What We Talk About When We Talk About War (VII)

According to the website Wars in the World, as of 11 September 2014, there are currently ongoing conflicts classified as ‘wars’ in 64 countries; there are conflicts involving of 567 militias, guerrilla and separatist groups.

The conflicts are based on everything from ideological and religious issues to narcotics to territorial disputes. There are a few very high profile confrontations, hundreds of others that, like dangerous embers, continue to burn and flare into flame.

Armed aggression is immediate, it’s acute, it demands an answer and it threatens force regardless of the answer given. We usually have a good idea of who threw the first stone, or at least, who is throwing stones at one another.

The Consequences of War (1637-38) Peter Paul Rubens

The Consequences of War (1637-38)
Peter Paul Rubens

Of course we pay attention when conflict requires. Conflict demands all our energy, our resources, our media focus, our politics.

This month marks the world’s highest number of refugees displaced by conflict – over 51 million – since WWII. There are entire groups of displaced persons who have not been able to return to their homelands for years, sometimes decades, after the initial conflict has ended.

If we measure the level of conflict by the number of people affected and displaced, we are at a sad high-water mark.

When it comes to people displaced by environmental deterioration, including land loss and degradation, as well as natural disaster, the estimated number of refugees varies wildly. The very definition of environmental refugees is disputed and complicated, because the fundamentals of environmental change are complicated in themselves.

How many people have been displaced due to loss of habitat? It’s estimated that the Dust Bowl drought (1930-1940) in the United States initiated a migration of 3.5 million people. Current estimates around the world place numbers in the tens of millions.

From the photo series 'A Tale of Paradise Lost—Climate Refugees in Bangladesh' Photo: Munem Wasif

From the photo series ‘A Tale of Paradise Lost—Climate Refugees in Bangladesh’
Photo: Munem Wasif

There is no obvious aggressor when rivers overflow and flood – was it a rainy year? Was the water infrastructure poorly conceived? Was land for housing and industry located too close to flooding areas? When water runs out, is it due to drought, or land mismanagement, poor farming techniques, or livestock overgrazing, or all of the above?

And the fix is just as complicated as the problem, maybe more so, because it requires a complete rethinking of how we do things.

But we know how to do aggression, violence, war and we know how to react.

Which is why what we talk about when we talk about war is just one thing: War.

While we focus all our resources on the immediate threat, the bright spotlight of world attention leaves everything else in the shadows.

Scorched Earth – International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict

Over the past week, bombs were found in England and Germany which dated back to the Second World War. The bomb found in Dortmund, Germany, weighed 4000 lbs (1800 kg) and prompted the evacuation of 20,000 people in a one mile radius. There are estimates of up to 100,000 unexploded, hidden bombs in Germany alone, many of them with chemical triggers that could go off at any time. As these 70-year-old bombs rust and deteriorate, the cost and effort to remove only increases.

Bomb on a British beach Photo: Albanpix.com

Bomb on a British beach
Photo: Albanpix.com

These bombs are just the remainder of the many more that targeted human beings. War is waged by humans, against other humans, but the land continues to hold the marks and history of a war even when it is long gone.

Often enough, though, the land itself is the direct or indirect target of aggression.

Wars have a legacy of destroyed farmlands, poisoned water supplies and burned forests. We count the casualties of war in human terms, but when landmines, chemical and radioactive weapons are used, they can leave entire territories unsafe for man or beast. Environmental contamination from landmines left behind, from chemicals that pollute the soil, mean a conflict is kept alive long after the actual war is over.

Photo: Metrolic

Photo: Metrolic

Today, November 6, is the United Nations International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict.

This day is meant to draw attention to the illegality of scorched earth tactics, but also to highlight that “over the last 60 years, at least 40 percent of all internal conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources, whether high-value resources such as timber, diamonds, gold and oil, or scarce resources such as fertile land and water.” I would add to this the poaching and sale of endangered animals and their parts.

Photo: Metrolic

Photo: Metrolic

“It is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment,” and that

Care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread, long-term and severe damage. This protection includes a prohibition of the use of methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause such damage to the natural environment and thereby to prejudice the health or survival of the population.”

At a meeting of the United Nations First Committee 2013 last month, several countries suggested these articles “do not effectively protect the environment during armed conflict due to the stringent and imprecise threshold required to demonstrate damage.”

Once thick with 90 percent native tropical forests, following conflict Sierra Leone now has less than 4 percent forest cover. Caption/Credit: UNEP

Once thick with 90 percent native tropical forests, following conflict Sierra Leone now has less than 4 percent forest cover.
Caption/Credit: UNEP

Wealthy and developed nations such as Germany and England still contend with the toxic legacies of a war that lasted six years, and it’s impossible to say how long the conflicts of today will remain in the soil and waters of the lands where they are being fought.

As stated on the UN web page dedicated to this day:

There can be no durable peace if the natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystems are destroyed.

Thanks to Landmines in Africa and Toxic Remnants of War for offering helpful comments on this post – I highly recommend a visit to these informative and inspiring initiatives.

World Environment Day 2013

Infographic: Oxfam

Some geologists and archeologists are ready to label modern times as the Anthropocene Epoch, the Era of Man, for the tremendous impact mankind has had on the planet.

The question is, if mankind merits its own epoch, when did it start? Some argue for the Industrial Revolution, which led to the revolutionary release of trapped carbon, gases and other materials into the atmosphere and environment we are now experiencing. Others argue that the epoch might have begun over 11,000 years ago – when mankind began radically altering landscapes and environments through farming.

One of our defining characteristics as humans, what makes us ‘modern’, is our attempt to control our food supply through agriculture, as opposed to hunting and gathering what is available at a given time and place.

We have become extremely skilled at producing food. What we haven’t mastered is distribution, food production that doesn’t cause more environmental damage than the hunger it should prevent, and good management.

The theme of the 2013 World Environment Day is Think.Eat.Save. The focus is on food waste.

It seems that another defining human characteristic is that when we are blessed with excess, we quickly forget how not to be wasteful.

Infographic: FERN International


World Environment Day 2013 (WED) – United Nations Environment Programme