Controlling the Environment: Crash Course History of Science #39


The development of ecology revealed a deeply
connected world: we all inhabit one big biosphere—one big house. We share one hydrosphere, one atmosphere… You get the idea. But the flip side of finding this connection
was learning about various kinds of environmental collapse, already in motion. We share one fragile house. We’ve said that sciences generally move
from understanding natural phenomena to controlling them. Today, we’ll examine scientific efforts
to control the whole world, AKA capital-N Nature. Some have saved lives—but there are also
downsides, frequently devastating. [Intro Music Plays] During the Cold War, attempts to control Nature
by technological means involved both Soviet and American plans for weather control —in part because each side worried that
the other would figure it out first. Spoiler Alert: neither did. The U.S. conducted one secret rainmaking project,
Operation Popeye, during the Vietnam War. They ineffectively tried to make the monsoon
season last longer in Southeast Asia, hampering the North Vietnamese army’s movements by
deteriorating roads and bridges through flooding. That’s James Bond villain stuff! The U.S. also carried out an operation at
home called Project Stormfury from 1962 to 1983, seeding dangerous tropical storms with silver
iodide in order to freeze some of the water in them and slow them down, making them less
dangerous. This didn’t work well in practice, but the
experimental flights were valuable to meteorology. Other grand-scale engineering projects focused
on power and agriculture. These included many irrigation canals and
gigantic dams, like the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, built between 1960 and 1970. These projects allowed people in dry regions
or ones subject to seasonal flooding to have more control over when they planted, and to
grow more harvests per year. In the United States, the Reclamation Service,
later the Bureau of Reclamation, worked starting in 1902 to irrigate the Western plains. Today, that Bureau is the largest wholesaler
of water in the U.S. Overall, across industrial societies, agriculture
changed a lot as engineers developed machines like tractors, chemists created new fertilizers and pesticides,
and plant geneticists bred hybrid seeds. Plants need the nutrient nitrogen to grow. But plants can’t “fix” their own nitrogen
from air, so they need bacteria, or human-made fertilizers like ammonia, to do it for them. And in the early 1900s, German chemists Fritz
Haber and Carl Bosch developed a way to take nitrogen right from the air! This seemed like a big win. Any industrial society could use the Haber–Bosch
process for synthetic nitrogen fixation to make millions of tons of fertilizer and grow
more crops. And synthetic ammonia from the process was
also used to make nitric acid, which was necessary to make explosives. So again, war and professional science were
tightly linked. But the bigger problems, long term, were environmental. The Haber–Bosch process requires fossil
fuels like oil or natural gas to work. Which seemed fine: industrialists didn’t
know that burning these fuels would disrupt the earth’s climate cycles. A more obvious problem is runoff: to make
plants take up lots of nitrogen, industrial farming treats them with more fertilizer than
they need. Rain washes the leftover fertilizer into waterways,
leading to eutrophication, or too many nutrients in the water. This leads to a build-up of algae, which use
up the oxygen in the water, making it deadly for fish. Another seemingly big win with unintended
consequences was an improvement in staple crops. In the 1930s, after decades of research, agricultural
scientists in the U.S. rolled out hybrid crop varieties. These crosses of “pure” strains produced
much higher yields. But farmers started using only these seeds. Commercial fields became monoculture, or “one-plant.” This means fewer plants are commercially available
today. And pests can more easily wipe out any one
plant. This is the opposite of growing many plants
together, or polyculture, which can help restore nutrients to soil without synthetic chemicals. So on the one hand, synthetic fertilizers
and hybrid crops seemed like easy wins. On the other hand, there were negative long-term
consequences. On the, uh, third hand, even these advancements
didn’t prevent environmental problems and growing fears that agricultural innovation
just couldn’t keep up with rapid population growth. For example, part of the U.S. experienced
severe droughts in the 1930s and was farmed in unsustainable ways. This led to massive dust storms, collectively
called the Dust Bowl, which forced many farmers to abandon their farms—during the Great
Depression. And this was the United States! Most of the world’s farmers remained smallholders: they worked plots of land smaller than ten
hectares, largely without industrial machines. Populations were growing, but storms and wars
threatened to lead to famines. So many scientists, taking a note from that
crotchety preacher who inspired Darwin, Thomas Malthus, wrote pessimistically about humanity’s
future. Probably the most famous of these “neo-Malthusian”
thinkers was American biologist Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb,
predicted that famines would soon kill millions of people, especially in India. Which didn’t happen… Arguably the biggest example of humans controlling
our environment was the Green Revolution in the 1950s and 60s, when crop yields went up for farmers in less
industrialized countries—way up. In one sense, it’s a simple story of science,
applied: scientists from rich countries offered new techniques built on hybrid seeds. In another sense, it’s science in the service
of politics. This revolution was organized by International
Agricultural Research Centers, or IARCs, which were funded by federal grants
from developed and developing countries, and by private foundations like Rockefeller and
Ford. The IARCs believed that the best way to improve
yields was through smart breeding. They wanted to focus on breeding plants resistant
to pests in specific areas. And simultaneously, to make these plants take
up more nitrogen and grow more edible material. Lots of people were involved in this work,
