Machlis and Hanson present a really cool new research area in this month’s issue of BioScience: “Warfare Ecology.” Their article is fascinating, and brings together a lot of things that conservation biologists have recognized as true individually, but that I’d never seen aggregated under this banner before. They hit on the fact that war and its three stages (“Preparations,” “War,” and “Postwar activities”) have many consequences for the environment, both good and bad.
Some of the better-known examples of human conflict being a net positive for biodiversity is the Korean DMZ, where nature has been left “untouched” because of the conflict. Another example is the use of Department of Defense land in the U.S. to conserve threatened and endangered species. I’ve heard it said a number of times that the DoD is one of the leaders in the federal government in conservation because they have the money to do so. They’d much rather solve the problem on their land,get over it and get back to training than be caught up in protracted court battles — doesn’t that sound too refreshing to be true? Well, at least with the red-cockaded woodpecker, it’s accurate.
On the other hand, of course, war can obviously be terrible for biodiversity. They point to a survey of hippopotami in Virunga before and after the Congolese civil war, where their population dropped from 30,000 individuals to 629. I’m also reminded of this article from Science by Cohen and Carlton on invasions in the San Francisco Bay that showed a serious turning point around World War II. In this case, the global war seems to have ramped up industrialization to new levels.
The authors point out that “the cascading effects of warfare are crucial and complex,” and give a few examples including when “military expenditures may preclude spending for needed environmental management, leading to a decline in ecosystem services that further intensifies resource conflicts.”
So, yeah. There are lots of fascinating questions that could be asked about this branch of ecology. On the other hand, anybody pursuing such research is going to be have to be particularly sensitive to a potential backlash. We’ve already got enough of a misanthropic reputation; studying nature in the face of war isn’t going to help.