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War and the Environment - Transcript

This is a transcript of a talk made by myself, Shaka Lish, for Brent's Stop The War coalition. Please also find a video recording of the talk here -

War and the environment is a two-way relationship. In this talk I would like to discuss both. One is the way in which war affects the environment and the other is the way in which the state of the environment can initiate war and conflict. War does not just leave countries and lives destroyed it also has a lasting affect on the natural world and the resources we all rely on. Equally, when the environment fails us, and resources are scarce, these can cause numerous detrimental effects. It is important to look at these past examples because they give us signposts of what we can expect as extreme weather events become more common and as the undeniable affects of climate change begin to hit.

There has long been an environmental impact due to man’s historical and never-ending thirst for war. Scorched Earth methods are almost as old as war itself, whereby the habitation, food, communications, transportation or general assets and resources of the enemy are decimated in order to gain a military advantage. As old as these methods are, they are still often used in modern warfare, with increasingly devastating affects as the technology and ability for mass destruction become more advanced.

Speaking more broadly, there are a number of damaging affects that war can have on the environment. Eco systems and wildlife can be disturbed, destroyed or displaced. Food, water and natural resources can be poisoned and left unusable, sometimes for generations. All of these factors also have long-term affects on climate change and our ability to manage our ever-growing over-shoot of the world’s resources. This is before we speak about the human cost and damage this causes to people’s health, habitat, culture and lives. In short, modern warfare does not have only short-term destructive affects in the moments or years it occurs but also long-term affects long after the war has ended, the repercussions lasting often generations.

War also affects the environment due to the use of land for military bases and experiments. Fossil fuels to fuel the technology, equipment and machinery of war and lastly, the mining of materials use to create weaponry and associated tools of war. This represents an unbalanced, unethical, unsustainable and inefficient use of the worlds shared resources.

Additional to this, the affects that the changing environment has on armed conflict needs to also be taken into consideration. Climate change is likely to increase devastating weather events and unpredictable weather patterns that are certain to impact migration and resources. When pressures are place on societies due to a shortage of resources, arable land and mass migration, this also potentially increases the likelihood of civil war and conflict.

Now I’d like to look at a few specific examples and the consequences of modern warfare.

Historical wars 20th Century


Vietnam is an example of a scorched earth application during the horrifying war between the 1950s and 1970s. During the controversial war, US military bases were located in and amongst areas with a lot of foliage. This made the bases more vulnerable to attack so defoliants were used to clear, en mass, all natural growth. The use of toxic, carcinogenic chemicals such as Agent Orange, were sprayed indiscriminately over vast swathes of Vietnamese landscape, including forests, shrubs, trees and crops. This not only damaged all biosphere that it came into contact with, but has had devastating long term affects in the area, poisoning the food chain, causing birth defects and diseases and killing wildlife. High levels of dioxin, the active chemical found in defoliants such as Agent Orange, are still present in some areas of Vietnam. In some sites occurring more 100x the international standard. Dioxins are not only carcinogenic but also cause developmental abnormalities in the enamel of children's teeth, central and peripheral nervous system pathology, thyroid disorders, damage to the immune systems, endometriosis and diabetes. More than 4m people have been thought to have been poisoned by dioxin and continue to be affected by the devastating use of these chemicals. As recently as 2008, a final appeal was rejected by American Court of Appeals, brought by the victims against companies that manufactured the chemicals. The US government continues to deny culpability or express any kind of remorse for the use of Agent Orange during the war.


The 1994 Rwandan genocide in which more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, initiated the displacement and mass movement of around 2m people, fleeing from the blood shed and conflict. Aside from the brutal and heart-stopping bloodshed of this war, the Rwandan war gives an insight into the pressures that mass movement of people can place on the immediate environment. Refugees were placed in makeshift camps in nearby countries Tanzania and what is now, Democratic Republic of Congo, in which forests were cleared to provide shelter and fire wood. Conditions were harsh for the refugees inhabiting these camps but this accommodation of so many people in such a short space of time, has also caused untold damage and degradation to wildlife, Reserves and the National Parks, placing immense pressure on natural resources. By the time the conflict ended, 105sq km of forest had been damaged and 35sq km had been stripped bare. This was particularly acute when the refugees returned to Rwanda, in which overpopulation already places disproportionate demand on limited resources. Some suggest that limited resources and disputes over land contributed to the Civil War and proceeding genocide, others play down this link. Either way, what Rwanda shows us is the way in limited resources can play a part in initiated devastating conflicts and the way in which mass migration, caused by conflict, can place undue pressure on surrounding land and surrounding resources and wildlife.

