In the climate organizing space, we have begun to do a much better job than the mainstream, predominantly white, upper class environmental movements of the past in recognizing the deep intersectionality that fuels the climate crisis. Activists, organizers, and savvy allies frequently state with confidence that the crisis is a byproduct of, and intersectional with, systemic racism, class inequality, Indigenous silencing, environmental justice, and more. As the predictions grow more dire, the seriousness with which we must face the realities of climate change forces us to root out the real causes – not simply blame it all on production and emissions. Though, one nascent area of intersectionality still has yet to break through to the common consciousness of climate organizers. In the U.S., one of the most pervasive and normalized sectors habitually evades mention in conjunction with its role in the climate crisis: war and the military industrial complex.
Climate change and efforts towards peace are inextricably linked, yet we can rarely identify why. There are two levels at which peace and the climate crisis intersect: at the surface level and at a deeper philosophical level. The surface level relations are being discussed more and more as time passes.
Connections at the Surface
The bloated U.S. military is an active contributor to the emissions driving warming. Neta Crawford, professor of political science at Boston University, and chair of the Costs of War project, released a study on the Pentagon’s fuel use last year. In the paper, she writes that, “… the DOD is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum and correspondingly, the single largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world.” She further cites that from 2001 to 2017, 766 million metric tons of CO2 were emitted from all U.S. military operations. The rest of the study details further Pentagon complicity.
Additionally, it is no secret that the U.S. commits or contributes to atrocities all around the world in order to secure fossil fuels at a cheap price, and prevent other nations from coming to economic power through their own oil reserves. From the CIA coup to overthrow Iran’s popularly elected Prime Minister Mossadegh, to the Gulf War in 1991, to partial motivations behind recent U.S. efforts in Venezuela, oil has continually played a key role in U.S. foreign policy.
When the question of paying for policy like a Green New Deal is lobbed at environmental activists, the interrogators fail to acknowledge the over $750 billion combined Department of Defense budget for 2020, and over $1.3 trillion spent annually on fossil fuel subsidies when you include externalities. Contrast these figures with the just over $1 trillion per year cost of a Sanders Green New Deal – the most costly of any proposed – and paying for sweeping change suddenly seems well within the realm of possibility.
Add to all this the growing potential for political unrest, conflict, and war brought about by scarcity of resources, and the picture becomes even more dire. While research concludes that climate change does not directly cause conflict, a plethora of work argues that climate change will significantly impact factors that do lead to conflict. Factors correlated with civil war such as per capita income, economic growth, and consistent political institutions are all subject to climate-induced decline. To make matters worse, once conflict breaks out, it has been shown to undermine the capacity of individuals, communities, and states to cope with climate-related changes. This type of positive feedback loop could mutually lead to more environmental degradation and more conflict.
These surface level connections are right in front of us, and they are incredibly important. Consciousness of these connections seems to be growing as more activists and notable critics are now writing about them. However, we should be skeptical that this is the whole picture. Why is it that all of these interconnections exist between climate change and militarization, conflict, or war? How is climate change inextricably intertwined with notions of peace?
What Lies Underneath
In order to work towards a more general understanding of these interconnected concepts, we have to start by asking some questions that we often ignore for sake of simplicity, or by complacency. Why was polluting our air and water ever allowed in the first place? Why has invading or influencing other countries for control over resources ever allowed in the first place? Why are profits and money so valued while human or environmental costs so worthless?
Weaving its way through all of these inquiries is the notion that we live under, and often unwittingly internalize, systems that justify violence through a mindset of competition. After it is stated, this may seem trivial. Upon closer examination, we can paint a more nuanced picture of what we even mean by “violence” and how we are all seduced by competition.
When we think of violence, the concept that first alights our mind is likely one related to physical violence. We may think of abuse, fights, or armed conflict. Our societies tend to lead us towards normalizing the word “violence” because we hear it so much. If we etymologically break down “violence,” we find that it comes from the Latin violare – which is the root of our English word “violation.” When we begin to view violence as a sort of violation, a new set of conceptual connections can be formed; violence can be interpreted as the act of violating someone’s rights. Now when we picture physical violence, it makes sense that a punch, gun shot, or drone strike is a violation of another’s right to safety from pain, or even their right to life. With a more powerful interpretation in hand, we need not limit violence to the physical. Cultural violence could be seen as a violation of a group’s right to embody and reproduce collective values, traditions, or norms. Economic violence now comes to us as violation of an individual or group’s rights to goods, services, or resources. We can think of social violence, class violence, and more under this notion of violation of rights. Having deconstructed what we mean by violence, what now of the other half of our argument: its justification through competition?
