War Not Only Kills People: It’s the Single Biggest Destroyer of the Environment

Most people in the world will agree that war is a horrible thing. Throughout history, it has not only killed and maimed young men in their prime without regard to the justice or injustice of their cause, but, in its modern form, also brought death, homelessness, and misery to millions of innocent civilians. In addition, war has in our own time helped breed the spread of terrorism, raised the specter of nuclear holocaust and the annihilation of life as we know it, robbed us of wealth that might otherwise have been invested in meeting real human needs, and worked to further divide humanity at a time when we have better means than ever before to unite it in the cause of building a more just, secure, and happy world.

Many people will readily concede these points. Yet, without thinking too deeply on the matter, they then recur to the culturally conditioned notions that war has always been with us and is, in fact, necessary as a last resort when conflicts with other nations or groups within nations seem beyond conciliation by reasoned compromise.

To readers of this article who reject the inevitability of war, as well as to those who accept it, I recommend looking into the U.S.-based global anti-war activist organization World Beyond War (WBW). Under the direction of prolific author/speaker/debater/pod-cast interview host David Swanson, WBW is with steady purpose pursuing the ultimate goal of an internationally-binding abolition of war. As I learned in a recently concluded eight-week online study course conducted by the organization, it seeks to achieve that end on the basis of eight fundamental convictions: 1) War can be ended; 2) War is immoral; 3) War destroys freedom; 4) War destroys nature; 5) War can both destroy the environment and, given the current nature of international conflicts, also easily escalate to a nuclear phase capable of annihilating nature, civilization, and mankind by holocaust; 6) War impoverishes and wastes; 7) War can be replaced by an alternative Global Security System, which WBW has already developed and re-publishes annually in updated book form; and 8) War can only be ended by means of a mass global anti-war movement. WBW’s task is to help grow such a movement and to propose new and more effective ways by which it can achieve its goal of abolishing war as an institution.

The Anti-War and Environmental Movements Are Natural Allies

The particular purpose of this article is to expound an important point relating to the eighth conviction guiding World Beyond War’s overall mission: namely, its task to propose new and more effective ways by which a mass movement to abolish war can better advance its cause. One such idea already gaining traction is that WBW and other anti-war groups join forces with activist environmental organizations that are open to coalition with them.

The rationale for this is that the anti-war message can reach a significantly larger audience, and gain a fairer hearing, if it is offered in combination with a message urging protection of the environment and efforts to combat global warming. This is so, in part, because of a major difference in how the anti-war and environmental messages are currently received. In contrast to the idea of war abolition, which at this stage will strike much of the public as either unpatriotic or quixotic, environmental issues have long held a prominent place in the national conversation over needed reforms and strike most people as at least well within the bounds of rational debate. In addition, efforts to protect the environment and combat global warming, even at some economic cost, have by now gained the active support of many citizens.

It is true that most activist environmental organizations have in the past been reluctant to ally with anti-war groups, fearing their own diminishment by association. But, in pursuing the WBW online study course, I discovered two facts that seem to make such alliances eminently logical. The first is that, due largely to their use of fossil fuels, the preparation for war and war-making itself constitute in combination by far the single biggest destroyer of the environment. The second fact carries equal weight. Because fully half of U.S. federal discretionary spending now goes to support wars and the preparation for war, resources to help meet a wide range of other pressing needs, including fast-paced creation of a green economy, have been greatly diminished. Moreover, both unchecked global warming, which would result from a rejection of efforts called for by environmental groups, and the growing possibility of nuclear holocaust, which could well result from a continued resort to war in an age of spreading nihilistic terrorism, represent in equal measure the greatest threats to mankind’s survival in the whole of world history.

Earlier this year, WBW was able to successfully lobby leaders of the People’s Climate March, held on April 29, to include peace in their platform, and I will note later a similar alliance scheduled for September. We can hope these collaborations represent only a beginning, since anti-war/pro-environment alliances are plainly win/win. For WBW, they mean wider exposure for the anti-war message. And for environmental organizations, considering that war and the preparation for war constitute the single biggest destroyer of the environment, no coalition partners could better reinforce their message than those seeking to abolish war.

