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Blog List >  Locking and Loading the Landscape Weapon
Locking and Loading the Landscape Weapon
Jul 23 2013 8:45AM Posted by David Ludwig, Ph.D.

Throughout history, manipulation of land and water have been part of the arsenal that human beings apply to each other in war and other acrimonious relationships. Classic cases include flooding via dam breaching (as in the World War Two bombing of upstream dams on the Ruhr River), wildfire (burned crops and croplands in Russia and the Ukraine during World War Two), landform reconfiguration (the enormous anti-tank trenches around Kuwait in the early 1990s) and others. 

One matter not usually viewed as an issue of war and weaponry is the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. The ecological facts are straightforward. Over time, millions of Irish farmers switched from diverse crops and crop cycles characteristic of smallholding farms to potatoes. And not just any potatoes. Cheap, vulnerable potato varieties, grown mostly for export. It was the English, at the time nominal overlords of Ireland, who shunted Irish agriculture into potatoes. According the Washington Post (book review dated 13 January 2013), the English saw the potato famine as a necessary offset to an inherent “laziness” of the Irish, and also as a way to solve some of their own regional overcrowding by moving people from densely populated areas to parts of Ireland recently rendered under-populated. Two excellent books on the topic came out early this year. American John Kelly published The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People (published by Henry Holt); and Tim Pat Coogan published The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy (Palgrave Macmillan). 

These books take different analytical approaches. Kelly is driven by cold facts and documents the “nuts and bolts” of the potato famine. Coogan is more polemic, perhaps befitting an Irish historian. 

The facts are that Irish farms by the 1840s eschewed crop diversity and grew potatoes. And only potatoes. And only one variety of potatoes. The result, when a fungus Phytophthora infestans hit and spread, was an ongoing sequence of crop failures. By 1851, Ireland’s population was reduced from more than eight million people to about six and a half million. And the country has yet to recover. The population remains below the level of 1845.

Basically, the English instituted a system that virtually assured mass starvation and emigration. Basic ecological principles tell us that intensive and large scale monoculture of an inherently physiologically weak crop will result in crop failure. In general, a year of crop failure would trigger a response in the form of more diverse plantings going forward. In mid-19th century Ireland, the farms continually planted potatoes. Year after year. And crop failures occurred year after year. The English accomplished their bizarre objective of depopulating Ireland simply by assuring that a single, vulnerable crop was monocultured for decades. Big problem, easily predictable and easily solved, if the English had any interest in “solving” it. 

Landscape manipulation as a large-scale weapon continues deep into the twenty-first century. In Vietnam in the 1970s, the U.S. applied infamous herbicide Agent Orange to denude forested lands. In Africa in the Sudan and Somalia, factional warfare includes crop destruction, land ruination, and usurpation of arable areas. 

In most wars, ecosystem degradation is an outcome. In Ireland in the 1840s, it was a weapon. A weapon that continues in use. This illustrates a fundamental problem of ecosystems science. Our work is filtered through political and social systems. It doesn’t take an ecologist to apply the landscape weapon. But repairing, restoring, or eliminating landscape weaponry definitely requires ecological expertise. As far as I know, there is no uniformed service of ecologists to play these issues out during war. Perhaps it is time to rethink this. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a component of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has a uniformed service of vessel operators. Maybe the U.S. Department of Defense needs an ecological services branch to monitor and respond to weapons oriented application of the biosphere. An odd thought, I know. But one that seems to be of growing utility in a world where wars are now mostly local or regional and susceptible to such weaponry. With a little forethought, USDOD might innovate to obviate or neutralize landscape weapons. 

What do you think? Is there a role for ecology in wartime military? This presumably means continual support of ecologists in peacetime as well. But the investment might well be worthwhile. The case of England and Ireland illustrates why!

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