The violent side of environmentalism

A new book argues that environmentalism is rooted in Cold War plans to manipulate nature for military purposes

Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism
Jacob Darwin Hamblin
OUP USA, 2013

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, climate scientists have made it clear that we ignore Mother Nature’s warning signs at our peril: the consequences of inaction could make our planet uninhabitable. Arming Mother Nature, an important new book by Jacob Darwin Hamblin, provides an often-ignored historical perspective on the incongruities of today’s climate change debate.

“The discovery of global warming would have been impossible without scientific projects funded by the American military,” the author asserts. Current geo-engineering solutions for offsetting carbon emissions, such as dumping iron phosphate into the sea to stimulate plankton bloom, are the legacy of this early teamwork. 

Hamblin, a professor from Oregon State University, is an expert on the global dimensions of science, technology, and the environment during the Cold War era. He reminds us that the political forbears of today’s so-called climate sceptics, who ridicule the concept of Anthropogenic Global Warming, were keen to manipulate the environment for military purposes. 

He points out that conflicts in Malaya and Vietnam were used as testing grounds for weapons of environmental modification that were ultimately banned in the late 1970s. The attempt to dominate entire physical systems, such as monsoons, was a focus for American weapons research. The aim was to explore the possibilities of biological and radiological warfare in order to maximise casualties in a total war.

Later, the CIA reckoned that global warming was likely to impact Soviet grain harvests adversely and give an advantage to the West, with its array of cereal crops. Mitigation efforts were put on hold because the damage would hit the Soviets harder and the free market would allow the West to bounce back more quickly.

Bracing for the eventuality of a post-Atomic World War III, western leaders sought new age weapons that could unleash “disease, starvation, and physical destruction.” Temporarily incapacitating enemy populations with psychedelic drugs like LSD was contemplated as a more humane approach to war, but these effects proved unpredictable.

Many of these schemes involved vast environmental transformations: altering the course of ocean currents to melt the polar ice caps and flood coastal cities, or defoliating vast regions with fire or chemicals to drastically change the weather. Once the computer technology for number-crunching was adequate, targeting entire ecosystems was viewed as cutting-edge research. So was harnessing geotectonic forces to stimulate volcanic eruptions or quakes. A properly placed nuclear bomb, for instance, might set off an artificial tsunami to wipe out an enemy’s ports. (Ultimately, the military authorities concluded that just nuking the enemy would be cheaper and more effective.) 

Hamblin shows how biodiversity was not some half-baked hippie notion, but an offshoot of atomic age angst.  Scientists considered “conservation of variety” essential for the recovery of the food chain at the end of a total war —that is, if any survivors managed to crawl out of their bomb shelters to face a nuclear winter.

Albert Gore, father of the Nobel Peace laureate Al Gore, urged the US Congress in 1951 to create a buffer zone with degraded plutonium so the stalemate between North and South Korea could be broken without widening the war and bombing China. His idea was shelved, but just months later, large scale epidemics of smallpox and plague in Asia provoked accusations that the US had engaged in biological warfare. Fears that the arsenal of the world’s super-power would turn to crop destruction, radiation and germ warfare did not appear unfounded.

Hamblin writes: “What is remarkable about the response to these accusations is that while many rushed to exonerate the Americans, few doubted that it could be done. And if it could, how vulnerable was the rest of the world to attack?”

Six years later, 1957 was declared the International Geophysical Year.  It was heralded as a breakthrough for scientific cooperation as 67 nations pooled their knowledge. Baseline readings of everything from background radiation levels in the ocean to permafrost depths were needed for computer modelling and game theory. Hamblin delves into the politics that encouraged the military to weaponise these findings. Civilian drones and modern cloud-seeding techniques were just a matter of time. 

Early atmospheric nuclear tests made many people jittery about the unintended effects on the weather, not to mention potential nuclear fallout.  “Operation Argus — the series of high altitude bomb tests secretly conducted in the South Atlantic by the United States—illustrated just how much human actions could effect the atmosphere,” Hamblin writes.  

By international accord, data was supposed to be shared among all the participants of the International Geophysical Year, yet in 1958 America “drew a thin curtain of radiation around the earth, enveloping the entire inhabited area of the world ‘for a period of time whose duration is still secret,’” the New York Times revealed. When these A-bombs exploded inside the Van Allen radiation belt, a halo effect was plainly visible from passing aircraft.

 “The radiation generated by the blasts had been trapped in the earth’s magnetic field, spreading out and encircling the earth in a matter of an hour or more. This alteration to the composition of the earth’s magnetic field…could last for years,” Hamblin notes. “Here was irrefutable evidence that energies produced by humans could have a discernible, long-lasting effect on the atmosphere.” The main scientist behind the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller, boasted in 1962: “We know how we can modify the ionosphere. We have already done it.”  

Hamblin’s analysis of Cold War-era archives in both Europe and the US is even-handed and extensive, and ultimately chilling. He unearths a classified military study for the elite JASON group in which geophysicist Gordon MacDonald of the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote a chapter bluntly titled, “How to Wreck the Environment.” Ozone depletion and climate change featured prominently. 

Arming Mother Nature recalls an era before greens and conservatives had acrimonious and doom-laden arguments. Hamblin characterises the situation pithily: “Cassandra, meet Jeremiah.”

Jan McGirk is a former correspondent for The Independent (London) who has reported on environmental issues and disasters in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.