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“Natural Pollutants” and Environmental Agnotology

Thursday Lecture Series

dateJanuary 20, 2022 timeThursday, 12:15pm EST locationVirtual Event
  • The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities
  • Free and open to the public
  • Registration required. See details.
  • Each TLS event will have its own Zoom registration. If you wish to attend all events, please register for each lecture individually.

B&W photo of erupting volcano with caption "Next to nature, man's efforts seem feeble"

For much of the twentieth century, “pollution” referred to the release of substances that caused direct harm to the environment. It described a form of environmental contamination. But in the 1970s, scientists became attuned to a kind of pollution whose effects only materialized indirectly, by threatening to alter the environmental conditions like the climate and the ozone layer that humans relied on to survive. This new pollution—diffuse and invisible, and not immediately linked to a single emissions source—became the framework for a new genre of environmental agnotology on the part of the petrochemical industry: it made it possible to contest the assumption that the changes were necessarily anthropogenic in origin. And so, in response to mounting evidence that commercial products like CFCs and fossil fuels were causing large-scale changes in the form of ozone holes, acid rain, and climate change, the petrochemical industry pursued an alternative explanation: that the changes were caused by pollutants with natural, nonhuman origins. This talk considers the history of the “natural pollutants” concept as it related to the 1970s-era disinformation campaigns of the petrochemical industry and explores how the concept blurred the line between good-faith scientific research and industry diversionary strategy. It draws from a larger research project on the political uses of environmental knowledge in the late-twentieth century United States.

Attendance at SOF/Heyman events will follow Columbia-issued guidelines as they continue to develop. Given the current recommendations, this event will be fully virtual.

This event also will be recorded. By being electronically present, you consent to the SOF/Heyman using such video for promotional purposes.

Please email [email protected] to request disability accommodations. Advance notice is necessary to arrange for some accessibility needs.