Project (2016-2017)

Constructing Spaceship Earth

In Constructing Spaceship Earth, Perrin Selcer explores how and why scientists affiliated with UN agencies made the global-scale environment a social and political reality. The post-WWII generation of international experts identified science as both the cause of and solution to world crises. Unless civilization learned to control the unprecedented powers science had unleashed, global catastrophe was imminent—if not in an atomic explosion, then in a population explosion. Against such apocalyptic scenarios, internationalists presented utopian visions of a peaceful and prosperous world community. Social scientists promised to reform parochial cultural values to create responsible world citizens; natural scientists sketched plans for the rational conservation of the world’s resources. Understandably, both contemporaries and historians have dismissed such postwar internationalism as naïve idealism. And yet these activist experts doggedly negotiated the tensions of the Cold War, decolonization, and bureaucratic rivalries to cultivate the ideas, values, and institutions that made the global “human environment” a central issue in international politics. In an important sense, UN projects created the problematic but inescapable category “the global”—as in global population, global climate, global economy—that is the leitmotif of our time.

Constructing Spaceship Earth examines UN scientific programs that were explicitly designed to make the world-scale meaningful. In particular, it focuses on work coordinated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), but I interpret these projects within the institutional ecology of the international community. The projects I investigate in detail include: multinational public opinion polls and community studies; interdisciplinary surveys of natural resources; global-scale ecological maps; and ecological modelling. My analysis is based on work in ten archives in four countries. This focus on specific projects grounds the intellectual history in the micro- and macro-politics of the international community. I show how events and personalities, cultures and ecologies at the local and international scales affected the production of global knowledge.

In our anxious epoch of the Anthropocene, in which humans are recognized as the primary drivers of change in the Earth system, Constructing Spaceship Earth demonstrates the critical contribution humanistic scholarship must make to urgent questions of global environmental governance. It shows how, in the context of the Cold War and decolonization, conflict and cooperation between the Three UNs produced the epistemological values and institutional infrastructure that continue to both support and undermine the construction of credible global knowledge and legitimate international organizations.