The Planet As National Sacrifice Zone

No epoch in human history has demonstrated as blatantly and grotesquely the fundamental incompatibility of warfare and nature as the hot and cold national wars of the late modern era. The devastating, often irreparable, effects of warfare on global ecosystems, as the sections above have chronicled, clearly illustrate the incompatibility of modern industrial warfare and nature. Ecological systems are fragile. In order to continue to support subsystems of living things, ecosystems must maintain a number of processes such as integrity of species habitat, biodiversity, photosynthesis, and nutrient replenishment.38 Industrialized armed conflicts disrupt these processes with unprecedented severity. Late modern warfare's ability to destroy nature, as environmental researcher Ruth Sivard concedes, "has become increasingly formidable."39 In addition, modern industrial warfare is producing direct and indirect threats that are no longer limited to the actual conflict. Also the intensity, scope, and technological means of wars have increased near exponentially. Before the Persian Gulf War, there were 227 other wars in the past century alone, wreaking varying degrees of environmental damage.

Even in "peacetime," as indicated above, modern military industrial activities are particularly dangerous to species and the environment. For example, the process of creating and maintaining the world's stockpile of over 50,000 nuclear weapons is, as one US General Accounting Office (GAO) report put it, one of the more potentially dangerous industrial operations in the world.40 Not only does nuclear weapons production involve the intricate manipulation and transportation of enormous quantities of radioactive materials; it also creates great volumes of non-radioactive hazardous wastes. And because all operations are carried out under strict secrecy, civilian environmental agencies and citizen watchdog groups are kept in the dark.41 Moreover, the military enterprises are also the least regulated hazardous industries in the world. Because of the extensive military use of electronics and fire extinguishers, the ozone damage of military endeavors is extensive. The US Defense Department, towards the end of the Cold War, accounted for 76 per cent of emissions of a type of halon called halon-2111, and nearly half the emissions of the form of CFC called CFC-113.42 Halons in most civilian fire extinguishers are never released to the atmosphere because they are never used. But US military regulations require that the fire-fighting equipment of every tank be tested with halons; no substitutes are allowed. Other nations' armies undoubtedly have similar procedures. The modern arms race and military-industrial complex get a black mark for their greenhouse gas record, too. In 1988, the military consumed an estimated 1,589 trillion BTUs of energy - 86 per cent of all energy used by the US government and about 14 times the energy used by all urban public and private mass transit in America.43 The total carbon emissions of the world's combined military forces is probably on the order of 140 million tons, nearly equal to the annual emissions of the United Kingdom.44

The world's armed forces, according to environmental analyst Ruth Leger Sivard, "are the single largest polluter on Earth."45 A Canadian Peace Report study found that today's armed forces are responsible for 10 to 30 per cent of global environmental damage, 6 to 10 per cent of worldwide air pollution, and 20 per cent of all ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbon use.46 The GAO reports that the Department of Defense currently generates 500,000 tons of toxic waste annually - more than the top five chemical companies combined.

Even under the strictest regulations, the production, testing, maintenance, and deployment of conventional, chemical, biological, electromagnetic, and nuclear arms would generate enormous quantities of toxic and radioactive waste.47 Every step of war preparation involves significant ecological damage. Excavating the Earth to extract uranium and rare metals for weapons production poisons large tracts of land and precious ground water. Multinationals' strip mines also strip rights and customs from the indigenous peoples whose sacred lands are often expropriated by war-makers.48

Until recently, many ecologists have tended to underestimate or neglect the impacts of warfare and arms production on natural history. Yet, as Mike Davis argues, the Cold War has been not only an unmitigated modern social disaster, but also the "Earth's worst ecodisaster in the last ten thousand years."49 There is now incontrovertible evidence that huge areas of Eurasia and North America, particularly the militarized deserts of Central Asia and the Great Basin in North America, have become unfit for human habitation, perhaps for thousands of years, as a direct result of weapons testing by the Soviet Union, China, and the United States. In the United States, these "national sacrifice zones," now barely recognizable as parts of the biosphere, are also the homelands of indigenous cultures who themselves may have suffered irreparable genetic damage.50

Unraveling the hidden history of national sacrifice zones - from the "secret holocausts" of Siberia to the pulverized and irradiated coral atolls of the Pacific islands to the millions of irradiation casualties and genetically damaged people of former Cold Warring nations - has been largely the result of grassroots resistance efforts by the new social movements. Mike Davis has charted the devastating impact of militarism on much of the American West, and compares it to the ecological disasters afflicting large parts of the former Soviet Union. There, the hidden history of the Cold War came to light most dramatically when environmental and anti-nuclear activism, first stimulated by Chernobyl in 1986, emerged massively during the crisis of 1990-1. Grassroots protests by miners, schoolchildren, health-care workers, and indigenous peoples forced disclosures such as the chilling accounts of the 1957 nuclear catastrophe in the secret military city of Chelyabinsk-40, as well as the poisoning of Lake Baikal by a military factory complex. Soon also the wall of silence around radiation accidents at the Semipalatinsk "Polygon," the chief Soviet nuclear test range in Kazakhstan, came down.51 The relationship between ecological disasters and the disintegration of the USSR is more than metaphorical. As political historian Murray Felsbach notes, "When historians finally conduct an autopsy on the Soviet Union and Soviet Communism, they may reach the verdict of 'death by ecocide.'"52

