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Neil Summerton

(Director, The Oxford Centre for the Environment, Ethics and Society, Mansfield College Oxford)



Concern for the "environment" in the sense of concern for "nature" is a relatively recent phenomenon – it goes back to the Romantic reaction to Enlightenment improvement philosophies, and took deep root in English middle-class sentiments in the early part of the 20th century. While there has long been concern about the depredations of war on civilian society, concern about the environmental impacts of war has been a relatively recent phenomenon: eg, the impacts of "Agent Orange" in Vietnam; the impact of military operations and Iraqi responses in the Gulf War; and concern about the impact of NATO's Kosovo campaign. Apart from this, we can detect a sub-text of environmental concern in the UK about military activities linked, in particular, to nuclear matters and the land ownership activities of the MoD and the forces. The first is linked with opposition to nuclear weapons; the second to the urban access-to-the-countryside lobby (with its concern about exclusion from countryside and moorland to which it desires access for recreation purposes).


What can be said is that concern about the relationship between "war" and the "environment" is here to stay - because "environment" has over the last generation embedded itself in the political landscape as a legitimate concern of self-respecting democracies: the "environment" is something which, it is accepted, we must take care of (even if there are continuing arguments about what "take care of" means).


Some analytical considerations

  1. For "war" read "armed conflict"
  2. The concern must be with internal armed conflict, just as much as with war between sovereign states. Indeed, there is a long history to suggest that the depredations of civil conflict tend to be as, if not more severe, than conflict between nation states.


  3. "Environment" and "care/integrity of creation"
  4. I shall use "environment" in the broad way in which it is used in common parlance now. In the terms of Christian theology, I mean of course "creation". Please take that for granted.


  5. The definition of "environment" for this purpose

It is not possible to go on too long in this discussion with using a portmanteau term like "environment". It is desirable to make some distinctions, because "environment" covers a number of different things, among which "nature", or more strictly "the rest of nature", is only one and not necessarily the most important.


Even in the urban post-industrial age, society continues to be heavily dependent on a very wide range of natural resources. This is true of societies in a state of peace. It is also true of war-making, if only because the dependence of war-making on industry - which long pre-dates the industrial age.


Dependence on non-renewable natural resources has grown with industrialisation, in particular on fossil fuels for the energy which is the sine qua non as much of modern life as of modern war-making, and, in the case of crude oil, as the raw material of many substances without which modern life and modern military technology would alike be unthinkable.


Dependence on renewable natural resources (water, food, timber, leather, fabric, etc) long ante-dates the industrial age. Some considerable substitution of materials manufactured from non-renewables (which may or may not be abundantly available) has been possible in the scientific/technological age. And industrialisation has perhaps reduced time-dependence in respect of natural resources, compared with the pre-industrial age - though stockpiling of resources was in fact common in the pre-industrial age and material re-supply is a critical constraint on war-making in the age of super-technology. Water and food security remain as important as ever, particularly with growing populations, though food security may be mitigated to some extent by trade (which can be disrupted in war and can therefore be subject to deterrent threat). And food security and water security are intimately linked in the extensive areas where productivity is dependent on irrigation - a form of dependence which is likely to grow with growing populations and climate change. Finally, biodiversity is more and more prized as a source of pharmaceuticals and valuable genetic materials for use in bioengineering.


So access to natural resources continues to be an important factor, both as a cause of war, and to war-making and its preparations.


Reduced access to natural resources can be an important instrument of international or inter-communal coercion short of war (or even of overt deterrence), because of the potential economic implications. An example of this has been the Israeli policy of limiting the access of Palestinian settlements to water over the last few decades, and the possibility that in the current tensions access to water is being still further reduced as a disciplinary measure.


Human health and environmental factors can be intimately linked. Deprivation of water and food, and environmental degradation, can both have serious health implications, of both chronic and morbid characters.


