The Environmental Destruction Wrought by War

Over the past 60 years competition over natural resources has played an increasing role in driving armed conflict.

Editor’s Note, February 23, 2022; 11:50 p.m.: Upping this 2017 excerpt from Journal editor emeritus Gar Smith’s book in light of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine on this day.

Even before war breaks out, the Earth suffers. Minerals, chemicals, and fuels are violently wrested from Earth’s forests, plains, and mountains. Much of this bounty is transformed into aircraft, gunboats, bullets, and bombs that further crater, sear, and poison the land, air, and water of our living planet. War is, and has always been, nature’s nemesis.

Marines participate in a training exercise in southern California. US military activities exact a large toll on the environment. Photo by Marines, Flickr.

In his 2001 book War and Nature, Edmund Russell observed: “Since at least the days of the Old Testament, we have seen war and interactions with nature as separate, even opposite, endeavors…. Military historians have pushed beyond studies of battles and armies to examine the impact of military institutions on civilian society — but rarely on nature. Environmental historians have emphasized the role of nature in many events of our past — but rarely in war.”

Environmental activists, however, have a surprisingly long history of confronting militarism. The environmental movement of the sixties emerged, in part, as a response to the horrors of the Vietnam War — Agent Orange, napalm, carpet-bombing — and the abiding threat of nuclear war.

In 1971, Greenpeace got its start challenging a planned US nuclear test on one of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The founders explained that they intentionally chose “Greenpeace” because it was “the best name we can think of to join the two great issues of our times, the survival of our environment and the peace of the world.” Greenpeace’s 1976 Declaration of Interdependence began: “We have arrived at a place in history where decisive action must be taken to avoid a general environmental disaster. With nuclear reactors proliferating and over 900 species on the endangered list, there can be no further delay or our children will be denied their future.”

But challenging the profit-driven and the power-hungry — whether they are corporate polluters or the Pentagon itself — comes with risks. In June 1975, a team of Greenpeace activists attempted to disrupt the “Whale Wars” raging off the California coast by placing their rubber boat between a pod of whales and the guns of a Russian whaler. The activists were nearly killed when the Russians fired a harpoon directly over their heads.

On July 10, 1985, while I was visiting the Greenpeace International office in Amsterdam, we received some shocking news: the Rainbow Warrior, the organization’s flagship, had been blown up in Auckland harbor and Fernando Pereira, a Greenpeace photographer, had been killed. It was later revealed that this well-planned, premeditated terrorist attack was an act of “state-sponsored terrorism.” The French government had ordered a team of 13 secret agents to sink the vessel and prevent Greenpeace from protesting a French atomic weapons test in the South Pacific.


Over the centuries, armies have fought for a wide array of reasons — land, water, food, slaves. Over the past 60 years, however, competition over natural resources has played an increasing role in driving armed conflict. According to a 2013 UN Environment Programme report, at least 40 percent of all intrastate conflicts involved the exploitation of natural resources — land, water, diamonds, timber, minerals, and, of course, oil.

In its FY 2010 Base Structure Report, the Pentagon disclosed that its global empire included more than 539,000 facilities at nearly 5,000 sites covering more than 28 million acres. With the world’s largest air force and naval fleets, the Pentagon is the world’s greatest institutional consumer of oil and a leading producer of climate-changing CO2.

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The Pentagon has admitted to burning 320,000 barrels of oil a day — but that estimate ignores fuel consumed by its contractors and weapons producers.

Despite being the planet’s greatest institutional emitter of climate-destabilizing gases, the Pentagon is exempt from reporting its pollution. This exemption covers weapons testing, military exercises, and “peacekeeping” missions. The United States insisted on this exemption during the 1998 Kyoto Protocol negotiations on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. After winning this concession, George W. Bush subsequently rejected the Kyoto Accord, claiming that it “would cause serious harm to the [oil-dependent] US economy.”

After the United States’ disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, former head of the US Central Command, told a crowd at a 2008 Stanford University roundtable: “Of course, it’s about oil; we can’t really deny that.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking with equal candor in September 2007, told a group of Catholic University law students: “People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are.”

