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Gas Masks

Gas Masks

The Ecological Body under Assault

(p.47) Three Gas Masks
Seeing Green
Finis Dunaway
University of Chicago Press

This chapter explains how the gas mask became an environmental icon that warned of the risks to fragile, ecological bodies. Antipollution groups began using the gas mask as a protest prop in the 1950s and 1960s, in campaigns that called upon local governments to combat smog and clean the air. As Earth Day 1970 approached, the gas mask moved beyond the local contexts of air pollution activism to represent environmentalist claims that the federal government needed to broaden its regulatory powers to protect the health of the citizenry. For the most part, gas mask imagery focused on white Americans as archetypal members of the national community and therefore as universal emblems of environmental danger. The apparently placeless ubiquity of air pollution, together with the repeated focus on white bodies, obscured the specific geographies of environmental risk and the social processes that produced environmental injustice. The gas mask acted as a sign of universal danger, of the white ecological body under assault. The story of this environmental icon thus reveals the limits of mainstream imagery: even as the gas mask normalized fear of the environmental future, its depiction of universal vulnerability obscured the vastly unequal experience of environmental risk.

Keywords:   gas masks, ecological body, environmental risk, citizenship, air pollution, race, environmental injustice, Earth Day

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