How the Cold War Spawned the Environmental Movement

The_Population_BombVia New Scientist

In Arming Mother Nature, Jacob Darwin Hamblin argues that environmentalism is rooted in cold war plans to abuse nature for military ends

I have often wondered why NATO holds environment conferences. Now I know the answer. Back in the 1960s, the Western military alliance coined the term “environmental warfare” and for years actively considered how to wage such wars. More than that, argues Jacob Darwin Hamblin in this startling account, much of modern environmental thinking originated with the scientists and military strategists during the dark days of the cold war.

And you thought the first environmentalists were muesli-eating, sandal-wearing hippies? Far from it, Hamblin says. Before them was a generation of scary Dr Strangelove types, “scientists, military leaders and politicians who believed they would have to manipulate and exploit nature” in a war against the Soviet Union. The original doom-mongers were not sounding the alarm; they were riding into battle.

During the Korean war, US advisers considered spraying waste from plutonium reprocessing across Korea to create a “dehumanised death belt”. In their view, a third world war could involve using H-bombs to trigger earthquakes; millions of tonnes of soot to melt the Arctic ice cap; and spraying yellow fever across Soviet cities.

Hamblin’s case is that the links between such military fantasies and environmental thinking are far closer than we might imagine: without the cold war, we might not now be gripped by fear of environmental catastrophe.

Seminal environmental texts are often stuffed with military metaphors and Pentagon-funded research, notes Hamblin. Paul Ehrlich chose the title The Population Bomb for his 1968 bestseller, airing concerns about overpopulation that were fodder for national security scenarios years before. Research into chemical and biological warfare underpinned many claims in Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring.

Earlier Charles Elton, the British ecologist who alerted the world to the perils of alien species, began his 1958 book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, with the observation that “it is not just nuclear bombs and wars that threaten us… this book is about ecological explosions”.

Hamblin’s stories of individuals on the front line are equally telling. MIT’s Jay Forrester modelled defence systems for the US military before constructing the model behind the doomsday analysis in the Club of Rome’s 1972 book, The Limits to Growth. The Congressman who proposed the radioactive “death belt” in Korea was Albert Gore, father of former vice-president and climate-change campaigner Al Gore.


  • alizardx

    The military has to deal with the environment from a point of view of scientific realism. The Germans tried it the other way in WWII, a lot of their soldiers got killed by the weather, not the Russians as a result. Historic lesson here, engaging in fantasy about the environment of the sort the GOP is pushing is a good way to lose wars.

    That’s pne why US armed forces put a lot of money into greentech.

    Also, the study not discussed in the article I saw was this one on the military effects of global warming here:

    Interesting – that link is to a new DOD report I haven’t seen yet.

  • BuzzCoastin

    here’s another McLuhan topics from the late 60’s
    so hearz his spin:
    the satellite had a profound effect upon human consciousness
    (as do all technologies)
    and it shrank the planet into an “environment”
    this “shrinking” led humans to view the world the live in as
    an environment
    which could be controlled through programing & science
    and that’s been going on since the late 50’s

  • moremisinformation

    Along side the cybernetic view that Buzz mentions (the concept of an ‘ecosystem’ isn’t even necessarily well founded) environmentalism may be fostered as a means of controlling the population through fear. As in, oh dear, ‘we’re’ ruining the Earth (which is laughable). YOU better pay us some money so we can fix what you’ve done here. Or we’re all gonna die…earlier.

    It’s the new fall from the garden of eden – ironically enough. ‘You’re all born sinners by breathing and eating and having footprints made of carbon and stuff. Now, pay your tithing, er carbon tax, and all your sins will be forgiven.’

    • Ted Heistman

      Something to that I think…

  • Anarchy Pony

    John Muir, how the fuck did he work?

  • alizardx

    The Germans tried ignoring the environment when they invaded Russia. IIRC, winter cold killed as many of them as the Russians did.

    At least the US military learned the lesson that a military lives with the real environment or dies of it. It’s one of the main financers of greentech.

    Here’s a link to the latest study on the military impact of global warming:

    The one informed people remember is from several years ago.

    • Anarchy Pony

      Being “informed” is for dirty liberals and elitists.