Famine and pestilence are the normal concomitants of the sword, as Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s constant litanies remind us. Both can be an important feature of armed conflict, either as direct operations of war designed to reduce either the fighting capacity of armed forces or the political will of enemy populations; or as collateral consequences of military operations. At stages in European history famine and pestilence, as the consequence of military activities, were much to the more significant immediate causes of death and disruption in civilian society than the military operations themselves.


Both military operations and military preparations can result in environmental pollution with implications for the health of both of the participants and of populations in the war zones and adjacent areas which receive contamination from the war zone.


Both armed conflict itself, and preparations for it, can have significant environmental impacts, in the narrow sense of impacts on (the rest of) nature. This is not just a question of the discharge of toxic substances with shorter- or longer-term effects in terms of the disruption of ecosystems. Perhaps more in the pre-industrial age and with respect to civil war today, war and preparation for war can lead to dramatic change in the pattern of human intervention in nature, for example, through dramatic changes to husbandry patterns, the introduction of new crops, and shifts to particular monocultures. The dire indirect impact of war making on the ecosystems of the Mediterranean basin in classical times is well known. It is more rarely remembered that many of the changes to the appearance of the English countryside since the Second World War are attributable to the "dig for victory" policy which, post-war, translated into the thrust of food self-sufficiency for the UK (more lately, of course, the distortions attributable to subsidy policies whose fundamental purpose in the EU has been political have been more significant). Impacts on eco-systems were of particular concern in the 1991 Gulf War, in particular because of the fragility of the marine environment of the northern Persian Gulf.


Strictly, it could be argued that consideration of the relation between war and the environment should be confined only to the third issue, that is, effects on (the rest of) nature. It seems more sensible however to consider all three matters because of the intimate links between them, and because generally public political discussion on the environment does not draw sharp distinctions between them. (Indeed, there is much evidence that public concern for the "environment" continues to be more motivated by anxieties about human health and consumption of non-renewable natural resources than it is by nature and ecosystems in the narrow sense. And, even in the latter case, the motivation can be more about human enjoyment than it is about the preservation of nature for its own sake.) So a study of "war and the environment" should probably define "environment" widely. In what follows, "environment" is used in this broad sense.


  1. Some taxonomy of environmental considerations relating to war

Analytically, it is worth making a further set of distinctions:


The question of access to natural resources has long been recognised as a casus belli. In the case of Britain, access to the maritime resources of the Baltic was in the maritime/mercantilist era an important plank of British foreign policy, as was access to the economic and financial resources of the Caribbean, central America and the Indies. In the twentieth century, access to crude oil fields of the Middle East was a continuing source of tension, erupting occasionally in armed conflict, even as late the Gulf War. The same motif figured in Hitler's lebensraum policy. The scope for access to crude oil to remain a casus belli in the future has perhaps been reduced by advances in oil exploration and technology, which reduce dependence on the Middle East, though recent fluctuations in oil prices under the influence of the producers' cartel do stress the continuing importance of that region as the source of supply. And the continuing political significance of oil for developed societies has been well illustrated by events in Europe and the USA over the last few months.


Renewable resources can equally be a source of international tensions, the most striking example over the last two generations being fish stocks in a number of parts of the world.


Water scarcity is frequently cited as likely to be an increasing focus of international tension in the future. It is true that there are a number of places where such tensions exist, or could potentially exist - between Israel and its neighbours, in the Nile Valley, between Turkey on the one hand and Syria and Iraq on the other over issues of the control and use of the headwaters of the Euphrates, possibly between India and Pakistan, over the Mekong, and even over whether Canada will be prepared to make a fraction of its superabundant water resources available to assist the USA. It should be noted however that in many of these cases, there are also other sources of tension - including some of a religious nature; and that only in the case of Israel and its neighbours is it possible to say with certainty that water issues have been a war aim - the improvement of Israel's water situation certainly resulted from the capture of the Golan heights in 1967. Alongside these examples can be placed numerous cases in which there has been encouraging international co-operation to resolve potential water conflicts, in the form of transnational basin management on both quantity and quality issues.


