With all the talk about wars lately regarding Syria, the question on some environmentalists’ minds is: what are the environmental impacts of war?
Wars involve the waste of many resources. Ever since America’s own Revolutionary War, wars have included total destruction. The goal is often to starve citizens to make their lives so terrible that they will surrender. Destroying cropland and laying waste to the land is a clear destruction of the environment. Bombs, too, devastate the environment—the goal is, after all, to completely destroy the people, their homes, and everything in between. Chemicals like Agent Orange have left people with defects and Vietnam with less forest. The list of destruction resulting from war goes on and on. A sword in medieval times was aimed at one person nearby. Now, with bombs, chemical weapons, and other tools of modern warfare, the weapon does not discriminate. It can and will destroy not just the people, but everything around them.
New technologies are invented during wars; old technologies may be improved. Military action requires improvements in technologies, preferably improvements above and beyond the enemy’s advances. Systems of construction, such as the assembly line system, may be improved too. Many of these technologies and systems developed and improved during wars are sustainability problems in their own right, but others have truly helped the environment. Significant advances to solar panels were made during the Cold War; while this was not a war with military action, weapons were still stockpiled and technologies developed.
Wars require a high level of consumption. Metals, wood, and dozens of other materials must be obtained and processed to build the infrastructure needed to help fight the war: roads, prisons, shelter for soldiers, airplanes, aircraft carriers, submarines, and so on. Most of this new infrastructure will be destroyed. The rest has a chance of being used, but it is also possible that it will not be usable. During the war, forests might be cut down or fragmented in the nation where the fighting is taking place as new roads are built. All of these are environmental issues are caused by the very nature of a war; a show of power and wealth in order to kill more of the enemy and intimidate them into surrendering.
Indirect environmental effects may result from wars. After World War II, the United States was the world leader economically and politically. Countries in Europe and Asia were recovering from the war. During the decades following World War II, Americans became accustomed to a higher level of consumption than was sustainable.
Wars cause direct and indirect consequences to the environment. Most are negative, but some are positive. As students, we are not quite in the position to make the call for or against war. Some of us are likely to be leaders in the future; those of us that are should pay attention to the environmental effects of the decisions made.
Note: This article is neither intended to, nor should not come off as, political in any sense. The purpose of this article is to shed light on the effect war has on the environment.
Editor’s Note: “Sustainability” is a column granted to the Student Sustainability Task Force by the Editorial Board to discuss issues of sustainability on the Rensselaer campus and around the nation