A scholar’s family legacy colors his work on peace and sustainability

Aug. 6, 1945, Hiroshima, Japan. 

For 3-year-old Shinichi Tetsutani, the day dawned with promise. It was a perfect day to enjoy his beloved hand-me-down tricycle.

Until, that is, an American B29 rumbled over Hiroshima, Japan, and dropped what would become the first live deployment of an atomic bomb in history. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Estimates put the death toll from the bombings at between 129,000 and 226,000 people, including the toddler who loved his tricycle.

In the aftermath of the bombings, Shinichi was found trapped under rubble, barely alive and still gripping the handlebars of the trike. He died later that evening. Forty years later, the boy’s father exhumed his body and those of his two siblings to give them a proper burial in a cemetery. The tricycle was donated to the Hiroshima Peace Museum, where it is on display to this day.

On a 2019 trip to Hiroshima, University of Denver professor Cullen Hendrix, then a relatively new father, encountered that tricycle and learned the story behind it. 

“That was the point where academic understanding became inextricably intertwined with my broader experience as a person and a father,” Hendrix recalls. “It was a very full and visceral type of experience.”

Roughly three years later, in the summer of 2022, Hendrix again journeyed to Hiroshima, this time to serve as a specially appointed research professor for Hiroshima University’s Network for Education and Research on Peace and Sustainability (NERPS).

In a city once devasted by war, he joined a group of scholars focused on promoting long-term amity on a global scale. “What [NERPS is] really focused on is the peace and sustainability nexus,” Hendrix says. “That promotes transitions to more sustainable livelihoods, relationships with the environment, energy systems, … and the way, conversely, sustainability policies can cause more peaceful outcomes.” 

With children like Shinichi Tetsutani in mind, peaceful outcomes have long been of primary interest to Hendrix. In fact, much of his career has focused on how environmental change and breakdowns in peace affect a variety of systems. For his work with NERPS, he looked at marine fisheries and shared governance of the oceans. 

“I’m very focused on the impact climate change has had and will continue to have on marine ecosystems and fisheries,” he says. “It’s still a source of livelihood and security for people, primarily in the developing world. For the world’s poor, fish protein makes up a very, very, very large portion of their animal protein intake. To the extent that poor people are eating meat around the world, chances are they’re eating fish.”  

Climate change can make long-productive fisheries less so, perhaps causing fish to migrate to other waters. The loss of the food source and the industry can be devastating. “Changes in either of those systems can cause violent conflict,” Hendrix says. 

His time in Hiroshima was colored by his family’s history. Hendrix’s grandfather was a nuclear chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project, the research effort that led to production of the first nuclear weapons. In other words, his grandfather had a hand in developing the bombs that would, in the name of ending the war, be used against Japan.

That connection to conflict has informed his study of peace and strife and his work examining the effects of armed conflict on food, famine and the poor at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Over the years, he has completed a predoctoral fellowship at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway, and he’s co-authored and co-edited books on the dynamics of violence and how resource-rich countries are often burdened by authoritarianism, mismanagement, corruption and poverty. 

At the Korbel School, Hendrix heads the Environment, Food and Conflict (ENFOCO) Lab, which “leverages collaborations between physical and social scientists and policymakers to produce scholarship and analysis on issues at the intersection of the environment, food security and conflict.”

Whatever his project, he draws on vivid memories for motivation. He grew up in the 1980s at the height of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear war seeped into every aspect of life. And as a young child, he saw photographs of the Ethiopian famine that killed between 300,000 and 1.2 million people, displaced another 2.5 million and forced 400,000 to leave the country. As he got older, he learned how factors tied to famine can spiral into oppression and violent armed conflict. 

Hendrix plans yet another trip to Japan, potentially with his family, to explore the country further.

“Hopefully, when my daughter hears that story [about his grandfather], she’ll be able to link this place not only with her great-grandfather and his legacy and familial connections, but hopefully mine,” he says. “Hopefully that will create a little bit less of a one-sided picture about the future and the world she inhabits.”

Ultimately, Hendrix says he hopes that his work and commitment to peace can provide some balance to his family legacy. 

“Obviously, this is a very small thing,” he says. “The scales don’t balance. But I can use what skills I have to help bring about a better future. My family’s legacy related to this place is mostly as an instrument of war. Hopefully I’ve come to this place as a small instrument of peace, promoting better understanding and a better future.”


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