While popular works and TV programmes may currently be making too much of the potential for "water wars", the potential for intercommunal and social conflict over water within states is very considerable indeed. This may well result in physical violence in a considerable number of instances, though whether "armed conflict" will result is another matter. This is because much water scarcity now and in the foreseeable future can be described as "second order scarcity" rather than "first order scarcity", that is, that lack of water on reasonable terms for some elements or groups of a population is attributable not to any absolute lack of water but to failures of political, social and institutional management resulting in serious misallocations of water, and deprivation and/or high costs for important sectors of the population (and the enrichment - sometimes criminal enrichment - of particular individuals and groups at the expense of others). These situations may well lead to armed activity in some cases.


Of increasing significance as a source of international tension is the displacement and migration of populations. While the phenomenon has a wide range of causes and motives, environmental degradation is a common cause. That degradation often results from military operations, so that one set of military activities leads indirectly to another.


Environmental issues as casus belli are perhaps a somewhat self-contained issue from the remainder of the subject. They are closely related to, if not often identical to, economic causes of war.


Environmental pressure of one kind and another has long been used in operations of war. These are not far in character from blockade and siege. The poisoning of wells has long been in use in arid areas, as have scorched earth policies in which large areas have been laid waste, for example by salting fields, to deny food to enemy forces and bring civilian pressure on enemy decision-makers. In the twentieth century, denial of raw materials and food to whole societies became a normal operation of war, and in arid areas the destruction of wells and other forms of water supply was a normal tactic (tempered by the possibility that one’s side might in due course have need of them). Attacks on dams were not unknown, perhaps more to deny hydropower and create downstream destruction, than to deny water supply. But where an enemy is dependent on irrigated agriculture, interference with it is obviously a tempting measure. (Irrigation systems are in themselves a major interference in "natural" ecosystems, of course - systems which may not in particular cases be all that natural, as a matter of fact.)


These operations are, as these illustrations imply, directed against the environmental resources of people, whether combatant or non-combatant. In general, attacks are not made on other species, plants and eco-systems for their own sake - such activities would be pointless apart from the indirect effect on people, and military activities are not intentionally carried out without point, though on occasion they may of course be unintentionally pointless. (Military activities may be unethical, but they are rarely irrational even if sometimes the logic is misguided. Indeed, some of the difficulties arise because what is rational is sometimes thereby assumed to be ethical.)


This refers to the collateral effects of military activities, that is, not those effects which are in themselves necessary to achieve a military purpose, but which are side-effects necessarily entailed in the particular activities. These are of a very wide variety:


Military operations


Military preparations

In principle, the environmental effects could be classified according to the same structure as military operations, but with rather less emphasis on pollution and more on the disruptive elements, and with the addition of the pollution and disruption effects of weapons and equipment production. The position may however vary extensively from society to society depending on cultural attitudes – it can be hazarded that the environmental impacts of Soviet military preparations in the period 1945 – 1990 in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe had very extensive environmental effects, more so than those of NATO (though there might be a question mark about parts of the USA).


It seems probable that the effects of military preparations are more permanent in character, because military bases, training grounds, and weapons and equipment factories are in specific locations; certainly, they entail significant and extensive changes in land-use, and land, sea and air exclusion zones.


In the UK the MoD has long tended to argue that its peace-time activities tend to be environmentally beneficial, basically because they preserve land from development and allow nature to take its own course, eg, on training grounds. There is something in this. It ignores however



There is also the question of access for leisure purposes. This tends to be bundled together with environmental arguments, though it is essentially of a different character.


It can also be argued that there are many places in which military preparations are positively beneficial to areas in economic and social terms, bring employment and other benefits which the particular would otherwise not enjoy. This argument certainly chimes with the mantra of "sustainable development", which has economic, social and environment legs and entails striking a satisfactory balance between them. This is not the place to refer to the gallons of ink which have been spilt, rather unsatisfactorily, over the meaning of the terms "sustainable development" and "sustainability" over the last 15 years. The question of whether the environmental leg is a leg, or rather a constraint within which the other two components may be maximised is relevant however.


