Decades of doom-mongering have desensitised people to the very real threats we face
In the spring of 1960, a colossal tsunami struck the Chilean coast, its towering 13.5-metre waves unleashing more energy than the combined yield of all the nuclear bombs thitherto detonated. The disaster, declared the New York Times, “gave tragic testimony that in this age of the conquest of the atom … man is still helpless against the vast and still largely unpredictable forces” of nature.
American and British military planners, however, took a different view. For Cold War scientists such as Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb — and a model for Dr. Strangelove, the titular character of Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war masterpiece — the Chilean disaster was less a reminder of humanity’s vulnerability than a chance to explore new applications for nuclear weapons. By bombing oceanic fault-lines, Teller and his cohort theorised, it might be possible to trigger submarine earthquakes, setting off targeted tsunamis that would wreak havoc on Soviet coastal cities.
Such notions weren’t merely the pipe-dreams of mothballed Manhattan Project alumni, writes Jacob Darwin Hamblin in “Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism.” Rather, the researchers — whom Hamblin dubs the “Doomsday Men” — were part of an effort, championed by top-level NATO planners, to develop “environmental warfare” capabilities that would weaponise the biosphere, the oceans, the ice caps, and even the Earth’s natural magnetic fields in a bid to defeat the Soviet Union.
Hamblin, an environmental historian at the Oregon State University, trawls recently declassified documents to catalogue the “harebrained and scary” methods considered by the Doomsday Men — and to draw his readers into the bitter calculus behind their madness. Having won World War II in part by targeting civilian populations in Europe and Japan, he explains, NATO strategists saw massive civilian casualties not as a regrettable consequence of warfare, but rather as a legitimate goal: the only path to victory in the “total war” they expected to fight against the Soviet Union.
The pursuit of maximal human destruction — morbidly measured by some strategists in “megadeaths,” or millions of deaths — led some researchers to propose using massive nuclear blasts to melt the ice-caps, flooding enemy coastlines, or to redirect ocean currents, plunging enemy nations into Arctic winter. Others mulled using biological weapons and weather-manipulation techniques to disrupt agriculture and trigger widespread famines.
Teller, the atomic pioneer, championed the use of high-altitude nuclear blasts to spark wildfires across vast tracts of land: a 100-megaton blast detonated 80 kilometres above the ground, he calculated, would instantly set ablaze all forests, plants and other flammable materials across a region of 1 million square miles, suffocating or incinerating an entire continent. “This is the most violent and widespread environmental change which can be expected from a nuclear attack,” Teller boasted.
Such extravagant promises, combined with the well-founded suspicion that the USSR was hatching similar plans of its own, guaranteed a steady stream of research funding for environmental warfare techniques. General Electric researchers and military scientists collaborated on projects aimed at creating rainfall over the New Mexico desert, and even at altering the course of hurricanes. High-altitude nuclear tests were conducted, drawing a veil of radiation across the entire planet via the newly discovered Van Allen belts. And some of the environmental warriors’ ideas soon made it onto the battlefield, finding use, for instance, in the crop-destroying herbicides and rainmaking techniques deployed in Vietnam.
Over time, though, NATO planners realised that the more outlandish proposals — such as Teller’s plan for a continental conflagration — were less efficient than simply firing nuclear weapons directly at major population centres. As the Cold War progressed, the notion of weaponising Mother Nature fell out of fashion, and by the time the Soviet Union finally fell, the demand for apocalyptic, planet-rending military tactics had begun to wane.
Still, the environmental warriors’ work left a lasting mark. In dreaming up their doomsday devices, and confronting the threat of armageddon and nuclear winter, Hamblin argues, Teller and his colleagues were among the first researchers to confront not just the scale and power of natural forces, but also the fundamental fragility of the global ecosystem. “In the process, they fostered a profound belief in the manipulability of the natural world and the susceptibility of humans to dangers on an enormous scale,” he writes.
That sense of looming planetary disaster came to mark the early scientific debates on environmental and climate issues, many of which leaned heavily on NATO weather data and other research by military groups. From there, the Doomsday Men’s catastrophic worldview filtered into some of the foundational texts of the modern green movement. Among the most influential was The Ecologist’s own 1972 “Blueprint for Survival,” which warned of disastrous consequences if pollution, social inequality and industrialisation continued unabated.
Hamblin traces a direct line from the diabolical machinations of the Doomsday Men, to the dire warnings of early environmentalists, to the equally catastrophic predictions of modern climate evangelists such as Al Gore. He warns, though, that decades of doom-mongering — about nuclear war, about pollution, about climate change — have desensitised people to the very real threats we now face, making it easier than ever for reasonable-sounding critics to undermine environmentalists’ claims.
This suggests that environmentalists will need a new paradigm, a new message, if they’re to win over the public and convince people to start taking action. “When every problem is treated as a global crisis, real global crises are easily ignored,” Hamblin warns. And that indifference could be the thing that makes the real catastrophes impossible to avoid.
Ben Whitford is the Ecologist’s U.S. correspondent and a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism by Jacob Darwin Hamblin is available from;