particularly in the U.S., Mexico, and India. But people love heroes! So Green Revolution stories often focus on
American agronomist and plant geneticist Norman Borlaug—who was, to be fair, an awesome
scientist. Introduce us, ThoughtBubble. Borlaug joined the Rockefeller Foundation’s
group in Mexico in 1944. He had never worked on wheat, maize, or beans
before. Aaand he didn’t speak Spanish. But, he eventually learned it and stayed ins
He developed a hybrid wheat that withstands a common fungus called rust blight. How? Lots of painstaking research into plant genetics,
courtesy other geneticists, and lots of field trials: Borlaug took Norin 10—a wheat bred by Japanese
scientist Gonjiro Inazuka that was short but produced lots of food,
if given lots of nitrogen and defended with chemical pesticides— and bred a semi-dwarf wheat specifically for
Mexican climates. Starting around 1950, Mexican agriculture
shifted toward high-yielding varieties of wheat, synthetic nitrogen, and pesticides. And this revolution in farming soon spread
to Colombia, Chile, and India. The Ford Foundation pushed the Indian government
to adopt the same changes. So Indian scientists worked with Mexican scientists,
and hybrid semi-dwarf Mexican wheat seeds were shipped to India in time for the 1963
planting season. This lead to astounding growths in yield. Also in the 1960s, an international team of
scientists and farmers worked to develop a new variety of high-yielding semi-dwarf rice
called IR8— sometimes called “miracle rice.” In 1971, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations
created the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research to further extend the
IARC research. Borlaug won the Nobel in 1970. Buuut… no Mexican, Indian, or Japanese scientists
shared the prize. Thanks, ThoughtBubble. Meanwhile, with minimal support from the Soviet
Union, the Maoist Chinese state fostered its own scientific farming —including a system of experimental agricultural
stations and hybrid sorghum and hybrid rice varieties. Agriculturally, the Green Revolution was an
immediate success. Thousands of tons of seeds moved from Mexico
to India. Food prices dropped. India became a rice exporter and currently
overproduces wheat. But in the longer-term, the Green Revolution
meant that way more farmers started practicing monoculture, essentially betting their chips
on a small number of hybrid crops. Thousands of traditional varieties are no
longer cultivated. Only four crops—wheat, maize, rice, and
soy—provide more than half of our food today. Socially, industrial farming requires investing
in expensive equipment and hybrid seeds, which aren’t produced by the previous year’s
harvest. This changed the business cycles of farmers. Zooming out, the Green Revolution changed
what defines a “modern” society: it now meant using synthetic nitrogen, pesticides,
and tractors on large monoculture farms. The idea of the Revolution had been to end
hunger, and it probably prevented millions from starvation. But famine has always been linked to distribution,
or the political -economic process of moving food around, not
only how much food is produced. And the Green Revolution was also always about
the United States flexing its scientific muscle around the world, buying allies with bread—including India,
the world’s largest democracy. AKA soft power! Meanwhile, also in the 1950s and 60s, synthetic
pesticides were used to control bugs that spread human illnesses. The most famous was dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane—DDT —
that was sprayed on fields, urban green spaces, right on little kids—pretty much everywhere. It had seemingly miraculously dropped mosquito
populations during World War II, helping fight the spread of malaria and typhus. Only it turned out that DDT, while not immediately
toxic to humans, was toxic to lots of other living things, like birds and fish. And it wasn’t good for humans in the long-run,
either. After years of careful research—all of which
angered scientists working for the chemical industry —American biologist and pioneering environmentalist
Rachel Carson wrote a series of articles that became the book Silent Spring in 1962. She explained in simple, beautiful language
how some kinds of synthetic pesticides work, and why they are often a terrible idea. With this book, along with her other books,
numerous op-eds, and appearances, Carson helped spark the modern environmentalism movement
in the United States. In addition to long-term effects, pesticides
have also been involved in acute disasters. In 1984, a Union Carbide India chemical plant
in the city of Bhopal had a serious accident. This plant produced the insecticide Sevin,
using a highly toxic chemical called methyl isocyanate gas. The accident released thirty two tons of methyl
isocyanate… Half a million people were exposed. Four thousand people died immediately; twenty
five hundred died that year. Bhopal is widely regarded as the worst industrial
disaster in history Only two years later, in 1986, a nuclear reactor
in Chernobyl melted down. Clouds of radioactive material billowed across
Europe, and then the world. Conflicting, politically inflected epidemiological
studies put the long-term casualties from cancer due to Chernobyl at anywhere between ten thousand and hundreds
of thousands. So… controlling nature has not been a slam-dunk
for humankind. And most of “humankind” had no say in
these projects! The effects, good or bad, just happened to
them. And this is still the case. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change warns that global food supplies are in danger, because staple crops like rice, wheat, and
corn are now facing a slowdown in the rate at which their yields go up. Meaning, back to Malthus, we might soon have
more hungry mouths than food, even if agronomists keep making incremental gains. So some serious scientists are returning to
the idea of controlling the climate! In 2006, Nobel-winning atmospheric scientist
Paul Crutzen called for humanity to use geoengineering, the modification of the climate, to keep our
world habitable. Next time—we’ll look at control over living
things at a different scale: it’s the characterization of DNA and the
birth of biotechnology. Crash Course History of Science is filmed
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