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Book Review: Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism

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When teaching about postwar America, I always tell my students that just about anything that happened in this nation during the Cold War has its roots in Cold War politics or fed back into Cold War issues. Jacob Hamblin’s 2013 book Arming Mother Nature demonstrates how this is true for what he calls “catastrophic environmentalism,” or the idea that human activities will transform the world in shocking and horrible ways. Hamblin shows how this thinking comes straight out of the military-industrial complex that was researching how total war of the quite possible World War III would also be an environmental war. By using biological weapons and detonating hydrogen bombs, the death of millions of people could bring a nation to its knees. But in planning for these future wars, the military also needed to understand just how turning the environment into a catastrophe would affect humans. Thus the same scientists that were developing these weapons were also providing early ecological understanding of how humans impacted the planet. The apocalyptic language of people like Paul Ehrlich and Rachel Carson makes a great deal of sense in this context, when much of our early environmentalism used Cold War language as a response to the threat of technological development to the planet. After all, those researching and promulgating Cold War doctrine used the exact same language to describe their own plans.

American scientists expected to arm nature in war against the USSR. World War II scientists had already explored this sort of warfare and the Japanese had gone forward with it. To briefly quote Hamblin “scientists in the decades after World War II worked on radiological contamination, biological weapons, weather control and several other projects that united scientific knowledge of the natural environment with the strategic goal of killing large numbers of people”(4). This could be everything from experiments with bull semen and seed storage to help Americans survive such an attack to destroying regional food supplies to starve nations into submission or launching disease bombs to spread deadly illness. In all of these plans, scientists wanted to deploy nature itself as a weapon.

But wouldn’t such warfare kill millions of Americans as well? Sure, but these scientists held two strong beliefs that made them optimistic about long-term recovery. First, they largely did not believe humans could really control nature in the long term. Thus, they might make short-term alternations that could win a war but in the long term nature held all the cards and the old natural balance would eventually be restored. Second, they believed Americans had a better capacity to rebuild their society than the Soviets because they felt the American free market economy would recover more quickly than socialist state planning. Pure ideology at play here.

The Soviets, North Koreans, and eastern Europeans did accuse the Americans of actually deploying these plans, such as the Czechs blaming the expansion of the Colorado potato bug across their nation on American biological warfare. But mercifully, actual deployment remained largely theoretical, even if Al Gore Sr. suggested dumping all of our nuclear waste on the border between North Korea and South Korea to stop any further communist incursions. But far too much of this program did become active in Vietnam where the U.S. engaged in significant environmental warfare through the use of napalm and other herbicides. Students at Penn discovered in 1966 that one of its chemistry professors was researching a government project to create diseases in rice that could be used in Vietnam. This not only led to campus protests in the country but a rethinking of ethical relationships between scientists and the government, leading to pressure for academic scientists to break ties with its military sponsors working on biological warfare.

Interestingly, the overwhelming public and international reaction to American environmental warfare led Richard Nixon to harness the growing popular movement of environmentalism to his own international agenda. Nixon decided to sacrifice the most far-fetched parts of the American environmental warfare program such as weather control and biological weapons through international treaties in order to save what mattered to him–the nuclear program. He tapped into not only the rhetoric of ecocide coming out of the anti-Vietnam movement but broader environmentalism to make him seem like a strong leader on the issue, but always within a Cold War context. First, he forced NATO to create a committee on environmental issues for collective security around the issue. Then he tried to make the U.S. the international leader on the environment, leading to the Stockholm conference of 1972 and the UN Environment Programme. Nixon had shed the U.S. of programs that now seemed more trouble than they were worth, made himself look like a global environmental leader, and ensured that the core mission of U.S. military research remain untouched. Smart politics if typically cynical.

My one critique of the book is that when discussing the rise of environmentalism, Hamblin does not really engage with how it was a truly a popular movement and how such catastrophic ideas affected the grassroots either before or after people like Barry Commoner, Carson, and Ehrlich wrote their famous books. Particularly frustrating is how he defines Nixon in this environmentalism, noting “many of the key pro-environment national developments came during his presidency, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.” (190) I have said many times on this blog, this says almost nothing about Nixon and much about the overwhelming congressional majorities responding to popular pressure that passed these bills. In the bigger picture of the book, this is pretty minor and I realize that Hamblin is not a bottom-up historian of the environmental movement, but I don’t see how reinforcing myths about Nixon the environmentalist is useful.

Finally, the question of whether catastrophic environmentalism is effective in dealing climate change remains a bit unclear. Hamblin does not come down strongly on this issue, but he’s a bit skeptical. He notes that the major problem with such claims is that they are fairly easily debunked and notes how Bjorn Lomberg has taken up that mantle on climate change. Yet it’s unclear to what extent Lomborg has really made much difference in these debates and I think far more effective is what Hamblin notes earlier–the embrace of free-market economics and use of patriotism to attack environmentalism as well as the belief that humans can’t really truly control the natural world that finds its way into right-wing talking points around the earth naturally warming or extinction or other parts of the “debate.” The end of the Cold War ended the threat of catastrophic warfare but not the language or culture that rose up around it, attitudes that still influence both environmentalism and those who oppose the environmental movement.

In truth, this complex and fascinating book has a lot more going on than I can say here. You should read it.

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