Even when not engaged in outright acts of war, the Pentagon’s far-flung operations impose damaging environmental burdens around the world. Inside America’s borders, more than 11,000 military dumps simmer with a witches’ brew of explosives, chemical warfare agents, toxic solvents, and heavy metals. The military is responsible for at least 900 of the country’s 1,300 super-toxic “Superfund” sites.

Of course, the United States is not the only “superpower” to despoil the Earth. Russia’s military has poisoned vast stretches of its own homeland — including boreal forests and Arctic waters. China’s nuclear testing zone at Lop Nor and Britain’s A-bomb range in Australia’s Outback irradiated vast regions with cancer-causing fallout. But the scale of environmental destruction wrought by the US military tops all the others.

Seeking Ecolibrium

One of the first mainstream environmental leaders to formally recognize warfare as an enemy of nature was David Ross Brower, who played a legendary role in the movement as executive director of the Sierra Club and founder of the Friends of the Earth (FOE) and Earth Island Institute. In 1970, he and other environmental leaders sent a telegram to President Richard Nixon protesting the devastation of the US war in Vietnam. Brower followed up with an “open letter” from FOE. The statement, entitled “Ecology and War,” was designed to run as a full-page ad in the New York Times. (Twelve years later, Brower included the statement as a centerfold ad in the October 1982 issue of FOE’s newsmagazine, Not Man Apart. This time the message was addressed to President Ronald Reagan.)

“Until recently,” Brower wrote, “we were content to work for our usual constituency: Life in its miraculous diversity of forms…. We have left it for others to argue about war.”

That had to change, he explained, because “countries obsessed with the glamours of militarism remain blind to other ecological perils.” Citing a 1980 White House report, Brower ticked off a host of impending environmental threats — global water shortages, loss of forest cover, expanding deserts, increasing levels of climate-altering gases, the destruction of wildlife habitats — all signs of ecosystems in collapse or, as Brower’s ad put it, “a Holocaust, except in slow motion, without the fireball.”

His appeal ended with a call for “a new political language” that acknowledged the futility of “belligerency [and] competition for resources on a finite planet.” He argued that “exploitation of people and nature are behaviors that have failed. They are out of date. We need to seek people skilled in the arts of peace…. We need to attend to other problems — poverty and the coming breakdown of the planet’s life-support systems.”

Brower’s plea was taken up more than two decades later when the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development issued the Rio Declaration, which stated: “Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict.”

This is hardly a novel observation. In his classic fifth-century BC study, The Art of War, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote: “No country has ever profited from protracted warfare.” Instead of promoting scorched-earth tactics, the wise general urged soldiers to “fight under Heaven with the paramount aim of ‘preservation.’”

Even the Pentagon has appeared increasingly ready to recognize the strategic value of maintaining a sustainable planet. In October 2014, a Pentagon report identified climate change as an “immediate threat” to national security, echoing a 2003 Pentagon prediction that climate change could “prove a greater risk to the world than terrorism.” While the 2014 Global Terrorism Index listed 100,000 lives lost to terrorist acts over a period of 13 years, the 2010 edition of the Climate Vulnerability Monitor reported that climate change claimed 400,000 lives and cost the world economy $1.2 trillion — in a single year.

In June 2016, National Geographic (citing research findings from Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit) warned that new perils were likely to arise from the collision of war and nature. “Wars, murders, and other acts of violence will likely become more commonplace in coming decades as the effects of global warming cause temperatures to flare worldwide.” A interdisciplinary team of researchers from Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley have predicted incidents of personal violence, civil unrest, and war could increase 56 percent by 2050 as the planet warms, accelerating droughts, floods, disease, crop failures, and mass migrations.

Our Troubled Path

Today, we stand at a precipice. Biospheres are collapsing, a Sixth Extinction is underway, and on January 2017, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock,” which illustrates how close the planet stands to a nuclear holocaust, was moved to 2.5 minutes before midnight. That chilling recalibration was attributed to the global rise of “strident nationalism” and the bellicose posturing of Donald J. Trump — a narcissistic leader who denies the threat of climate change and seems oblivious to the risks of thermonuclear war.