The ecocidal legacy of the Cold War in the United States has been amply documented by the photojournalistic investigative work of the so-called Atomic Photography Guild.53 Their work represents politically engaged exposés of the Cold War's impact upon the American West since the mid-1980s, providing "not only vital clues for the reconstruction of a major disaster-zone but also echoes of the utopian hopes which inspired the pioneer surveyors of the west."54 The photographer Richard Misrach has repeatedly penetrated some of the most secret spaces of the so-called Pentagon Desert in California, Nevada, and Utah. His documentary work depicts a Bosch-like landscape, including dead-animal disposal sites located near reputed plutonium "hotspots" and military toxic dumps in Nevada.55 The Great Basin of eastern California, Nevada, and western Utah and its "plutonium periphery" - the Columbia River-Snake Plateau, the Wyoming Basin, and the Colorado Plateau - constitute the Pentagon's national sacrifice zone.56 It has few landscape analogues anywhere else on Earth.57

Few Americans are aware of the role of the Pentagon in turning the Great Basin into a silent, toxic desert. Nor, until now, have we had cause to reflect on how "demilitarization" may just be a new and perverse dispensation for continuing ecocide and internal colonialism.58 The modern arms race, and the rise of industrial warfare, as the above discussion illustrates, represents an exceedingly damaging political ecological configuration. Any attempt toward a comprehensive study of the modern mass-extinction event must be considered gravely incomplete without an accounting of the staggering social and ecological costs of the modern arms race and twentieth-century industrial warfare. What it clearly illustrates is that, from an ecological perspective, any division of the global ecosystem into nation-states is ultimately ecocidal. The picture that emerges here is that of a stupendous and epochal disaster.59 Private ownership and profit-oriented economies, embedded in a system of corporate nations, are clearly not conducive to maintaining the natural heritage of the planet as a common resource for all humanity. Common resources are not shared "in common," in the traditional sense of land and resources belonging to a community, as a source of wealth for all and the responsibility of all.

The lessons to be learned from the social evolution of civilizations in the Holocene period is that the Neolithic institutional invention of warfare is tremendously costly, not merely in immediate social terms but also in long-term, and perhaps irreversible, ecological terms. The contemporary late modern scale of worldwide social and military expenditures, as the economist John Kenneth Galbraith recognized, is not simply "foolish and cruel," but is a "highly conditioned social form of insanity."60 Jacob Uexkuell and Bernd Jost, for example, have calculated that "all known programs for the saving of the environment and for the worldwide satisfaction of the needs of the poor could easily be taken care of with the global military budget of only one year."61 During the height of the Cold War, the trillion dollars a year the world spent on arms would have wiped out nearly the entire Third World debt.

Back in the midst of the Cold War, it would have taken only $9 billion a year - or a fraction of the annual world military expenditures - to secure the world's topsoils, only $3 billion to restore the forests, $4 billion to halt desertification, $18 billion to provide readily available contraceptives worldwide, and $30 billion for clean water.

These inverted priorities, as Emmanuel Wallerstein noted, are not the neutral decisions of a market, they are the priorities of powerful people in powerful nations, mostly men whose gender, race, and class interests drive the capitalist political economic system and its worldwide system of accumulation and deprivation.62

The modern arms race that emerged in tandem with the rise of modern nation-states and capitalism over the past five centuries, and which has been particularly ruinous in its late modern manifestation, has been essentially a process, as Alan Durning suggests,

... by which we have pillaged our houses to build walls around them. We are left, sadly, with impressive walls and an impoverished home - a planet with poisoned air, water, and soil, with worn farms, denuded hillsides, and with fewer species living each hour.63

Demilitarization presents a particularly obvious opportunity to eliminate a significant waste of financial and physical resources while simultaneously eliminating a great, perhaps the greatest, single cause of ecological destruction and human suffering in our modern world. An estimated 10 to 30 per cent of all global environmental degradation is due to military-related activities.64 But, in an increasingly polarized world with increasing inequities, injustices and blowbacks, a process rendered acute by recent neoliberal forms of economic globalization, the dismantling of our permanent global war economy looks ever more like a utopian dream.65 Throughout the world, environmental policies remain a low priority. This is illustrated by the fact that the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has been struggling to keep its meager annual budget of $100 million during the decade following the Rio Earth Summit, while global military spending is more than $2 billion a day.66 The total cost to save what remains of the world's 25 biodiversity hotspots over the next ten years has been estimated at some $5 billion (some $5 million annually over ten years). Yet worldwide annual military expenditures are more than $900 billion. Without military and economic disarmament, there can be no lasting social and ecological peace. "On the contrary," as Albert Einstein noted, "the continuation of military armaments in their present extent will with certainty lead to new catastrophes."67

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Responses

  • William
    Is our world becoming qa sacrifice zone?
    9 months ago

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