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Monday, December 14, 2009

War and the environment

I recently read War and Nature: The Environmental Consequences of War in a Globalized World, by Jurgen Brauer. The book, which is not for the faint of heart, as it bristles with notes and bibliography, is nonetheless important, because it is an authoritative volume on an important subject.

Over and over, Brauer points out that we don't really know very much about his subject. The main reason is that wars are not even close to ideal situations for ecological study. Even after a war, things are often chaotic and dangerous. Beside that, the entities involved in fighting wars seldom put a high priority on environmental studies. Also, wars often take place in countries that are poor, and that haven't done much study on the environmental situation before a war was fought, so it is impossible to really know how much damage a war might have done.

There have been some studies, in spite of the situations described in the previous paragraph. There was a study on the environmental effects of the First Gulf War, and there was a study on the environmental effects of the Viet Nam war. There have been a few other studies.

So what does Brauer conclude? Several things.
1) It is likely that wars can be extremely detrimental to the environment, in spite of the lack of studies that support that assumption, so far. Wars are terrible, and we should try to avoid having them.
2) Perhaps the most important cause of damage from war is displaced human populations, who often degrade the environment around where they end up, sometimes because they aren't used to living in the new area, and try to re-create the agriculture of their old place, which may not be appropriate. Not only that, but war refugees are usually, and understandably, desperate for food and fuel, and do considerable damage to their new surroundings to obtain these.
3) Sometimes wars have positive environmental effects. The Korean War left that peninsula with a Demilitarized Zone, which, having little human influence, has become a haven for wildlife.
4) War may be beneficial, in that it interrupts environmentally damaging activity by humans, such as mining and deforestation.
5) It appears that some areas have recovered quite well from the environmental effects of war.

We don't do a very good job, as a species, in taking care of the environment, even in peace time.

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