- and early twentieth-century observations of the Red Planet. Contemporary astronomers, he argues, interpreted and misinterpreted Martian weather and climate in ways that convinced them that Mars harboured intelligent life. In the second paper, Lisa Ruth Rand (University of Pennsylvania) shows that an increase in solar activity during the 1970s led to a rise in the amount of artificial “space junk” re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. This toxic debris provoked cultural and political responses that became part of a broader rethinking of the environment in the 1970s. In the third paper, Lisa Messeri (University of Virginia) introduces a popular story among exoplanet astronomers: that of a mother, out at night with her children, pointing to a star encircled by a newly discovered Earth-like world. Feminist studies of science and the environment can unpack what this story about an imagined, imminent future communicates about evolving, present-day relationships between women, nature, and science.

Erik Conway (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), a trailblazing historian of both the American space program and climate change denial, will chair the panel.

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