Cold War Atmospherics: Ecology, Encapsulation and Catastrophe – The Case of Gerard K O’Neill’s Space Colonies

Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesInvited talk


This paper reflects on one of the most extraordinary manifestations of Cold War technoculture, the space colonies proposal developed by the Princeton-based physicist Gerard K. O’Neill from the late-1960s onward. Responding to burgeoning environmentalist discourses of the period, but also to contemporary nuclear anxieties, O’Neill envisaged his proposal as a way of relieving competition for dwindling terrestrial resources – and obviating concomitant socio-political stresses – without having to relinquish a libertarian ideology and commitment to economic and territorial expansion. Looking back to the novel Beyond the Planet Earth by the Russian schoolmaster and scientist Konstantin Tsiolkowsky, many of whose ideas would reappear in his proposals, O’Neill projected his space colonies as multi-national collaborations. Yet at the same time their national-ideological dimensions were clear. Not only did O’Neill position them under the sign of the US constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness, but popularized them through a rhetoric of the ‘high frontier’, thus locating them within a peculiarly American narrative of expansion and endeavour. Moreover, the fact that the space colonies were imagined as so-many proliferating near-autonomous living environments aligned them with countercultural distaste for centralized power and administrative structures and allowed them to be posited as creative zones for experiments in forms of living. Thus collectively they could be seen as a “kind of America in the skies” (Carl Sagan) or as installations in the new “Outlaw Zone” of space (as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and Co-Evolution Quarterly, and avid space colony enthusiast, Stewart Brand – citing Buckminster Fuller – put it).
Period20 Sep 2013
Event title1963: Cold War Unlimited
Event typeConference
LocationSheffield, United Kingdom