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  • Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism by Jacob Darwin Hamblin
  • Andrew Jenks (bio)
Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. By Jacob Darwin Hamblin. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. 298. $29.95.

The author of Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism was mistakenly printed as Joseph Darwin Hamblin. The author's name should be Jacob Darwin Hamblin. The online version of this review has been updated to reflect this change.

This fascinating book explores the ingenious, cruel, ludicrous, and heinous ways that American scientists, military planners, and medical professionals attempted to recruit nature into their plans for waging total war against the Soviet Union and other ideological enemies. Joseph Hamblin traces this broad-based effort: among other things, he argues that military investigations into environmental interdependencies and weaponry were part of the emerging ecological and environmental consciousness of the post–World War II era.

Narratives about total war typically focus on nuclear weapons and doctrines of mutual assured destruction, in which the targeting of entire cities decisively obliterates any remaining division between civilian and combatant. But once the United States lost the monopoly on nuclear weapons in 1949, and as the increasing destructive power of those weapons made nuclear war unthinkable, planners shifted their focus to other ways of waging total war by turning the environment into a weapon of mass destruction. The Pentagon was thus cooking up various dastardly plans to harness nature: triggering massive earthquakes and tsunamis with strategically placed nuclear explosions, unleashing diseases, defoliating forests, changing weather patterns. Even if these transformations affected both the United States and the Soviet Union, catastrophe planners assumed that the United [End Page 293] States would be better equipped to adapt to this fouling of the nest than the centrally planned, hidebound Soviet political and economic system.

Military plans to involve nature in total war had a number of unintended consequences. One was to encourage a hyperawareness of the possibility of mass death and dislocation due to human interventions in the environment—a point made by the Club of Rome—that became a hallmark of environmental thinking. Worried about the unforeseen impact of biological and chemical agents on food supplies and crops, Pentagon-sponsored scientists began thinking about the environment in more complex ways. According to Hamblin, this habit of thinking about interdependencies gave rise to ecological thinking, just as much or perhaps even more than the ideas of more peace-oriented environmental scientists such as Rachel Carson. Like the internet, Global Positioning Systems, and so many other aspects of modern life, a modern environmental consciousness—and the tradition of catastrophic environmentalism—emerged from the military-industrial complex.

While the increasing application of scientific knowledge in the production of killing technology made science—and scientists—a key weapon in warfare, it also dramatically increased government interventions into scientific research and the production of knowledge. The close association between the military, state, and science produced a new model of classified and secret science, which was fused paradoxically to a scientific enterprise that purported to be based on the earlier Enlightenment ideal of internationalism and open access to information. Operating from behind the cloak of secrecy, scientists and military planners often indulged their fantasies of death and destruction with little fear of moral condemnation. That is perhaps the most frightening aspect of this book’s findings: the ease with which indiscriminate and mass killing could be made morally acceptable in the name of defending abstract notions of freedom and economic organization.

While the government hatched secret plans to unleash biblical floods and plagues on its enemies, to trigger massive forest fires with thermonu-clear explosions and change the direction of ocean currents, increasing suspicions that military whiz kids were involved in such activities (especially during the Vietnam War) made many people believe the United States used biological and chemical warfare in its military operations, even when it did not. The vacuum of information created by the obsession with secrecy spawned all manner of fantastic rumors about what the government was really up to. Like the radioactive dust from the massive nuclear bomb tests of the early 1960s, those rumors circulated around the globe...


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pp. 293-295
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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