Geography Military Geographies and the Environment
Gitte du Plessis, Kyle Kajihiro, Kenneth Gofigan Kuper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0273


Conventional military geographies have tended to approach the environment as military operational space. However, a growing body of critical scholarship has focused more on the complex political ecologies produced by militarization, the environmental effects of military activities, and various forms of political contestation. These interventions have come from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Military environmental impacts include widespread and persistent ecological degradation and toxic contamination, global climate change, public health problems, and damage to cultural resources. These military environmental impacts occur at various types of sites across multiple geographic scales, including combat zones; training and testing areas; installations and logistics infrastructures; and circuits and sites of production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. Modern military tactics have intensified the manipulation, and even weaponization, of environmental conditions through the application of physical, chemical, and biological technologies. Negative military environmental impacts have been most concentrated in regions with histories of imperial and colonial domination or racialized subaltern populations, which demand an environmental justice analysis attentive to asymmetrical power relations. Some military landscapes have become de facto conservation areas due to the exclusion of human activities due to environmental hazards. In response to challenges by environmentalists, modern militaries have adopted environmental protection policies, procedures, and bureaucracies as part of their standard operations. In some cases, under the rubric of “greenwashing,” militaries have partnered with conservationists to preserve undeveloped landscapes as conservation buffers for military activities. However, critics point out that military environmentalism may be a form of capture and biopolitical control by the State. Scholars working with “new materialist” sensibilities have also drawn our attention to agential effects of other-than-human actants and more-than-human assemblages on military operations. This bibliography consists of seven sections. The first includes selections critically examining Military Environmentalism. Section two offers a diverse selection of readings examining different aspects of what we call Ecologies of War, which encompass the wider assemblage of social and environmental relations that condition and are conditioned by war. The third section provides an overview of studies on the widespread problem of Military Contamination. The fourth section focuses on a special subset of military contamination: the environmental impacts of nuclear weapons and Nuclear Landscapes Section five includes selections of new literature on the relationship between Climate Change and War. The sixth section includes readings that situate militarization in relation to imperial formations, or Empire and Colonialism. Section seven, Environmental Justice and the Military, features literature about the vibrant environmental justice social movements that confront the inequitable distribution of the military’s environmental harm.

General Overviews: Military Environmentalism

While there have been many studies on the environmental damage caused by military activities, a growing body of literature critically examines the phenomenon of military environmentalism. This “greening” of the military reflects a shift in the military’s relationship to the environment. Whereas previous military geographies have primarily treated the environment as the terrain of operations, where the functional characteristics of the environment took precedence over environmental protection, there have been significant cultural, political, and legal shifts which have made it so that militaries have to embrace environmentalism as a strategic capability. This happens across terrains from land to ocean, transforming entire geographies. Durant 2007 provides a critical analysis of the politics of large-scale organizational change in the post–Cold War attempts to “green” the military. One of the most visible instances of this shift is the conversion of former military sites to wildlife refuges. Havlick 2018 notes how “military-to-wildlife” transformations are important landscapes for geographical research as they are formed from the strong tensions between material processes and political/scientific narratives as those relate to the intersection of conservation and contamination. This analysis is extended in Krupar 2013 through the concept of “green war” as a new form of military environmental governmentality. Coates, et al. 2011 and Havlick 2018 note that despite their limitations, there are still legitimate opportunities for beneficial collaboration in these militarized landscapes. Scholars have also noted how these new landscapes have been used as “greenwashing” opportunities that ultimately benefit military agendas. Harris 2015, for example, notes how militaries use these new landscapes and a rhetoric of “environmental protection” to maintain access to overseas bases, particularly in islands. De Santo 2020 finds that military environmentalism, via natural reserves and marine protected areas, is capitalized on for its rhetorical power in deflecting long-standing criticisms of militarization. As described in du Plessis, et al. 2022, conservation can become a way to continuously make geopolitical claims to landscapes, thus enabling a mutually reinforcing relationship between environmentalism and militarization. Beyond the transformation of landscapes, other important research in this field concerns the militarization of conservation efforts beyond military basing. Scholars such as Ashaba 2021 and Duffy 2022 show how militaries are still brought into environmental security efforts such as poaching and the illegal wildlife trade which turn these into national security issues. As Ybarra 2018 argues, these “green wars” hinge on the criminalization and dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Overall, these shifts reflect a biopolitical turn in the military’s relationship to the environment. By making the environment the target of power and knowledge production, military environmentalism can be understood as a form of governmentality.

  • Ashaba, Ivan. “Historical Roots of Militarised Conservation: The Case of Uganda.” Review of African Political Economy 48.168 (2021): 276–288.

    DOI: 10.1080/03056244.2020.1828052

    This article explains how African militaries are engaging in conservation. It articulates the origins of the military’s increasing role in wildlife conservation in Uganda and how this stems from a widening mandate of the Ugandan military. Ashaba shows how this is rooted in Uganda’s British colonial era when the British first militarized conservation, arguing locals were environmental destroyers. He shows how combating poaching has turned into a national security issue.

