Here I am again, three months later, on another Sunday. Again reviewing the pages of this magazine. Again, simultaneously watching, heart crushed, as life spirals into chaos in yet another far off, war-torn land.
Today, just over a month after the US ended all major military operations in Afghanistan, the Taliban has taken back control of the capital city of Kabul. Countless lives have been lost in this war of attrition the United States has been engaged in for 20 years, and many more will almost certainly be lost in coming days, months, years. I’ll leave the analysis of how this catastrophic collapse of governance and unfolding humanitarian crisis came to be to the political pundits, but do want to take the space to acknowledge the plight of tens of thousands of Afghans for whom home is suddenly no longer a safe place. May we find room in our hearts to offer them shelter.
If talking about war seems out-of-place in an environmental magazine, a few gentle reminders. At least 40 percent of all armed internal conflicts in recent history have been over natural resources — land, water, minerals, timber, and, of course, oil.
And pacifists and environmental groups have long held common ground. The environmental movement in this country came into its own in the 1960s and ’70s during a time when the US was embroiled in another protracted war, in Vietnam. The movement was, in part, driven by the horrific human and environmental impacts of chemical warfare — think napalm and Agent Orange, the awful herbicide whose toxic impact we continue to live with to this day — and the looming threat of nuclear war. Greenpeace (the name should be indication enough!), for instance, came into being in the early 1970s after a group of activists decided to protest the Pentagon’s plans to test a nuclear bomb in Alaska’s Aleutian islands.
“War is, and has always been, nature’s nemesis,” Gar Smith, editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal and longtime anti-nuclear activist, writes in his 2017 book The War and Environment Reader. “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.”
We are certainly seeing this play out in Afghanistan, an arid, climate-vulnerable country where decades of conflict have had a devastating impact on its some 30 million people and the environment. Bombs, scorched-earth tactics, drought, wartime neglect, and logging — for fuel by impoverished Afghans and by timber smugglers backed by warlords — have laid waste to vast swaths of farmlands and forests. Researchers estimate the number of birds flying over Afghanistan, once a key resting place for migratory birds, is down 85 percent. The majority of Afghans don’t have access to clean drinking water, and air pollution in Kabul, which is packed with refugees from rural areas, is so bad that it is now one of the world’s most polluted cities.
As I watch the horrific scenes emerging from that country, just one thought keeps looping in my brain: In war, everyone loses.