Eliminating War Is Essential to Securing the Environment

As I learned in the WBW online course, in excerpts from Part II of David Swanson’s book War No More: the Case for Abolition, and the WBW book A Global Security System: an Alternative to War, eliminating war and the maintenance, testing, upgrade, and building of the machinery of war is essential to ending further degradation of the environment and preventing what might well be cataclysmic effects produced by global warming. Here are some reasons why:

  • The burning of oil, along with the burning of coal and gas, is one of the world’s greatest detriments to environmental health. Yet, each day, the U.S. military pollutes the air with all manner of weaponry, burning through 340,000 barrels of oil. No other U.S. institution consumes nearly as much oil as the military.
  • There is a close interdependence between OIL and WAR. In the case of the U.S., a national dependence on oil makes it necessary to ensure control of oil imports from the Middle East and other oil-rich regions. That requires maintenance of a very big military, which is the country’s biggest consumer of oil; and that in turn further exacerbates our national dependence on oil. If the U.S. military (and other militaries) were to go green, a major cause of war would be removed.
  • Non-nuclear bombs in World War II destroyed cities, farms, and irrigation systems, producing 50 million refugees and displaced persons; and U.S. bombing of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia produced 17 million refugees. Great damage to existing ecosystems has been done through the war-caused displacement of populations around the world to less habitable areas.
  • Wars leave a lot of dangerous stuff behind—including, for example, the huge quantity of chemical weapons the U.S. dumped into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between 1944 and 1970. A U.S. ship carrying a million pounds of mustard gas sunk by German bombs in World War II is expected to keep leaking the gas into the sea for centuries. And, among over 1,000 U.S. and Japanese ships left on the floor of the Pacific Ocean in World War II, one was found to still be leaking oil in 2001.
  • Land mines are among the most deadly weapons left behind by war. A 1993 U.S. State Department report calls them “the most toxic and widespread pollution facing mankind.” They damage the environment in four principal ways: 1) by denying access to natural resources and arable land; 2) by forcing populations to move into marginal and fragile environments; 3) by (as a result of this migration) speeding depletion of biological diversity; and 4) by causing explosions that disrupt essential soil and water processes.
  • In Vietnam from 1965 to 1971, the U.S. developed new ways to destroy plant, animal, and human life. It sprayed 14-percent of South Vietnam’s forests with herbicides, burned farm land, and shot livestock. The herbicide Agent Orange caused some half-million birth defects and still threatens the health of the Vietnamese. During the Gulf War, Iraq released 10-million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf and set 732 oil wells on fire, causing extensive damage to wildlife and poisoning ground water with oil spills. Wars in Angola eliminated 90-percent of the wildlife between 1975 and 1991. A civil war in Sri Lanka felled five-million trees.
  • The Soviet and U.S. occupations of Afghanistan destroyed or damaged thousands of villages and poisoned the country’s air and water with explosives and rocket propellants. Afghanistan’s forests are almost gone, and most of the migratory birds that used to pass through the country are no longer seen.
  • In its 1991 aerial campaign over Iraq, the U.S. used 340 tons of missiles containing depleted uranium, leading to significantly higher rates of cancer, birth defects, and infant mortality in the city of Fallujah in early 2010.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense generates more chemical waste than the five largest chemical companies combined.
  • If we don’t soon abolish war, we will by the year 2050 produce such a dramatically changing climate that it will disrupt the global economy and set millions of refugees on the move.

War Siphons Off Federal Funds Essential To Preserving the Environment

From the same sources in the WBW online course, I learned that war and the preparation for war also harm the environment indirectly by draining off federal funds that might otherwise be used to help secure the environment. Here are some of the ways that happens:

  • Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spends $622 million each year trying to figure out how to produce power without oil, the U.S. military spends hundreds of billions of dollars burning oil in wars fought to control the supply of oil. The million dollars it takes to maintain each soldier in a foreign occupation for a year could create 20 green-energy jobs at $50,000 each.
  • Bloated by a spendthrift consumption of oil, the out-of-control U.S. military budget greatly diminishes financial resources needed to address and combat global climate change—today’s paramount environmental issue.
  • In 2003, two-thirds of the U.S. army’s fuel consumption could be accounted for by vehicles delivering fuel to the battlefield.
  • An F-16 fighter bomber consumes twice as much fossil fuel per hour as the highest-consuming U.S. motorist does in a year.
  • U.S. military aircraft consume about a quarter of the world’s jet fuel.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense uses more fuel per day than the country of Sweden.
  • The U.S. military uses enough fuel in one year to run the country’s entire mass-transit system for 22 years.

