Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

War and the Environment
distributed 2/7/03 - ©2003

"What are the environmental effects of a war with Iraq?" asked an e-mail earlier this week.

For all of us -- legitimately -- the enormous, immediate cost of war on human communities is a focusing point for our concern. It is good and right that we think about what war does to our brothers and sisters in the war zone -- the soldiers of all nations, and the citizens of the targeted regions.

But it is also good and right to ask larger questions, questions that look years into the future, questions that broaden the circles of compassion, questions that probe into wide-ranging ecological systems.

What are the environmental effects of war and the war machine?

A few details come to mind rather quickly. We picture the blazing oil wells from the Gulf War a decade ago that drenched the soil and water of the region in tar, and filled the skies of an entire hemisphere with smoke. We realize that tanks and humvees chewing across the desert will destroy fragile ecosystems.

In Iraq, the high potential for the use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons lifts the specter of widespread, long-lasting and poorly understood environmental and health risks. When we think of powerful bombs striking chemical, biological and nuclear production facilities, we can begin to consider the frightening substances that will be entombed or released from that rubble.

Those are some of the clear and immediate effects. It may take some background knowledge or more careful thinking to notice other sorts of problems.

Especially in Iraq, where war will target an urbanized population, water supplies will be effected. Sewage treatment plants will be destroyed and water sources will be contaminated. Humans and wildlife will share in the toxic repercussions for years to come.

In a conversation this week, I heard a concern about the depleted uranium used in armor-piercing ammunition -- a substance used in the Bosnia conflicts that now has been linked to persistent health problems. The lead in "conventional" bullets is also a health hazard when it is scattered in quantity across the environment. The explosives used in bombs contain cyclonite (a carcinogen) and perchlorates (which damage thyroid glands).

Countless examples from around the world show that swarms of refugees are environmental, as well as humanitarian, disasters. Around refugee camps, forests and fields are denuded in the search for food and fuel. Scarce water supplies are exhausted. Sewage and garbage overwhelm existing minimal infrastructures.

Battlefields remain high-risk locations for generations. Unexploded bombs from WW II are still a serious hazard in Europe. Land mines scattered in conflict zones around the world kill and maim civilians -- and wildlife -- long after the end of the conflicts.

And there are even more diffuse effects.

When war destroys wetlands and disrupts tranquil ecosystems, the migration and reproduction of wildlife is altered. In Afghanistan, the effects of war have caused the number of birds flying across the region to drop by a staggering 85 per cent.

Let us not forget the energy consumption and related pollution from the modern war machine. From the US side alone, unimaginable quantities of oil are being burned to move troops and equipment, to fly training and reconnaissance missions, to support the naval fleets and to air condition the desert bases. This profligate use of energy is a real and significant contribution to global warming and global air pollution.

Within the US, the Pentagon is seeking a blanket exemption from a wide range of environmental rules dealing with endangered species, protected habitats and toxic chemicals. All too often, the military sees environmental preservation as contrary to national security, rather than an important basis for long-term global security.

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Despite clear experiences and quantities of research, the images and statistics of war's ecological effects do not come immediately to mind. That fact says something about how we tend to think of ourselves in isolation from the rest of creation. It simply does not occur to most of us to include environmental devastation as one of the persistent horrors of war.

Perhaps that is not surprising. Even in our own communities, it is usually a struggle to identify the hazards of pollution, the impacts of toxic waste, and the disproportionate costs of environmental injustice. Here at home, the dangers of ecological disruption and climate change are so often dismissed by those who favor business as usual. Is it any wonder that those sorts of questions don't figure prominently in the debate about war?

I fear that a US-led attack on Iraq is all but inevitable. I grieve the many layers of blindness and insensitivity that make such an option palatable to decision makers and the populace -- including the stunning lack of concern about all-too-real environmental effects.

I cling to the hope that a deepening awareness of humanity's dependence on an ecologically healthy world may help to support and inform the work for peace -- for God's shalom -- both in the next few weeks, and in the years to come.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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