Seminars and Panels

Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism

Professor Jacob Hamblin

Oct 18, 2013
11:00 A.M. - 12:30 P.M.
232 Philip G. Hoffman Hall

When most Americans think of environmentalism, they think of the political left, of vegans dressed in organic-hemp fabric, lofting protest signs. In reality, writes Jacob Darwin Hamblin, the movement--and its dire predictions--owe more to the Pentagon than the counterculture.

In Arming Mother Nature, Hamblin argues that military planning for World War III essentially created "catastrophic environmentalism": the idea that human activity might cause global natural disasters. This awareness, Hamblin shows, emerged out of dark ambitions, as governments poured funds into environmental science after World War II, searching for ways to harness natural processes--to kill millions of people. Proposals included the use of nuclear weapons to create artificial tsunamis or melt the ice caps to drown coastal cities; setting fire to vast expanses of vegetation; and changing local climates. Oxford botanists advised British generals on how to destroy enemy crops during the war in Malaya; American scientists attempted to alter the weather in Vietnam. This work raised questions that went beyond the goal of weaponizing nature. By the 1980s, the C.I.A. was studying the likely effects of global warming on Soviet harvests. "Perhaps one of the surprises of this book is not how little was known about environmental change, but rather how much," Hamblin writes. Driven initially by strategic imperatives, Cold War scientists learned to think globally and to grasp humanity's power to alter the environment. "We know how we can modify the ionosphere," nuclear physicist Edward Teller proudly stated. "We have already done it."

Teller never repented. But many of the same individuals and institutions that helped the Pentagon later warned of global warming and other potential disasters. Brilliantly argued and deeply researched, Arming Mother Nature changes our understanding of the history of the Cold War and the birth of modern environmental science.

About Professor Jacob Hamblin

Jacob Darwin Hamblin is a historian who writes about science, technology, and the environment. He was born in Germany and grew up on or near American military bases, before going to college and graduate school in California, where he earned a Ph.D. in History at UC Santa Barbara. As an adult he has lived and worked in France, England, and several universities in the United States. His work has appeared in Environmental History, Diplomatic History, and many other publications devoted to the history of science, technology, and the natural world. He currently resides in the American Pacific Northwest, where he is an associate professor of history at Oregon State University.

Hamblin is the author of Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism, a book that challenges us to consider how much our views of global environmental change come from collaboration between scientists and the military as they planned to fight, and to survive, a third world war. His previous book, Poison in the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age, was the first international history of one of the least-understood environmental controversies of the twentieth century. An earlier book, Oceanographers and the Cold War, explores the true reasons for the explosive growth of the marine sciences after World War II.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin is married, has two daughters, and lives in Corvallis, Oregon.

Click here to view the presentation.       

Click here to view the webcast.

Audience Feedback

n = 80

Question 1 - How interesting was the topic to you?

(1 - Not at all interesting, 5 - Very interesting)

Question 2 - Did you learn anything useful?

(1 - Not at all, 5 - A Great Deal)

Question 3 - How would you rate the quality of the presentation?

(1 - Bad, 5 - Excellent)

Question 4 - How would you rate the quality of the audience's interaction with the speaker?

(1 - Bad, 5 - Excellent)

Selective Comments

"I love speakers like this. These are the types of speakers we need to engage students with to help us see the benefits of ethical thinking in our scientific careers."

"Love the history.
A presentation without bias, just the facts.
It gave a great sense of the type of thinking the world had in the past."

"Incredible! We need more talks like this!"