Ending War and Preserving the Natural Environment Can Also Make Us Fully Human

From the facts reviewed here, it’s evident to me that mankind’s only hope to effectively combat global climate change and preserve the natural environment for future generations is to end militarism and the institution of war. As we’ve seen, this is so for two primary reasons: first, that the oil burned in war and the preparation for war is a principal cause of environmental destruction; and, second, that the immense costs of making war and preparing for it greatly diminish the funds available to meet a wide range of other pressing needs—perhaps most importantly, a fast-paced transition to a green economy.

By now, we’ve become aware of the physical hazards of unmediated global warming. They include such current effects as the accelerated melting of ice sheets, permafrost and glaciers, which causes average sea levels to rise. We can also expect changing precipitation and weather patterns in different places, making some locations dryer with more intense periods of drought.

Other locations will be wetter, with stronger storms and increased flooding. Such changes will, of course, affect both the natural environment and human society, and, in the absence of significant reductions in greenhouse emissions, can be expected to become increasingly destructive.

But bad as such effects may be for the physical security of many humans, they make an equally alarming case for the gross immaturity of mankind’s moral practices. It is we humans, after all, not nature, who have failed to maintain our side of an ecological bargain. As thinking beings, our moral charge is to maintain harmony between ourselves and the wide diversity of natural resources available to us — both those on and beneath the earth. We are also charged to respect the right to a decent life of other people around the world. Yet, even as we’ve come to know better, we’ve chosen instead to continue exploiting both fossil fuels and other human beings for the selfish ends of strategic domination and ever-expanding economic power. That misbehavior has now led to the twin evils of global climate change and the increasingly inhuman forms of modern warfare. Instead of pursuing peace and harmony with different people and environments around the world, we’ve managed to create chaos—especially, in latter years, within several small nations in the Middle East.

In order to change such behavior before life as we’ve known it is irreversibly compromised, the World Beyond War organization is, as we’ve seen, pursuing the goal of a legally-binding comprehensive global security system by which all international conflicts would be resolved by peaceful means. It has also proposed that specified current and future technologies, and the products derived from them, be withheld from use until judged by qualified experts to have no adverse impact on human health or that of the natural environment.

As we are beginning to appreciate from mounting evidence, it is only by the elimination of war and of further damage to the environment that the human race can survive. At the same time, we can also hope that in achieving those ends through agreement with other societies around the world, we can move forward as a species toward something even greater: the physical security and moral openness we need to experience the potential joys of easy empathy with fellow humans, oneness with nature, and creative collaboration with others to meet real human needs.

No War 2017

This coming September 22 through 24, World Beyond War will take an important step toward these ends by joining activists from both the environmental and anti-war movements for talks and workshops at a conference to be held at American University in Washington D.C. This year’s conference will focus on activism, and include activist planning workshops that address ways in which the anti-war and environmental movements can work together to address such issues as these: the environmental damage of militarism; the use of funding, now dumped into war preparation, to meet environmental needs; and the tendency of corrupt governments to use crises created by climate chaos to justify going to war. Information on conference speakers and scheduling can be obtained by contacting World Beyond War.org.

General information on the World Beyond War organization can be obtained at its website.

Bob Anschuetz is a retired college English teacher and industrial writer who remains actively committed to the progressive political values of economic fairness, social justice, and global community. In retirement, he has continued his work as a writer and manuscript copy editor, and also furthered a lifelong love of learning as a student of political science and philosophy, as a volunteer discussion-group leader on a variety of topics, and as a literacy tutor. Read other articles by Bob.