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.

Horses, Railroads, Seeds and War

I learned a few new words today while on a trip down a research rabbit hole.

And as is so often the case, I can’t remember how I first got to the interesting blog, Cryptoforestry. But get there I did, and that’s when I fell down the hole.

The first word I learned is polemobotany, i.e. war botany. The study of fauna impacted during the course of military activity.

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Greater Yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus serotinus), which rode into Sweden on German military trains during WWII.

In a book on invasive species, author James Carlton describes how there was little danger of any unintentional hitch hikers on caterpillar-treaded vehicles from central Europe surviving the trip to desert conditions in the Middle East during the 1991 Gulf War.

In contrast,  the Australian military took steps to clean military vehicles on its tropical base in Darwin, Northern Territory, to prevent the introduction of invasive species to the similar environment of East Timor in 1999. Of course, the Australian military was part of a peacekeeping force, not an aggressive invader.

Wig knapweed (Centaurea phrygia subsp. phrygia), a WWII newcomer to Norway.

Wig knapweed (Centaurea phrygia subsp. phrygia), a WWII newcomer to Norway.

Another word I learned is related: polemochores, the followers, or seeds, of conflict. Coined at the end of the Second World War to denote alien plants introduced through war-related activities, this term refers to the tiny agents of polemobotany, the hitch hikers themselves, trespassing along with invasive forces, setting up camp and making themselves at home.

Unlike the invasive humans, however, polemochores would have to fall upon friendly ground to take root and thrive.

A further narrowing of the lens when it comes to polemochores led me to a couple of very specific types of botany study: hippochores. These are seeds introduced by horses and their foraging during the course of human conflict.

Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus), which invaded Finland during WWII

Heath rush (Juncus squarrosus), which invaded Finland during WWII

A further term, not nearly as official-sounding but just as interesting, is railroad botany: The botany of railroad tracks. Specifically, the botany of areas in which there are alien seeds transported by rail, particularly during conflict. This enlightening term was found in a 1979 paper titled Flora of the Railroads in St. Louis, Missouri by Viktor Mühlenbach, which someone kindly added to the Internet.

I found no specific terms referring to seed transportation by trucks, tanks, ships or boots during conflict, but I’m sure they exist.

Overgrown railroad tracks Photo: Frank Dutton

Overgrown railroad tracks
Photo: Frank Dutton

I did, however, find a reference to ‘rubble fauna, the plants that established themselves in the rubble of bombed urban areas during WWII – rubble offering “warmer and drier conditions than natural habitats and (being) a suitable habitat for plants and animals from warmer regions of the world. Many plants that were previously rare became permanent members of the urban flora in war-damaged European cities.”

So many ways to describe inadvertent anthrobotany, the way in which we alter the world around us through our human activities and disputes.

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

Defoliant spray run, part of Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War by UC-123B Provider aircraft. Source: USAF / Wikipedia

Defoliant spray run, part of Operation Ranch Hand,
during the Vietnam War by UC-123B Provider aircraft.
Source: USAF / Wikipedia

Mix equal parts of the broad-leaf herbicides 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and you’ve got yourself a batch of what’s commonly known as Agent Orange, the defoliant made famous during the Vietnam War. Herbicidal warfare was used first in Malaysia in the 1950s against communist insurgents. Based on this earlier implementation, with the approval of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, the United States began using it in 1961 against communist insurgents there.

The use of various chemicals in warfare was first declared as outside the boundaries of acceptable conduct in 1925 under the Gas Protocol, then under the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) of 1978,  and again on April 29, 1993 under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was established to ensure that the closure of chemical agent production facilities is monitored, and that stockpiles are destroyed.

Chemical weapons are relatively cheap, easy to mix (if you don’t count the potential hazardous effects on those doing the mixing), quick and lethal to use. Still, many states have been compliant with the CWC. Some, of course, have not. Or at least, not until it suited them.

Syrian chemical weapons. Source: Military.com

Syrian chemical weapons
Source: Military.com

Even when the chemicals are no longer in use, though, they tend to leave a long legacy in the form of damage to the victims who survived any initial attacks, as well as those who come into contact with the chemicals at any stage of their implementation and (sometimes) their disposal.

In the case of Agent Orange, U.S. war veterans of the era still suffering the effects of exposure. Among Vietnamese victims, chemical warfare hasn’t abated, with effects still evident in the grandchildren of those exposed.

Much of the environment that was sprayed in Vietnam four decades ago still hasn’t recovered. Many areas remain barren, or much reduced in biodiversity and fertility. Reforestation projects are underway to redress some of the damage done, but invasive weeds, the loss of tree seeds to renew the original habitat, as well as the devastation of regional fauna make the task a challenging one.

April 29: It’s the annual Day of Remembrance for All Victims of Chemical Warfare.

What we talk about when we talk about war (V)

Syrian desert. Photo: Marija Miloradovic/TrekEarth

Syrian desert.
Photo: Marija Miloradovic/TrekEarth


Permafrost warms, glaciers recede and life that has been dormant is revived – and biodiversity surprises abound. A number of otherwise extinct mosses and lichens have been exposed by the retreat Ellesmere Island’s Teardrop Glacier.

A 30,000-year-old virus, benign but previously unknown, was found in ice cores pulled from  Siberian permafrost.