As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews: “Somebody hits us within ISIS — you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?” When Matthews protested that “nobody wants to hear that” from someone running for president, Trump shot back: “Then why are we making them?” Trump has repeatedly refused to take the nuclear option “off the table,” explaining to Meet the Press host John Dickerson in 2016 that, as a world leader, “You want to be unpredictable.”

In one of his early acts as president, Trump endorsed President Barack Obama’s unconscionable plan to spend $1 trillion rebuilding America’s “nuclear arsenal.” Trump had long made his reputation and his fortune by acting as a crude bully. But the world has too many bullies spoiling for a fight.

In his 1949 book, The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature, the American anthropologist, educator, and natural science writer Loren Eiseley offered a different vision: “The need is now for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger and the bear. The hand that hefted the ax, out of some old blind allegiance to the past, fondles the machine gun as lovingly. It is a habit we will have to break to survive, but the roots go very deep.”

In 2017, polluter-versus-protector tensions escalated dramatically when Donald Trump marched into the White House. Trump’s inaugural budget called for defunding a range of humanitarian programs — health and human services, education, arts, Meals on Wheels, and environmental protections — to shift another $54 billion to the Pentagon. Following through on his campaign declaration to “bomb the shit out of [ISIS]! I don’t care,” Trump increased airstrikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilian men, women and children — and triggering a new spike in anti-American anger.

On the home front, Trump revived controversial oil pipeline projects, renewed support for coal mining, gutted anti-pollution regulations, and targeted Obama’s Clean Energy Plan. Protesting a fictional “War on Coal,” Trump reasserted the industry’s “right” to dump mine tailings into mountain streams. He threatened to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. He shredded pollution reduction goals for US automakers, declared his intent to open public lands to oil and gas drilling, and filled his cabinet with a swamp-load of wealthy, carbon-friendly, pro-business, and big-bank insiders.

Trump also brought unique conflicts of interest to his role as commander-in-chief. When he launched his unconstitutional attack on Syria’s al-Shayrat airfield on April 7, 2017, Trump may have been inflating not only his reputation as a powerful world leader but also his personal fortunes as well. Unlike previous US.presidents, Trump holds investment properties around the world and owns shares in hundreds of companies. As recently as 2016, Trump’s investments included Raytheon, maker of the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired at Syria. When Trump launched $93.8 million worth of missiles that week, the value of Raytheon stocks soared.

While Trump’s tax forms remain a state secret, Fortune magazine reported in August 2016 that his top holdings included shares in Phillips 66, a major oil company. Trump’s 2016 federal disclosure forms show he owned stock in Energy Transfer Partners, the firm behind the Dakota Access oil pipeline. President Obama halted the construction of the pipeline on environmental grounds. Trump revived it.

Unity over Division

The rich and powerful clearly understand the strategy of “divide and conquer.” The “one percent” has less to fear from a “99 percent” subdivided into scores of competing cadres. Civil discord, when it turns violent, is the preamble to civil war. Instead of working together to find cures to existential problems — rising temperatures, sea levels, and populations; falling incomes, water tables, and food harvests — we risk finding ourselves immobilized by suspicion, anger, and fear.

In her 2017 Earth Day statement, US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) declared: “Change is coming and it’s up to us whether that change will be transformative or catastrophic. We don’t have time to fight amongst each other. We don’t have time to engage in partisan rhetoric and bickering. We must be the change we want to see in the world. The future of the human race depends on it.”

Instead of fortifying our cities and neighborhoods against one another, we need to forge coalitions to promote common-ground solutions that will protect our shared, life-sustaining planetary biosphere. Instead of promoting sectarian/ideological competition and “fighting to win,” we need to exercise compassion and hone our cooperate skills if we are to survive.

We need to illuminate the economic, political, and cultural drivers of permawar, detail the cascading dangers of terracide, and provide guideposts and goals for achieving ecolibrium — a human presence on Earth that exists in balance with nature. One way or another, our planet will be transformed. It’s our job to strive for a peaceful, just, and sustainable future.

This excerpt is published here under a Creative Commons license by kind permission of Gar Smith and Just World Books. Please reuse this material only with explicit acknowledgment of the foregoing publication details, and in a not-for- profit context.

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