Modern warfare 21st Century


The Gulf War, between Iraq and Kuwait during the early 1990s is thought to be one of the most devastating environmental wars ever fought. Approximately 1m tons of crude oil was dumped into the Persian Gulf killing around 25,000 migratory birds. This also had a detrimental affect on marine life, fisheries and land water as oil lakes in the dessert permeated aquifers. When Iraqi troops ignited Kuwaiti oil, this led to half a ton of air pollutants to be released into the air causing toxic smog and acid rain. It took nine months to extinguish the fire, in the meantime causing untold damage to wildlife and human health. Water sources, dams and sewages were also attacked and contaminated by bombed chemical plants resulting in a ten-fold increase in diseases such as typhoid fever. Soil erosion has also been highlighted due to the use of heavy machinery travelling through the dessert.

Those who have been involved, including civilians and service men and women, have suffered from a number of extraordinary consequences, including immune system disorders, cancer and birth defects. This is linked to the use of depleted uranium in warheads used by the US army and its allies, containing neurotoxins. This is often called Golf War Syndrome and is considered controversial, as not enough research has been conducted in the area to provide conclusive data. However, it seems that symptoms such as chronic fatigue, muscle problems, diarrhoea, migraine, memory loss, skin problems and shortness of breath have been widely reported by veterans and civilians, as well as fatalities from rare brain cancers.

Later, the illegal invasion of Iraq by the US, supported by its allies in 2003, has caused untold human suffering, which are well documented. The environmental consequences are less clear long-term but more is understood in the short-term. These include air, water and soil damage, which has had severe consequences on farming, husbandry, crops and respiratory conditions. Which in turn has hampered the efforts to rebuild the country and bring peace and stability.


After the attacks on the WTC in America in 2001, the US began the ‘war on terror’ tour in Afghanistan against the Taliban and initiated the search for the identified mastermind of the attacks of 9/11, Osama Bin Laden. The environmental reverberations of this war, still continuing, are little spoken of and are not seen as an important inclusion alongside the general destruction the war has inflicted on the country. Yet extensive damage has been caused by the war to the environment and it is estimated that some ten thousand villages were destroyed. Clean water was contaminated and access destroyed causing bacterial infections and disruption of natural cycles within the biosphere. Wildlife has been displaced due to the mass deforestation caused by the bombing, firewood for refugees and the trade of timber. Less than 2% of the country is now covered in forestland. This marks a 33% decrease in forestland since 1990 of which the majority has been caused since the war. This has resulted in drought, desertification and species loss. Additionally, Afghanistan is natural migration route for numerous bird species but this is no longer the case as there has been a massive 85% decrease in birds flying this migration route. Cyclonite and perchlorates, chemicals and toxic substances from explosives and rockets, still pollute the land causing cancer and thyroid damage. In 2017 MOAB (Massive Ordinance Air Blast) was dropped on Afghanistan. This is the US’s largest military weapon aside from it’s nuclear arsenal. Again, little is spoken about the lasting health and environmental affects such weaponry cause. It has been said that MOAB-like bombs exposes hazardous chemicals into air that cause cancer, respiratory and digestive problems, deformities in babies, strokes, high blood pressure and weakened vision. It severely contaminates food and water that will stay afloat in the atmosphere and biosphere for generations.

Climate Change and Conflict

Between 2006-2011 the worst drought ever recorded occurred in Syria. This led to widespread crop failure, high food prices and eventually a mass migration from rural parts of the country to urban centres. Alongside accommodating around 1.5m Iraqi refugees, these are seen as contributing factors that led to the start of the Syrian Civil War that is still ongoing now. The extreme drought that occurred in Syria has been linked to Anthropogenic Global Warming and gives us a potential insight to the ways in which climate change will affect global security and conflict.

