Few, if any, anthropogenic agents of change have a capacity comparable to that of modern warfare to cause massive environmental destruction over vast areas in short period of time.[1] World War I is a particularly interesting case in this respect, as it is widely considered the first fully industrialized war, giving rise to the massively influential military-industrial complex.[2] Also, this conflict stands out because the notion of nature as one of its major casualties is already vividly present in the public imagination. Photographs and stories of endless battlefields marred by charred woodlands, torn-up fields and toxic air have contributed to broader understanding of how modern, industrialized warfare ravages nature (Fig. 1).

Environmental historians have detailed, explored and, in some cases, qualified these popular perceptions of nature as a casualty of war. What design historians can contribute is a deeper appreciation of how these ruined landscapes and wider ecological destructions are not just unintended consequences and matters of fact, but produced by objects, technologies and systems embodying the careful planning, premeditation and intent stemming from a vast array of professional design practice. In short, the environmental devastations of modern warfare were caused by the same ideological frameworks and manufacturing infrastructures that brought us the mod cons, technological marvels and totemic ‘eye candy’ that usually populate histories of design. In the scholarly literature, design is largely portrayed as a benevolent force—but the designed destructions (environmental and otherwise) of war provide a useful reminder that the ethics of design is far more complicated than that.[3]

The immediate and most spectacular impact on nature was of course on the battlefields in continental Europe, especially in Belgium and France. The ravaged landscape and massive depletion of both flora and fauna was caused by a series of new, ingenious designs. World War I saw the introduction of such icons of modern warfare as the submarine and both the fighter and the bomber airplane, but with respect to the environmental destruction of the battlefields, other types of new designs were more significant. Tanks bulldozed fields into mud and quagmire (Fig. 2); heavy artillery transformed rich agricultural land into barren, moon-like landscapes (Figs. 3&4); machine guns mowed down trees as well as men, ingraining the soil with led; gas projectors suffocated both people and plants with poisonous and toxic chemicals (Fig. 5).

The visual and written accounts of these dismal and dystopian scenes have made them a staple of the public perception of the Great War and of the environmental consequences of modern, ‘total war’ in general. However, the nasty wounds inflicted on the flora and fauna in France healed remarkably quickly after the war. In fact, the gravest, most comprehensive and long-lasting environmental destructions of World War I were of a different kind and spread across the globe. It was the industrial nature of the conflict that made it modern, total and global, and that necessitated a supply of resources on an immense scale. The global, industrialized war catalyzed, if not created, the global, industrialized depletion of natural recourses. The insatiable need for timber caused massive deforestation the world over, and the ensuing desire for rapid regrowth resulted in new, unsustainable forestry practices. Extensive tin mining caused substantial damage to local ecosystems in East Asia and Europe alike, as the new mechanized extraction methods polluted rivers with sand and clay runoff. The motorized military effort made oil an indispensible commodity, but drilling, storing, refining and transport came at considerable environmental cost—the messy oil extraction along the Mexican Gulf Cost, for instance, caused ecological damage and degradation that is still felt today. Feeding the hoards of soldiers required a food production infrastructure of an unprecedented scale, paving the way for a modern industrial agriculture based on monocultures and expanded exploitation, which in turn resulted in soil erosion, reduced biodiversity and ecological imbalances.[4]

These are just a few examples, but suffice to illustrate how industrialized warfare wrecks havoc with natural resources in a manner that—rather disturbingly—only intensifies the environmental effects of civilian industrialized society. More broadly, what the World War I example demonstrates is that environmental histories of design need to address not only the (destructive) agency of designed artifacts, but must also consider the extensive ecological entanglements of the vast and complex networks of resources, processes and knowledge that underpin the world of objects. Following the commodity chains from natural resources to manufactured goods and beyond, and considering the ‘enviromateriality’ of design culture, can be rewarding strategies for exploring the ecological footprint of design, both in historical and contemporary perspectives.[5]

  1. Joseph P. Hupy, ’The Environmental Footprint of War’, Environment and History, vol. 14, no. 3, 2008, p. 405.
  2. Richard P. Tucker, ’War and the Environment’, in A Companion to Global Environmental History, eds. J. R. McNeill and Erin Stewart Mauldin (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012), pp. 328-329.
  3. Kjetil Fallan, ’Nordic Noir: Deadly Design from the Peacemongering Periphery’, Design and Culture, vol. 7, no. 3, 2015, pp. 377-402.
  4. Tait Keller, ’Destruction of the Ecosystem’, in 1914-1981 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer and Bill Nasson (Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin). Accessed 08.02.2016.
  5. See e.g: Matthew Evenden, ’Aluminum, Commodity Chains, and the Environmental History of the Second World War’, Environmental History, vol. 16, no. 1, 2011, pp. 69-93; Jose Martinez-Reyes, ‘Mahogany intertwined: Enviromateriality between Mexico, Fiji, and the Gibson Les Paul’, Journal of Material Culture, vol. 20, no. 3, 2015, pp. 313-329.
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