Ground: Landscape Architect Quarterly, 21 (Spring 2013), Politics.
Denise Pinto, chair of the Ground Editorial Board, in conversation with Fionn Byrne about his research into environmental modification and the question of who controls large-scale changes to natural systems. Originally published in Ground: Landscape Architect Quarterly, 21 - Politics.
Denise Pinto (DP): Environmental modification is what landscape architects do; and, of course, it’s what humans, and what human societies throughout history, have always done. However, you’ve been researching a very specific use of the term “environmental modification.” Could you describe how you came to be interested in the subject?
Fionn Byrne (FB): My interest was piqued after reading Peter Sloterdijk’s book Terror from the Air.1 He quotes from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice: "You take my life, when you do take the means whereby I live." Previously, I’d always considered this to be an economic proposition, but Sloterdijk reframes the words quite effectively to introduce an argument for the power of one's environment to play a deciding role in allowing or denying life.
DP: So Sloterdijk is framing “environmental modification” in a military context?
FB: The position Sloterdijk takes is that the era of modernity was reached when, in World War I, the extirpation of the enemy's life was effected not by targeting the individual directly, but rather by targeting the enemy's environment. Atmospheric warfare, the use of poisonous gas, proved highly efficient and effective. Having not previously before considered the use of the environment as a weapon I was curious to know the extent of this military program. Beyond the trenches of WWI, what research and development was done and how was the environment targeted for military purposes? Mike Hill's Ecologies of War was very useful in helping me to establish a working theoretical position and in providing an introduction to the history of environmental modification.2 I became really fascinated by the research and started cataloging programs and operations that targeted the environment directly. Weather modification is a big one, like Operation Popeye, in which the U.S. has experimented with modifying rainfall. Probably the best-known example would be Operation Trail Dust or Ranch Hand, which involved the spraying of Agent Orange and other active agents atmospherically to destroy vegetative cover and food crops during the Vietnam War. But there are others too, like communication disruption through Operation Fishbowl (a high-altitude nuclear detonation),or plant matter experiments like DARPA’s Blue Angel program. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for any readers who would not know is a defense organization which does research and design (R&D) to “expand the frontiers of technology beyond the immediate and specific requirements of the Military Services and their Laboratories.”3 I think I am most fascinated by this organization because this is in some ways what I aspired to; in my words “expand the frontiers of Landscape Architecture beyond the immediate and specific requirements of contemporary culture and North American Society,” exploring new scales, new sites, new methods and novel applications. But to keep on topic the Blue Angel program is an initiative which is seeking to produce vast quantities of a plant-based vaccine in a short time frame. Recently the accomplishment was 10 million doses in one month. I remember reading the plant in question was Nicotine, but regardless that is a lot of plants grown very quickly, only possible in a highly controlled environment.
DP: Do the examples you mention, such as human interventions in the weather, create strategic advantages for the military? How widespread is this?
FB: Operation Popeye was widespread, yes, and it most definitely provided strategic advantage. The project involved the aerial dispersal of silver iodide into the atmosphere of the enemy’s controlled area of operations. I should be more specific, by enemy I am referring to the North Vietnamese Army and it was the US military conducting the cloud seeding between the years 1967 to 1972. The silver iodide acts to “seed” clouds and ultimately to produce rainfall. Dump enough rain on the supply route of your enemy (the Ho Chi Minh Trail) and you can disrupt their logistical network, making it less effective and impeding their ability to transport troops, fuel, weaponry, or supplies to where they are needed. I suppose in this case we are getting away from targeting the environment to directly prevent life, and instead seeing it being used as a force multiplier: acting to make more effective other more conventional modes of military activity.
I should just briefly mention that the opposite tactic has also been employed. Project Stormfury, operational between 1962 to 1969 and supported by the United States Government and the US Air Force, dispersed aerial silver iodide in an attempt to force precipitation from tropical storms, weakening their strength and helping to ensure reliable trans-Atlantic supply routes.
DP: What is ENMOD?
FB: It is an international treaty that was entered into force in 1978: “The Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques.”4 My research has not extended beyond the United States military, but up until 1978, projects and operations like Popeye I would expect were seen by the U.S. military and governments as critical research because there was a lack of knowledge about the long-term impacts or unforeseen consequences of large-scale modifications to the environment. You opened this talk with an admission that historically humans have always been modifying their environments, but not at the scales or speeds that military technology now enables. Could these experiments be contained? Would there be crossover to other environmental systems that were not directly targeted? I would expect there would have been a great deal of fear within the ecological community at the time over such actions. Or, anyway, there was enough concern that environmental modification was banned, for hostile uses, through an international treaty.
DP: Is there a connection between what is popularly called “geoengineering” and the term "environmental modification”? I suppose one could argue that the re-branding of these activities
suggests an attempt to distance them from a troubled past…
FB: That’s right. I would say that geoengineering could be called geological modification. In the same vein, technically we could categorize modifications as geo- or litho-, or atmo-, bio-, or hydro-engineering. I am more inclined to place them all under the term “environmental modification.”
DP: It’s not a very well-known or publicized term.
FB: As far as public perception goes, I am surprised by how muted the dialogue is. I can see an interest growing, but for me it is worrisome that the push to conduct these sorts of tests seems to be ahead of the discussion over whether we even want to experiment with whole earth systems.