The IPCC has advised that global warming is likely to have numerous influences on the availability of fresh water, land degradation and population change and density. It is inevitable that these factors will play a part in violent conflict and mass migration in the coming years, as the climate becomes less stable and more hostile globally. In a 2007 paper on climate change and global conflict, it is suggested that although pressure on resources caused by crop failure or damage due to changing weather patterns can play a part in causing conflict and war, other factors also play a part – such as economic and political stability. This paper argues that poverty, low economic growth and dependence on commodity exports factor more importantly. However, I believe it is not possible to separate these factors. Currently around 1.7 billion people around the globe live in water stressed areas. This means the potential for migration like we have never seen is entirely possible in our lifetime. In her book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein talks about the way in which the Global North will devise ever more high-tech fortresses and draconian immigration policies to countenance the kinds of conflicts and mass migration that is likely to occur. Klein frames this not only as a security issue, but an ethical one. The countries that have contributed the most to the onset of global warming are also the countries that have profited most materially and are better prepared to adapt. The countries that have contributed the least and that are still in processes and stages of development will face the harshest consequences without the resources to adapt. To put this another way, if UK government is already promoting and executing a ‘harsh environment’ for immigration and refugees and US government under Trump talk about building walls to keep people out, then it isn’t too much of a leap to see that this barbarism and brutality will continue to become more extreme as the climate becomes more extreme.

Concluding Remarks

War is never an isolated act.’ - Clausewitz, 1831

To summarise and conclude, there is a problematic link between the environment and war, one that is little often highlighted when we speak about war and conflict. The devastating affects of war on the lives, cultures and lands of countries caught up in conflict are well documented but less is spoken about the way in which modern warfare is having such a detrimental affect on resources, access to resources and in so doing, is laying the foundations for tomorrows conflicts and violence. Previous United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is on record saying that the environment has long been a silent casualty of war and armed conflict. From the contamination of land and the destruction of forests to the plunder of natural resources and the collapse of management systems, the environmental consequences of war are often widespread and devastating,

The current Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres has spoken on this subject too, stating that, ‘whether caused by fighting or a breakdown in Government control, the damage to the environment has devastating consequences for people’s health and well-being [and] is one that can last for decades’. Further, he noted that the shared management of natural resources can provide avenues to maintain or improve relations. Since 1989, more than 35 major armed conflicts have been financed by revenues from conflict resources, and there are fears that in the coming years extreme climate stresses could double the risk of violent conflict. And according to the UN Environment Programme, over the last 60 years, at least 40% of all internal armed conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources. In light of this, there is evidence that militaries are beginning to accept that destroying the environment runs counter to long-term security, which has resulted in environmental measures being taken on by militaries across the world. However, no matter how many laws and practices that are adopted by armies around the world, this is still no substitution for peace, cooperation and a reduction of all military activity in conjunction with a protecting the environment as a priority.

These trends around previous causes of conflicts are extremely worrying and continue to give us motivation to double down on peace building activism and to continue to challenge the warring rhetoric of our governments. There is a circular logic - war is bad for us but it is also bad for our environment, which in turn is also the cause for more conflict.

It will be no surprise I’m sure to learn that the US Department of Defence is largest consumer of fossil fuels, estimating to use around 20.9 billion litres a year. To put this into perspective, this is a similar amount as that used by a medium sized country, such as Denmark. This is before we even begin to account the damage caused by war itself. Without going into too much detail, it is here we also get a glimpse into what is termed, the Industrial Military Complex. The way in which fossil fuel, war, the arms trade and monopoly of land a resources feeds an ‘industry’ of death, destruction and violence. I will conclude by saying the Green Party stands on four pillars – environmentalism, social justice, democracy and peace. Therefore there is a shared affinity between the goals and political aims of the Green Party and an anti-war coalition like yourselves. I hope this talk has highlighted the way in which our activism coincides. Pacifism is directly linked to environmentalism and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to reaffirm that link in this talk.

Thank you.

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