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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Pacific Proving Grounds and the Proliferation of Settler Environmentalism


Runit Dome is an eighteen-inch thick concrete dome covering the buried nuclear waste from twenty-three atomic tests conducted by the US military in the 1940s and ’50s in Pikinni Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Known to locals as “The Tomb,” it is leaking into the Pacific Ocean, in part because of the rising sea levels produced by global warming. Runit Dome brings climate change into direct relation with the legacies of nuclear imperialism in the Marshall Islands. This essay examines how Cold War securitization paradigms problematically inform the ecological management strategies developed by international policy-making entities such as the United Nations in the mid-twentieth century. While much literary and cultural scholarship on the rise of the nuclear age has focused on the concomitant rise of insecurities about body and environment under the duress of wartime, this essay crafts a different but intertwined history, showing how the transformation of the Pacific Ocean into a nuclear testing ground was parlayed into governmental projects for the remaking of life itself under the auspices of risk management. Military-backed and government-funded scientific experiments with nuclear and other weapons throughout the Pacific suggest a new phase in US imperial world-making, as the ecologies of waters, islands, sea creatures, and Pacific Islanders were turned into experimental materials for modeling shifts in social and ecological forms of governance. When environmental protections take for granted concepts such as enclosure, risk management, and Enlightenment formulations of property-owning and rights-bearing subjects, they manifest a settler environmentalism that too easily paves the way for capitalist regeneration under the aegis of eco-development projects rather than systemic change that understands human, nonhuman, and environment to be always already in relation. To break from perpetually extractive relations to land, sea, and life, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner’s video poem “Anointed” models how environmental futures must reckon with the causes of past and ongoing harm, and this essay concludes with a brief reflection on this poet-activist’s work.

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