Ecocide Precedes Genocide

In America today you can murder land for private profit. You can leave the corpse for all to see, and nobody calls the cops.
— Paul Brooks, The Pursuit of Wilderness, 1971

Given the abysmal results of responding to violence with violence, it can be useful to seek unconventional sources of information, particularly if we borrow from the field of Early Warning/Early Response, which emerged after the Rwanda genocide in an effort to identify factors that might have helped predict or prevent the horrific killing. Peacebuilders began looking for signs of impending violence in the subtle cues of daily life, including changes in the behavior of local people, in animals, and even in the weather. They discovered that there are under-the-radar cues that are extremely reliable: for example, when violence looms, market women who would normally dress in bright colors tend to wear black or other dark colors; shepherds stay home or remain in the hills with their flocks; animals start acting skittish. In border towns, conversations change: prostitutes, long-distance truck drivers, mechanics and elders who sit in the shade in the center of town hear clues to portentous events before they occur. Forest animals behave differently or go into hiding. There are other, more mysterious indicators as well that tell us something is up, and that indicate that the Natural World and the spirits are seeking to communicate with us: atypical weather, unusually-shaped clouds, an uncharacteristic color of the moon, and of course people receive warning dreams. Indigenous cultures traditionally shared these observations as a matter of course. Now, they can seem unusual to the point of being far-fetched. Still, the anecdotal evidence is consistent to the point of being incontrovertible.

I used to think that in post-conflict situations, once there was relative peace and stability among humans, we would have the luxury of turning our attention to environmental restoration. In recent years, I have realized that the reverse is true: environmental degradation is a precursor to violence because it precipitates both natural and human-made disasters. Deforestation leads to erosion, resulting in less fertile soil that can neither grow nutrient dense food nor maintain sufficient yield. Removing trees and ground cover releases carbon into the atmosphere. Bare ground cannot retain water, and surface temperatures rise, leading to heat waves, droughts and floods. Animal habitat is compromised or destroyed, reducing biodiversity as well as diminishing the numbers of animals that can be hunted as a source of protein. Social tensions increase due to hunger, displacement of people and animals, and the destruction of indigenous cultures. Corruption and the ‘resource curse’ exacerbate deforestation and mining. When problems inevitably arise, governments overreact in response to desperate people whose misery has boiled over. Violence begets violence, beginning when the environment itself comes under assault. It’s no surprise then, that there is a direct correlation between environmental destruction and violence. Conversely, environmental restoration helps to heal trauma and bring people together, and when the land is healed, people and animals are fed and can more easily turn their attention to community life.

When we attack what sustains us, what else can we expect besides violence? Prior to the genocide, Rwanda had the highest population density in Africa - pressures on the land were extreme. Erosion and diminished soil fertility had long been serious problems because traditional sustainable farming practices were discouraged and monocropping, with an over-reliance on coffee, became the norm. In retrospect, especially given pre-existing ethnic conflicts, the genocide was inevitable. (Today, Rwanda leads the world in reforestation and in the numbers of women in government. They are likely to remain stable and thrive.)

In Syria, mismanagement and unsustainable agriculture (monocropping of wheat and separation of grazing animals from food crops) triggered a years-long drought that precipitated the current civil war.

In Myanmar, in 1948, 70% of the country was forested, representing the largest expanse of forest in mainland SE Asia. Today, the forest cover hovers below 48%, with only about 6% of the land protected. Coastal mangroves, so vital to mitigate flooding and sea level rise, have diminished by over 64%. Massive deforestation, rapid population growth, and a repressive, corrupt government are the writing on the environmental wall. That same writing spells impending disaster all over the world: Nigeria, the Philippines, Ghana, Indonesia, Nepal, North Korea, Ecuador, Haiti and Liberia, among others, will soon be on the brink of violence. Dire headlines are sure to follow but few politicians even mention the environment these days. They’re too busy trumpeting about jobs and terrorism.

The questions circle back on themselves and bring me to this: How do we, as a global community, co-arise with impending disaster to insist on the restoration of a vibrantly thriving Natural World?