Today’s environmental problems sparked by World War II

A docent of the University of Helsinki has released the first internationally comprehensive survey on the environmental history of World War II. According to the study, WWII was a significant factor in the development of our current global environmental problems.

World War II left deep marks on the natural environment of the war zones, home fronts and areas occupied by war industries. The global war left trash and ruins everywhere in its wake, consisting of abandoned front lines, half-sunken ships, empty bases and bombed cities in Europe and Asia.

 “We’re still not done cleaning up this global garbage, even in Finland and particularly in Lapland, on both sides of the eastern border as well as on the islands in the Gulf of Finland which were conceded to the Soviet Union," says Simo Laakkonen, docent of economic and social history, who is one of the authors of the publication.

War was waged with shovels, hoes and bulldozers, not just with guns. Soldiers, prisoners of war and forced labourers around the world built roads, railroads, ports and airports which brought both invasive species and industrial pollution to new, untouched areas.

World War II was an enormous event, a human tragedy in which 50–70 million people lost their lives.

Nuclear weapons are the biggest risk

The World War contributed to the development of our current global environmental problems, which include the chemicalisation of industrial production, adoption of environmental toxins and nuclear fallout.

 “The most severe environmental threat with the longest impact was of course the development of nuclear weapons.”

Before WWII, for example, pest control was primarily based on natural methods. During the war, these methods were gradually abandoned and DDT and other toxins were adopted first to combat the fleas spreading spotted fever and the mosquitoes spreading malaria, and then to combat agricultural pests such as beetles.


Environmental policy motivated by apocalyptic fears

War generated worry over an apocalypse caused by humans, which led in part to the generation of international environmental policy.  

 “The World War had a powerful impact on culture. It created a completely new phenomenon, environmental catastrophism, meaning concern that humans will bring about the end of the world. This has since become a permanent part of environmental discussion,” Laakkonen states.

According to the study, the global war had a profound impact on the development of our contemporary environmental problems and their proposed solutions, both during and after the Cold War.

The new book, The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of the Second World War, discusses the impact of the infrastructure built to support military action in the Arctic, on the Indian subcontinent and in the Pacific. It also examines the consequences of raw material production for the war effort in Canada, Japan, Mexico and the Caribbean as well as the food crises resulting from the war in Africa, the Soviet Union and China. The book was published by Oregon State University Press:

The new book, edited by Simo Laakkonen from the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Social Sciences, and Timo Vuorisalo, docent of ecology at the University of Turku, is based on their previous work, Sodan ekologia: nykyaikaisen sodan ympäristöhistoriaa (Ecology of War: Environmental History of Contemporary Warfare).


Further information:

Simo Laakkonen

+358 45 13 77 259