The toll of war: Looking at ecology

26th Sep 2014

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy

As warfare unfolds around the world, the tolls are often assessed in terms of human casualties, diminished GDP, and massive displacement. One severely overlooked category of destruction lies in the ecology and physical environment of a war-torn place.

Upon assessing the aerial view from a satellite image before and after war, one can begin to internalize the extent of the damage. Even once peace is established, nations must rebuild their infrastructures on vastly different landscapes, with the most precious resources often compromised.

The paradigm of modern warfare is the strategic advantage of bombing infrastructure in order to exact maximum damage with the fewest human casualties on the side of the aggressor. Before major technological advancements allowed for these types of aerial attacks, war meant boots on the ground with each side attempting to take out as many soldiers on the opposing side as possible.

Though the human toll of war has diminished, the natural environment pays the ultimate price, and quality of life is decreased in the long term for all manner of life due to chemical and heavy metal exposure, polluted waterways, deforestation, scorched farmland, radiation poisoning, and degraded animal habitats.

Brian Palmer of Slate makes an interesting point: “In recent years, academics have been much more interested in how environmental degradation contributes to war than in how wars degrade the environment.” Environmental degradation affects crop yields and subsequent food supplies and income for farmers, contaminated water or drought keeps many who cannot afford this precious resource constantly parched, and deforestation perpetuates respiratory issues and the need to burn wood for fuel.

Strife often occurs due to people’s lack of access to the basic necessities of life and things are made worse once war actually erupts as efficient weaponry inflicts major damage at the touch of a button or pull of a trigger.

One practice employed extensively in the Vietnam War was the use of chemical defoliants to eradicate the forest canopy. These chemicals, most popularly Agent Orange, left American servicemen as well as the Vietnamese with “serious health issues, including tumours, birth defects, rashes, psychological symptoms and cancer” as described by the History Channel. Not only were these chemicals inhaled, but also contaminated the crops that fed both belligerents in the conflict. Thankfully, that particular practice is banned via the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Various countries in Africa have been in perpetual states of warfare for decades, yet this continent still boasts some of the most majestic, and at-risk wildlife. Park rangers and researchers flee civil war in parts of Africa, leaving huge swathes of land open to poachers. The millions of refugees who have fled their home countries can often only take the necessities and have to make do in tents and makeshift living arrangements. Without proper plumbing, irrigation, or energy sources, these victims must cut trees for firewood and rely on imported supplies that create exorbitant amounts of waste.

During the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had his Iraqi soldiers employ the scorched earth policy, blowing up more than six hundred oil wells, leaving millions of gallons to spill into the Persian Gulf. At the time it was the largest oil spill in history, and considered an act of eco-terrorism.

Our world seems to be in a constant state of warfare and there is no longer reluctance in going to battle. America has declared a War on Drugs, War on Poverty, and the post-9/11 Middle East conflict has been raging for over a decade. There is currently armed conflict in Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, Mexico, Ukraine, and many other nations. War is an industry that boosts arms trading and weapons manufacturing, but what does our war-mongering nature say about our intentions as a people? Are we so ready to throw away our land, displace our people, and pollute our ecosystems for the sake of “winning?”

No matter which side comes out valiant, we must start regarding nature high enough not to ruin our chances at peace, for we cannot have peace amidst our desperation for resources, the resources that only come from the natural world.

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