Why Environmentalists Must Be Pacifists

Concerned Philosophers for Peace session
American Philosophical Association, Savanna, GA
January 4, 2018

Warism is taking war for granted as morally justifiable. It is an attitude, an assumed value position, a perspective through which the world, including relations of nations are understood. Warism strikes me as the primary obstacle to building a more peaceful world. While token efforts to justify particular uses of violence are routinely offered by government leaders and others, rarely does it occur to anyone that the institution of war – the persistence of nations constantly preparing for, practicing, threatening, and engaging in mass violence – itself needs moral examination. War is simply what nations do, and they devote much of their energy and too much of their resources to doing war well. Moral justifications for particular acts of war are offered, but war itself is simply taken for granted as morally justified, even morally required. The vast majority of people see the world through warist lenses.

Environmentalism is a perspective, outlook, or attitude as well. Environmentalists take nature to be of the highest value and are committed to minimizing human impact on nature, to maximizing sustainable and environment-friendly policies and practices, and to preserving the gifts of nature for future generations, human and non-human species. Just as with warism, there are varieties and degrees of environmentalism, but always environmentalists work to save nature from human degradation.

Warism and environmentalism are inextricably related. Taking war for granted is at odds with maximizing sustainable and environmentally friendly policies and practices. A generation ago, while offering a typology of positions on morality and war, I followed the lead of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic and identified “ecological pacifism,” where moral concern goes beyond human immorality to fellow humans and considers wrong done to nature. Grounding moral opposition to war on likely consequences, the ecological pacifist shifts the focus from impact on humanity to impact on the environment. It’s bad enough that humans should kill one another; it’s worse that they should risk the extinction of the human species along with culture, other animal and plant species, and even life itself. This is what Jonathan Schell calls the “second death,” the extinction of a type of being beyond the death of a particular being. Aldo Leopold expresses the environmentalist value in terms of his land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise.” The concern is not merely that humans suffer when the environment is abused, but that the environment itself has value beyond its usefulness to humans. Increasing awareness of our environment, its fragility, complexity, interdependency, and the likely irreversible environmental damage of war, all contribute to the case for ecological pacifism.

Conceptually, what have warism and environmentalism to do with one another? As it turns out, it is not possible to be anti-warist without being environmentalist, and one can’t be an environmentalist without becoming anti-warist. How so? For one thing, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) is the world’s single largest consumer of energy. Ninety-three percent of US Government energy consumption is military (Air Force 52%; Navy 33%; Army 7%). Energy consumption includes 30,000 gigawatt hours of electricity valued at $2.2 billion, enough to power 2.6 million average American homes. The DoD uses four billion six hundred million (4,600,000,000) US gallons (1.7 x 10 to the tenth liters) of fossil fuel annually, 12,600,000 US gallons per day. This data is from 2014; no doubt the numbers have increased since then. If the US Military were a country, fuel consumption would rank 34th, just behind Sweden.

To put this data in perspective, General Patton’s army in World War II consisted of 400,000 GIs and consumed 400,000 gallons of gasoline per day. In Iraq in 2005 we had one-third as many troops but consumed four times the fuel. Today’s B52 bombers each consume 3,300 US gallons per hour and a single F16 fighter uses 800 US gallons per hour. War and the tools of war consume more fuel than ever before, and consumption continues to increase. What’s more, according to Christopher Helman in Forbes magazine, “For the US military, more oil means more death.” And it is very expensive. While ordinary Americans pay $2.00-$4.00 per gallon for gasoline, US taxpayers pay $45.00 per gallon to purchase, deliver, and protect fossil fuels supplied to our military in war zones. This data, the most recent I could find, is more than eight years old. I fear that matters are now worse; although the relatively cheap fossil fuel of late has reduced expense, I suspect fuel consumption is up compared with eight years ago. And certainly the environmental cost is more significant than the financial cost.

The environmental impact of fossil fuel consumption is immense. While former Vice President Gore’s book and film, Inconvienent Truth, rightly call attention to the environmental crisis provoked by US fossil fuel consumption and ask all of us to reduce our carbon footprints (ironically, even peace and nature-minded philosophers fly or drive to conferences, even those focusing on the environment), yet the considerably more inconvenient truth – namely the role of our government and military in exacerbating the fuel crisis and resulting in serious environmental crisis – is downplayed while individuals are called to cut back on personal fuel consumption. The US is definitely a culture of individualism, but this problem is systemic.

Over twenty years ago I attended an environmentally-focused COPRED conference at the University of Denver. At a plenary session with a panel of experts and five-hundred attendees, an elderly gentleman chided the panelists from the back of the audience saying “Look at you hypocrites! You talk about protecting the environment but you sit here drinking water from Styrofoam cups!” The Director of the Colorado Environmental Protection Agency happened to be on the panel. His response: “You are misdirecting your criticism. We panelists are guests of the University. Whether any or all of us refuse to drink from Styrofoam cups would have a negligible impact on the environment. If you are serious in your criticism, you should direct your attention the University and ask policy makers to quit using Styrofoam, or lobby for Styrofoam restrictions with the city of Denver or the state of Colorado. The problem is systemic, but your objection is individual” (emphasis belongs to the speaker). I take some comfort in remembering this experience when my carbon-footprint-obsessed friends give me a hard time for flying to conferences or to visit my grandkids. My response to such criticism is to remind critics that the planes will fly whether I’m on them or not, that I favor high-speed trains to replace flight for domestic travel, and that I’ll be concerned about my personal carbon footprint when the US military reduces its carbon footprint since mine is nearly insignificant in comparison to theirs (which is exponentially bigger than mine).

