My current book project, The Biosphere in Postwar America: The Politics of Planetary Knowledge, is a history of the concept of the biosphere in the postwar United States. First theorized in the 1920s by Russian mineralogist Vladimir Vernadsky, the biosphere dissolved the age-old boundary between organisms and environments to construe the whole of the natural world in terms of chemical cycles and flows. Yet when it was introduced to English-speaking audiences in the immediate postwar years, the biosphere was reconceived through the cybernetic framework of feedback mechanisms and circular causality and forever changed as a result. In the American context, not only did the biosphere connote a system of cyclical, chemical exchanges, but these cycles were understood to exist in a state of steady-state stability. Thus, in the United States, the biosphere presupposed a fundamental stability to the planetary environment—the cybernetic teleology of self-regulation became construed as an inherent feature of the planet itself.
The book follows this biosphere-stability alignment from its 1940s cybernetic origins up through the end of the Cold War, documenting the practices scientists developed in pursuit of the biosphere’s biological mechanisms of stability. At the same time, the project tracks the role this new knowledge played in the making and unmaking of two central environmental “threats”: the greenhouse effect and the population bomb. By casting the planet as a stable entity—historically unperturbed by the activities of humans or any other species—the steady-state system made it possible to trivialize the threat that the greenhouse effect posed. Considered through the lens of the steady-state system, the phenomenon became understood as merely a transitory deviation while the carbon cycle recalibrated itself back to a state of balance in response to new influxes of gas. Conversely, the biosphere concept was pivotal to a scientific amplification of neo-Malthusian alarmism: the resilience of the steady-state system meant that humans would outstrip the planet of its finite supply of natural resources long before the environment was rendered unlivable by industrial capitalism. Thus, the project argues, at a time when the social and economic forces that would amount to the “Great Acceleration” were taking hold, the biosphere gave shape to epistemologies of the planetary environment that naturalized—rather than called into question—capitalist modes of relating to the natural world.