War and Peace (sorry Tolstoy, I have borrowed your title)

The evening of 10 November 2008 a group of us attended Dialouge Group Montreal’s with guest speaker Rabi Michael Cohen. Rabi Cohen is co-founder and recruitment director of The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, Kibbutz Ketura, Israel. Rather than discuss The Arava Institute I would like to focus on war, racism and peace as being interconnected with environment. Deterioration of environmental processes and services influence conflict between vying nations, just as states of war and/or peace influence environmental preservation or drive environmental destruction.

Environmental resources and deterioration have historically and will continue to be a source of conflict. After WWI, maps of Europe were re-drawn to compensate and punish ally or axis countries. Ocean ports for trade, agricultural land, culturally significant land and coal mines each had tremendous influence over establishing the new boundaries. In turn, the value and relative shortage of these environmental resources and services became a source conflict (driving economic depression, fear and/or revenge in various countries), and contributed to the beginning of WWII. Currently, wars and ‘peace keeping missions’ are fought over oil, a finite natural resource, but also over a plethora of other natural resource, ecosystem services and culturally/religiously significant land. The current water crisis is projected to worsen and quickly rise to the leading instigator of war around the world. As Rabi Cohen mentioned and I strongly agree; environment, (for example think of salt and fresh water systems and water cycling) knows no boundaries, does not discriminate and does not change course according to human ethics, law, politics or arbitrary borders.

War has devastating impacts on the war field; the natural environment. These impacts are not contained to the conflict zone but alter ecosystem functions on a wider scale and often trigger a cascading assault on environment in various locations. During WWI, for example, vast old growth forest were logged to construct mask and hulls of ships, and the shortage of food in France and England led to the conversion of North American prairie to wheat fields, eventually tipping the prairie ecosystem to collapse, otherwise known as the Dust Bowl. Looking back, we have been able to calculate the approximate damage of the WWI and WWII on the natural environment, but what will be the cost of current and future conflicts as warfare and weapons continue to evolve?

A prevalent and interrelated issue that was raised throughout The Arava Institute seminar was that of racism. Israel, Palestine, and Jordan all share a common land, contribute to the same environmental problems (significantly pollution of the Jordan River) and must work collectively to reverse these problems and preserve their shared remaining natural environment. However, racial and religious prejudice and stereotypes are conceptually rooted in religion-based worldviews that extend into far history, not in a modern environmental worldview.

Considering the detrimental environmental impacts of war and racism above and beyond human impacts, peace becomes crucial for a sustainable world. The influence of peace on the restoring and preserving and environment in the Middle East has huge potential. One example jumps to mind; Canada and the United States, living ad working in peace, have been able to jointly manage The Great Lakes ecosystem; working to reduce pollution, restore and preserve the lakes and their watersheds. Although The Great Lakes bi-national project has not been completely successful (The Great Lakes are still heavily polluted, support less diversity and perform fewer ecosystem services compared to their natural state) it has certainly benefited the lakes. It seems logical that a multinational approach to managing, restoring and protecting the Jordan River would increase the quality of water and than decrease tensions over water resources….but how can this begin without peace in the area? Peace is crucial for environmental restoration and preservation, but how and at what stage is it best incorporated into environmental management? Is peace required as a precursor to effective collaborative environmental preservation? Will peace arise while working across borders to preserve environment? Or is preserving the environment, thus reducing natural resource (especially water) scarcity, required first in order to achieve peace?

One Response to “War and Peace (sorry Tolstoy, I have borrowed your title)”

  1. Really interesting paper… I really like the passage when you mentioned that “peace becomes crucial for a sustainable world”. I did not really think of that before but now, it is obvious that peace and saving environment are closely related. The Arava Institute appears to do good work on environmental issues. I like the idea of combining people with different worldviews in a quite HOT political environment. This is very good stuff and it should be replicated and encouraged across the world. However, where we start? We have a huge and steep mountain to climb. How can we make environmental protection progression when people look for food and water on a daily basis? I have no idea but students in Arava Institute accept the challenge.