Numerous petroleum spills polluted the rainforest, rivers, and beaches with sludge. Ecological factors in Mexico made crude production especially dirty. Veracruz oil contained unusually high levels of hydrogen sulfides and had exceedingly high temperatures. Petroleum coming out of Texas and Louisiana measured around ninety degrees Fahrenheit; in Mexico it reached degrees. Scalding gushers frequently scorched local ecosystems, often through terrifying blasts and uncontrollable conflagrations.
The burn marks of one such colossal explosion in at San Diego de la Mar, known locally as Dos Bocas, are still visible today. A geologist toured the area in and reported what he saw:. Little had changed:.
Here the differences are telling. By the end of the s, battered lands in the European war zone had largely regenerated. Moreover, ecological degradation upset land tenure systems and intensified labor disputes, which contributed to the Mexican Revolution. Political conditions north of the Rio Grande River were comparatively peaceful, but the ecological situation was becoming increasingly unstable. As with mechanized clear cutting in the southeastern region of the United States, industrial agriculture on the prairies in the United States and Canada increased soil erosion. On the eve of war, the Russian Empire was the largest producer and exporter of wheat, the mainstay carbohydrate for most Europeans.
When the Ottomans joined the war against Russia, they blocked grain supplies from reaching Western Europe. The Entente turned to the United States and Canada as the breadbaskets to prevent starvation. Economic incentives for expanding cultivation were abundant. The U. By , the price of American wheat was more than twice its level. In , growers harvested wheat from 60 million acres. That number jumped to 74 million acres in , a 38 percent increase over the period. But those numbers are deceptively conservative.
In some counties, wheat acreages expanded by percent, percent, or in some cases percent.
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All belligerent societies attempted to increase agricultural output. Both sides faced dilemmas of feeding troops and civilians, along with countless beasts of burden. Food security was a defining feature of the war. Government agencies in Europe and the United States instituted campaigns of home gardening and conservation on the home front. Desperate to compensate for poor domestic harvests and food imports lost to the British blockade, Germans plowed up churchyards, school grounds, forest glades, and even beloved soccer fields.
Officials provided incentives for turning over private property to communal cultivation. On the other side of the Atlantic, Charles Lathrop Pack , president of the National War Garden Commission in the United States, approached food production with a single-minded sense of urgency.
To supplement domestic stocks depleted by European demands, he championed the virtues of small-scale farming and home food production. By , the Commission reported the cultivation of nearly 3 million gardens, which provided more than million dollars in crop value. When the United States entered the war in , hoeing at home increased. Still, the ecological and economic consequences of widespread cultivation were severe. Agrarian policies generally favored the consumers, not the producers, and often resulted in over-exploited soil.
Starvation conditions among the Central Powers, especially Germany, led to the systematic uprooting of trees, bushes and hedges for more farms, reducing biodiversity and increasing ecological imbalances. Wheat farmers plowed close to 6 million hectares across the wide flatlands, which were especially suited for gas-driven tractors, plows, and combines.
Eager to turn a profit, farmers employed the one-way disc plow, which could quickly break the soil and uproot weeds. With its spinning blades, the plow pulverized the dirt and left a layer of loose sediment over the ground, inviting wind erosion and dust bowls in the following decades.
That the fields recovered much faster than expected distorted agricultural commodities markets. In the United States, grain prices plummeted over 50 percent between and , creating serious liquidity problems for indebted farmers. Foreclosure rates reached record highs. The combination of drought and the evaporation of European demand for American produce in the s left hundreds of thousands destitute. In , Kurt Lewin , a German psychologist and artillery officer, penned an article while recovering from his war wounds. War landscapes, on the other hand, were contained, bordered by violence and danger.
Terrain acquired new meanings in theaters of combat. Transformations to the natural world occurred in places outside the combat zones. People far from the fighting felt the war in their everyday lives through its long environmental reach. The select environmental transformations discussed in this article illustrate changes to ecosystems around the world. These local developments indicated broader patterns that defined the 20 th century. In each instance the war accelerated trends that began with industrialization in the 19 th century.
Far more detrimental to ecosystems and more pervasive than combat was the spread of industrial methods and mentalities of production that hindered natural processes, upset local ecological balances, and increased human exploitation the world over. From this we see that the Great War ushered in a century whose magnitude of environmental change matched its terrible violence.
Keller, Tait: Destruction of the Ecosystem , in: online.
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International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. DOI : Version 1. Destruction of the Ecosystem. By Tait Keller. Her interviews with locals revealed the rapid return to productivity: In , with a tremendous effort, 80 hectars were sown, mostly in grain, but, unfortunately, this crop was lost when the Germans retook the region during March. By January, , we had only 4 hectars sown. A geologist toured the area in and reported what he saw: What had been lush monte was now a gaunt specter of dead trees. The air stunk with the smell of rotten eggs.
There was no sign or sound of animal, bird, or insect life. Nothing stirred in the breeze. The silence was appalling. It was eerie and frightening. It smelled and looked like I imagined hell might look and smell. Little had changed: Everything is charred, ashen in color All the trees have been robbed of their greenery, burned, and seem to raise up to the heavens, with anguishing contortions, their bare and gray branches.
Altered battlefield environments also created ideal incubators for disease, including: malaria, influenza , cholera, typhus, dysentery, and smallpox, among others.
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The discussion of disease and war lies outside the scope of this essay but for more on the topic see: Byerly, Carol R. The Influenza Epidemic in the U. Disease and Death on the Battlefield, trans. Krieg, Besatzung, Verbrannte Erde, Essen , p. For more on the development of chemical weapons see: Russell, Edmund: War and Nature. Robin Buss, New York , pp. Michael Hofmann, New York Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since , Athens , pp.
Alex Skinner, New York From Peace to War, New York , pp.
Similar issues plagued reforestation efforts in the Alps. Mountains and the Making of Modern Italy, Cambridge , pp. For more on current efforts to remove unexploded shells from the former battlegrounds see: Webster, Donovan: Aftermath. The Remnants of War, New York , pp. Joshua: Forests and National Security. Toward an Environmental History of War, Corvallis , pp. The Southern Plains in the s, New York , p. And Agrarian Interpretation, New York Freiburg, , New York , pp.
Selected Bibliography Closmann, Charles Edwin ed. Clout, Hugh: After the ruins. Fickle, James E. Gowdy-Wygant, Cecilia: Cultivating victory. Jensen, W. Keller, T.