The most recent tally of the cost of war by the non-profit National Priorities Project (NPP) puts total military-related expenditures (through September, 2010) at a mind-numbing $1.09 trillion.
That’s ‘Trillion’- with a ‘T’ — $749.9 billion for Iraq and $337.8 billion for Afghanistan since 2001.
In a less Orwellian world, such stunning numbers would be taken up as a mantra by those agitating for change of any sort. Yet, as relevant as they are to our “national well-being,” the trillions of US dollars funneled into the war machine in the past decade are rarely (if ever) cited in the ongoing climate change narrative.
I can’t remember the last time I heard an environmentalist or climate activist here in the US point out that, for instance, shortening the Afghanistan war by just one month would free up enough money (about $10 billion) to implement renewable energy projects in countless communities across the nation or fund thousands of sustainable farming projects and/or programs that encourage better efficiency and conservation.
These activists might want to consider the information yielded by the “trade-off tool” featured on NPP’s website. The tool breaks down what could have happened in communities around the US, had the money spent on war gone toward actually creating something — whether healthcare, education, housing or clean energy. In California, for example, taxpayers have paid $137.8 billion for total Iraq and Afghanistan war spending since 2001. For that amount of money, according to the trade-off tool, nearly 50 million homes could have been equipped with solar power for a full year.
Green Revolution OR Black Hole of War – You Can’t Have Both
Back in 1992, the authors of the groundbreaking “Rio Declaration” wrote: “Peace, development and environmental protection are interdependent and indivisible … Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development.”
That simple declaration encompasses an equally simple (and obvious) concept – one that shouldn’t require much explanation; one that, in a less Orwellian world, would surely be incorporated into the narrative of those agitating for a “Clean Energy Revolution.” Yet, to this day, it is not just the president, or even Congress, who continues to ignore this all-important ‘talking point.’ Climate activists themselves remain either unwilling or unable to put their ‘green-ness’ in proper perspective – one that includes the absurdity of implementing a “Clean Energy Revolution” in a permanent wartime economy.
In January of 2009, just after President Obama delivered his inaugural address, I wrote a piece that sought to underscore that point. It suggested (god-forbid) that the president would need to choose between “healing the planet” or waging war on it – that he could not do both. The premise was a simple one: Making the transition to a “Clean Energy Economy” while continuing to maintain a warfare state is oxymoronic.
Another article, written only this month by climate activist and founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben (“We’re Hot as Hell and We’re Not Going to Take it Any More”) misses that point entirely. It is illustrative of the problem.
In his piece, McKibben writes that it’s time for climate activists to “get mad.” He offers this advice after citing the newest and most dire climate science to date and (quite rightly) complaining about the US Senate’s abject failure to address climate change in any meaningful way.
“Last year,” wrote McKibben, “with almost no money, our scruffy little outfit, 350.org, managed to organize what Foreign Policy called the “largest ever coordinated global rally of any kind” on any issue …”
I don’t know whether it’s true that McKibben’s organization staged the “largest ever” global rally of any kind, but I do know that “truth” is as much about what is not said as what is actually said. If McKibben is serious about activists telling the truth, “resolutely and constantly,” then why not tell the whole truth? Why not, for instance, include in their narrative the significance of that (mind-numbing) $1.09 trillion allocated to war expenditures since 2001?
Will the Real Truth-Tellers Please Stand Up?
Now, don’t get me wrong.
Anti-war groups (and organizations like the National Priority Project) continue to inform the national debate with ongoing analysis and critical statistics. Peace activists, while shamefully marginalized by the “mainstream media,” continue to drive home the point that “war is bad for children and other living things.” These under-appreciated heroes struggle against all odds just to keep that simple concept in the mainstream consciousness.
But, here in the US, the nexus between the peace movement and the climate movement is a fragile one. There still exists no cohesive coalition to connect the dots between war and climate change. And, thanks to a wholly corporate-owned media, the groups brave enough to make those connections, such as Berkeley’s “Environmentalists Against War,” seem to exist only at the margins of the conversation. All too often, like the proverbial tree in the forest, they make a sound that no one hears.
Groups like 350.org, on the other hand, are very big on “political realities.”
