Commentary

On Earth Day, consider how militarism affects our environment

April 21, 2023 5:00 am
Child sits with signs at Milwaukee climate march

A child rests among signs at Milwaukee climate march. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Everything is connected to everything else, as environmentalists have said for centuries.  Barry Commoner called it the first law of ecology. That’s true of nature and the ecosystem, but it also applies to humans, who  don’t operate independently from the world around us. 

Earth Day is a time to reflect on the impact humans have on the environment and on how war and militarism are connected to and responsible for the biggest threat to the ecosystem and the world’s population — climate change. 

War has always brought environmental destruction, starting with the ancient practice of salting the land after a city was conquered and razed, to poison the enemy’s earth. Now we poison it on a much larger scale. Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were 20th century horrors as modern warfare and weapons reached new heights of inhumanity.  

Then came Vietnam, which combined devastating weaponry with chemical poisons.  Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day’s founder and an early opponent of the war, was horrified. In 1972, introducing a bill requiring a full-scale study of ecological damage, he cataloged it:  An area the size of Rhode Island flattened and scraped bare of foliage. Prime forest acreage the size of Massachusetts destroyed by 100 million pounds of poisonous herbicides. Twenty-three million huge craters, 49 feet across and 26 feet deep, created by 500-pound bombs, with tonnage amounting to three pounds for every person on Earth – 8 billion pounds. Destruction of 80% of timber forests and 10% of all cultivated land in the nation.

“That is what we have done to our ally, South Vietnam.,” he said.  “The huge areas destroyed, pockmarked, scorched and bulldozed resemble the moon and are no more productive.  There is nothing in the history of warfare to compare with it. A ‘scorched earth’ policy has been a tactic of warfare throughout history, but never before has a land been so massively altered and mutilated that vast areas can never be used again or even inhabited by man or animal. This is impersonal, automated and mechanistic warfare brought to its logical conclusion – utter, permanent, total destruction. The cold, hard and cruel irony of it all is that South Vietnam would have been better off losing to Hanoi than winning with us.”  And that is what happened three years later.

The endless wars of the 21st  century have continued the devastation. A Brown University report found the U.S. war in Afghanistan alone caused the emission of 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases.  But U.S. military operations are just part of the equation. The U.S. is responsible for 37% of the global arms trade. 

Militarism destroys the environment and fuels climate change even when there is no active war.  It is now a global, existential problem that worsens every day, with the U.S. playing a leading role.

The U.S. military is the world’s largest consumer of gas and oil and one of the biggest polluters ever.  A local example: The F-35 fighter jets to be based at Madison’s Truax Field burn 22 gallons of jet fuel per minute, 1,340 gallons an hour.  In a year, operations at Truax would produce 21,741 tons of greenhouse gases, the Air Force stated in an environmental impact statement.  And that’s just a flyspeck compared with total Pentagon pollution.  

The Biden administration’s Pentagon budget request for 2024 was $842 billion.  By the time Congress passes it, it will likely be $1 trillion or more. And it comes at the expense of programs that could actually fight climate change and reduce the U.S. contribution to the global threat. In the last fiscal year, Wisconsin taxpayers paid $11.7 billion in Pentagon taxes, including $201 million for the F-35.  Those tax dollars could have funded 67,907 clean energy jobs for a year or provided solar electricity to 43 million households, according to the National Priorities Project.

It is about priorities and choices. The late, great Wisconsin Sen.Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, recognized that 53 years ago.

In his speech at UW-Madison on the eve of the first Earth Day in 1970, Nelson made it clear he saw the movement as broadly focused. “Our goal is not to forget about the worst environments in America — in the ghettos, in Appalachia and elsewhere,” he said. “Our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures — an environment without ugliness, without ghettos, without poverty, without discrimination, without hunger and without war. Our goal is a decent environment in its deepest and broadest sense. 

 “The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment, between man and other living creatures, will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical and financial commitment far beyond any commitment ever made by any society in the history of man. Are we able? Yes. Are we willing?  That’s the unanswered question.”

So far, the answer has been no.

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Bill Christofferson
Bill Christofferson

Bill Christofferson is a former journalist and political consultant, and current peace activist, who lives in Milwaukee.

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