War's Environmental Impact: Environmental Abuse Leads to Conflict and Conflict Leads to Environmental Abuse

Alternatives Journal, September-October 2004 | Go to article overview

War's Environmental Impact: Environmental Abuse Leads to Conflict and Conflict Leads to Environmental Abuse


WHEN WE THINK OF WAR, we typically (and appropriately) think of the tragic loss of human life. War also has many other economic, political and social costs, some of them tied to the environment. These environmental factors may be less obvious than the immediate death and destruction left in the wake of war. However, from the planning stages of armed conflict to long after the actual fighting is over, the environment is an increasingly important consideration. Enormous amounts of resources are used up by military efforts, and weapons development and testing leave a lasting burden of contamination. The environment is often damaged as a result of open combat, but historically it has sometimes been directly targeted as a way to deprive enemies of water, food and shelter. And although war is never attributable to one cause alone, environmental issues--such as disputes over land and resources--are a factor in many conflicts. Here we use the principles of environmental impact assessment to provide concrete examples that show how every stage of war leaves its mark on the landscape.

Causes of War

Biological Opium trafficking, a trade that British merchants had found a lucrative market, was outlawed in China in 1836. The Opium Wars began in 1839 when China enforced its prohibition of opium by destroying a large quantity of the drug confiscated from British merchants. Opium is derived from poppies.

Chemical Saddam Hussein's supposed possession of chemical (and other) weapons of mass destruction was one US rationale for invading Iraq in 2003.

Physical: alterations Destruction of traditional lands and decimation of hunting game during the American colonization contributed to the Indian Frontier Wars (1864-1890) which ended at Wounded Knee.

Physical: resources Opposing Japan's expansionist plans, the US cut off oil imports to Japan in the 1941 embargo. Japan had already been facing oil shortages for its military, and the embargo was one of the final contributing factors for its attack on oil-rich South Asia.

Preparation for War

Biological After a naval exercise in March 2000, seven whales died after beaching themselves in the Bahamas. Marine mammals have air cavities that can rupture from underwater shock waves caused by sonar and weapons testing.

Chemical The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, installed along Canada's north during the Cold War to ensure early detection of foreign attacks, has left an ongoing burden of PCB contamination. …

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War's Environmental Impact: Environmental Abuse Leads to Conflict and Conflict Leads to Environmental Abuse
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