Some apprehension is understandable; not all giant viruses are benign.

Credit: Julia Bartoli & Chantal Abergel; Information Génomique et Structurale, CNRS-AMU

Credit: Julia Bartoli & Chantal Abergel; Information Génomique et Structurale, CNRS-AMU

But another powerful environmental force has revived a virus much smaller, more recent, and more lethal. War supports biodiversity of the worst kind.

The polio virus, all but eradicated, has been making a comeback in the Middle East due to the retreat of vaccinations during the four-year conflict. A 95% vaccination rate is considered sufficient to keep the virus from infecting populations. The rate of vaccination during the Syrian war was estimated at 68% in 2012, and is less now.

Twenty five cases of polio have been confirmed in Syria since October 2013. Another 84 cases of measles have been confirmed in the first week of 2014, according to the World Health Organization. And an estimated 500,000 Syrian children, many unvaccinated, are now living as refugees in neighbouring countries.  A wider spread of the disease is feared. Vaccination programs are underway in refuge camps.

Polio is caused by a human enterovirus called the poliovirus. There are three types; Type 2 has been eliminated, Types 1 and 3 still exist, with Type 1 being the most pervasive and dangerous. Source: GPEI site photo gallery

Polio is caused by a human enterovirus called the poliovirus. There are three types; Type 2 has been eliminated, Types 1 and 3 still exist, with Type 1 being the most pervasive and dangerous.
Source: GPEI site photo gallery

Human-caused climate change extends to areas long covered by glaciers; it will be interesting and hopefully not too frightening to see what kind of viral biodiversity rebounds from the ice.

In the case of polio, however, we had come so far in pushing it to the brink of extinction. Watching its return as a result of human negligence and war is one environmental development that is both a sign of the tenacity of the virus, and of our own disregard for the best of which we are capable.

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.

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

We were walking on one of our forest hikes in Norway when we came upon this construction.

Walled construction. Trondheim, Norway Photo: PK Read

Walled construction. Trondheim, Norway
Photo: PK Read

It had a circular, snail-shell form that invited investigation. We weren’t sure what it was until we walked into it. It turned out to be a part of a military bunker from WWII. There were others, as well.

Bunker interior. Trondheim, Norway Photo: PK Read

Bunker interior. Trondheim, Norway
Photo: PK Read

As it turns out, the bunkers were an extended part of the German submarine base, Dora I, which was built by the German occupation force in the early 1940s. Trondheim was the largest German naval base in northern Europe from its construction until liberation in 1945.

Old supply tracks atop one of the hillsides lead to nowhere.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

The idyllic forest setting, the fjord nearby, the birds flying overhead and the myriad flowers all around these objects of conflict – it put me in mind of the great Jorge Luis Borges short story, The Circular Ruins (an online version is here).

Thousand-year dreams of dominance that still exist only in these structures meant to defend a force which has long since dissolved. All that remains are mossy reminders that many visitors most likely little know or care about, but which have become a permanent part of the environment.

Bunker. Trondheim, Norway Photo: PK Read

Bunker. Trondheim, Norway
Photo: PK Read

The submarine docks of Dora I, too large and expensive to be destroyed, now form a busy harbor for private boats, the docksides are packed with outdoor restaurants and shops.

For our part we continued on, and found a large field of wild raspberries, with the occasional hiker standing in the midst of a rich harvest, eating as they stood in the afternoon shade.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

And the only creatures watching the skies for intruders were these birds along the fjord.

Trondheimsfjord Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

What we talk about when we talk about war

Burning oil wells in Kuwait 1991

We talk about loss of life, politics, strategies, national identities, war crimes, armies, disruption, uncertainty and destruction.

We don’t usually talk about the environment, or when we do, it’s only when we see spectacular images. The old military scorched earth tactic to destroy crops and starve a populace isn’t the only way entire regions are devastated.
Environmental degradation; toxic waste from munitions, chemicals, fuel; pollution of air and water by military activities; habitat destruction for plant and wildlife.

According the Carlotta Gall (NYT), total forest area decreased 38 percent in Afghanistan from 1990 to 2007.  This is a result of illegal logging, which is associated with the rising power of the warlords, who have enjoyed U.S. support.  Refugees in search of fuel and building materials contribute to deforestation. Ever wonder how all those people fleeing conflict stay warm? Drought, desertification, and species loss that accompany habitat loss have been the result.  Moreover, as the wars have led to environmental destruction, the degraded environment itself contributes in turn to further conflict.

Costsofwar.org uses Afghanistan as an example for war-accelerated wildlife destruction. “Bombing in Afghanistan and deforestation have threatened an important migratory thoroughfare for birds leading through this area. The number of birds now flying this route has dropped by 85 percent.

“U.S. bases became a lucrative market for the skins of the endangered Snow Leopard, and impoverished and refugee Afghans have been more willing to break the ban on hunting them, in place since 2002.  Foreign aid workers who arrived in the city in large numbers following the collapse of the Taliban regime have also purchased the skins.  Their remaining numbers in Afghanistan were estimated at between 100 and 200 in 2008.” (http://costsofwar.org/article/environmental-costs#_ftnref6)

So as wars continue and others heat up in the Middle East, again, let’s spare a thought for what inevitably comes after but is rarely discussed, much less resolved.

The effect of a real war on the environment.

A couple of links: