In Make It Rain: State Control of the Atmosphere in Twentieth-Century America, Kristine Harper analyzes attempts to alter weather patterns for the better in the United States beginning in the late nineteenth century. Acknowledging that they can be looked at from a number of angles, Harper argues that the truly central and unifying theme of their story is the role played by the “state” (i.e., the national government): how efforts for weather control flourished so long as they met the wishes of officials, agencies, and funders in Washington, and withered once they ceased doing so. Chapter 1 chronicles their prehistory: such early initiatives as the congressionally funded rainmaking trials of the 1890s and the Army Signal Corps’ “electrified sand” experiments shortly after World War I, the American Progressive movement and its eagerness to improve nature, and the adamant skepticism, nearly a constant throughout the story, of the atmospheric science community. In Harper’s account, the heyday of state-supported weather-control efforts spanned about three decades, taking off abruptly around 1946, reaching “dizzying heights” (p. 2) in the 1960s, and declining sharply in the mid-1970s. The rainmaking ventures highlighted in her title indeed dominated all others. Most were for beneficial purposes, including the early Project Cirrus, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Project Skywater, and the high-level GROMET effort of the 1960s to break droughts in India; others sought to develop offensive rainmaking as a Cold War military tool, countering supposed research in the same field by the Soviet Union, and to apply it on the ground in Southeast Asia. But federal government efforts extended to other areas as well, from hurricane steering or suppression (Project Stormfury) to lightning prevention to fog dispersal. An important subplot involves the way in which the sponsorship of eminent scientists from other and presumably more “basic” fields, above all the chemist Irving Langmuir, gave the enterprise an aura of intellectual respectability in the eyes of many decision makers. Although appropriately wary of drawing direct lessons for contemporary debates on climate management, Harper concludes by noting the unresolved questions from the earlier era that continue to arise today. Make It Rain is rich in the traditional virtues of historical research. Harper has ransacked a trove of primary sources, published and archival, to produce much the fullest account available of an important episode in would-be environmental engineering. Her often jazzy style agreeably lightens a sometimes oppressive crowding of actors, agencies, and incidents. And the theme of state control gives the book more unity than a mere chronicle of events would possess, although the theme itself is at times pressed a bit too heavily on the material. Harper’s focus on the state does not allow for much attention to the activities of private commercial rainmakers except insofar as they came under government regulation (largely by the individual states, the subject of a full chapter, the announced focus on federal actions notwithstanding). The opening section might usefully have considered the congressional and public debate on the 1890s experiments—a rare gap in the book’s coverage—and such early attempts to make it rain through land-cover change as the 1873 Timber Culture Act, government promotion of settlement on the Great Plains in the “rain follows the plow” era, and some elements of the New Deal Shelterbelt Program. And Harper passes rather quickly over one possible interpretation of her findings that would see the relative weakness and fragmentation of American government as an important factor, yet the whole story she tells seems to be to bear it out rather well. The patchwork of uncoordinated activities of state and federal governments, of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and of military and civilian actors is underlined by the failure she recounts of the national Advisory Committee on Weather Control in 1957 to impose unity and direction on it. In any case, such an interpretation could only be judged by a comparison with the weather-control activities of other countries, one for which her book, among its other virtues, would make an excellent starting point. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 8, 2018
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