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War, Ecology, and Emerging Intelligence

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Message Dana Visalli

The wars in Afghanistan and the word "ecology' have both been around for about the same length of time.  The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, but a more accurate dating of U.S. involvement in hostilities would be the Soviet invasion of 1979 (the U.S. funded the opposition).  And that war was intimately related to the British invasions of Afghanistan, which were serial events, occurring in 1838, 1878, and 1919.  Those dates bracket the invention of the word ecology, which was coined by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel in 1866, when he defined it as "the science of the relationship of the organism to the environment."  The word derives from the Greek oikos, house (or by extension, earth),' and logy, "the study of.'  And while war is nothing new to humankind, the understanding that we live in a tightly woven ecological web of relationships with other life on the earth is something new. Â

One good example of our human dependence on this web of life is the atmosphere.  Consider this while you take your next breath: the atmosphere is 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen, and neither would be present if it were not for the non-human forms of life that are constantly pumping these gases out into the sky.  The oxygen is liberated by plants, protists and bacteria as they do their thing--which is photosynthesis--and the nitrogen gas is released by bacteria in the soil.  So, no plants, no protists, no people, it's that simple.   Â

Keeping the earth suitable for life can be a cliff-hanging affair.  For example, the sun has grown 25% more luminous over the approximately 4 billion years of life on earth, but the planet has not grown appreciably warmer.  Life has over that time interacted with itself and the physical environment--ecology--to alter the chemistry of the atmosphere such that it retains less heat.  Life originated in the sea, but chloride ions (salt) has been running into the sea for four billion years.  By the simple rules of chemistry, sea water should have gotten too salty for life to exist after only 800 million years, but it didn't.  Where did the salt go?  It leaves the water as sediments, and is also trapped in massive evaporative deposits.  Rainforests would not exist as they do except that they increase the rain that falls in their environment by 50% over the purely geo-physical amount due to massive evapo-transpiration through the trees.  Conifer forests enhance the life-supporting capacity of their northern haunts by shedding snow down below their tapered branches and dark needles, which then absorb heat much more rapidly in the spring than a reflective snow cover would. Â

As these examples illustrate, life moderates the physical environment to make it more favorable for life. Â This is why, in spite of some major natural disasters through history--like being hit by a massive asteroid 65 million years ago--life on earth has grown increasingly diverse and complex over time. Â This is also why Darwin ended his treatise on evolution, On The Origin of Species, in this way: " There is grandeur in this view of life". from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."Â Â

Humans all over the planet are currently reversing this ancient evolutionary process of increasing richness over time, and there is no better example of this fact than the situation in Afghanistan.  When the first anatomically modern humans reached Afghanistan about 60,000 years ago, the landscape was very different than it is today.  Archaeological studies reveal that, at least until 2000 BCE, the territory of today's Afghanistan was partially covered with cedar-rich forests, which would have recycled precipitation through evapo-transpiration and formed water-retaining mulch and shade on the ground--making the environment more suitable for life.  Forest loss was initiated 3000 years ago with the advent of iron tools, but it is population growth and recent wars that has nearly eradicated them; today only 1.5% of the land has any tree cover.  When one visits Afghanistan today, one is impressed by the quantity of rocks--there is little vegetation left in the country.  This process of ecological decay has continued through the ten years of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which began with B-52 bombing raids over various parts of the country in 2001.   Â

We think of war as "politics by another name,' a means of resolving disputes between people.  But there is another side to war, and that is violence perpetuated on the earth itself.  The United States dropped about two million tons of bombs in World War II.  While these explosives were aimed at human targets, they all landed on and damaged the earth.  Only five years after the end of that war, we dropped 600,000 tons of munitions on Korea, as well as another 600,000 tons of napalm.  A year after the end of the Korean war (1953) we were militarily engaged in Vietnam, where over the course of twenty years we dropped seven million tons of bombs (considerably more than in WWII) and 400,000 tons of napalm, as well as spraying six million acres of tropical forest and cropland with teragenic and carcinogenic defoliant (the spraying program, Operation Ranchhand, had a motto: "Only you can prevent forests").  At the same time, as something of a sideshow, we also bombed Cambodia (2.7 million tons of bombs, 1 million gallons of defoliant) and Laos (3 million tons of bombs, 1 million gallons of defoliant).  These were wars not just against human enemies (mostly impoverished rice farmers) but against some of richest ecosystems on the planet, and against the life-sustaining capacity of the biosphere. Â

War has become a way of life for the United States. Â Our country funded the civil wars in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s (Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua), funded the mujahideen fighting against the Russians in the 1979-1989 war with Afghanistan, funded both sides in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, and then in 1990 went back to war ourselves, with Iraq, with Afghanistan in 2001, and then initiated a covert war with Pakistan in 2004. Â As Vietnam veteran Mike Hastie observed, "The United States is a non-stop killing machine."2 This country also maintains a nuclear arsenal of 7000 hydrogen bombs, many times more than enough to destroy the majority of life on earth.

