The Ecology Of War

Tuesday, September 2, 2003


Written by Doug Larson

War is bad and peace is good.

We say it, we know it, we believe it.

Unfortunately, none of this is true, that is if you’re a bug or a tree.

War is simply an armed conflict between organisms. For bugs and trees, these conflicts are usually over food, or water, or space, or mates. Sometimes the wars involve competition for the same resource by different groups of the same species. Other times the wars are between predators and their prey. But they’re still wars.

When we look at bugs and trees at war, we take photos to fill albums or make calendars or documentaries showing beautiful flowers at war with other flowers trying to steal their insect pollinators. We also stare in amazement at scenes of teeth gnawing on the spoils of the kill, or blood smeared over the face of a lion with the accompanying bulging ungulate eyes. Animal and plant wars attracted the attention and respect of scientists world wide after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species and ever since then we happily talk about ‘survival of the fittest’ and the ‘struggle for existence’ as beautiful and necessary natural processes.

Why are these wars admired and photographed while our wars are not?

I think there are three reasons.

First, these organisms have no choice. They are the products of a biological mechanism that pits organisms into contests or conflicts that require that one (more or less) wins, and the other (more or less) loses. Sometimes there is a standoff but it usually requires that the ‘loser’ change it’s colour, its form, or its behaviour in some important way. But they have no choice.

Second, when these organisms war with each other, the blood and guts are plant blood and animal guts. It’s not human blood and guts. It’s not us. The death of others is less bothersome and hence much time is spent in human warfare trying to convince the troops that the enemy is actually not fully human. You will have noticed that most humans happily observe the death of many other species. We certainly don’t mind crushing a whole assemblage of living plant guts in our teeth as long as the guts are first covered in tasty acid and oil (i.e. a salad). Many of us also have no trouble lounging on sofas filled with bird feathers (down) and covered with leather (animal skins).

Third, and I think most importantly, however, is the issue of scale. If E.O. Wilson is right and the world currently supports 1–10 million species, and if this large number only represents 1% of the species that have ever lived, then there ought to be huge piles of evidence of the wars fought by all these species—with themselves and with other species. There are no such piles of evidence only little fragments here and there.

We, however, leave behind massive evidence of our wars—great swaths of natural landscapes have been cut, burned, defoliated, bombed and otherwise cleared away—the way a chalkboard eraser removes text from slate.Hamish Kimmins has pointed out in his book Forest Ecology that the vast majority of the deforestation that has occurred world-wide over the past 5000 years, has been done to make the weapons of war. The British Isles were mainly forested until the arrival of the Romans. British trees and native ecosystems were largely extinct by 2000 years ago. The trees were harvested to make galleons, forts, trebuchets, spears. Trees were cut for charcoal first to fuel lead, tin, and copper mines, then to fuel steel production. Native yews were almost extirpated in a Europe hungry for the longbow. Trees were harvested to facilitate the exploitation of new worlds. Ontario pine and oak were used for the best British navy ships. In 1880 William Brown, the first professor agriculture at the brand new College of Agriculture noted that it was “not too late to protect the landscape from deforestion since there was still over 50% of it left”. We currently (as of 2001) have 0.07% of the original forest cover left. We are converting the wild planet to stuff we want. And we will stop at nothing to succeed because we want the resources that the world (including other species) has. It’s in our nature.

But make no mistake about it—it’s also a ‘nature’ that we can choose to reject. We appear to be the first species on the planet that has ever had this choice to make. Unlike other organisms (that we declare to be less sentient than us) we can choose not to have such a hunger for the resources held by others. We can choose not to fight others to obtain their resources. We have the ability—expressed as free will—to decline the opportunity to exploit other members of our species, or even of other species. Or at least we have the option to minimize such exploitation. Of course, the cost of such minimization is that we cannot ask for the spoils of war to be delivered to our door as cheap fuel or labour.

Unlike the case for all other organisms, the ecological consequences of warfare among humans is an outcome we can choose. We have the ability to say ‘no’. The ecology of human warfare is one that we control.

Doug Larson (Professor, Dept. of Botany and Director of the Cliff Ecology Research Group) will be speaking as part of OPIRG's "Community Party" on Saturday, September 6th at the Matrix Centre, 141 Woolwich Street, downtown Guelph. It gets underway at 3 pm.

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