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Lecture explores environmental effects of WWI

| Thursday, October 9, 2014

Dr. Tait Keller, assistant professor and director of environmental studies and sciences program at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, presented a lecture at the Snite Museum of Art on Wednesday. Keller presented information on the wide-spread and long-lasting environmental effects caused by World War I as part of the Nanovic Institute’s Lecture Series on World War I.

“Nature is both omnipresent and invisible,” Keller said, in regards to the mindset of those involved the War. “But I think that only by taking the environment into account can we really understand this war and how this conflict shaped the most basic levels of human existence.”

Keller stated that although the integrity of the soil in the pastures along the western front suffered during its constant shelling, the soil recovered quickly. He also noted the obliterated deciduous trees in affected pine forests were replaced.

During the war, European belligerents’ consumed much of the cattle in sub-Saharan Africa transformed grazing land into overgrown bush lands, which are hospitable environments for the tsetse fly, Keller said. The swelling tsetse fly population was a catalyst for “sleeping sickness” which killed droves of equatorial African natives.

Keller also noted how European cattle seizures forced poor Africans to eat more simian meat. The increased contact between chimpanzee blood and humans could have been a component in the outbreak of an early strain of HIV.

“The War had also increased blood transfusions, which together with aggressive vaccination campaigns in the colonies, mingles peoples’ blood and perhaps had accelerated the virus’ evolution,” Keller said.

Food mobilization was also crucial to the European war efforts, according to Keller. Vigorous campaigns in the United States, such as artificially inflating the price of wheat, promoted crop production during the time period.

“Optimistic farmers borrowed heavily, usually through second mortgages to expand cultivation on marginal lands,” he said. “Farmers also employed the one way disk, which could quickly break the soil and uproot weeds … but would leave a layer of loose sediment which years later would invite wind erosion.”

Keller stated how the erosion of farmland soil, especially in the Great Plains region, likely precipitated the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl devastated farmers who were already economically unstable due to their investment in growing artificially priced crops during the War.

Keller also pointed out how, during the War, American control of booming sugar farms in Cuba resulted in Cuban resentment of America, which would have serious historical implications.

“[With an ecological perspective] on the War, we find that subjugated environments often meant marginalized people, alienated from their land,” Keller said. “Perhaps this is the Great War’s global legacy.”

The Nanovic Institute’s lecture series will continue through December 12th, at the Snite Museum of Art. The series will be featuring lectures from professors from Notre Dame, University of Birmingham, the United Kingdom and Georgetown University.

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