Ecology Lessons from the Cold War

Article excerpt

We need to stop treating biodiversity as a philosophical preference and embrace it as a strategy of survival.

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, U.S. 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. …