Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism

Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism

by Jacob Darwin Hamblin
     
 

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When most Americans think of environmentalism, they think of the political left, of vegans dressed in organic-hemp fabric, lofting protest signs. In reality, writes Jacob Darwin Hamblin, the movement—and its dire predictions—owe more to the Pentagon than the counterculture.

In Arming Mother Nature, Hamblin argues that military planning for World War III

Overview

When most Americans think of environmentalism, they think of the political left, of vegans dressed in organic-hemp fabric, lofting protest signs. In reality, writes Jacob Darwin Hamblin, the movement—and its dire predictions—owe more to the Pentagon than the counterculture.

In Arming Mother Nature, Hamblin argues that military planning for World War III essentially created "catastrophic environmentalism": the idea that human activity might cause global natural disasters. This awareness, Hamblin shows, emerged out of dark ambitions, as governments poured funds into environmental science after World War II, searching for ways to harness natural processes—to kill millions of people. Proposals included the use of nuclear weapons to create artificial tsunamis or melt the ice caps to drown coastal cities; setting fire to vast expanses of vegetation; and changing local climates. Oxford botanists advised British generals on how to destroy enemy crops during the war in Malaya; American scientists attempted to alter the weather in Vietnam. This work raised questions that went beyond the goal of weaponizing nature. By the 1980s, the C.I.A. was studying the likely effects of global warming on Soviet harvests. "Perhaps one of the surprises of this book is not how little was known about environmental change, but rather how much," Hamblin writes. Driven initially by strategic imperatives, Cold War scientists learned to think globally and to grasp humanity's power to alter the environment. "We know how we can modify the ionosphere," nuclear physicist Edward Teller proudly stated. "We have already done it."

Teller never repented. But many of the same individuals and institutions that helped the Pentagon later warned of global warming and other potential disasters. Brilliantly argued and deeply researched, Arming Mother Nature changes our understanding of the history of the Cold War and the birth of modern environmental science.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hamblin (Poison in the Well) takes advantage of the Freedom of Information Act and thorough re-search to produce this chilling and cynical study of post-WWII collusion between scientists and the military to create alternative weapons of mass destruction: famine, plague, pestilence, drought, and earthquake. The Cold War paranoia that swept the world made the possibility of biological warfare a real fear: some governments believed that the virtue of using pathogens to decimate a country's popu-lation and economy was that "this could be done without declaring war." This obsession with prepar-ing for and protecting against total war led nations to join in global monitoring of the atmosphere, and Hamblin notes that in the International Geophysical Year of 1957 "humans were carrying out a major experiment on the earth." Among the plans considered was the melting of the polar ice cap to turn pen-insulas into islands. Hamblin reads Richard Nixon's support of a ban on biological weapons as an as-tute diversion from the efficacy of nuclear weapons and concludes that "when every problem is treated as a global crisis, real global crises are easily ignored." His dark review of recent history offers an un-settling theory of how close we have already come to total destruction. (May)
From the Publisher
"With this book Jacob Hamblin makes a major contribution to our understanding of the decisive role of military priorities and military funding in the shaping of a wide range of environmental sciences. As a contribution to the historiography of science as conditioned by its political, ideological, social, and financial contexts, Arming Mother Nature shows how the ideologies and international institutions of the Cold War shaped the rise of fundamental environmental sciences.... A carefully crafted, powerfully articulated study of one of the most important dimensions of today's environmental policy debate.... The book is a weighty example of the importance of environmental history research in relation to the public realm." —Richard P. Tucker, Environmental History

"[A] fascinating and often disturbing history" —American Scientist

"In Arming Mother Nature, Jacob Hamblin offers a far-reaching and provocative account of just how dependent narratives of global climate change are upon the military support, apocalyptic scenarios, and political ideology that shaped the growth of the modern environmental sciences during the Cold War." —Science Magazine

"[T]hought-provoking" —New Scientist

"This book advances the intriguing idea that 'catastrophic environmentalism' is not standard rhetoric warning the public about climate change and extinction of species, but a strategy developed by the Pentagon to fight the Cold War. Recommended." —CHOICE

"A well-written and -documented challenge of some of the assumptions on both sides in the debate about global warming." —Kirkus Reviews

"Jacob Hamblin's new book is a clearly and calmly told tale of the American effort to conscript nature -from the seafloor to the stratosphere -for potential active duty during the Cold War. Well researched in U.S. and European archives, it finds the roots of modern apocalyptic environmentalism in the hair-raising deeds and often hare-brained schemes of an American scientific-military complex under pressure to find ways to prevail against the USSR. It sheds new light on the old adage that is a miracle anyone survived the Cold War."
—J.R. McNeill, Georgetown University

Kirkus Reviews
Hamblin (History/Oregon State Univ.; Poison in the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age, 2009, etc.) explores how ideas about human intervention altering the environment have changed over time. Current preoccupations with fossil-fuel emissions, carbon release and global warming are quite recent. Within the last 50-60 years, scientists and military planners have been working to master large-scale environmental effects, like changing the heat balance between the sun and the Earth or modifying the just-discovered Van Allen radiation belts. "Numerous ideas for creating catastrophic events through natural processes were presented, especially using hydrogen bombs as triggers," writes the author. Proponents of such military interventions, like theoretical physicist Edward Teller, downplayed dangers to the global ecosystem, on the grounds that the energies deployed by humans were not large enough in scale to effect balances in the long run. Others, like Nobel Laureate Frederick Soddy, worried that decaying radioactive elements from H-bomb tests would ionize the atmosphere and affect global weather. Hamblin shows how successive U.S. presidents have expressed concerns about lack of knowledge and have sponsored treaties, as Richard Nixon did, regarding the banning of environmental modifications. John F. Kennedy, writes the author, "was diplomatically astute enough to see that the rest of the world did not see the earth as America's scientific playground." Following the careers of scientists and their associations enables the author to document how the collaboration between scientists and the military continued to shape environmental thoughts and environmental sciences after the Cold War, even while the effects of nuclear weaponry were pushed aside. A well-written and -documented challenge of some of the assumptions on both sides in the debate about global warming.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199740055
Publisher:
Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
05/02/2013
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Jacob Darwin Hamblin is Associate Professor of History at Oregon State University. His books include Poison in the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age, Oceanographers and the Cold War, and Science in the Early Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia.

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