Friday, September 25, 2015

Environment & War Technology


Before we can come to terms with today's environmental crisis, we need to understand how it came about. 

I believe that much of it happened for a very simple reason. Technology developed faster than our ability to understand the consequences. And this happened because of three world wars (I include the Cold War) that gave the development of superior technology an urgency it would not have had otherwise -- along with a need to mass produce. 

This US poster from WWII egged companies and employees 
to produce more of everything for the war effort.

Many people have pointed out that war speeds up the development of technology. This is almost an obvious point, since each side wants to get an edge. During wartime the full resources of a country are committed to getting the upper hand, such as: cracking the enemy's code, for example, with computers, as the British did with the German Enigma code. Or building massive weapons such as the atomic bomb. Or adding wireless radio communication between tanks to allow coordinated attacks such as the Nazis did with their Blitzkrieg tactic. Or the development of the jet plane and the development of rockets with warheads, as Germany did in World War II.

Beginning with World War I in 1914, the conflicts that followed can be seen primarily as conflicts of technology -- as it was the development of superior technology rather than manpower that gave each military the upper hand. Technology allowed a military to leverage its manpower -- so that a few soldiers operating a machine gun emplacement or a pillbox, for example, had the same fire power as a hundred soldiers in the past. Relatively few sailors in submarines could sink vital supply ships and starve an entire country into submission -- something the German's came close to achieving with Great Britain in WWII.

So the research, development, improvement and manufacturing were often seen as more important than the number of soldiers and the size of the military. For example, Germany with a smaller army was certain it could defeat a much larger Russian military because of Germany's superior technology. And when Russia finally did defeat Germany, it was due in large part to the superior Russian technology, the T-34 tanks which the Russians could produce in vast numbers along with the Soviet Katyusha multiple rocket launchers, for example.

This 'battle of technology' was a mindset for about 80 years until the collapse of the Soviet Empire around 1991. 

Yet the battle was not only about technology but about production. Massive production became the goal. In WWII, for example, the US greatly out produced Germany and Japan which gave the US a decided advantage. But when the war ended, a production system was in place that could then mass produce consumer goods, a system which continues to this day.


The following is only a partial list of the technologies that were rapidly developed due to the demands of war. Today these technologies form the core of our modern world and are also responsible for many of the environmental problems we now face.

Quantity has a quality all its own.
Joseph Stalin

In WWII the manufacturing of goods
was as important as soldiers firing their rifles.

The war was a battle about production as much as military might. The US proved, for example, that it could build ships faster than Germany could sink them.

Mass Production
Perhaps the most important and least understood technological development due to a century of war was the huge infrastructure and methodology that developed for the creation of planes, tanks, boats, guns, clothes, bombs, bullets, K-rations, fuel, Jeeps, etc. While the basis for this type of production already existed with, for example, Sears and the Sears catalog -- the war created a mammoth system unlike any that had existed before.

This colossal network relied on thousands of subcontractors who themselves relied on suppliers and who were spread out across the country. The technology required that all contractors could do precision manufacturing. When the parts from various subcontractors were assembled at a central plant, everything needed to go together properly -- such as the building of the B-29 Superfortress bomber. 

Once completed mass produced products had to be transported to the right military operation which usually involved crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific. Then clothes, bullets, rifles, K-rations etc. had to be distributed to individual units and individual soldiers. 

This system set into motion the infrastructure and systematizing of our modern day world -- where, for example, products made in China are shipped to the US and then put in thousands of Walmart stores in the right quantities and on time. And it is this massive manufacturing and distribution system that has contributed to our environmental problems today.

In 1903 the first Wright Brothers' plane flew (left). A later early design (right).

The Wright Brothers' first airplane few in 1903. Because of the pressures of war and the military, less than forty years later the highly advanced B-29 Superfortress bomber was tested and soon after thousands of these planes were flying in the Pacific. The pressures of war caused airplanes to be developed much faster than they would have developed in peace time. Planes, of course, have now become the main means of long distance transportation.
In 1939, total aircraft production for the US military was less than 3,000 planes. By the end of the war, America produced 300,000 planes. No war was more industrialized than World War II. It was a war won as much by machine shops as by machine guns. 

State-of-the-art B-29 Superfortress only 40 years after the first Wright Brothers' flight (left). Assembly plant for the B-29s which were produced in large numbers (right).

The development of sophisticated radar in Britain created an early warning system for attacking Nazi airplanes which was a major factor in the defeat of German airplanes during the Battle of Britain. Today radar is a critical component of air traffic control along with weather monitoring and prediction.

Computers were a key factor in the British effort to break the Nazi Enigma code. Without computers this code could not have been broken. Later during the American program to land a man on the moon -- which was really a "Space Race," a Cold War battle between the Russia and the US -- computers were also key. Today, of course, we now live in a world dominated by computers

Manufacturing the first antibiotic, penicillin, on a massive scale was a major war effort by the Americans. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, huge quantities were available. Today it is hard to imagine modern life without antibiotics. Just about everyone at some point has had an infection that required an antibiotic. Without this treatment they would have died or suffered from that untreated ailment for the rest of their lives.

