Archive for June, 2014

The following book review by FHS staff historian James G. Lewis appears in the Scientists’ Nightstand section of the July-August 2014 issue of American Scientist.

ARMING MOTHER NATURE: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. Jacob Darwin Hamblin. 320 pp. Oxford University Press, 2013. $29.95.arming mother nature cover

In May 1960 scientists and military officers at NATO headquarters came to a conclusion about the massive earthquake that had just stunned Chile: One nation’s natural disaster is another’s military opportunity. The earthquake, still the most powerful ever recorded, triggered mudslides, floods, tsunamis, even a volcanic eruption, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless. It sent 35-foot waves racing across the ocean at 450 miles per hour before smashing into Japan, Australia, and the Philippines. Nonetheless, says Jacob Darwin Hamblin in his book Arming Mother Nature, from their vantage point in Paris NATO leaders saw the seismic event “as a shining example of what Americans might soon implement against the Soviet Union.” If they could determine where to place a hydrogen bomb in the Earth’s crust, scientists thought they might be able to replicate what happened in the Pacific and cripple the Soviet state, all while maintaining a degree of plausible deniability.

NATO used the term environmental warfare for this new strategy—that is, harnessing nature’s physical forces and biological pathways to wage a global war. After opening his book with the unsettling Chile anecdote, Hamblin, who teaches the history of science and technology at Oregon State University, lays out a fascinating and often disturbing history of American efforts to enlist Mother Nature in the war against Communism. Under the guise of national security, he says, “military and civilian scientific work proceeded together.” Triggering earthquakes with subterranean explosions, controlling the weather with hydrogen bombs, introducing pathogens via air-dropped contaminated bird feathers—no scheme was too outlandish to contemplate. The government even conducted experiments on American civilian and military populations as well as on America’s enemies. In the context of war, anything could be morally justified.

The desire to control and manipulate nature on a massive scale—and the belief that doing so was viable—had emerged earlier, during World War II. American military leaders took note of how fires caused by incendiary bombs Allied forces had dropped on Japanese and German urban centers consumed city after city. Washington strategists contemplated using biochemical weapons on Japanese rice fields to deprive both civilians and soldiers of the primary staple of their diet. Ultimately they wanted to manipulate nature on the atomic level. Fearful that the Germans were developing an atomic bomb, the United States raced to develop one first. For the next half-century the desire to outpace the enemy in weapons development drove military doctrine and much scientific research. Says Hamblin, “Scientific growth after World War II owes its greatest debt to the U.S. armed services, which paid the lion’s share of the bill.”

Yet these atomic-era mushroom clouds came with a kind of silver lining for environmentalists. In time, the tireless search for vulnerabilities to exploit expanded and deepened our scientific understanding of nature. By the late 1950s, public questions arose about the human impact on the environment, leading eventually to predictions of environmental catastrophe. The data used by those in the international environmental movement came directly from military-funded research. Moreover, global climate change would not have been detected during the latter years of the 20th century without scientific projects funded by the U.S. Defense Department.

Arming Mother Nature is divided into three thematic sections that are loosely chronological. The first, “Pathways of Nature,” covers the brief period following World War II when the Americans were the only ones with nuclear arms but possessed so few that the military wanted other, less costly weapons of mass destruction (a phrase government officials tried to avoid using publicly then) to stem the rising tide of Communism. The military believed it required flexibility in how it might respond to the threat. Before the Soviets’ emergence as a nuclear power, a flexible response meant using biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. (As we’ll see, in the 1960s “flexible response” would take on a whole different meaning.) In addition to researching biological and radiological warfare, scientists strove to learn more about how disease becomes epidemic. Some initial experiments focused on crop destruction rather than on infecting crops with disease: Anti-livestock and anti-crop weapons seemed the most logical and cost-effective approach. Other researchers debated which pathogens to mass-produce and the best ways to spread them.

“Forces of Nature,” the second section, covers the first decade of the thermonuclear era. Research and policy as well as military strategy shifted with the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949. The blast triggered more questions: Could the United States wage and win a nuclear war? If not, how could the West defeat the Soviets and their allies? Manipulating nature became a major focus of strategic thinking, and the military dollars followed. Opinions within the nuclear research community were divided over the most effective use of a bomb: dropping a nuclear device directly on a city or introducing floods and wildfires by targeting dams and forests. Meanwhile, research into developing bigger and more powerful nuclear weapons had led some scientists to study nuclear fallout and its effects. As researchers learned more, their thinking turned increasingly toward using geophysical forces, such as oceans and winds, militarily. It was within this context that American defensive planners perceived opportunity in the aftermath of the 1960 Chile earthquake.