How far are environmental considerations to be regarded as a constraint or restraint on military activities is obviously a key question – one which can, in fact, only answered by taking into account philosophical and ethical considerations.


These analytical considerations suggest that the topic of "war and the environment" has a number of different ramifications and avenues for exploration. Any CCADD study will need to consider whether it is right to cover the whole ground that I have outlined or whether it should concentrate on a particular part or parts of the terrain.


Some relevant considerations and observations

a. Relative significance of environmental impact of military activities

It has been argued that modern warfare is comparatively insignificant as an engine of environmental impact compared with peacetime economic activities, whether industrial or agricultural. There is perhaps some truth in this. While the twentieth century was the century of total war, it is in fact possible that military preparations and activities accounted for a smaller proportion of GNP, and had less extensive and extreme economic, social and environmental effects, than, say, war-making activities in early modern Europe before the industrial revolution despite the latter’s limited scale in comparison. It is also true that in the last 200 years urbanisation, industrial activity and pollution, and increases in agricultural production through "agricultural improvement" have had dramatic environmental impacts. These continue in many parts of the developed and developing worlds. It is only in north America and western Europe that some of this impact has begun to be contained in the last generation. And the environmental effects of high consumption of food, housing and transport in developed and rapidly-developing countries are proving much harder to contain than the pollution effects of industrialisation. Military activities and preparations do indeed make only a relatively small contribution. But it is still a contribution, accounting for some percentage points of total economic activity. And conventional conflict can have serious environmental implications, as the Gulf War and the Serbian/Kosovan operations of 1999 demonstrated.


b. The resilience of nature

It is also argued that it is only necessary to be concerned about the permanent, or very long-term, effects of military activity and that a fundamentally highly-resilient nature quickly reasserts itself. The latter is true in the most general terms. But this argument ignores the fact that eco-systems are dynamic and highly diverse. Nature reasserts itself, but not the same nature. Human intervention will lead to new ecological equilibria, not the preceding one (shocks from other species or phenomena will, of course, have exactly the same effect, as the dinosaurs would tell us if they were still here to do so!). This is, however, an ambiguous point for conservationists, as much as for those who would argue for extensive freedom and exceptions for military activities. If ecosystems cannot be maintained in a condition of stasis, then can, or in what circumstances and conditions does, the intervention of war matter? There is a distinction to be drawn, however, between change that humans cannot do anything about, and change which is consciously induced by humans or is the inevitable by-product of their deliberate actions. The credentials of the reasons for producing change are also germane in ethical terms. This is not the place for a full exploration of these matters, but it can readily be seen that this question is a fruitful field for ethical reflection, one which will quickly raise issues about the philosophical world-view(s) within which it is being conducted.


c. The military ethos with respect to the environment

A question can be asked whether military institutions have an attitudinal problem with respect to the environment. Are they particularly prone to carelessness about the environment by reason? Is there something about the character of the activity which entails carelessness about such matters? There is a case to answer here. For it can be argued that the destructiveness which is necessarily entailed in war-making can involve a blunting of sensibility to collateral damage and the general environmental impact of the activity. It is a short step from the fact that some damage is a necessary and inevitable consequence of military activities to believing that consequential impact does not really matter. Moreover, many military operations are conducted at a distance from the home territory of the forces concerned, normally by young males and necessarily involving movement. Frequently, military forces are simply not around to experience the effects of environmental damage. Military tradition may have significance here: it is only comparatively recently in European history that it is practical to release armies from having to live off the land at least to some extent. This was inevitably a coercive process and, it may be argued, habituated those concerned to the damage involved.


