The State of the Art on the Environmental History of World War I

As we move deeper into the centennial years of World War I, environmental historians have begun to make important contributions to our understanding of the costs and legacies of the Great War.  Conference panels and workshops in 2014 (see our Conferences page for a listing) have featured dimensions of the war’s environmental dynamics that had hardly been articulated until now.  Working together, we have expanded the geographical reach of the First? World(wide) War to regions far beyond Europe and the Middle East.  For just a few examples, Jack Hayes is demonstrating how Japan used the war years to spread its claims on East Asia’s natural resources, with fateful consequences thereafter.  Roy MacLeod, Corey Ross and others are analyzing the rapid rise of Great Powers competition for strategic mineral resources, petroleum and timber.  Tait Keller is surveying global energy and food flows during the war, and Thaddeus Sunseri has shown the environmental and social significance of the fighting between German and British colonial forces in East Africa.  Through analyses of food and agriculture during and immediately after the war, we are enriching our understanding of the war’s tragic significance around the Middle East and beyond, as well as in Europe.  Even wildlife and wildlands are within our collective frame of reference now, as revealed in Anna-Katharina Wöbse’s study of the international conservation movement’s troubles during the war years.

But as our military history colleagues are reminding us, we have been placing less attention on the main regions of the war (beyond the horrors of the trenches).  We need to turn additional attention to the urban and rural environmental damage that France, the Low Countries and Germany suffered, as well as the poorly understood Eastern Front beyond Germany.   Eco-region by eco-region, we can use the many military/political/economic narratives now in print to add an additional, fundamental dimension to our collective awareness as environmental historians.  I welcome comments and proposals on what is missing from the coverage of our evolving discussion, what existing work we should recognize, and how we can shape further research agendas.

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