The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
This World War I Battlefield Is a Haunting Reminder of the Environmental Costs of War
World War I ended 100 years ago on Sunday, but 42,000 acres in northeast France serve as a living memorial to the human and environmental costs of war.
The battle of Verdun was the longest continuous conflict in the Great War, and it so devastated the land it took place on that, after the war, the government cordoned it off-limits to human habitation. What was once farmland became the Zone Rouge, or Red Zone, as National Geographic reported.
An excellent Twitter thread by writer Paul Cooper, excerpted here, explains more:
100 years later, humans still don't live in the Zone Rouge, which is so thick with unexploded shells that a French government agency called the Department du Deminage is still at work clearing them. The Department handles shells from World War II as well, and from other areas, but the Zone Rouge is especially saturated.
"They reckon that they have 300 years work ahead of them before they have cleared the whole battlefield," British historian and author Christina Holstein told National Geographic. "And they never will."
Hugh Whitfeld produced a video for Australia's 7 News highlighting their Sisyphean task:
For much of the area, the years without human presence have had a restorative impact on the land, transforming the Zone Rouge into a forested green zone.
"To their surprise, they found the vegetation—trees, grasses, bushes and briars—all came back very quickly," Holstein told National Geographic. Verdun was also intentionally reforested with German pine sent from the Black Forest as part of reparations following the war, CNN reported.
The area is a now a favored spot for hunters of wild boar and deer and a source of timber for France, as well as de facto memorial to the villages whose ruins remain amid the trees.
"Because it has been abandoned and covered with trees, it is a microcosm of something that happened a hundred years ago," Holstein told National Geographic. "It is a bit like Sleeping Beauty. Things have just gotten frozen in time."
However, one part of the Zone Rouge has not recovered. This is the La place a Gaz (the gas place), a shack in a clearing surrounded by razor wire where companies burned unused gas shells after the war.
"They burned it for years, basically for the entire 1920s and we never thought about the consequences," area historian Guillaume Moizan told CNN.
It is still one of the most toxic sites in France. The arsenic levels in the soil are 35,000 times higher than normal and some parts of the soil are 17.5 percent arsenic, according to a 2007 study. Little grows there, even now.
Conflicts since World War I have continued to devastate the environments of the countries where they were fought, from Vietnam to Iraq. The U.S. Department of Defense is in fact the world's biggest polluter. Today, La place a Gaz serves as a chilling reminder that, when governments order their armies into battle, they are not just killing the enemy—they are killing the earth we will all share long after the guns have fallen silent.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Tracy L. Barnett
Sources reviewed this article for accuracy.
For Sicangu Lakota water protector Cheryl Angel, Standing Rock helped her define what she stands against: an economy rooted in extraction of resources and exploitation of people and planet. It wasn't until she'd had some distance that the vision of what she stands for came into focus.
Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.
"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
Leaked documents show that Jair Bolsonaro's government intends to use the Brazilian president's hate speech to isolate minorities living in the Amazon region. The PowerPoint slides, which democraciaAbierta has seen, also reveal plans to implement predatory projects that could have a devastating environmental impact.