If I am right that there is here an aspect of military culture, it would not be surprising that it also imbues the approach to military preparations and training. Certainly, in the UK over the past twenty years it has been possible to discern an attitude on the part of the defence establishment that peacetime military activities ought not be subject to the same limitations and procedures to which other activities are subject, for example, those governing the use of land. The approach has been that these matters should be decided internally by the military establishment pretty well without reference to others, and that they certainly should not be subject to the procedures (and perhaps standards) imposed on other activities. It is not, however, easy to disentangle this from the fact that, when the land-use planning system was devised after the Second World War, other Crown activities and the activities of many other public authorities were also exempted from these procedures – on the grounds that of course public authorities could be trusted to do the right thing; it was only private persons who could not be trusted and needed control!


  1. Military necessity and restraints on environmental operations of war and environmental impacts

This leads on questions about whether and how far the character of military activity renders environmental impacts inevitable and therefore justifiable. Just as it is not possible to make omelettes without breaking eggs, so war-making necessarily involves both violence and the rest of the activities which are necessary to effect that violence in the particular strategic and tactical circumstances of the case. Some would argue that that justifies both environmental operations and environmental impacts; the need to conduct the operations justifies the damage, and avoidance of damage should not restrain necessary operations. This form of realpolitik has not always been convincing. Restraints on environmental effects are discernible in texts from a number of different religions. They are present, for example, in the Old Testament where … [Deut 20] [Qu’ran] [? Medieval texts].


In this context, it is comparatively easy to see ways in which environmental operations of war fall within the limitations imposed by the just war requirements of proportion and discrimination. Thus the burning or denial of crops, and the poisoning, contamination or diversion of water supply, may affect non-combatants and have such far-reaching and long-lasting effects that they ought to be regarded as improper. In some cases, no doubt, they may fall under the restraints and prohibitions relating to chemical and biological warfare. In other cases, their character and effects would be equivalent to measures already prohibited under the relevant conventions.


A key question is however whether impacts on the rest of nature should be regarded as relevant under the criteria of the just war. Hitherto, those criteria have related to human beings – environmental impacts have been considered relevant because of their implications for human beings. But it should noted that, quite apart from the issue of war, environmental policy itself had the same character until comparatively recently: the concern of environmental health was with humans, and it is not accidental that many of the policy issues now falling within the purview of environment Ministries formerly were the responsibility of health Ministries, as was the case in the United Kingdom. In the last generation, however, a significant and widespread change has taken place in thinking: its effect has been to shorten the hierarchical distance between humankind and the rest of nature, and in particular the higher mammals. Of course, when push comes to shove, perceived human needs remain dominant, especially when issues of human health are engaged: we can see that in the BSE experience; the concern is not really with the infected animals, but with the impacts on humans, and to protect the latter the slaughter of millions of animals has caused scarcely a ripple. Genetically-modified food is another example, where for the generality of people, the concern is with "Frankenstein food" (for humans) rather than the environmental risks. This follows from the fact that the last century saw great changes in public expectations as to human health and longevity: whereas in former generations, early death and debilitating physical conditions were accepted as a fact of life, now "they" (ie, governments, businesses, etc) are held responsible for ensuring that all can enjoy their threescore years and ten, and perhaps more, at least in respect of threats imposed on people from the outside (and even in respect of risks voluntarily-accepted, such as smoking). It seems predictable that those responsible for making war are going to be faced with more demanding standards in respect of protecting human health, both of combatants and non-combatants, than they have so far been used to.


Notwithstanding the political priority for humans, a secular trend to prize the rest of nature and specific species more highly can readily be discerned. Politically, the consequence in the longer run is likely to be that significant forms of human activity, including military activity, will have to show greater environmental care. There will be expectations which were unknown in former generations, though they are not different in kind from the fairly longstanding obligation to respect historic towns and cities, works of art and other cultural assets.


A further consequence is that in the longer run both stricter standards in respect of the health of combatants and non-combatants and in respect for wider environmental protection is going to incorporated into just war thinking. This is entirely consistent with the evolutionary history of just war thinking; the corpus of requirements has grown gradually over the centuries with changing attitudes and in interaction with the experience of successive generations. As the corpus expands, so gradually too there is a tendency to incorporate those requirements into the law of war, codes of practice of military personnel, and so on. So watch this space!