War is, unfortunately, as old as human civilization itself. For millennia, humans have competed for control over the resources they need to survive and prosper. And for all the changes that modernity has ostensibly brought to human lives, very little has changed to sever the intimate ties between resource dominance and warfare.
In fact, the fight for access to resources ranging from energy to food to water continues to spur brutal conflicts around the world. It doesn’t have to be this way, however. The turn toward renewables has the potential to end the strife that has devastated humanity for thousands of years.
The Role of Environmental Resources in International Conflict
No matter how strong, intelligent, wealthy, or powerful you are, there are some essentials that you and your loved ones simply can’t live without. You need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and clean food to eat.
And when any of these essentials is threatened, people turn to desperate actions pretty quickly. It is little wonder, then, that the fight to control finite environmental resources is a preeminent catalyst for both domestic and international warfare.
For instance, climate change has induced or exacerbated water shortages in many parts of the world, including in the Middle East, India, and sub-Saharan Africa. The result has been not only frequent and worsening violence between villages and communities in these regions but also worsening tensions between nation-states.
Turkey’s recent practices of damming major waterways, for example, is leading to water contamination and water shortages in neighboring nations, including Iraq and Syria, leading to civil and political unrest that may well escalate into full-blown regional warfare.
Environmental Resources as a Weapon of War
Warring nations don’t just fight for control over access to environmental resources. They also frequently use these resources as a weapon of war. A particularly poignant example of this is the leveraging of both energy and food resources by the Putin administration to punish nation-states opposing Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Europe’s reliance on Russian gas and oil, for example, has significantly weakened the continent, leaving it vulnerable to Russia’s threats to cut off Europe’s energy supply on the eve of winter. This, in turn, dramatically increases Europe’s risk of suffering severe food and heating shortages, potentially jeopardizing the lives of millions.
However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine hasn’t just precipitated a prospective European energy crisis. In the early months of the war, Russian blockades cut off the supply of Ukrainian wheat, grain, and other agricultural products from the world market. This has led to rising food prices around the world, increasing food insecurity among vulnerable populations, and heightened famine risk in impoverished nations.
The Impact of War on Environmental Resources
In addition to conflicts over access to resources and the use of resources as a weapon of war, such conflicts can also take a devastating toll on the environment, exacerbating resource scarcity and increasing the likelihood of further hostilities.
For instance, military operations are a significant producer of greenhouse gases with military vehicles generating thousands of tons of carbon emissions.
However, it is not only the air that is polluted through military activity. The residual impacts of battle can lead to the contamination of water supplies and soil for generations to come. In addition to the massive consumption of land, water, and marine sources for military training and armed conflict, conventional and non-conventional weapons alike produce waste that is often profoundly harmful both to humans and to the environment.
Typically, these waste products can be disposed of only through burning or detonation, producing contaminants that bleed into the air, water, and soil, disrupting or destroying fragile ecosystems for miles around.
Breaking the Cycle Through Sustainability
Though the link between environmental resources and international conflict may seem intractable, there is hope through environmental sustainability. At the core of the nexus between resources and warfare, after all, is the issue of scarcity.
Antagonists perpetuate violence against those they fear may jeopardize their access to essential but finite resources. Enemies use the fear of scarcity against one another, knowing that to deny, or even threaten to deny, access to energy, food, water, or clean air is one of the surest and most expedient ways to conquer an opponent.
But when resources are no longer scarce, they are far less likely to become a source of armed conflict or be used as a dangerous weapon of war. Green practices, in other words, can put the power of plenty in the hands of the individual, not of a more powerful village, nation-state, or military leader.
For instance, shifting to sustainable agricultural practices can end or at least reduce the reliance on exported resources. Sourcing food locally not only eliminates the need for long-distance shipping using fossil fuel-powered trucks and trains but also enables consumers to become producers. This, in turn, ensures that consumers have full control over what goes into their food, reducing their exposure to pesticides, chemical preservatives, and additives.
Similarly, using smart-farm technologies to support sustainable practices can increase crop yields, decrease the environmental and agricultural impacts of climate change, and reduce the potential for armed conflict related to resource scarcity. This not only contributes to the long-term well-being of the environment, but also supports the physical and mental health of humans who might otherwise have experienced the trauma of famine, drought, displacement, or war.
The Earth is our home and our sustenance. However, the threat of resource scarcity has been the catalyst for profound atrocities the world over. Environmental resources, indeed, are a preeminent cause and weapon of international conflict. Nevertheless, it is possible to escape the cycle of brutality. The cultivation of renewable energy sources and the implementation of sustainable agriculture practices can help to preserve the environment, and it may also make it possible for human beings to live together in peace. By then, the competition for clean air, water, and soil will finally be over.
However, if we don’t take action now, we’re bound to see even more conflict between nation-states and neighbors growing in power.