The third section, “Gatekeepers of Nature,” picks up around the time President Kennedy issued the military doctrine of Flexible Response, calling for a diversified nuclear arsenal as well as the use of small, specialized combat units such as the Army’s Special Forces. Many Americans believed, as Kennedy did, that science and technology could help win wars abroad while also solving problems such as hunger and disease at home. “Scientists,” Hamblin says, “were not merely asked to do research or to develop technology but to plan global strategy. That encouraged civilian scientists to think of the whole Earth as the playing field.” They used computers and game theory to develop models predicting the outcome of countless scenarios. Hamblin observes, “Military planning and environmental prediction were rarely far removed from each other, as they asked the same questions, drew from the same data, and often involved the same scientists.”

It is not surprising, then, that Americans learned of the environmental damage caused by nuclear testing and chemical spraying from scientists such as Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner, and Rachel Carson, who consulted military researchers’ data in their own work. At the time few realized that environmental scientists often drew on data and reports generated from projects funded by the Defense Department. In writings aimed at the general public, environmentalists discussed the planet’s future in catastrophic terms. That books like Carson’s Silent Spring and Erlich’s The Population Bomb became bestsellers reflected Americans’ growing concern over the environment in the 1960s.

The Vietnam War proved a turning point in the history of catastrophic environmentalism. In his chapter on the war, Hamblin examines how and why military and civilian scientists openly used Vietnam as a vast “playing field” for all manner of biochemical weapon research. Even the U.S. Forest Service got involved, loaning fire researchers to the Department of Defense, where they experimented with spraying defoliants and dropping incendiary bombs intended to consume swaths of jungle in massive forest fires. But soon the war abroad fueled widespread protest back home, and antiwar activism paved the way for environmental activism. By 1969 the environmental movement had grown powerful enough that American policy makers and diplomats needed to act if they were to maintain control of what was now a global issue. President Nixon pushed through robust environmental legislation and attempted to promote environmental issues through NATO, keeping the United States in a leadership position. Discussing ecological issues with the Soviets provided additional points of engagement besides nuclear disarmament and helped open a path for negotiating nonproliferation and arms-limitation treaties in the 1970s.

Although the relationship between scientists and military leaders transformed yet again in the face of new environmental challenges in the 1980s—the droughts in Africa, the global AIDS epidemic, and the scientific debate over climate change—and after the end of the Cold War, the connection that has existed between them since World War II remains today. Indeed, soon after the attacks of September 11, 2001, American policy makers, scientists, and defense experts began discussing how terrorists might use forest fires as a weapon on American soil and ways to defend against it.

As a strategy, environmental warfare went global decades ago, and now the temptation to arm Mother Nature may always be with us. Arming Mother Nature reminds us that we do so at our peril.

Click here to read the original review on the American Scientist website.

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Before I left to join the Thoreau-Wabanaki Journey on May 26, I had planned to write a blog post that would tie together the 150th anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods with George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature and the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act. The pièce de résistance would be posting it in time for National Get Outdoors Day on June 14. (As if those weren’t enough signs from Above about what to write, Mark Harvey’s new book on Howard Zahniser, architect of the Wilderness Act, arrived in the office today. It opens with a quote from Thoreau’s “Chesuncook,” the second essay in The Maine Woods.) After all, paddling through wilderness in northern Maine would offer the perfect opportunity for bringing these themes together in one essay.

But when friends ask me to tell them about the canoe trip down the Penobscot River, I find I’m at a loss for words. They are stunned by this. Usually when I start talking of history or recent travels they remind me at some point that they have a plane to catch next week or it’s time to schedule a root canal. But my trip leaves me unable to really describe what I saw and did. And that, perhaps, was the point of the trip. It was for the experience of being in wilderness, not to document it through writing or photographs. Though I tried to do that, I found my enjoyment increased greatly once I stopped trying to interpret or capture it for others or even for myself. To intellectualize or deconstruct wilderness is to miss the point of being there. The reason for being there was to be there—to be present in the moment, to experience it, with all my senses. Thoreau told me why I was there when he wrote in his journal, “The value of any experience is measured, of course, not by the amount of money, but the amount of development we get out of it.” It took a day or so for me to come to this realization. I was initially so focused on documenting the trip that I was limiting my experience. Everything changed with this epiphany.

So, perhaps the question I should answer is, what did I experience?

Quiet. In the wilderness there’s a level of quiet that cannot be found anywhere else but there. We had a couple of days where we heard no mechanical sounds—no cars, no airplanes, no cell phones. No hum of a refrigerator or air conditioner. The quiet would be broken by sounds I now desperately miss: the murmur of rapids or of conversation coming from another boat or tent, the excited shout when someone spotted an eagle soaring above or a muskrat swimming about us, the cursing of the cold in the morning or the mosquitoes in the evening. Yet even the negatives became positives. Is there any greater sound on a cold morning than hearing “Coffee’s ready” or after swatting away bugs while setting up the tent than “Dinner’s ready!”? After returning to what we came to call “uncivilization” and getting in a car, I couldn’t stand to have the radio on and preferred having the window down so I could just hear the wind. (Perhaps “window” should be spelled “wind-oh!” to truly reflect that delightful feeling of hearing the wind rushing by.) We had long stretches on the river where I’d only hear the sound of paddles entering and exiting the water. But, oh, the quiet! I cannot find it in Uncivilization. This is why we have the Wilderness Act, to provide a place to escape to, to protect Civilization from the Uncivilized.

