One way to understand the relation between environment and peace is to turn the question on its head and ask what is the relation between the environment and the culture of war. Here is what I say in my book The History of the Culture of War :
The exploitation of the culture of war involves not only exploitation of people, but also exploitation of the environment. In recent years everyone has become more aware of the dangers of environmental pollution, with special attention to carbon emissions which have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and resulted in global warming. This is also related to the loss of the world’s forests which redress the problem by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Insufficient attention has been paid, however, to the great environmental destruction and pollution caused by military activity.
Historically, military-related activity has been one of the primary causes of deforestation. This was already evident in ancient times as described above in the case of Greece and Rome. More recently, the British Empire was a major destroyer of forests, as described for India in an article by Budholai (available on the Internet) :
“The early days of British rule in India were days of plunder of natural resources. They started exploiting the rich resources present in India by employing the policy of imperialism. By around 1860, Britain had emerged as the world leader in deforestation, devastation its own woods and the forests in Ireland, South Africa and northeastern United States to draw timber for shipbuilding, iron-smelting and farming. Upon occasion, the destruction of forests was used by the British to symbolize political victory. Thus, the early nineteenth century, and following its defeat of the Marathas, the East India Company razed to the ground teak plantation in Ratnagiri nurtured and grown by the legendary Maratha Admiral Kanhoji Angre. There was a total indifference to the needs of the forest conservancy. They caused a fierce onslaught on Indian Forests. The onslaught on the forests was primarily because of the increasing demand for military purposes, for British navy, for local construction (such as roads and railways), supply of teak and sandalwood for export trade and extension of agriculture in order to supplement revenue.”
I have not been able to find precise evidence of the environmental damage caused by the contemporary American Empire, but the following description of military pollution by Schmidt (2004) gives some idea of the problem which includes contamination of the land by poisonous chemicals as well as air pollution:
“Preparing for war is a heavily industrialized mission that generates fuel spills, hazardous waste, and air pollution. The DOD owns more than 10% of the 1,240 sites currently on the National Priorities List, and has estimated the cost of cleaning up these sites at approximately $9.7 billion. In addition to lead and a variety of solvents, training facilities release munitions constituents including perchlorate (a thyroid toxicant), RDX (an explosive compound and neurotoxicant), and TNT (an explosive compound linked to anemia and altered liver function).
Nearly 1 in 10 Americans live within 10 miles of a DOD Superfund site – a sometimes perilous proximity. The Massachusetts Military Reservation, for instance, a 34-square-mile multi-use training facility in Cape Cod, is slowly leaching solvents, jet fuel, RDX, and perchlorate into the area’s sole aquifer, a drinking water source for up to 500,000 people at the height of tourist season.
Military aircraft from DOD facilities also generate noise and air pollution. For instance, in 1996, the most recent year for which data are available, more than 50,000 military flights contributed to the heavy air traffic over Washington, D.C. According to the Democratic Committee on Energy and Commerce, these flights emitted 75 tons of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which generate smog. In 1999, the Sierra Army Depot, located 55 miles northeast of Reno, was California’s leading air polluter, according to the EPA Toxics Release Inventory. The base released some 5.4 million pounds of toxic chemicals that year, including aluminum, copper, and zinc fumes.”
Military testing and seeding with anti-personnel mines and unexploded or spent ammunition such as cluster bombs and depleted uranium have rendered large tracts of land around the world uninhabitable and unapproachable. I have not been able to find any full accounting of this. However, we know that many people, often children, are still being injured by anti-personnel mines, cluster bomb fragments and other ammunition around the world. Furthermore, any seasoned traveler will have encountered zones that are “off limits” because of military use, often because they have been used for target practice and weapons testing and still contain live ammunition. In addition, does anyone know how much of the world’s land is now contaminated with so much radiation from the disposal of radioactive waste or from accident nuclear explosions such as that of Chernobyl that the land will not be habitable for hundreds or thousands of years?
Of course, the above damage is dwarfed by what would happen to the environment if even a small fraction of today’s nuclear weapons were used in a nuclear war. At the height of the Cold War, scientific calculations were made showing that the world would enter a “nuclear winter” caused by the clouds from such war, not to mention the lethal levels of radioactivity that would result. It is frightening to realize how close we have come to such a nuclear war. Several years ago, a CPNN article described how a Soviet colonel saved the world from a nuclear holocaust when all the signals required him to fire the Soviet nuclear arsenal. Until recently, this topic was rarely mentioned in the media despite the fact that the same potential for nuclear destruction remains on attack-alert ready for deployment. However, the recent adoption of a UN resolution and Nobel Prize for Peace has brought back attention to the danger.