The environmental effects of war and peace

I’ve been spending some time in the last few weeks reading “The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov” by Peter Pringle, which I have wanted to read for some time due to my mad science crush on Vavilov. After learning about the centers of origin of different crops in an introductory international agriculture course at Davis, I have been very interested in Vavilov and the amazing adventures he must have had while seeking out seeds for the Leningrad Seed Bank. I haven’t yet finished the book, but unfortunately I already know how it ends. Vavilov died in prison for challenging the scientific views of the Soviet Union, and I think his story provides some interesting context for studying the effects of human interactions with biodiversity. His work inherently focused on the generation of diversity in crop plants; if it weren’t for his expeditions, we would know so much less about crop genetics and where many of our favorite foods come from. But, too, the genetic material he worked so hard to collect was also a huge source of pride for Vavilov and, at least initially, Soviet science. At the time, his diverse collection of seeds was the largest in the world. So important was Vavilov and his work to his associates, that several of his colleagues died of starvation protecting the collection during the Siege of Leningrad. Granted, the seed bank was a non-natural setting meant to conserve biodiversity, but it can still provoke many questions regarding the environmental impacts of human conflict.

I happened to have watched two movies recently, both of which focused on a war in a different way: Fury, about a group of men manning a tank in the remaining days of WWII in Germany, and Kill the Messenger, which chronicles the efforts of journalist Gary Webb as he uncovers CIA involvement in the Contra War. I also frequently refer to Longreads for pieces to read while eating dinner or what have you, and randomly came across this piece by C.J. Chivers about the discovery of chemical weapons in Iraq. I’m certainly no expert on issues of war, and probably know less than I should about all of the aforementioned conflicts. But, obviously, with such a high level of media consumption in this area this week, I couldn’t help but think about the longterm environmental effects of these conflicts on biodiversity (obviously, among other things). Due to my own experience with research in radioecological effects of Cold-War era weapons testing in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, I have always been curious about long-term, post-conflict, environmental impacts. Too, so much of the landscape in which I worked in Nicaragua was a function of the same Contra War covered in Kill the Messenger. Interestingly, however, in a very brief google search I did on this topic, I came across an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report from 2001 on the impacts of war on biodiversity, in which then Chief Scientist Jeffrey A. McNeely states: “While these conflicts have frequently, even invariably, caused negative impacts on biodiversity, peace is often worse, as it enables forest exploitation to operate without impunity.” Basically, our environment is very modified in times of peace, as well as in times of conflict, and I imagine one could write many papers comparing the environmental impacts of the two.

Our seminar speaker this week, Dr. Matt O’Neal, referenced Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs, which has been on my reading list for some time as well. Apparently, Childs spent a few days in an Iowan cornfield and noticed minimal amounts of animal activity. Dr. O’Neal referenced this because he wanted to mention the way the environment is sometimes discussed in popular media, and too, to provide a basis for his own wonderings about the biodiversity of corn monoculture in Iowa. He presented data on pollinator presence in corn and soybeans, showing that these fields might provide more habitat than previously assumed for many bees and flies. I am referencing Dr. O’Neal’s seminar here because the title of Childs’ book fits in well with the conflict theme of this blog, but too because to me his work is motivating in thinking about human interaction with biodiversity. Yes, obviously, we know the landscape is heavily affected by humans (again, in times of peace and conflict), but perhaps there are refuges of biodiversity that we are less familiar with because of sampling bias (Dr. O’Neal showed quite clearly in his talk that typical methodologies for assessing pollinator numbers may be underestimating abundances of different groups) or any other random factor we may not be considering. I find this motivating to continue my work, and in thinking about the ways we can continue to assess and conserve biodiversity in the, hopefully, many years of peace I will see in my life.

And, some random pictures from my time in the Marshall Islands in 2005 and 2006.


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