The environmental impacts of war

ResearchBlogging.orgLast year Bioscience published a review article proposing a new discipline in conservation ecology: warfare ecology [PDF]. It’s now making the rounds in the science blogosphere, with good coverage at Conservation Blog and Deep Sea News, where I first happened upon it – and it deserves all the attention it can get.

In the U.S., at any rate, war and preparation for war tend to get priority over everything – especially tree-hugging environmental concerns. Exhibit A is last year’s Supreme Court decision that the Navy’s need to practice with sonar trumps the damage sonar can do to whale populations, to the extent that the Navy could not be required to do an environmental impact assessment before beginning the exercise. War is treated as an emergency, and who worries about environmental impacts during emergencies?

Yet environmental damage caused in the course of war has direct impact on the human aftermath of conflict. Refugees provided with nowhere else to go will often set up camp in protected lands. Materials used in warfare – Agent Orange defoliant used in Southeast Asia, depleted uranium in Iraq – can continue to kill people long after the fighting ends. On the other hand, the review’s authors, Machlis and Hanson, point out that demilitarized zones and military training grounds often serve as (perhaps overly-well protected) accidental preserves.

This is a subject I’ve thought about quite a bit before – way back in my undergraduate days, I won a Mennonite Central Committee oratorical contest with a speech that connected peace theology to environmental concerns. That speech now looks to me like slightly embarrassing juvenalia, but the central idea still holds, and it’s great to see that working ecologists are thinking along similar lines. By laying out a framework for thinking about the environmental impacts of war, Machlis and Hanson’s paper can hopefully help push governments to consider the longer-term environmental, economic, and social consequences of ecological decisions made in the course of preparing for and prosecuting war.


G. Machlis, & T. Hanson (2008). Warfare ecology BioScience, 58 (8), 729-36 DOI: 10.1641/B580809