The inextricable connection between the military and the environment doesn’t stop with fossil fuel consumption. The Department of Defense (DoD) is the largest producer of toxic waste and of toxic waste sites in need of clean-up as well. According to Bob Feldman in War on Earth, the US military generates 750,000 tons of toxic waste annually, more than the five largest US chemical companies combined, making the US military the world’s largest polluter. And this provides another inextricable link, this one between warism, environmentalism, and racism, since most toxic waste sites are on native American reservations or in major metropolitan areas typically among the urban poor who, in our country, tend to be people of color. What has come to be called “environmental racism” is, in fact, typically warist-based: by this I mean that environmental racism tends to be driven by warism. As long as the majority of Americans and the overwhelming majority of corporate and government leaders are warists, that is, take war for granted as morally justifiable and even morally required, so long will environmental degradation and with it environmental racism continue apace. This is because once war is considered justifiable, even required, then there is no price too high, financially or environmentally, to assure the security of national interests whatever and wherever they may be. How did JFK put it more than fifty years ago? “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” While these are cherished and inspiring words, surely they are dangerous encouragements to warism with disastrous consequences for human life and the environment.

Nine hundred of the Environmental Protection Agency’s thirteen-hundred Superfund sites are abandoned military bases or sites of military industrial manufacturing or testing. In 2008-09 the President’s Cancer Panel reported that half-a-million people may have consumed perchlorate-solvent-contaminated drinking water around US Marine Corps Camp Le Jeune in North Carolina between the late 1950s and the mid 1980s, perhaps helping to account for higher than usual rates of cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects in the area. Twelve thousand US military live-explosive training sites release perchlorate into ground water. It is highly mobile and persists for decades. All types of baby formula are contaminated and perchlorate is not unusual in breast milk and urine throughout the US. Over half of all foods tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contain perchlorate.

The US Navy had a major explosives training facility on Vieques island in Puerto Rico for fifty-five years, withdrawing in 2003 under pressure from peace and environmental Non Government Organizations (NGOs) with the Fellowship of Reconciliation playing a leadership role. Those living on Vieques have a 27% higher rate of cancer and twice the risk of their children dying of cancer when compared with other Puerto Ricans. The abandoned training facility became a wildlife refuge, perhaps for political reasons and to spare the Navy the trouble and expense of cleaning up the site. Perhaps you’ve seen or heard recent television commercials encouraging travel to Vieques; their pitch is, irony upon irony, “environmental tourism.” Vieques became a wildlife refuge after its more than five decades as an explosives training facility – i.e., target practice firing range – largely because the task of environmental cleanup required to redevelop the island for housing or commercial use was staggering both financially and physically.

In the US there are 27,000 toxic hot spots on 8,500 military properties. Setting aside the exposure to military veterans and turning to people living within two miles of US toxic waste sites, the majority are people of color. According to the Commission for Racial Justice, African Americans are 79% more likely than whites to live near industrial pollution, and half of all native Americans live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites, many of them military-related. Children of color living in poor areas are nine times more likely than economically privileged children to be exposed to lead levels high enough to cause learning disabilities and neurologic disorders. Ninety-six per cent of African American children living in innercities have unsafe amounts of lead in their blood.

I probably should apologize for including so much data in this paper; after all, facts are not often used in philosophical argumentation. I include these startling numbers because such data are so rarely cited and not part of general awareness nor involved in our cultural understandings of and discussions about protecting our natural environment. It may well be naïve on my part, but it seems that if such data were more widely known, conversations about the natural environment would more often include criticisms of war, weapons production, fuel consumption, and the inevitable toxic waste sites generated.

Somehow we separate moral considerations of the natural environment from moral considerations of war and preparation for war. My point is that these two sets of moral concerns cannot be teased apart; no matter how hard we try, they are inextricably entangled. We can address our environmental concerns only by engaging concerns about war and preparation for war, and we can address our concerns about war only by considering the inevitable environmental implications.

The argument here is simple and the conclusion unavoidable: if we care for the health and sustainability of Earth, then we have no choice but to oppose war and preparation for war, that is, we must become ecological pacifists. I understand that this is a very big, very bold “if.” I understand the logic of counterfactual conditionals. Were a public opinion poll to be taken pitting environmental values against military values (euphemistically called “national security” by mainstream media and consequently influencing public opinion), I suspect the military would gain more support than our natural environment. But, were pollsters to avoid emotively loaded euphemisms, poll results might be closer. I believe the gap has been closing on such comparisons over the past couple of generations; I only hope our planet can recover the damage already done when the scales finally tip in its favor.

It’s a pity that more of us don’t seem to care sufficiently about the health and sustainability of our natural environment –our home— so as to make the connections between our persistent preparations for and execution of war and their implications for our natural surroundings. We (i.e., the US) constantly prepare for and execute war as a matter of course and with greater frequency, intensity, and excess than any other nation on Earth does or ever has done. This is all the more reason for me to attempt directing attention to the above data and their implications. At this point I can only reiterate: if we care about the future and sustainability of our planet, then we must become pacifists, ecological pacifists at the very least. It will not solve all environmental concerns nor will it eliminate warism and war, but it is a step in the right direction.

Duane L. Cady
Hamline University
St. Paul, MN, USA