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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January/February 2008

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Bytes of Note - War and Sustainability: The Economic and Environmental Costs

Sustainable development, as defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development,1 is the ability to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As Robert Kates, Anthony Leiserowitz, and Thomas Parris summarized, sustainable development is now commonly understood to rest on the widespread and simultaneous achievement of positive economic, environmental, and social goals. The social component is broadly conceived to include, among other things, good public health and an equitable distribution of life’s benefits and burdens. Meanwhile, nations, ethnic groups, and other interests frequently find themselves involved in armed conflict that tends to drain economies; deplete natural resources, ecosystems, and human health; and lengthen rather than mend tears in the social fabric. War (used here as a shorthand for the more inclusive term of “armed conflict”) is in direct opposition to sustainability.

The Nobel Foundation uses data from the Correlates of War project and the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, to map wars with 1,000 or more battle deaths from 1900 to 2001. The Center for Systemic Peace and its Integrated Network for Societal Conflict Research also present data on types of war and conflict, including terrorist bombings and a list of wars over the last six decades. Kristine Eck provides a useful resource with “A Beginner’s Guide to Conflict Data.” Tom Parris devoted a previous “Bytes of Note” column in March 2001 to “Accessing Data on Armed Conflicts and Humanitarian Crises.”2

The opportunity cost of military spending (and thus its impact on the economic component of sustainability) is huge. Equipping and training for war, the job of the military even in peacetime, directs resources away from other pressing problems. Deficit spending has this effect not only now but for future generations. The fiscal year 2007 U.S. defense budget tops $485 billion. This does not include nearly $78 billion for veterans’ benefits and services or supplemental Department of Defense funding requested for 2008 at $189 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the White House. By comparison, the 2007 U.S. budget authority for energy, environment, and natural resources was $30 billion (see page 10, Table 1-7 of the defense budget above for a comparison of defense versus other national budget planning, including veterans’ affairs). Internationally, these figures compare to a two-year 2006–2007 budget of $239 million for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). These defense budget figures do not address separate but related economic costs, such as the loss of infrastructure destroyed in combat or the lost productivity and sustenance costs of refugees and other civilians unable to work due to war.

In his 1961 farewell address, president and retired five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower meditated on the financial burden of a large standing military and alluded to the need for intergenerational equity in monetary spending and resource use. In the speech, Eisenhower warned us not only “against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex,” but also cautioned us not to “mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren.”

War’s environmental cost is more difficult to enumerate than its economic cost. Governments have recognized environmental harm as enough of a threat to sustainability to put in force a treaty in 1978 prohibiting “Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques.” The treaty covers only events “encompassing an area on the scale of several hundred square kilometers,” or, presumably, more. It is not clear what impact this treaty has had, if any, in terms of accomplishing its aims. The United Nations has declared 6 November of each year as the day to bring attention to environmental exploitation during wars.

One site, the Inventory of Conflict and Environment (ICE) attempts to document the breadth of environmental impacts of war. ICE identifies more than 200 case studies. The site gives a sense of the extreme complexity and variety of the interplay between environment and conflict. However, the articles, many or most apparently written by students, carry little information regarding author affiliation and experience, so assessment of credibility is difficult. Further, the apparent lack of a core author group and ad hoc Web design give the collection a “Wikipedia” feel without the advantage of Wikipedia’s graphic standardization and feedback mechanisms. Conflict severity in the case studies ranges from the U.S. and Canadian border conflict on one extreme to the Rwandan civil war on the other, so that one is left wondering what exactly the site is trying to compare. There is room for more rigorous, dispassionate, better-documented, quantitative, and graphically sophisticated efforts within this site and elsewhere to build on the important work that it has begun.

Land mines and other explosive devices left behind in war (such as cluster bombs) present perhaps the worst ongoing environmental threat, as they make using natural resources (such as farm fields) a deadly activity in affected areas. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the International Committee of the Red Cross are good sources of information on this topic. A 1999 statement of U.S. military doctrine on mine warfare can be found here.

The 1991 Gulf War brought widespread attention to the ecological impacts of war as Iraqi forces dumped oil and set fire to oil wells in Kuwait (see CNN and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). A Congressional analysis of the war’s impacts, The Environmental Aftermath of the Gulf War, is available in print at many Federal Depository Libraries across the United States.

UNEP’s Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch has evaluated the environmental situation subsequent to or during lulls in a number of conflicts, including those in Sudan and Afghanistan. The Biodiversity Support Program maintains a good listing of links on war and environment in Africa.

As with most sustainability issues, the environmental damage of war tends to be more complex than it appears at first. Rather than simple damage to ecosystems or agricultural systems that is easily mended, case studies interweave damage, culture, politics, and logistics. Wendy Vanasselt’s World Resources Institute article outlines a complex relationship between civil society, refugees, and the environment.

Of course, the maintenance of military infrastructure causes what might be thought of as more mundane environmental impacts in peacetime, as do non-military agencies. U.S. government agencies’ contacts for coordinating environmental impact statements, including those of the military branches, are listed here. There has been some controversy as to what extent the National Environmental Policy Act (the law requiring environmental impact statements as part of the decisionmaking process on government projects) should come into play during overseas military operations. (See the LL.M. thesis by Thomas Couture).

Next column: the personal and social costs of war.

1. The Brundtland Commission, Our Common Future, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987: 43
2. T. M. Parris, “Accessing Data on Armed Conflicts and Humanitarian Crises,” Environment 43, no. 2 (March 2001): 3.

GEORGE E. CLARK is the environmental resources librarian at the Harvard College Library. Material for Bytes of Note may be directed to him at

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