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Uncovering the military’s unlikely role in astrophysics and environmental conservation

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In “Unlikely Ally: How the Military Fights Climate Change and Protects the Environment,” journalist Marilyn Berlin Snell posits that — at least in Southern California — the military is actually a pretty good environmental citizen.

When we think of the military, chances are neither astrophysics nor environmentalism spring to mind. Two recent books explore the overlap between these ostensibly noncombatant fields and the armed forces, inviting us not only to rethink our understanding of war and those who wage it but space and how to care for the earth beneath our feet.

In “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, heir to Carl Sagan as astrophysics’ arch popularizer (and, yes, a man currently under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct), and longtime collaborator Avis Lang, hold that putting a person on the moon, sending probes to Mars, discerning new galaxies and divining the origins of the universe owe more to geopolitical power plays and the quest to seize space’s “commanding heights” for military advantage than the disinterested pursuit of knowledge.

Tyson and Lang trace this dynamic back to early human societies for whom the sky represented a fixed point of reference in an otherwise unruly world. On voyages of discovery and conquest, those who could read its signs and portents were coveted for their navigation prowess. Instruments were repurposed between research and military usage. Early telescopes could be aimed skyward to magnify stargazing or wielded on the battlefield to espy enemy forces massing on the horizon. This duality extended to modern times. A rocket’s payload can be explosives as in a missile; or a satellite, which in turn might open a window on space or spy on rivals down below. Satellites launched to police the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban by scouring for telltale “gamma-ray emissions,” wound up detecting deep-space “gamma-ray bursts.” Meanwhile, the heyday of manned spaceflight received a crucial assist from the Cold War, say Tyson and Lang — behind his soaring public rhetoric on the subject, JFK revealed more earthbound motivations to NASA brass privately: “I’m not that interested in space…the only justification…to do it in this time or fashion is because we hope to beat…[the Soviet Union]….”

Tyson and Lang pile up evidence to press their case. Along the way, readers will find primers on the “space-industrial complex,” China’s burgeoning space ambitions and the specter of space war. There are also lengthy discussions of such subjects as how World War II pilots foiled radar (by strewing the sky with aluminum foil) whose tenuous connections to its thesis attest to “Accessory to War’s” digressiveness; this is a rambunctious, rambling work.

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But what to make of its thesis, that cosmic leaps in astrophysical understanding represent the serendipitous fruit of the will to power? Here, the authors are surprisingly glum. On closer inspection, their thesis bears more than a touch of Harry Lime’s soliloquy in “The Third Man”: “…in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock…” They find little to get upset over in this situation: “We are the wagging tail on a large geostrategic dog, which makes decisions without direct reference to the desires of astrophysicists…science piggybacks on geopolitics.” Things are the way they are. Deal with it.

For the future, they conjure a realm called “Rationalia,” governed by evidence-based laws, in which wholesale space exploration presages earthly peace by supplying unlimited resources that eliminate scarcity and, thus, war. But this seems to abjure the hard-nosed realism — “Must war and profit be what drive both civilizations…and the investigation of other worlds? History…makes it hard to answer no”—that they otherwise express. “Rationalia” sounds far-removed from ‘ “Realitia.”

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Marilyn Berlin Snell, author of "Unlikely Ally"
(Kym Ventola)

If astrophysics is hardly synonymous with the military, then environmental-friendliness seems positively antonymous to it — this is an organization associated with scorching rather than saving the Earth.

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In “Unlikely Ally: How the Military Fights Climate Change and Protects the Environment,” journalist Marilyn Berlin Snell posits that — at least in Southern California — the military is actually a pretty good environmental citizen.

The military must abide by regulations governing endangered plants and wildlife

Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In return for a cut of downstream savings, government contracting rules stick vendors with the up-front cost of energy-efficiency projects, easing their adoption. Southland bases offer sanctuaries for species rousted from their habitats by exurban creep. And there’s the law: The military must abide by regulations governing endangered plants and wildlife.

But the efforts Snell documents transcend regulatory compliance.

Biologists on San Clemente Island, where Navy SEALs undergo training, brought a population of native songbirds back from the brink of extinction. In Miramar, marines teamed with the city of San Diego to tap methane from landfill to contribute to their energy needs and, prospectively, sate much of San Diego’s water needs. In the Mojave’s Fort Irwin, state-of-the-art purification techniques stand to double the lifespan of its water source.

These vignettes crystallize the quandaries of conservation amid climate change and globalization. A San Clemente Island biologist says that the $40 million bird repopulation drive can feel like an exercise in futility when the species dies off in the wild because of drought. And consider the “healthy habitat paradox” of administering toxic herbicide to eradicate invasive plants before healthy ecosystems may be restored.

They’re also dispatches from territory that few civilians get to see. At China Lake naval base, Snell wangles a tour of 8,000-year-old rock art from the resident archaeologist. En route, he pulls over in a roadside aerie “and surveys the chalky, still expanse of the China Lake playa, conjuring the Ice Age around fourteen thousand years ago. ‘When I look out at this landscape, I just see a very busy place.’ He sees mastodons, mammoths, ground sloths, and bison grazing on the savanna-like grasslands…” Deplaning on San Clemente Island amid “concussive thunks of heavy artillery,” she encounters a denuded landscape — the product not of military grunts but hordes of recently purged marauding goats.

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(Heyday Books)
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“Unlikely Ally” soars at such moments. Intrepidly traversing offbeat locales and endearingly oddball characters, drolly retailing obscure factoids, it recalls popular science maestro Mary Roach. But Roach’s work is marked also by readiness to get down and dirty in gunk, goop and gore to bring home the descriptive goods.

At times, “Unlikely Ally” is a bit breathless. Snell notes the perils of hype: “This green space…is fraught with every kind of sales person imaginable,” gripes an industry executive. But there’s another peril that goes unmentioned: “greenwashing.” “Unlikely Ally” cites a 2017 ProPublica series dinging the Pentagon for befouling acreage across its installations “larger than the state of Florida.” And this doesn’t touch on the environmental impact of combat activities in the field funded by spending that, Snell notes, outstrips that of “China, Russia, [Britain], France, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia and Canada combined.” Compared to this, the projects recounted in “Unlikely Ally” would seem to amount to a few token carbon offsets.

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Unlikely Ally: How the Military Fights Climate Change and Protects the Environment

Marilyn Berlin Snell

Heyday Books; 224 pp., $28

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Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military

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Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang

W.W. Norton & Company; 550 pp., $30

Stephen Phillips’ writing has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Economist, Wall Street Journal, Atlantic (online), Smithsonian, Washington Monthly, Irish Times and other publications.


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