Ecology as War Mongering, Not Tree Hugging

by Alice Bell

Far from deep-green hippies, much of today's environmentalism was built by military and political elites who sought to control the planet, not save it.

First published: 09 January, 2014 | Category: Book Review, Environment, History, Terror/War

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


When you look at recent cuts to environmental research - the Keeling Curve appealing for crowd-funding, for example, or the destruction of Canadian fisheries libraries - you might be forgiven for wondering how such work ever got funding in the first place. Environmental science challenges our current economic and political structures quite profoundly, and politicians the world over seem to be playing the toddler’s game of covering their eyes in hope it’ll go away by shutting down our systems for measuring it. You need to invest heavily in environmental research to render climate change visible, it’s not something you can spot by peeking out the window. How did anyone manage to get funding to even start looking?

According to Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s recent book, Arming Mother Nature, much contemporary environmental thought has political roots in the Cold War. Far from deep-green hippies, it was built by military and political elites who sought to control the planet, not save it. 20th century ecology was aways as much about war-mongering as tree-hugging.

The book’s early chapters are very much in the shadow of the atomic bomb. Hiroshima marked a change in the nature of war, of weaponry and relationships between science and the government. These changes were long in the making, that was partly how and why the bomb had been made itself, but they were ingrained by the fallout (political as well as physical) of Hiroshima. There is a longer history of chemical and biological weapons - both the development of them and questions about the ethics of their use - but the context of environmental science offers a slightly new frame. Biological and chemical weapons are seen as unusually ethically problematic because they turn the work of science - which could be applied to heal, protect and liberate us - to cause pain and suffering and achieve social control. But the atomic bomb turns the very fabric of our environment against its targets. It uses detailed physics to work deep across our bodies, into our soils and through our airs. It’s not a bullet from a machine, it's a massive release of energy which is followed by a range of parts of our world working often slowly and invisibly against us. A divide between technology and nature is simplistic (bullets are made from the Earth too, as well as by people) but there are reasons why nuclear weapons feel more extreme.

In this context, Hamblin offers us a story of the growth of the idea of total war. Here, the whole environment could be considered as a weapons system, and scientific expertise on how the planet works would be used as inspiration. We think of ecology and its systems-based approach to viewing the world as something favoured by the hippies, but it can be applied to a variety of ends, including war.

One of the clearest examples of the sorts of weaponised ecology the book is about comes with a story riffing off Operation Plowshare (peaceful use of nukes). There had been an environmental impact audit of an idea to use thermonuclear explosions to excavate an artificial harbour in Alaska. It was decided it would impact too heavily on Eskimos' diet, so the idea was scrapped, but the data collected inspired military thinking. Having traced radioactivity through the food chain, NATO scientists could now build more advanced models of ecological warfare. They knew Eskimos lived interdependently with seals, otter, fish, caribou and plankton. If the plankton were killed, the rest of the chain would drop out. ‘At best he would have to move,’ the group pointed out. ‘At worst he would die.’ This kind of thinking, they realised, could be tailored to other regions. A lethal rice-rust could make life in parts of Asia much more difficult, perhaps untenable. Further, weaponised ecology offered more insidious forms of biological coercion. You didn’t have to kill people as your goal, and that meant populations could be part of the prize. Getting rid of plankton, for example, would make the Eskimos' entire food system collapse and force them to be entirely dependent on food supplied from outside the region. Toxic agents could be developed to target very specific links in ecological chains, with the aim of shaping a new interdependent web, forcing ecology to a new will, and with it forcing the people into newly disempowered positions.

In 1961, Kennedy approached the start of ‘Operation Ranch Hand,’ the codename for the US's herbicide campaign in Vietnam. This was advanced environmental warfare, with immense ecological and chemical expertise going into developing agents that could target particular crops, deciding which plants would live and die in Vietnam. Monsanto and Dow did trials, but they also drew on a network of university scientists in the US and the UK, including Oxford plant physiologist Geoffrey Blackman. Interestingly, British researchers at Porton Down were keen to distance themselves from US offensive action, arguing that they were helping to develop ‘true defoliants’ - where the leaves fall but the plant doesn’t die - compared to the more destructive Agents Orange, Purple and Pink. This, apparently, stood on a more ecological footing (we have calls to ‘green the military’ today, lead-free bullets and the like). By 1967, the US Army knew its crop-killing schemes in Vietnam were having little effect on the food sources of soldiers. But scientists at RAND linked data on spraying with more on the Vietnamese soldiers’ rice rations, and concluded that this policy was primarily hurting civilians. The US Army rationalised this as helping to weaken ‘sympathisers’ but such a grand starvation campaign was unpopular, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science calling for the military to halt the spraying programme.

