The Cold War and the Environment, Part 1

We’re all familiar with the geopolitical strands of the Cold War – the nuclear threats and positioning, decolonization, protests, battles, and wars – but what about what was happening not just on the ground, but in the ground?  How did the earth and air, water and creatures all respond to the unprecedented amount of development?  How did new and more numerous chemicals, nuclear waste, and exploration (and alteration) in space, polar regions, and undersea affect the planet? Moreover, how did these alterations impact subsequent human choices?  This global story has many parts that we will never be able to fully document, but the easiest answer is that the Cold War placed enormous stress on the earth, expanding human opportunities on some fronts and circumscribing them in others. Certain effects will be felt into the distant future, like nuclear fallout. Other Cold War era developments re-ordered our relationship to the earth, such as the large-scale use of fertilizers and irrigation introduced through the Green Revolution (a program supported by the West, in part, to feed and promote democracy among citizens of non-aligned nations).  And some Cold War effects were acute but reversible, like unexploded land mines and other military ordinances here in the United States and around the globe.  But the environmental impact of the Cold War extends much beyond warfare and diplomacy.  As a public relations offensive against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the United States promoted a consumer-oriented, auto-dependent, technology-dependent, suburban culture that had far-reaching environmental consequences throughout the nation and abroad. By studying the environmental impact of this resource-dependent culture, students gain a more complete understanding of the pervasive and long lasting impact of the Cold War era.

The culture that emerged during the Cold War reflected the economic and social ramifications of the Great Depression and a World War.  After World War II most Americans not only believed that participation in a mass consumer economy would promote prosperity, but that affluence was also integral to the realization of long sought American ideals – democracy and equality.  Consumption drove an economic cycle that created jobs for Americans, and in turn a higher homeownership rate that spurred a greater consumption of goods such as cars, appliances and furnishings. A quote from Bride Magazine in the late 1940s encouraged this cycle: [When you buy] “the dozens of things that you never bought or even thought of before…you are helping to build greater security for the industries of this country…[W]hat you buy and how you buy it is very vital in your new life – and to our whole American way of living."1  Individual consumer choices were tied to national security, and in no arena was this more obvious or widespread than in the suburban home – a rapidly spreading phenomenon. Indeed, one out of every four homes standing in the U.S. in 1960 had been built in the 1950s, bringing homeownership to 62% of Americans (in comparison to 44% at the beginning of WWII). 

Students do not have to look far to see the impact of these national developments. California embodied and often influenced the shape of America’s Cold War culture, as well as the emerging environmental ethic that flowed from these remarkable developments. Federal defense spending drove Cold War research and development in the Golden State (ultimately bringing far more wealth and people than the Gold Rush), and sustained the state’s phenomenal growth that began in the early 1940s.  It is not an exaggeration to say that wartime imperatives reshaped the California landscape. Nowhere was this felt more keenly than along California’s treasured coastline, which has always drawn the bulk of the state’s residents.  These maps show a striking amount of development along the San Francisco Bay from World War II until the close of the Cold War – note the year 1962, when California celebrated its new status as the union’s most populous state. Residential and commercial development proceeded so rapidly in this era that by the 1960s only 1/5 of California’s coast was accessible to the public.  In places such as Port Hueneme, north of Los Angeles, artificial fill and breakwaters caused stretches of the beach to disappear altogether, prompting the importation of sand to preserve a town’s beachfront.  A significant portion of coastal sloughs and estuaries disappeared, and with them, valuable habitat and nature’s pollution filter. 

San Francisco Development in the 1940s1962 SF development1990 SF development

Of course we cannot attribute all California development in this era to wartime prerogatives - plenty of new residents and businesses came to California because of its captivating qualities - but the economic opportunities of this era were largely generated by the state’s military industrial complex. As the Cold War heated up, California’s coast supported an ever-increasing number of residents and businesses. The development of Lakewood in the early 1950s – a suburban community of 17,500 new homes situated less than 20 miles from the Pacific and close to industrial plants such as Douglas Aircraft – is California’s version of Levittown. The City of Lakewood became an enormous footprint of homes, roads, shopping centers, schools and churches, where once stood a sugar beet farm.  These new and extremely popular suburbs met the enormous housing demand by utilizing tract-home designs that were relatively inexpensive and quick to assemble.  But these homes were not designed or sited to take advantage of natural shade, sun exposure, or cross-ventilation, nor did insulation or windows vary considerably depending on the climate. While inexpensive to purchase, these tract homes had high environmental costs due to their energy inefficiency. And yet such reckonings did not slow the spread (some said “sprawl”) of California’s suburbs. 1954 marked the first year since statehood in which the number of acres in farmland began to decrease; during this decade and in the 1960s, 60,000 acres of California’s agricultural land was cleared each year for residential development. Southern California industries spawned the greatest growth, but as already noted, the San Francisco Bay Area experienced rapid growth as well, especially due to the boom in the Silicon Valley in Santa Clara County. Federal research funds flowed into electronics companies during the war, spurring jobs, innovation, and environmental toxicity as solvents and chemical waste contaminated local water.  By 1986 Santa Clara County had more federal toxic cleanup sites than any other county in the nation.

Images: A historical perspective of urban development for the San Francisco Bay region. Image courtesy of the USGS Land Cover Institute; The construction of Lakewood Subdivision - note the conveyer belt to bring tiles to roof. Image courtesy of the City of Lakewood.