Todays guest post comes from Marc Lallanilla. Lallanilla is a science, health and environmental writer and editor for LiveScience.com, About.com and ABCNews.com. For the Earth Matters blog, Lallanilla offers us some poignant thoughts on a the environmental impacts of war. Too often looked past in popular media, the environmental effects of war have a measurable impact on our lives. Also a talking point for Earth Matters artists Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh, Lallanilla’s thought provoking words are part of nuanced discussion of our relationship to the earth.
The Environmental Effects of War
By Marc Lallanilla
Centuries ago, the armies of ancient Rome sowed salt into the cropland of their enemies, making the soil useless for farming and ensuring the total conquest of their foes.
Using salt to ruin farmland was an early use of military herbicide, which would again be used to devastating effect in Vietnam, when Agent Orange was sprayed on the forests that provided cover to guerrilla soldiers. Between 1961 and 1971, an estimated 20 million gallons of the herbicide was used, decimating some 4.5 million acres of countryside.
These are just a few examples of the effects of war on the environment. Indeed, there are few human endeavors that can wreak near-total devastation on the natural world with the ruthless efficiency of warfare.
Beyond wholesale habitat destruction, war can help to spread invasive species, lead to the collapse of critical infrastructure like water treatment facilities, and cause widespread hunting and poaching of rare and endangered species.
While it may seem counterintuitive, some experts have argued that military conflicts often end up preserving the natural environment. “It’s one of the findings that’s utterly contrary to expectations,” said Jurgen Brauer, Ph.D, professor of economics at Augusta State University in Georgia. “The most preserved area in all of Korea is the demilitarized zone, because you have the exclusion of human activity.”
Indeed, experts have noted that despite the massive amounts of herbicide use during the Vietnam War, more forests have been lost in that country since the war ended than during it, due to peacetime commerce (such as logging and farming) and Vietnam’s quest for prosperity.
The blackened skies that erupted over Kuwait during the oil fires of 1991 provided dramatic visual evidence of war-related environmental damage. These oil fires, however, burned in one month roughly the same amount of oil burned by the United States in a single day.
Despite these facts, experts are quick to emphasize that this is not an argument in favor of armed conflict. “War is not good for the environment,” adds Brauer, author of War and Nature: The Environmental Consequences of War in a Globalized World.
Carl Bruch, co-director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C., adds that warfare only delays the environmental damage of peaceful human activity and commerce. “It may provide a respite, but the long-term effects of war aren’t that different from what happens under commercial development,” Bruch said.
Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh (b. 1963, Egypt; b. 1963, Iran)
We Are Destroying Planet Earth, 2007
Charcoal, ink, collage, stickers, embroidery on paper
Courtesy Tina Kim Gallery, New York, and Kukje Gallery, Seoul