War is an ecological catastrophe

Researchers believe that war exacerbates climate change, threatening the environment and making future wars more likely.

War is an ecological catastrophe
Image Source: Stocktrek / Getty Images
  • In times of war, otherwise atrocious crimes against nature become routine.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense is one of the largest consumers of fossil fuels in the world.
  • By polluting the earth to prepare for war, the Pentagon prepares a world in which war becomes more likely.


The '20s came roaring in with two explosive headlines: reports of Australia's inferno, and the speculation that the United States could be hurtling towards another war in the Middle East after the government's assassination of Iranian military leader, Qassem Soleimani.

The two events seem ominous harbingers of our future, if warfare and the inherent ecocide that comes with it continues into the next decade.

The environmental costs of war

Image Source: Wikimedia

As power struggles between nations escalate to armed conflicts and hot wars, the environment and ecosystems remain silent casualties. War radically changes the parameters for normalcy, and otherwise atrocious crimes against nature become not only justified, but viewed as necessary.

In war zones, land and natural resources are often contaminated by the oil from military vehicles and chemical weapons. Depleted uranium from ammunition rounds used in Iraq, for instance, left behind radiation that poisoned the soil and water in Iraq, creating a carcinogenic environment according to studies that linked the chemical residue of the weapons to increased cancer in the country. Furthermore, there's the pollution caused by toxic fuel spills that can happen at air force bases, and the oil and chemical leaks that happen when infrastructure is damaged in war zones. Another problem is the deliberate destruction of oil fields and military base garbage that goes up in flames in burn pits.

In war-zones, deforestation can be another major issue. When wars drag out for a long time, people in those regions become internally displaced and need to migrate. In those situations, people try to heat themselves during the winter, causing deforestation further facilitated by warlords. In Afghanistan, cutting down timber and capturing wildlife for sale (like tigers) is encouraged by the Taliban to raise revenue for the group.

Fueling an army

War comes with major ecological consequences in terms of greenhouse gases emitted from mobilization, training, and combat.

Though it has cut back, the U.S. Department of Defense is one of the largest consumers of fossil fuels in the world, and consequently one of the world's top greenhouse gas emitters. In 2017, the Pentagon's greenhouse gas emissions totaled more than 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. If it were a country, it would have carbon emissions larger than Sweden, Portugal, or Denmark.

Buildings and fuel are the main culprits of CO2 emissions. Forty percent of the greenhouse gases emitted are a result of the over 560,000 buildings and around 500 domestic and overseas military installations maintained by the Defense Department. Military operations account for the rest. For instance, in 2016 the Defense Department consumed approximately 86 million barrels of fuel for operational purposes. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, the petroleum-guzzling vehicles and aircraft used by the U.S. military produces many hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide as well as CO2.

War as a climate feedback loop

The justification for war is often to protect citizens, but human beings aren't separate from the web of ecosystems that they are threaded within. For each violent act of war, there is an equally devastating reaction. Those ripple effects could soon be reaching U.S. shores.

According to Dr. Neta C. Crawford, Department Chair of Boston University's Department of Political Science and the co-director of the study group Costs of War, military aggression and preparation exacerbates environmental problems that could lead to greater security risks and more war in the future as natural resources are depleted, causing a global refugee crisis.

"The Pentagon is very worried about the stresses of climate change leading to displacement... and they're concerned about climate war," Crawford tells Big Think in an interview. "They believe that it's coming to a neighborhood near you."

The problem, she notes, is that the Pentagon is a huge emitter of greenhouse gases and perpetrator of environmental destruction that increases the probability of war.

"They're preparing a world for which the risks and consequences that they fear are more likely," says Crawford, who believes that to decrease the likelihood of climate war, the Pentagon needs to be part of a large scale turn towards clean energy and the reduction of greenhouse gases. "But they don't think that way, they just think war is coming, it will be caused by refugee crisis and fighting over resources such as fresh water, and we have to be prepared for it."

The other option

Crawford believes that if humans can work out ways to prevent the worst consequences of climate change, and work to peacefully prevent any conflicts that are associated with increased environmental stress, war can be evaded.

"We can work out water agreements, we can negotiate prices, or we can provide, instead of a wall, to climate migrants, welcoming and care," she emphasizes.

As tensions escalate with Iran, new war would pour gasoline over an earth already engulfed in flames, increasing the chance for more armed conflict. Perhaps at no time in human history have the stakes for maintaining peace been higher.

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he was accused of sleeping with other men's wives and publicly talking about it, as well as killing for mere amusement. Supposedly, during one competition he was presiding over, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts as no prisoners were available. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

He was also said to have caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others he burned at the stake.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

He died by suicide.

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demi-god Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

A burning desire to fight both animals and humans as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a conical fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by the Roman historian Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula. How fitting.

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