Last fall, I designed and taught a course called The Global Environmental History of the Cold War. Throughout the semester, the students and I discussed the many ways that the bipolar conflict and the environment interacted between 1946 and 1989, as well as the various consequences of the Cold War that stretched beyond this temporal boundary. We covered topics ranging from the nuclear fuel cycle and the arms race, to dam building and defoliants associated with Cold War development theory and proxy wars.
Throughout the course, I often relied on maps, especially when discussing issues such as “toxic layering” and geographic “sacrifice zones,” as well as how one might visually plot the intersections of Cold War containment and the environment. These themes, along with Adam Rothman and Dagomar Degroot's maps, inspired me to add a mapping portion to the final class paper.
The assignment was to choose one aspect of the way that the Cold War and the environment interacted, conduct independent research, and to plot some detail of the topic on a collaborative map with an annotation. In addition, I asked the students to write an argumentative paper about their chosen topic and, within the paper, to reflect upon what the process and result of mapping added to their understanding.
As a learning tool, maps and mapping assignments can help students--along with those who look at the map--acknowledge the intricateness, breadth, and variation of the Cold War's relationship with the environment. The map the students created for the assignment was quite good and their engagement with the project was enthusiastic.
One of the aims of the project was to encourage a broader understanding of the conflict. The history of the Cold War is often confined to diplomatic and political spaces, but a global mapping project shows how the conflict affected regions outside of these traditional areas of focus.
Students were largely interested in aspects of the nuclear cycle and the space race, and focused predominantly on the activities of the two main Cold War powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Even so, their work incorporated many regions of these countries often left out of traditional Cold War narratives, along with frequently-overlooked areas such as northern Canada and the Pacific Islands.
There was an unforseen issue with using a terrestrial map, however. As my students quickly pointed out to me as we discussed potential topics, there was no way to map the Cold War’s effects on the extraterrestrial environment. When examining the environmental history of the Cold War period and beyond, this project made it clear that a map of the world does not fully convey interactions between humans and their environment. I learned that I need to add more about the Outer Space to the course, and the mapping project, along with the student's work, helped to change my thinking.
In addition, this mapping project detracts somewhat from the interconnectedness of the Cold War's effects, and their sometimes global scope. For example, it is difficult, if not impossible, to render effectively on a map the consequences of atmospheric testing. The structure also leads to a one-sided narrative, with the form encouraging students to focus on how humans impacted nature. It is much more difficult to plot the dynamism of the environment and its role in Cold War history.
The map and the idea behind it is useful beyond the classroom, as well. As environmental historians, we often try to view history irrespective of political borders. The ability to zoom out and examine the global impact as a whole helps to better conceptualize the scale of historical moments such as the Cold War.
My vision for this map is for it to be added to continually. There are many complex layers that the topic “the global environmental history of the Cold War” encompasses. To fully understand the true impact of the Cold War on the environment (and vice versa) I wold like to move forward with this same map, and have students (and possibly others) build upon it.
 For more on dam building and containment, see Richard P. Tucker, “Containing Communism by Impounding Rivers: American Strategic Interests and the Globaal Soread of High Dams in the Early Cold War” in Environmental Histories of the Cold War, eds. J.R. McNeill and Corinna R. Unger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 139-163. For more on “toxic layering” in a Cold War context, see Magadalena E. Stawkowski, “‘I am a Radioactive Mutant’: Emergent biological subjectivities at Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site,” American Ethnologist 43, no. 1 (2016): 144-157.
Robynne Mellor is a PhD Candidate at Georgetown University who studies the intersection of environmental history and the Cold War. Her dissertation is comparatively examines uranium mining in the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union.
Articles written by students and faculty in environmental history at Georgetown University.