Ecology Lessons From the Cold War

Today the effort to preserve the planet’s biodiversity is often seen as a campaign to save the whales for their own sake, or to give polar bears a few more winters on the Arctic ice. But in the 1950s, when the concept was first discussed, it was understood that far more was at stake. The “conservation of variety,” as it was called during the early years of the cold war, was no less than a strategy of human survival.

At that time, American military leaders and scientists were contemplating the possibility of total war with the Soviet Union, with not only civilians, but plants, animals and entire ecosystems as fair game. The war planners imagined a brave new world in which biological and radiological weapons would be considered side by side with crop destruction, huge fires, artificial earthquakes, tsunamis, ocean current manipulation, sea-level tinkering and even weather control.

Numerous approaches seemed feasible then: melting polar ice by blackening it with soot, seeding clouds with chemicals to harass an enemy with rain and mud, killing life-sustaining crops with deadly cereal rust spores or radioactive contamination. Entire forests might be set ablaze by the thermal radiation of a high-altitude nuclear blast. Well-placed detonations might unleash the energy of the earth’s crust, oceans or weather systems. During the Korean War, Representative Albert Gore Sr. went so far as to urge President Harry S. Truman to contaminate an enormous strip of territory across the Korean Peninsula with radioactive waste from plutonium processing, hoping the poisonous landscape would deter Communist troops from moving south.

By the early 1960s, NATO was calling these approaches “environmental warfare.” One of the important considerations in the calculus, not surprisingly, was self-preservation. War planning would include figuring out how to keep people alive beyond the initial devastation. The best approach, scientists concluded, was coming up with ways to protect ecosystems.

Today we call it biodiversity. One of its principal advocates was the Oxford ecologist Charles Elton, whose book “The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants,” argued that simplifying landscapes with weedkillers, or planting single crop species over large areas made a recipe for disaster. The best defense from diseases, other species or natural catastrophes, he said, was to conserve as much biological variety as possible in the fields and hedges of the countryside to counterbalance any threat. In his book he called it the conservation of variety.

Elton’s approach not only inspired Rachel Carson to write “Silent Spring,” about the harm done by insecticides, it also resonated among scientists in the defense establishment. Fantasizing about environmental warfare in the early 1960s, NATO scientists tried to imagine which links in ecosystems were vulnerable to manipulation. Studies had recently shown radioactive fallout infiltrating reindeer meat, a crucial part of Eskimos’ diets. It was a revelation to think that such a connection in the food chain was now targetable. But the reverse was also true, and underscored Elton’s point: the complexity of an ecosystem made any particular “link” less important, making the system less vulnerable.

This was the lesson defense planners took to heart. They decided that a robust peacetime market economy provided variety, and thus security in peace and war. If nuclear war ever came, a decentralized, diversified society would be in better shape than a centrally planned one like the Soviet Union’s. The same logic applied to biological variety. That is why strategic stockpiles of Western nations during the cold war did not collect enormous stores of favorite foods but samples of the widest range of species imaginable.

In the face of natural disasters, such diversity seemed to be the West’s ace in the hole. The variety of agricultural products in the United States far outpaced those of the Soviet Union, and is a reason that C.I.A. analysts predicted in the 1980s that global climate change would cause more harm to Russia than to the United States.

We managed to survive the cold war, but the challenges to our environmental security remain. We need to stop treating the idea of biodiversity as a philosophical preference and embrace it as a strategy of survival, just as it was for those who, more than a half-century ago, planned for a calamitous total war.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin is an associate professor of history at Oregon State University and the author of Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism.

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