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How the Cold War Created Environmental Science

OPB | June 24, 2013 12:30 p.m. | Updated: Sept. 11, 2013 1 a.m.

OSU professor Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s new book, Arming Mother Nature, has scene after scene that makes you wonder if Dr. Strangelove or Dr. No weren’t so fictional after all. There’s the general who, after reading that one day’s worth of radiological waste from the Manhattan Project could make large areas uninhabitable, asks for programs to create weapons to do that. There are the scientists figuring out which diseases would most devastate specific populations. There’s Hamblin’s line, “Scientists did not yet know whether it was feasible for humans to tap into nature’s pathways on a large scale, letting natural processes do the deadly work, but they were hopeful.”

And while all of these things may be horrible, Hamblin lays out a case that something good came from such murderous thinking. Without US research on how to harness the earth to help it kill its Cold War enemies we would not know about climate change and its human causes.

Hamblin states it even clearer: “Scientific growth after World War II owes its greatest debt to the US armed services, which paid the lion’s share of the bill. Indeed, the discovery of global warming would have been impossible without scientific projects funded by the American military.”

Without scientists trying to figure out how to blow holes in the arctic ice to create shipping lanes, the data establishing that the ice caps are melting would likely not exist. Sniffing out Soviet atomic tests, discerning the exact shape of the earth to send missiles over the North Pole, studying radiation’s effect on soil, all of these pursuits helped us discover climate change. As Hamblin writes, “Global environmental monitoring began as an explicitly Cold War activity.”

Do you have experience with earth sciences? Have declassified military experiments increased understanding in your field?

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