An emptiness that filled my soul. It felt like there were probably fewer people living in northern Maine now than when Thoreau traveled through there some 160 years ago. The area seems devoid of people. When talking with a native Mainer afterward, I described the region as a “big empty.” He immediately understood this as the great compliment I meant it as. So often we hear people say they want to “get away from it all,” when in fact they mean they want to go to a place that is not their home or office. Usually this means to some other building—be it a vacation house or hotel or resort. Whereas in the middle of nowhere, in the Big Empty, I truly was away from it all. Being “inside” meant being in a tent and the “bathroom” had some of the best views imaginable. We spent three nights on islands that only three weeks before had been under water. Initially intending to post to social media during the trip, I quickly realized this was impossible and put my cell phone away, shoving it to the bottom of my bag. I hoped we wouldn’t have connectivity until the last day. It was a little depressing that we had it before then.

Being on the river led me to not only embrace but to understand Thoreau’s exhortation in Walden: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” Time on the water brought about that simplicity; my “affairs” were reduced to three—eat, drink, paddle. Eat everything offered to me whether I like it or not, drink as much water and coffee as possible to stay hydrated, and paddle hard and straight to get where we needed to go. Granted, we were well provisioned, so unlike Thoreau I didn’t worry about getting by on hard bread or the modern equivalent, dehydrated foods, or having to forage. (However, one night we supplemented dinner with ground nuts harvested from around the campsite. Quite the tasty luxury!)

But, simplicity! Why worry about inclement weather or being in wet clothes? These are things I couldn’t control, so why fret or grouse about them? As HDT said of traveling in Maine, “You soon come to disregard rain on such excursions.” One of the most relaxing afternoons was spent sitting under the forest canopy during a thunderstorm that drove us off the river. (Sit and listen to a thunderstorm and tell me it’s not relaxing.) We often quoted Thoreau from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “Cold and damp? Are they not as rich experience as warmth and dryness?” The simpler things became, the happier I became. Emptying my mind of worry filled my soul.


Thoreau is right: Cold and damp is as rich an experience as warm and dry.

The Hudson River landscape painters were right. I came away from the trip understanding that some Hudson River School painters captured reality in their works. Sanford Gifford, Frederick Church, Albert Bierstadt, and others make great use of light to draw the viewer’s focus to a particular point in a painting. But until now I’d thought what they depicted on canvas could never have occurred in nature, that they were exaggerating the contrasts between light and darks places. I was disabused of this on my first morning in camp.

The view that proved my suppositions all wrong. Though that's not Mount Katahdin in the background, the effect is the same as in Church's painting.

The view that proved my suppositions all wrong. Though that’s not Mount Katahdin in the background, the effect is the same as in Church’s painting.

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“Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp” by Frederick Church (1895) (Wikimedia Commons; painting is at the Portland Museum of Art)

And I experienced humbleness. It’s good to be reminded that you can learn a whole lot by opening your eyes, ears, and mind. Like a good way to predict the weather is to actually look at the sky! Whoa. I know, right? Who thinks of that nowadays, what with instant weather apps on their phone? But sure enough, after we spotted a cloud formation called a “mare’s tail,” we had rain within 24 hours, just as the old local saying said we would. Or that the smallest of obstacles—like a single rock in the river lurking just below the surface—can upend a boat. Or that experts are considered experts for a reason. I experienced this time and again with our lead guide, who ensured that 52 people made it through the trip without injury, as well as with the two professors who served as Thoreau experts and with the members of the Penobscot Indian Nation who shared their intimate knowledge of the area and their history with us. I remain in awe of all of them, and stand humbled before them, as I do the landscape they love and shared with the rest of us.

To see an immersive multimedia journal of the trip produced by the Maine Board of Tourism, check out “The Maine Thing Quarterly.” Yankee Magazine sent two photojournalists to document the trip and featured their work in the March 2015 issue. Dreamscapes, Canada’s premier travel and lifestyle magazine, made “Maine’s Untouched Beauty” the cover article of their Fall 2014 issue (click here for a PDF version). The Maine Woods Discovery team organized the trip and their site has more about it, too, including team leader Mike Wilson’s reflections on the trip. After the trip, Canoe and Kayak magazine picked up on the idea and recommended the Penobscot River as a “feature destination.” The article used photos from the trip taken by one of the trip participants Chris Sockalexis. CBS’s “Sunday Morning” visited during the first half of the trip and filed this report on the trip. 

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