Is Peace on Earth a Pipedream?

The outlook for 2023 is gloomy for all too many, optimism and confidence that the governments and the political class can solve the main problems is fading. Supposedly stable party systems are disintegrating and visions for a brighter future are hard to find among those who feel destined for leadership.

Nevertheless, we wish you, at least on the private level, good luck, success, health and happiness!!!

A version of the following article on a neglected aspect of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the military conflicts in many other places has been published in several media in Germany. If you know of a political leader or a party aware of this problem, please tell me.

Military, Arms Race and War: A Devastating Environmental Balance Sheet

According to the latest surveys, the willingness in the USA and the main donor countries in Europe to support Ukraine in the fight against Russia with whatever is necessary and for as long as it is necessary, is sinking. On the European side, this involves private aid and the accommodation of millions of Ukrainian refugees, but above all the unconditional supply of weapons and ammunition. For the latter, the donor countries’ own reserves are apparently running low, and weapons manufacturers are unable to replenish the quantities needed for their own defense quickly enough, even in the United States. Generally, moral support remains high, but many believe that the Russian attack was not as “unprovoked” as the Western mainstream media repeat since February. According to the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank in Washington, the latest budget approvals are pushing the US support for Ukraine to 113 billion dollars. The Quincy study sees that in the perspective that, in the past twelve months, Ukraine has been awarded more taxpayer dollars than 40 US states altogether and asks how long that can continue if the war drags on for years. If both sides refuse to revise their maximum goals, there is no chance for negotiations, not even for a limited ceasefire.   

Wars and their long-term environmental damage

The international fallout of the war, the energy crisis in Europe and many other countries far away, the disruption of the supply chains for vital goods and the increasing unpredictability of food security, is mostly being discussed under economic aspects. But on one important side effect of the grinding war, its environmental damage, politicians, and media are remarkably quiet.

Historical environmental damage, such as that caused by the endless wars in ancient Rome, is still visible 2000 years later. The Mediterranean region, which was densely forested in ancient times, was extensively deforested by the massive fleet and housing construction of the Romans and developed its characteristic arid fauna and flora due to the resulting karstification. In German and other European cities, unexploded ordnance from WWII is regularly found during construction work and often requires widespread evacuation of residents when it is defused. Since the war damage has now been so largely removed and only the very old can still remember the ruined landscapes, the topic of war and the environment apparently no longer makes it onto the current agenda. And the future reconstruction of Ukraine is discussed more under financial aspects. At least one reads less about the social and emotional consequences for the people there and even less about the polluted environment.

In other countries, the consequences of war are more strongly remembered for the continuing maiming of people who unexpectedly step on a landmine. The mining of large areas of even sparsely populated Indochina during the Vietnam War or the deformities of babies caused by the widespread spraying of forest areas with defoliants are unforgotten there. International attention was given in January to a report about Magawa the rat, who had helped clear mines for five years with his fabulous sense of smell, was awarded a gold medal, and died peacefully shortly thereafter. Presumably, the attention was more on the cute rodent than the dangerous mines. But almost fifty years after the end of the war, in which Cambodia was not even involved, the material damage is far from being repaired. The government launched a new program in early December to remove at least the remaining land mines by the end of 2025. At the same time, tens of thousands of new land and sea mines are being laid in Ukraine.

Futile warnings?

Ecologically devastating war damage has been studied in the Middle East. In 1991, more than 700 oil wells burned in Kuwait, destroying six million barrels of crude oil a day, 9% of world consumption at the time. Released were millions of tons of Sulphur, nitrogen, soot and hydrocarbons, a blanket of soot and oil covered 60% of Kuwait’s total area. War waste, and unexploded ordnance still make entire areas inaccessible, and radiation from uranium-hardened munitions remains an invisible threat for generations. The dramatic images of burning oil wells may have contributed to discussions about these all-too-visible consequences of war. But it was not until November 5, 2001, that the United Nations General Assembly declared November 6 of each year as the “International Day for the Prevention of the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict” (RES 56/4).  For this year’s International Day, the echo in was almost inaudible. On the Internet it is mentioned at least on the web pages, which remind in a calendar of such events. In the leading media it did not take place, and the Green parties in many European government coalitions, who had their roots in the peace movement of the 1960s, or the strong climate change demonstrators, were all quiet.

Environmental damage and the current arms race.

What one can assume anyway in the regions with air bases, namely that military air traffic is a considerable environmental burden in addition to civil aviation, is confirmed by pertinent research reports. A critical study from June 2019 by Brown University near Boston calls the U.S. military the biggest polluter. According to the study, the military has produced a total of 1.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases since 2001, more than twice as much as all of the nation’s passenger cars combined emit in a year. The Pentagon is the world’s largest institutional consumer of fossil energy, making it a major contributor to climate change. President Biden and his Energy Secretary, Jennifer M. Granholm, have initiated a number of programs to decarbonize, but they can only be implemented over the long term. The Brown University researchers, by the way, got their figures from Granholm’s ministry, because the Pentagon itself does not provide these figures even to Congress. (The study can be viewed at www.costsofwar.org)

Comparable data is naturally not available for Russia or China but can be roughly guessed at. The latest figures from the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) at least do not indicate a decline. According to them, the hundred largest arms corporations turned over $592 billion last year, far ahead of long time leaders Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and British firm BAE Systems, and now four Chinese corporations. Total U.S. spending on military and security, including intelligence agencies and the National Security Agency, which also handles cybersecurity, is estimated at $1.4 trillion. In the 2021 figures released by Statista in April, the U.S. leads with 801 billion in direct military spending, followed by catching-up China with 292 and India with 76. The U.K. still spent about 2.5 billion more than Russia before the Ukraine invasion, at 68.4 billion, and France and Germany are nearly tied at about 56 billion.

Meanwhile, “dreamers” can be found on the Internet who want to theoretically convert the presumed world military expenditures to fabulous per capita incomes for each of the earth’s eight billion citizens, which would unfortunately be too good to ever come true. On the other hand, it would do the world and all of us good to give the issue of war and the environment the priority it deserves.

Singapore, 28 December 2022                                             by Dr Wolfgang Sachsenröder

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