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Using the Environment as a Weapon

UCSB Alum Jacob Darwin Hamblin Delivers Lecture on ‘Catastrophic Environmentalism’


The first question posed: What do Henry Kissinger and Cyndi Lauper have in common? The second question: What does the military have to do with the environmental movement?

In his lecture at UCSB on November 7, alum Jacob Darwin Hamblin — he earned his bachelor’s degree and PhD in history from the university — answered both of those questions, clueing in the attendees as to how scientists and politicians once viewed environmental disasters as possible weapons in the Third World War but then came to see them as a battle that all of the world would have to fight.

Hamblin’s lecture was based on his third book, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism, in which he argues that said scientists and politicians realized that if the environment was something they could manipulate against enemies, it was also something that people could change, period. “If we want to know how we came to understand catastrophic environmental change, we have to start with people who tried to make it happen,” Hamblin said.

Much of that speculation really took hold in 1960, after a 9.5-magnitude earthquake hit Chile, Hamblin said. The force and havoc wreaked by that earthquake led leaders to wonder if such disasters could be triggered, whether by dropping a nuke on a fault line or using a hydrogen bomb to steer a hurricane. When NATO officials learned that Eskimos relied on reindeer meat, it made them wonder what other populations relied on. Such ideas, Hamblin said, “led to a scientific world view obsessed with change, manipulation, and vulnerability” — and how military leaders could use natural disasters and crop destruction to maximize death.

Even before 1960, Hamblin said, U.S. officials toyed with the idea of environmental warfare. During the Korean War, for example, then-congressmember Albert Gore, Sr. — the father of former vice president Al Gore — suggested that radioactive waste be used to create a dividing line across the Korean peninsula. (That strategy was deemed ineffective and wasn’t used.) Before that, in the early 1900s, the Colorado beetle ate its way through potato crops across the country and eventually into Europe.

The bug’s scourge lasted into World War II, provoking Slovakia to accuse the United States of dropping the beetle to devastate its crop, Hamblin said. Through crops, Britain entered the environmental fray — though more for defensive than offensive purposes — realizing that a simplified landscape did not a strong opponent make. Too many pesticides, English officials found, made for little ecological diversity and thus greater risk for a Colorado beetle-level takedown.

Hamblin, who grew up in a military family and is now an associate professor of history at Oregon State University, moved from describing how President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — hinting back at that first question posed — played up the environmental risks in Vietnam to how an international treaty signed by the United States in 1977 prohibiting governments from employing environmental modification didn’t really ban much at all.

The treaty stipulated that such acts had to be “long-lasting and severe,” a criterion that didn’t fit herbicides or nuclear weapons, although acts like steering hurricanes were effectively banned. Coming full circle back to his first question, Hamblin talked about the drought, famine, and AIDS that hit Africa in the 1980s — and how Cyndi Lauper, with other singers, released the song “We Are the World,” which helped raise millions of dollars in humanitarian aid for African countries.

The lecture was part of an annual series in honor of late history professor Larry Badash — who also happened to be Hamblin’s advisor.

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