They understand the importance of being considered “legitimate” by the mainstream media. Toward that dubious end, they often dismiss as “too radical” any discussion of the impact of war on everything humane. Never mind making the point that war is a global travesty, destroying everything in its path, from human settlements and native habitats to wildlife and the land, air and water.
Besides, as long as the media continues to treat them as if they were the only ‘real’ representatives of the “climate change movement,” they will continue to dominate (that spectrum of) the “climate narrative.” I would argue that, since these groups garner what little media attention that narrative manages to attract, it is reasonable to ask that they make better use of it. To do that, their leaders will need to be willing to risk offending war industry profiteers who drain US coffers to finance the ongoing plundering and polluting of the planet. Otherwise, there’s little chance of “upending” those industries that, as McKibben suggests, “made a fortune by treating the atmosphere as an open sewer for the byproducts of their main business.”
I do not mean to suggest that McKibben and 350.org and other mainstream climate activists aren’t doing good work. It’s just that, while they’re in the spotlight talking about “350 PPM” or “putting up solar panels and digging community gardens,” why not talk about the vital connections between Big Oil and the corporate-military complex?
Failing to include the impact of war and the bloated military budget (not to mention fossil fuel consumption by the military and its ancillary industries) in any discussion about “climate change” is like talking about water without mentioning Big Agriculture. As long as mainstream environmental groups refuse to talk about the ways in which war and military spending (to control access to the fuel that powers our oil-based economy) impact the very changes they claim to seek, those changes will remain elusive.
Change the politics, save the climate
When it comes to “connecting the dots,” European activists have it all over their peers in the US. In Europe, coalition-building between single-issue groups has long been a primary strategy. Most European activists view war, climate change, privatization and globalization as part of the same problem – corporate control of the political system. During the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, one activist summed up that attitude with spray paint, writing on the sidewalk near where Obama stayed, “change the politics, save the climate.”
Here in the US, until activists are willing to stop talking about climate change as if it existed in a vacuum, separate and distinct from the corporate war machine that profits from the same industries that helped create it, those dots will remain unconnected.
In May, WikiLeaks released a little publicized CIA memorandum bearing the provocative title: “How to Sustain Western Europe’s Support for the War.” The subtitle, “Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough,” should prove instructive to US climate activists. The memorandum notes: “The Afghanistan mission’s low public salience has allowed French and German leaders to disregard popular opposition … It is therefore necessary to “tailor messaging” to “forestall or at least contain backlash.”
As Noam Chomsky recently observed, “The CIA memorandum should remind us that states have an internal enemy: their own population, which must be controlled when state policy is opposed by the public … Democratic societies rely not on force but on propaganda, engineering consent by ‘necessary illusion’ and ‘emotionally potent oversimplication …’”
US climate activists would do well to heed these words.
From rapidly melting glaciers to the recent flooding and subsequent displacement of millions in Pakistan, to the record heat – with temperatures as high as 115 degrees, not just in Russia, but parts of Europe and the US as well – one look at the headlines makes it crystal clear that so-called “single-issue politics” is a luxury activists can no longer afford.
Notwithstanding Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recently announced military budget cuts, we are not likely to see a Democratic ‘revolt’ in Congress against excessive military spending, much less a conversation in the nation’s capital about how that spending impacts the nation’s well being – not in this lifetime. That job will need to be taken up by activists, who must do more than ratchet up the rhetoric. We’ll need to find the courage to get beyond the single issue politics that fit so nicely into the narrow parameters set by the corporate media. We’ll need also to present a unified front that includes climate justice activists, peace activists, fair trade and anti-globalization activists and groups like ‘Environmentalists Against War.’ That coalition must be willing to talk about climate change, not just as an environmental threat, but in the context of the warfare state and the taxpayer-supported industries that profit from perpetual war.
Until that happens, and as long as we choose to keep talking around and around in circles, while ignoring the folly of trying to launch a “Clean Energy Revolution” in a war-drenched environment, we are destined to remain complicit in that cycle.
And that is exactly what they are counting on.
Sandy Leon Vest is a radio and print journalist and the editor-publisher of SolarTimes, an independent quarterly energy newspaper with a progressive point of view. SolarTimes can be read online at www.solartimes.org. It is distributed in hardcopy throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.
Sandy LeonVest’s work has been published locally, as well as internationally, and includes 15 years at KPFA Radio in Berkeley, CA.
Photo from Indymedia