  • Coates, Peter, Tim Cole, Marianna Dudley, and Chris Pearson. “Defending Nation, Defending Nature? Militarized Landscapes and Military Environmentalism in Britain, France, and the United States.” Environmental History 16.3 (2011): 456–491.

    DOI: 10.1093/envhis/emr038

    Unlike many other works on this list, the authors focus on domestic military bases as opposed to overseas and island bases. They use a three-nation comparative analysis to examine the environmental effects on sites of war preparation “beyond the battlefield.” This article demonstrates how military environmentalism is entangled with civilian conservationists showing instances of beneficial collaboration between the military and civilian conservation sectors where the military is more willing to engage with histories of these sites.

  • De Santo, Elizabeth M. “Militarized Marine Protected Areas in Overseas Territories: Conserving Biodiversity, Geopolitical Positioning, and Securing Resources in the 21st Century.” Ocean & Coastal Management 184 (February 2020): 105006.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2019.105006

    This article contributes to the literature on military terrestrial greenwashing via an analysis of its operation in marine contexts. It explains why maritime powers create large-scale maritime protected areas (LSMPAs) around their overseas holdings and shows how militaries are often exempt from the rules surrounding these LSMPAs. Thus DeSanto argues that LSMPAs become militarized to meet global conservation agreements as well as to ensure continued access to strategically located geography and potential ocean resources.

  • Duffy, Rosaleen. Security and Conservation: The Politics of the Illegal Wildlife Trade. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv2g591km

    The emphasis on environmental security is changing conservation as militaries engage in traditionally nonmilitary issues such as the illegal wildlife trade. The UK military pivoted to conservation efforts in Africa to find roles for themselves in the midst of defense cuts and to help develop global power. The author also shows the growing involvement of veterans in private military companies in this securitized form of conservation in Africa.

  • du Plessis, Gitte, Cameron Grimm, Kyle Kajihiro, and Kenneth Gofigan Kuper. “Sustaining Empire: Conservation by Ruination at Kalama Atoll.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 40.4 (2022): 706–725.

    DOI: 10.1177/02637758221102156

    Examining the U.S. possession of Kalama (Johnston Atoll) and its use as a weapons testing laboratory and conservation haven, this study employs the concept of “conservation by ruination” to show how toxicity and conservation work to conserve empire itself. As ruination implicitly demands rescue, the United States continuously reproduces its geopolitical claim to Kalama. The article is a resource for those studying the logic behind the intersection of conservation and militarization in small, uninhabited islands.

  • Durant, Robert F. The Greening of the U.S. Military: Environmental Policy, National Security, and Organizational Change. Public Management and Change. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007.

    This in-depth study of post–Cold War environmental reforms within the US military describes intra- and interorganizational struggles which confounded the efforts of reformers. The book argues that a “warrior culture of sovereignty, secrecy, and sinecure” fueled resistance from many quarters within the military to fully embracing the agency’s environmental responsibilities.

  • Harris, Peter. “Militarism in Environmental Disguise: The Greenwashing of an Overseas Military Base.” International Political Sociology 9.1 (2015): 19–36.

    DOI: 10.1111/ips.12074

    Unveiling how militaries use “environmental benefits of militarized spaces” to distract attention from negative aspects of militarism, this article helps to explain the mechanism of military basing. It demonstrates how the militaries legitimize and make their bases “public-relations friendly” via the concealing of environmental destruction. Nature reserves and marine protected areas help to not only deflect existing criticism of militaries, but to craft a positive environmentalist image that proactively prevents criticism from arising.

  • Havlick, David G. Bombs Away: Militarization, Conservation, and Ecological Restoration. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226547688.001.0001

    Building on his previous work, Havlick tackles the question of how countries convert former military sites to designated wildlife refuges and traces the political and scientific narratives that inform these conversions. In doing this, he shows the new geographies that are being created, which are undergirded by strong tensions between meaning and material processes. Overall, Havlick reminds us of how personal these sites can be for communities and for our larger collective imagination.

  • Krupar, Shiloh R. Hot Spotter’s Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

    Combining empirical research, creative nonfiction, and satire, this study of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge examines “the biopolitics of green war—the ways that war is produced and imagined within biopolitical methods of governing” (p. 7). Green war refers to “a powerful reorganization of social life that occludes the domestic impacts of war through tactical spectacles of nature” (p. 4), while producing new military environmental governmentalities.

  • Ybarra, Megan. Green Wars: Conservation and Decolonization in the Maya Forest. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.

    This study of a conservation project in a traditional Q’eqchi’ territory conceptualizes “green wars” as conservation practices that map criminality onto rural Indigenous communities and legitimate state violence. Green wars “limit the life chances of Indigenous peoples in protected areas through their legal dispossession, denial of basic state services (such as running water, electricity, and schools), explicit military dispossession, and tacit sanctioning of private violence against conflictive communities” (p. 23).

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