ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate
Posted Wednesday, 19 November 2008
Essentially human beings cannot afford war. Nor can we continue to breed like rabbits. The imprint of humans on this planet is getting close to a tipping point which, once reached, will result in massive disruption, destruction, significant loss of life and, inevitably, in vast civil unrest.
Currently, environmental jargon wavers between “climate change” and “global warming”: neither expression is inherently frightening. It is possible to imagine a George W. Bush, Mark Latham, Pauline Hansen or Sarah Palin saying something like “Well, in principle, I think global warming in winter would be a good idea but I don’t think we could afford to do it for everybody in the world”.
Whether people choose to speak about global warming or climate change they are using a metaphor to highlight or deny the impending environmental catastrophe that awaits us if we continue to mine, pollute, pillage and exploit the natural environment.
I don’t pretend to know what the tipping point of the coming environmental crisis is. It may happen when there are ten billion people struggling to survive on this planet. It could be when we have released so much carbon dioxide into the oceans that plant and animal plankton, which ultimately sustain all forms of life in the sea, can no longer survive because of increased acidity. It could be in five years, 25 years, 100 years or more: or when we’ve heated the earth by another degree, two degrees or five degrees. It could be from something else that we are doing which scientists have yet to identify as the cause of major environmental damage. What I do know is that most of us won’t know we’ve reached it until well after we’ve passed the point of no return.
Human beings may, however, be able to change their patterns of behaviour enough to avert this impending disaster. Some of the things which need to change are, in the first instance to:
By eliminating hunger and malnutrition and promoting greater income equality we make it easier to curb population expansion, civil disputation and war.
Racism festers where there is great inequality particularly between indigenous people and colonisers. Both economic and social justice, are more easily obtained in more egalitarian societies. When sections of a society have to be aggressive merely to survive, violence between minority and dominant populations is likely to develop.
Egalitarian and sharing societies extinguish such potential flare-ups. If all are obtaining some benefit from the sharing of resources it is easier to implement sustainable environmental practices because the benefits of over- exploitation are no longer going to a handful of greedy people. The majority know that, in the long term, they are protecting the interests of all by ensuring sustainable use of natural resources.
Each of us has the capacity to start working towards building a more equal, inclusive and sharing society. We can start today, by word and deed, to help build a more egalitarian society. We can work with our friends, our work mates, our unions, sporting clubs, professional associations, social agencies, church groups and our neighbours to build a better world. As we engage in this civic project we benefit personally from being surrounded by a safer and stronger community which acts justly and promotes individual autonomy.
But in the short term military forces will be seen by many of our friends and neighbours as necessary for their protection. So we will need to explain why we can no longer afford to maintain military forces at anything beyond a sufficient force to repel an aggressor from our shores.
During the Cold War, Russia and the US amassed sufficient nuclear weapons to eliminate life as we know it many times over. The Americans used Agent Orange to defoliate large environmentally important parts of Indo China. Considerable numbers of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian children continue to be born with extreme deformities, as a legacy of these chemical weapons. Similar herbicides are being supplied by the US to defoliate poppy crops in Afghanistan and coca crops in Columbia. Land mines and cluster bombs are blowing up poor people in many parts of the world for decades after conflicts have finished. Depleted uranium is causing the deaths of babies and children in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is not only the combatants and civilians of invaded countries who become the casualties of war. Many members of the invading forces return home disfigured, drug addicted, poisoned by chemicals, mentally scarred and physically disabled. In some ways the soldiers who get killed are the lucky ones in the inglorious situation where countries send their troops off around the world to wage war.
The homes, hospitals, sewerage treatment works, schools, factories and commercial buildings that get destroyed during wars all have to be replaced after the strife subsides, requiring further impositions on the environment. The families whose child, mother, father, or other relative is killed are not as easily rebuilt. As Warner (1996) says (in T H White’s The Once and Future King in an “Afterword”):
War was a ruinous dementia. It silenced law, it killed poets, it exalted the proud, filled the greedy with good things, and oppressed the humble and meek; no good could come of it, it was hopelessly out of date. Nobody wanted it. (Unfortunately, no one had passionately wanted the League of Nations either.)
While countries are spending vast sums on defence equipment there are more socially or environmentally useful expenditures which are foregone. This money could have been used to improve civic amenities in the home country or provided as foreign aid to help build a more peaceful world. The time wasted training troops to maim and kill could be better spent by employing them engage in some socially or environmentally useful tasks at home or abroad.
Apart from the overt environmental destructive nature of war, there is the environmental cost of just keeping the defence forces mobile. In 2007 Sohbet Karbuz noted in the Energy Bulletin that:
As of September 30, 2005 the US Air Force had 5,986 aircraft in service. At the beginning of 2006 the US Navy had 285 combat and support ships, and around 4,000 operational aircraft (planes and helicopters). At the end of 2005, the US Army had a combat vehicle fleet of approximately 28,000 armored vehicles (tracked vehicles such as Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles). Besides those the Army and the Marine corps have tactical wheeled vehicles such as 140,000 High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles. The US Army has also over 4,000 combat helicopters and several hundred fixed wing aircraft. Add all those also 187,493 fleet vehicles (passenger cars, busses, light trucks etc) the US Department of Defense (DOD) uses. The issue is that except for 80 nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, almost all military fleet (including the ones that will be joining in the next decade) run on oil.
He went on to point out that (excluding fuel obtained overseas at no cost, used by contractors, or used in rented or leased vehicles) the Pentagon still managed to use 320,000 barrels of oil per day in 2006.
If we want to keep the world environmentally healthy then we certainly can no longer afford such profligate military consumption of carbon products. We just need to convince our fellow citizens that it is better to have a world at peace rather than one in pieces, because as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “the real and lasting victories are those of peace, and not of war.”
Copyright © 2023 John Tomlinson