Another key point in this story is the International Geophysical Year of 1957-8. A project in science diplomacy, the idea was that science could be an apolitical means for collaboration between East and West, but behind the talk of peace, hope and understanding were some very canny political games. One of the outcomes of the IGY was the Antarctic Treaty, which established the space for cooperative scientific research, with freedom of scientific investigation and a ban on military activity on the continent. The text of the treaty is worth a read - there is something quite inspiring about it - but for all the rhetoric of peace and knowledge, it is very much a product of Cold War politics. It could play a colonising role; study on a bit of the Antarctic and you get to put your flag there, a point satirised by Punch at the time (even if isn't populated, there are minerals you don’t want the other side getting their hands on). Much of the polar research looked ostensibly like studies in weather prediction, but was also detailed observation of spaces which could be a crucial future battleground. The scientists were happy to do military monitoring, knowing they could also do their own work around it. Indeed, we have knowledge of the hole in the ozone layer from Antarctic work, and that Keeling Curve has its roots in the IGY too. Moreover, as Hamblin describes, the buzzword of the IGY was ‘synoptic’ - literarily, and for many of the scientists, just a matter of viewing together - a word which was taken up by the military as a sense of vastness, the idea of 'synoptic scale' weapons which could dominate whole physical systems. As Hamblin puts it, ‘while the IGY was concerned with synoptic-scale measurement, NATO was concerned with synoptic-scale manipulation.’

In constructing ideas of environmental warfare, military planners also drew inspiration from the natural events earth sciences studied. There was a devastating earthquake in Chile in May 1960. Whole villages were swept away in 24-feet tsunamis, with quakes so powerful whole mountains disappeared and lakes appeared, all going on for several weeks. The New York Times described this as ‘tragic testimony that in this age of the conquest of the atom and of triumphs in outer space man is still helpless against the vast and still largely unpredictable forces that frequently go berserk in his immediate environment - hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes.’ NATO saw it quite differently. It gave them ideas. If this earthquake was equivalent to hundreds of nuclear bombs, why not find some way to bring such disasters into their arsenal? The idea of controlling the weather was particularly appealing, especially as they were increasingly aware of the impact humanity was already having on the upper atmosphere. Whereas weaponising the weather got into the popular press with jokes in the Financial Times about the 1975 British drought being a cunning Warsaw Pact plot, military analysts in the US had already pondered whether it’d be possible to punch a hole in the ozone layer to expose the Russians to fatal amounts of radiation. The most alarming of the more wildcat ideas was probably the one to melt the polar ice caps by exploding nuclear weapons on it, thus raising the global sea level. It was calculated it would take about a million tons of fissile material to melt enough to raise sea level by 30 feet, but it was, apparently, worth considering (just in case the Soviets were plotting the same).

The point I remain unconvinced by in Hamblin’s book is his continual reference to the idea of catastrophic thinking, which simply doesn't cohere for me, and the idea that this still frames our thinking today. He uses the discussion of environmental warfare in Vietnam - and in particular how it was discussed publicly in the US - as setting some of the tone for environmental politics of the 1970s. Thus, Nixon’s environmentalism can be understood at least in part as part and parcel of his foreign policy. Hamblin also refers to how the American obsession with environmental warfare meant early 1970s discussions of the greenhouse effect were framed by nuclear war in diplomatic discussions, as a world-ending cataclysm, and how this frustrated scientists at the time. Finally, there is a neat story of two Al Gores. In 1951, Congressman Albert Gore advised Truman to ‘dehumanise’ a belt across the Korean peninsula by covering it with radioactive waste which would, he argued, deter Communist troops from crossing. From the 1990s onwards, his son framed environmental policy as a sort of new Cold War struggle; as if ignoring climate change was equivalent to going ‘soft’ on communism. Whereas many saw environmentalists as green on the outside but red in the core (‘watermelons’), Al Gore Jr. referred to a new Global Marshall Plan and a need for a Strategic Environment Initiative, echoing Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative. For all that this is part of the story, it seems only partial. Perhaps if Hamblin had traced his story alongside one on the rise of neoliberalism, it might have had a stronger core, but I still feel it would only offer part of the picture.

That quibble aside, it’s a great book. One of the best I read in 2013. It offers an important, fascinating study of intertwined stories of nature, technology, science, war and peace, and offers a very different frame for considering the history of environmental science than is usually offered. If you want to take a lesson from it, simply remember that science is useful to politicians, and they know this. We’re increasingly invited to worry about a neoliberal war on science, but we should spare some concern for those in power who do profess a love of science too. Owen Paterson likes science when it serves him (genetically modified foods, for example), as do George Osborne and Vince Cable (new products for the arms industry, ever more inventive ways to extract fossil fuels). What science, to whose ends? Technologies of control, or of liberation? As climate change becomes an increasingly pressing concern, more than ever we need science and engineering managed by the people, for the people.

Alice Bell is a co-editor of New Left Project. She is also a freelance writer and researcher interested in the politics of science, technology and environment.

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