Because American war-making is so persistent and pervasive, and because every bomb that is dropped, whether it be on Korea or Vietnam or Afghanistan, in the end falls on the earth, the realization slowly dawns that this unending aggression is actually a war against the earth itself.  The United States has dropped 15,000,000 tons--that's 30,000,000,000 (thirty trillion) pounds--of bombs on the planet's ecosystems in the last 60 years, along with 1,000,000 tons of napalm, with at least 20,000,000 gallons of defoliants sprayed on rainforests and crops with the intention of destroying them.  The irony is that the life sustaining qualities of the earth are the very source of human life.  The human body is made up primarily of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, and these are elements are derived from the geologically- and biologically-driven cycles of the earth and sky.  So in a somewhat poetic but still scientific sense, the earth is our mother; we emerged from the planet's evolutionary cauldron and to the earth we shall return.   Â

Why all the violence against the earth, the source of our lives? Â Male mammals have an inherent urge for power, and humans have an inherent fear of death. Â The genetically-induced emotions related to these passions may be the subconscious forces that are driving our dysfunctional and self-destructive aggressive behavior.

Intelligence--the word derives from Latin roots meaning "to choose between,' and is defined as "the capacity to think rationally, perceive what is true, and respond successfully to new situations'--is something new on the planet. Â It was six million years in the making, in the sense that brain size has increased over that length of time from 400 cc (cubic centimeters) in our common ancestor with chimpanzees, to 1300 cc today. Â Like everything that exists in the biological world, intelligence is emergent; formerly it did not exist, now it does--at least by degrees. Â Because it is emergent, it appears progressively, a little at a time, like a salamander cautiously emerging from a mudhole. Â For example, the modern brain capacity of 1300 cc was reached 200,000 years ago, but there was no discernable change in human behavior until 40,000 years ago. Â At that point, human tool-making abilities began to rapidly improve, and both art and musical ability appear in the archeological record. Â

While human intelligence is culturally transmitted, only individuals can experience and express it; it is not a mass movement phenomenon. Â Intelligence--in part "the capacity to perceive what is true'--takes courage, because when we become capable of perceiving even relative truths we also understand that much of what we were programmed to believe in childhood is false. Â The counterpoint to this statement is that succumbing to fear inhibits the development of intelligence.

Intelligence is also "the capacity to think rationally and respond successfully to new situations.' Â Â Endless war and pervasive aggression against the earth is something new, nuclear weapons are new. Â Our understanding of ecology is new. Â Is it an act of intelligence to persistently attack and degrade the interconnected web of life that makes our own existence possible? Â Is it intelligent to build thousands of nuclear weapons of war, each of which can lay waste to vast swaths of the earth's ecosystems, and if used collectively can destroy most life on earth?

The cliff-hanging element of the current drama is that the very people who are right at the cusp of comprehending the deep ecological basis of our existence are currently spending their entire lives funding and otherwise supporting war and the attendant destruction of the biosphere. Â The current fear-driven model of eternal war makes a mockery of the lives of those who are drawn to live an intelligent existence, but in fact find all of their resources being stolen by the alpha males of the dominant paradigm of power and aggression. Â It is fear that holds them in their current position of submission, and fear that now threatens to unravel the complex evolutionary web of life. Â A positive outcome to this drama is only possible if those who have the mental capacity to act on the insights born of their intelligence do so immediately. Â Do we want to spend our entire lives funding hydrogen bombs, the power fantasies of our dysfunctional males, and the progressive destruction of the biosphere, or do we want to step outside of frightened selves to become warriors for the earth? Â What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?1


A pdf version of this essay with graphics and references can be found at


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Dana Visalli is a professional botanist and organic market gardener living in Washington State.
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