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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

Scorched Earth Environmental Warfare as a Crime against Humanity and Nature

By: Emmanuel Kreike(Author)
523 pages, 10 b/w illustrations, 10 b/w maps
A thoroughly researched book, Scorched Earth surveys the long history of environmental destruction as a military strategy and argues how it violates human rights.
Scorched Earth
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  • Scorched Earth ISBN: 9780691200125 Paperback Nov 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Scorched Earth ISBN: 9780691137421 Hardback Feb 2021 In stock
Selected version: £24.99
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About this book

The environmental infrastructure that sustains human societies has been a target and instrument of war for centuries, resulting in famine and disease, displaced populations, and the devastation of people's livelihoods and ways of life. Scorched Earth traces the history of scorched earth, military inundations, and armies living off the land from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, arguing that the resulting deliberate destruction of the environment – "environcide" – constitutes total war and is a crime against humanity and nature.

In this sweeping global history, Emmanuel Kreike shows how religious war in Europe transformed Holland into a desolate swamp where hunger and the black death ruled. He describes how Spanish conquistadores exploited the irrigation works and expansive agricultural terraces of the Aztecs and Incas, triggering a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions. Kreike demonstrates how environmental warfare has continued unabated into the modern era. His panoramic narrative takes readers from the Thirty Years' War to the wars of France's Sun King, and from the Dutch colonial wars in North America and Indonesia to the early twentieth century colonial conquest of southwestern Africa.

Shedding light on the premodern origins and the lasting consequences of total war, Scorched Earth explains why ecocide and genocide are not separate phenomena, and why international law must recognize environmental warfare as a violation of human rights.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A thoroughly researched history of environmental destruction as a military strategy
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 14 Apr 2022 Written for Hardback

    Whenever war breaks out, our concern is understandably first and foremost with the human casualties. The tremendous environmental toll tends to take a backseat. However, environmental destruction can and has long been an effective military strategy. In Scorched Earth, historian Emmanuel Kreike surveys four centuries of environmental warfare around the globe to show it is neither uniquely Western nor the unwanted love child of modern science and technology.

    Judging by the cover and the title, I admit that I went into this book expecting it would look at the environmental cost of war. Instead, as part of the Princeton series Human Rights and Crimes against Humanity, Kreike surveys the long history of both targeting and weaponizing the environment to defeat opponents. Two key phrases, used throughout, should be introduced here. First is environmental infrastructure, which encompasses everything humans depend on in their environment for their livelihoods: homes, fields, crops, orchards, stables, livestock, granaries, wells, dams, canals, etc. Second is environcide, which is the destruction of that infrastructure through scorched earth tactics, sieges, plunder, armies living off the land, etc. Environcide invokes both genocide and ecocide and Kreike unites these concepts for two reasons. First, to break through what he sees as the artificial divide between nature and culture. Second, to go beyond the traditional divide between the effect of war on either society or on the environment and instead focus on the neglected and unholy trinity of war-environment-society. Another important goal of this book is to show that, even in cases where that was not its primary intent, destroying environmental infrastructure could result in genocide all the same, and has long been explicitly wielded as a military tactic to that end. As such, he argues that it should be recognized as a violation of human rights on the same footing as genocide.

    Kreike's historical overview sprawls over nearly 400 pages and ten chapters, encompassing the 16th to early 20th centuries, and discussing conflicts around the globe. This includes wars in Europe between various kingdoms and polities in modern Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. But the book also discusses colonial wars in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. For readers interested in military history, this book contains a tremendous amount of detail, with 95 pages of footnotes bearing witness to the research that has gone into it. Next to history literature, Kreike has mined archives in several countries for contemporary details from reports, letters, resolutions, witness statements, etc. Though he avoids gory details, the non-stop litany of plunder, rape, torture, murder, extortion, war taxes, deforestation, tactical inundation, famine, epidemics, sieges, the torching of farms, villages, and food stores... I could stomach a chapter a day.

    Amidst all the historical detail, several themes stood out as particularly interesting. The first relates to perception. Kreike singles out the demographic collapse of indigenous North Americans here. This is often cast in terms of the Columbian Exchange or the virgin-soil-epidemics narrative popularised by e.g. Jared Diamond: we introduced new microbes to this continent, resulting in fatal epidemics. However, this downplays the role of brutal violence and oppression that produced vulnerable refugee populations. Related to this is how it coloured our subsequent perception of indigenous Americans as primordial hunter-gatherers living in close harmony with nature, instead of as war refugees who had lost their settlements and were forced to adopt new lifestyles.