In our modern, Western societies, it is far too easy to internalize and embody notions of competition. From the moment we begin to be socialized into the culture, we are competing with each other; in school, sports, or the family. All of this competition is predicated on the idea that in all areas of life, there must be some who “win” and some who “lose.” Winning and losing, however, is a concept that can only be justified when complex ideas are boiled down to zero-sum games, or oversimplified measurements. In school, grades function as the mechanism by which winners and losers are picked. They are shallow interpretations and measures of intelligence or success that often callously exclude any notions of personal growth, emotional intelligence, or diversity of culture and thought. Sports must have simple objectives and scores in order to measure athletes against each other. In life, our culture can push us to value ourselves through anemic quantities like money and encourage us to measure ourselves against others with our paychecks and bank accounts.
Through these measurement games, our culture tricks us into thinking that the complexities of life and our humanity are actually simple. Often, there is no necessity for winners or losers. Embracing complexities allows us to see that when we think some are winning, they are often losing in some other area. Celebrities may be called “winners” when it comes to looks or wealth, but they often lose out on the stability of a simple life, or are psychologically plagued by public scrutiny. Further, adding value-driven (not in the monetary sense) interpretations to physical appearance or what qualifies as riches may tint the looks and wealth of typical celebrities as actually unappealing and bankrupt. The values that are selected for by our societies – those which determine who is worthy of celebrity or not – are in reality products of who happens to have cultural power at the moment, and the degree to which people think for themselves. A further investigation points to the notion that nothing is truly so simple that objective winners and losers actually exist, and that competition is therefore not justified.
To return to our original argument towards the connections between notions of peace and the climate crisis, our interpretations of violence and competition make clear that these two seemingly unrelated issues are, in fact, driven by the same underlying mentalities. Polluting our air and water was allowed because profits justified violating peoples’ right to clean air or water. Necessary winners and losers when it comes to control of resources has continually justified invasion or subversion of otherwise autonomous, free states. The indoctrinated psychology of competition justifies valuing profits and money while simultaneously violating rights to equity, equality, justice, and much more. We would do well to remember that under oversimplified notions of winning and losing, it is often the case that while some win, they are sacrificing and losing elsewhere. When we violate others’ rights in order to win; when we pollute our environment in order to gain profits; when we murder, destroy, and destabilize in order to gain control and resources, we lose our humanity. And we’re losing our home.
What Can We Possibly Do?
This all begs the questions: so what can we even do to combat such a pervasive and systemic force? To win climate justice, which is undoubtedly linked to justice regarding other forms of oppression, we have to begin to address these deep-seated cultural issues. Even if we happen to solve the problems of emissions or warming, a world which does not face up to a violent and competitive mindset will be destined to find new existential crises to create; unwittingly stumbling into predictable chaos. We have to push back against this perpetual justification of winners and losers – that some deserve to violate, take, and protect what they claim as theirs while others suffer – in order to truly pivot society in a direction that would see war and the climate crisis as unimaginable embarrassments of the past.
In the political arena, one proposal that strikes at the core of the intersections between peace and climate is the framework of the Green New Deal. While not perfect, it is an example of something that radically reaches for this notion of cooperation over competition, of lifting up those who have less in a rejection of the mandate of those who have too much. It seeks to replace violation of rights with recognition and protection of rights; speaking of the duty of the Federal Government to secure for all people clean air, water, and community resiliency; to provide resources for training and education to vulnerable communities, strengthening the rights of workers. It would replace competition with cooperation; promoting justice, equity, repairing historical oppression of Indigenous peoples, women, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, and so forth. The framework of a Green New Deal aims to change the things that we all consider feasible by showing that it is possible to collaborate, to guarantee rights, and to create an equitable society. It deconstructs what has for so long been indoctrinated in many as “the way things have to be.”
In the realm of our personal lives, we can begin to dismantle systemic competition and violation by organizing and learning from each other. Climate science warns us that “the capacity for collective action is a critical determinant of the capacity to adapt to climate impacts, and this too can be undermined by violent conflict…” When we organize together, and stand with those who have been struggling against injustice longer than we may have, we see the power of cooperation. Meeting and working with others moves us towards breaking down those barriers which lead us to justify violence because we either cannot understand each other, or see others as a distant, acceptable casualty. We will never end the mentality that perpetuates our militarized culture until we dissolve our fears in the solution of community; one that leads us to see friends, neighbors, and “strangers” as not so different from ourselves. Much of what keeps us from structuring society around frameworks like a Green New Deal is the fear that is constantly injected into our psyche by our culture. To change, we have to be brave, and we have to be kind.
Most of us have no idea how powerful we truly are because the way we are taught to imagine the mechanisms behind society typically leaves us out. We all have the power to say “no” to violence. We all have the capacity to organize with those around us. We all have the power to speak up; to change the way we think about the world and our place in it. The more we talk about the climate crisis, peace, and oppression as inextricably linked through notions of what we consider justifiable, the more likely we are to address the deep causes that lead to a militarized, polluting world racing towards the precipice. A culture that cooperates and supports the rights and dignities of all people would be one that could finally end institutionalized violence, and bring about a just future for all.
Nick Rabb is a PhD student at Tufts University and organizer with the Sunrise Movement and Massachusetts Peace Action.