“We’ve really opened a can of worms, haven’t we?” Donald F. Hornig

“Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment … and will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the stratosphere.”

psac 1965

I love how the internet allows a person to randomly connect to remarkable things. This morning I found a link to a piece of a report given to President Johnson in 1965. Did you know that in 1965 physicists were able to predict a warmer climate, the melting of Antarctica’s glaciers, a global sea rise and even less obvious phenomenon such as increasing water acidity? They even knew that the effects of carbon dioxide pollution would appear by the year 2000.

My favourite part is the beautiful maths. These guys were so brilliant they didn’t even need computer generated climate models to reach what has proven to be the correct conclusion. They just did the mathematics. By hand. I assume. (Not that there is anything wrong with using computers, climate models or continuing to make predictions. I am just admiring their elegant thinking.)

The report begins with:

“Ours is a nation of affluence. But the technology that has permitted our affluence spews out vast quantities of wastes and spent products that pollute our air, poison our waters, and impair our ability to feed ourselves. … We must give highest priority of all to increasing the numbers and quality of the scientists and engineers working on problems related to the control and management of pollution.”

Donald F. Hornig
Donald F. Hornig

The more I look at history the more astonished I am by how radically this society shifted within my lifetime to being so pro-capitalist and anti-intellectual. The Chairman of the report given to President Johnson was Donald F. Hornig. Nobody at the time would have dared to suggest Hornig was some kind of drug soaked hippy or in any way anti-establishment.

Hornig was one of the youngest members of the Manhattan Project, yet he was given a leadership role on the firing pin squad. He was present when the first atomic bomb exploded. His conclusion? “We’ve really opened a can of worms, haven’t we?” Though other project members were eventually horrified by the consequences of the research, Hornig said he never regretted his participation.

It is a bit amazing to think we live in a world where the policy conclusions of a guy able to create the first atomic bomb with only the faintest nudge of conscience could be characterized by mainstream media outlets as radical or deep green … that we live in a world where opinion pieces could denounce his suggestions as harmful to the economy … or that his conclusion ought to be dismissed as the product of ‘junk science.’

You know you’ve stumbled onto a brave new world when even unrepentant bomb scientists are too green. It is almost as if we collided with some alternate reality.

8 thoughts on ““We’ve really opened a can of worms, haven’t we?” Donald F. Hornig

  1. interesting – well we knew back then didnt we and we kept thinking that the mainstream would catch on and backtrack instead we moved into the supersonic high tech guzzle guzzle age …
    now who is caught in the web and how do we put the lid back on?


    1. It is interesting to imagine though if all our best minds went into repairing our environment then — instead of directly into the military-industrial-financial complex — where we would be now. The lid is coming whether we want it or not. The question is now how to prepare I suppose.


  2. That is so interesting. I wrote a post today on environmental issues going back to the 1970’s when the issues seemed to become so well written. The 60’s with Carson’s book set off a firestorm on environmental issues, but I never heard of the report in 1965. Very interesting. Big business and oil stopped it in its tracks I bet.


    1. Like I say I never knew about this report either even though it was released to the public because the White House felt it would be important to ordinary people. Lyndon Johnson was of course a pretty complicated person but his record on the environment wasn’t all that bad actually. He and his wife Lady Bird both had a deep love of wild places. He was responsible for a number of important acts that actually did a lot to protect the environment. Even Nixon was a paragon of environmentalism compared to the policies of today. It is really mind blowing.


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