Wireless Communication 
A key element of the very successful German Blitzkrieg -- lightning war that overran Poland and France -- was the new wireless radio communication between the tanks on the field and also with the tank commanders. Radio became another crucial component of war, as effective communication was often the difference between victory and defeat. Today wireless technology such as satellite communication, the Internet and wireless phones are an everyday part of our lives and the modern world.

Recreation of a Nazi V-2 rocket.
A crash Nazi rocket program succeeded in developing the V-2 rocket by the end of the war. The rocket was then perfected during the Cold War with ICBMs (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles). Today, this technology is essential for the placement of satellites which modern phone, weather, GPS, television, computers and communication depend on.

The US Interstate Highway System was built in part 
so that Atlas nuclear missiles could be transported rapidly and efficiently.

Hitler built the Autobahn in Germany which was the first superhighway. President Eisenhower copied this idea and inaugurated the Interstate Highway System. These superhighways in the US have been a major benefit to trucking, shipping and to a nationwide distribution system. These highways were also designed with a Cold War military purpose: the high bridges and extensive network of roads were and still are used to transport nuclear weapons.

Synthetic & Other Materials
Because some countries did not have access to certain key materials such as rubber, a major war effort was made to develop synthetic materials that were as good as the natural material. For example, because the Axis Powers controlled almost all of the natural rubber, the US embarked on a major effort to develop synthetic rubber. By the end of the war, the US was producing more than twice as much synthetic rubber as the world production of natural rubber at the beginning of the war. This success led to a number of substitute synthetic materials being developed -- which are today a major part of the modern manufacturing ability. From the massive production of plywood, deemed an "essential war material" in the US, to the creation of synthetic gasoline and oil by the Germans, the war accelerated the development and manufacture of hundreds of everyday materials.

More than 100 million K-rations were produced in 1944. 
Some believe this was the beginning of modern fast food.

Landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

The Wizard War
The success of the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day was due as much to an electronic arsenal as it was to the ships, planes and men who landed. Using sophisticated all weather radar navigation systems, the ability to jam German communications and even an early GPS type of technology, the victory was achieved in part with state-of-the-art electronic and wireless technology that Churchill dubbed "The Wizard War." This sophisticated understanding of electronics led to the electronic world of today.
See the list of about 40 different ELECTRONIC SYSTEMS USED BY THE ALLIES ON D-DAY: 

For an overview of the use and development of technology
in WWII, see this page on Wikipedia: 

Virtually all of these military technologies listed above helped build our modern world. But because they were built with such urgency, attention was focused on their successful development with little thought about the consequences -- the by-products.
The environmental impact of the new war technology and a large manufacturing base was far reaching but I'll save a more detailed discussion for another blog.
However, the following is a brief overview. 

The environmentally-friendly consumer practices of WWII such as sharing rides, extensive recycling and home gardens known as "Victory Gardens" went by the wayside after the war. With a now established large manufacturing capability, company demands for higher profits  and huge demand from soldiers who were returning to civilian life, the austerity of the war years was gladly forgotten. For example, the practice of returning soda-pop bottles for a deposit gave way to convenience with a "use once and throw away" culture that has today created severe environmental problems. Ever increasing electronics has led to the construction of a large number of generating plants that are today principle contributors to greenhouse gases. And over the last century the average number of people in a household was halved yet the average home size more than doubled.
Yet occasionally the environmental consequences became so serious, they were dealt with -- such as the problem of atmospheric testing of atom bombs which was causing radiation to be spread around the world. This led to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 under President Kennedy, for example.

But the subtler aspects such as the effects of mass production were not recognized. And today we are paying the price. For example, it was recently reported in 2015 that nearly every seabird, about 90%, has eaten plastic.

While I will need to do further research on this, I believe that during the war years a successful product was the most important consideration -- with little thought about by-products, pollution, toxic wastes, environmental consequences, etc. Winning the war was the overriding consideration, understandably. But once the war was over, these side effects needed to be studied and taken into consideration, which I do not believe they were.

Understanding the history of how we arrived at this environmental crisis may help us find a way out. And the problem in a way is quite simple: we are now playing catch-up.

If there had been no wars in the last hundred years, it might have taken two hundred years for our modern technology to develop. With that slower development -- with more time to focus on the production methods as well as the product, for example -- we might have had time to adjust our technology to be more in tune with the Earth's environment.

Today our system of technology and manufacturing -- a result of the technology wars of the last century -- is entrenched. It has been allowed to grow and flourish without much control or awareness, in part due to the urgency of war. And because it is now entrenched there is substantial opposition to changing the status quo. 

However, it is now becoming obvious that we have no choice. We must create a technology which is Earth friendly, rather than Earth disrupting. But perhaps there is hope. It seems likely that the next generation, born in the 21st Century, understands the environmental urgency and will do something. But it will be decades before they are in charge and in the mean time, we, the older generation, may have done irreparable harm.

Keep your fingers crossed.

Note to students and scholars: I believe a number of books could be written on this subject, perhaps targeting each industry or innovation. This might help us understand not only how we got into this situation but also how to tame the beast we have unleashed -- using the lessons of history.