DP: Is there a positive case to be made? Obviously support for this exists.
FB: Yes, absolutely. I am not staking a position against environmental modification or taking a moral position against the application of technology towards anthropocentric environmental goals. The global climate is changing. This will place pressures on economic and ecological systems: power, waste, food, water. Powerful nations will do what they can to mitigate these pressures. I think there was an agreed target to keep global warming to under two degrees Celsius. I now hear talk of four.5 What I am saying is that I expect the modern military of powerful nations will have an expanded role in forcing localized changes in climate. More powerful nations will offset climactic change at the cost of other environmental systems and geographical locations. I might even go so far as to say that I hope the military takes a leading role in this regard, because the alternative I see developing is that corporations will look to environmental modification to keep a warming climate from affecting their profits.
DP: When we were speaking earlier you cited a recent example—the dumping of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean—as an important case. It was conducted without government or military oversight. Could you tell me more about this event?
FB: In July of 2012, Russ George, an American businessman working with the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of British Columbia, in international waters. It was reported that the iron acted to fertilize a patch of sea over 10,000 square kilometres.6 The goal of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation was to attract salmon, which would come to feed on this algae bloom fertilized by the iron. Another goal was to have the uneaten algae die and sink to the ocean floor, taking with them the carbon they sequestered in their biomass. In this way, ocean fertilization could be used as a means of capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide so corporations could profit from carbon credits. In theory, the project could be called a win-win. Profit is generated from the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the circle is now closed: carbon is extracted from the geosphere, generating profit; carbon is released into the atmosphere, generating profit; carbon is then captured and driven to the depths of the hydrosphere, generating profit. I think you can see why I am advocating for critical discussion, controls, and regulations.
DP: How are landscape architects implicated in addressing or changing the actions of people like Russ George?
FB: I think the public is generally reactionary, responding to news stories documenting what has already happened. But I think there is, here, a vital opportunity for landscape architects. We have the tools to create dialogue about what could happen, utopian or dystopian. Drawing or designing the future lets us ask if this is the future we want or the future we don’t want. I mean, we do this all the time: almost every rendering is a projection of the future conditions of a site. The client and the public are asked to approve or disapprove of the proposed changes. Expand the site context and draw farther into the future, and suddenly using your same skills becomes an act of representing science fiction.
DP: And is it always a question of scale?
FB: That is a fascinating question. At what scale do local environmental modifications effect global environmental change? The impacts of larger-scale projects are easier to understand, but it is not necessarily true that they will have the greatest effect on the environment. I spent some time in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories in October of 2011 with a class of students from the University of Waterloo. While traveling down the Dempster Highway, I must say that the landscape was breathtaking, but the point of this story is that we were told that a single footstep on the landscape can compact the low-growing vegetation and mosses and begin a positive feedback loop of warming the ground below, which might not stop until massive amounts of earth have been shifted from their frozen state.7 I would say this example demonstrates a need for caution when manipulating environmental systems. Small changes can have much larger unforeseen consequences.
DP: Where is this research taking you at this point?
FB: Well apart from just truly enjoying the process of research this work has informed my previous two projects. Both are published in the Bracket series which is well worth checking out. Find Operation ‘Hello Eden’, in Goes Soft: Bracket 2. Ed. Neeraj Bhatia & Lola Sheppard, just recently published by Actar and Operations ‘Early Breakfast’, in At Extremes: Bracket 3. Ed. Maya Przybylski & Lola Sheppard. Actar (Forthcoming).
This year a great deal of my attention will be given to the Oil Sands – not a military project, but also a large scale ex-urban landscape project. I am delighted to have been awarded a grant from the LACF (Landscape Architecture Canada Foundation) and I will be making a trip out west to see the territory and will then work to make accessible quantitative base information. This work will be conducted with Kyle Yang, MLA, and will likely involve other collaborators. But you can always find out more on my website: pedonicoperations.com.
BIOS/ Fionn Byrne is a Director at the Office of Pedonic Operations, an Adjunct Professor of Architecture at the University of Waterloo and a landscape technician at HOK. He welcomes discussion; search him out online at pedonicoperations.com or send him an email:
Denise Pinto, Associate OALA, is the Chair of the Ground Editorial Board and Operations
Director at Jane's Walk.
1 Peter Sloterdijk, “Terror from the Air,” (Los Angeles:
Semiotext(e), 2009): 14.
2 Mike Hill, “Ecologies of War,” in Telemorphosis: Theory in
the Era of Climate Change: Volume 1, ed. Tom Cohen
(Michigan: Open Humanities Press, 2012), 239-269.
3 DARPA, http://www.darpa.mil/About.aspx.
4 UN Documents: Gathering a Body of Global
Agreements, “Convention on the Prohibition of Military or
Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification
5 The World Bank, “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C World
Must be Avoided,” Online PDF, http://
6 Martin Lukacs, “US businessman defends controversial
geoengineering experiment,” The Guardian, 19 Oct,
7 Michael M Loranty and Scott J Goetz, “Shrub expansion
and climate feedbacks in Arctic tundra,” Environmental
Research Letters 7, (2012) 011005.