    Second is the matter of agency. Environcide was not only inflicted by invaders but equally by defenders, whether it was 16th-century Dutch rebels flooding their countryside before retreating into fortified towns to hinder Spanish forces, or 18th-century indigenous Americans in Guatemala burning their villages and food stores before the advancing Spanish conquistadores. The success of European colonists frequently depended on local allies willing to act as guides, interpreters, etc. in exchange for rewards, whether it was 18th-century indigenous North American tribes allying themselves with British forces, or 19th-century Aceh groups assisting the Dutch invasion of Sumatra. Kreike argues that the line between victim and perpetrator is often blurred: people can be both simultaneously, and past victims can become future perpetrators.

    Third is the attempt to introduce rules of war to minimise violence towards civilians. In practice, these rules were routinely ignored and frequently opposed by military commanders: "18th-century limited war was a lofty ideal, not a lived experience" (p. 175). Especially the lack of army logistics forced soldiers to live off the land and extort food, fodder, transport, and accommodation from local villagers and farmers. More pernicious was how these rules were twisted to argue that indigenous people "posed a deadly threat to civilization because they did not fight by the rules of war" (p. 245), cynically ignoring that neither did Europeans.

    As impressive as the historical scholarship is, I want to briefly raise two points Kreike neglects to discuss. First is the question of relevance. The notion of environcide is backed up by surveying four centuries of history up to the 1920s, but Kreike wants to see it criminalised in the present. How pervasive is it today? The jungle defoliation campaigns of the Vietnam War and the burning oil wells of the Gulf War come to mind. Many more relevant examples could no doubt be mentioned, and nuclear and modern chemical weapons make available new ways of environcide. Second is the matter of implementation. Kreike argues why, but not how, international law should recognize environcide as a violation of human rights. Since the idea of environcide is modelled on that of genocide, I missed some analysis of the latter. His introduction briefly mentions when genocide was defined, but how effectively is it punished? Why has ecocide been barely acknowledged? And can we draw lessons from this as to what might stand in the way of the recognition of environcide on the same footing as genocide? No doubt legal experts around the world would need years to hash this out. Still, Kreike's thoughts and comments on the above two points would have rounded out the book and could have started building a bridge between this body of historical case studies and 21st-century war.

    Overall then, Scorched Earth is a thoroughly researched academic book that sits at the intersection of military history and environmental history and especially delivers for readers of the former. A fascinating topic that is by no means light reading.
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Emmanuel Kreike is professor of history at Princeton University. His books include Environmental Infrastructure in African History: Examining the Myth of Natural Resource Management in Namibia and Re-Creating Eden: Land Use, Environment, and Society in Southern Angola and Northern Namibia. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

By: Emmanuel Kreike(Author)
523 pages, 10 b/w illustrations, 10 b/w maps
A thoroughly researched book, Scorched Earth surveys the long history of environmental destruction as a military strategy and argues how it violates human rights.
Media reviews

"[A] sweeping history [...] Kreike offers a stark corrective and an implicit warning: Humanity is not distinct from nature, and assuming it is can have tragic outcomes. Climate change is one; pandemics are another. In this book, catastrophic warfare is a third. Waiting for the fourth horseman would seem unwise."
–Tatiana Schlossberg, New York Times Book Review

"Waging war against the Earth is an old business, and this book provides ample – and dispiriting – evidence for it."
Kirkus Reviews

"Might this be the most important topic that most smart, very well educated people have never read a book on? [This] treatment is excellent and engaging."
– Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

"Kreike's analysis is novel, compelling, and provocative. Scorched Earth is a significant and important book that offers a major reframing of conventional assumptions about the nature of war and even nature itself."
– Mark Levene, author of The Crisis of Genocide

"The culmination of decades of painstaking work, this book is a crowning achievement. Scorched Earth provides new insights into dozens of campaigns in European and colonial warfare, and will shape debate for years to come."
– J. R. McNeill, author of Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914

"Scorched Earth is an impressive, thought-provoking, and richly detailed book. Kreike offers a new analytical lens through which to study the consequences of total war on both the environment and human societies."
– Geoffrey B. Robinson, author of The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965–66

"Emmanuel Kreike has produced a sweeping synthesis of the history of war and environmental history grounded in a broad array of examples on both sides of the Atlantic. Scorched Earth illuminates the connections between environmental destruction, total war, and genocide that birthed the modern world and threaten still to destroy it."
– Louis S. Warren, author of God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America

"Wide-ranging and deeply researched, Scorched Earth traces the origins of genocidal colonial warfare in America, Africa, and Asia through a centuries-long European tradition of environmental destruction in pursuit of military victory."
– Sam White, author of A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe's Encounter with North America

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