top of page

Environment and War

excerpt from talk during Peace Week at the Univerity of Toronto

We probably all agree here that waging war is generally pretty bad for the environment. We don’t need to think very deeply about the environmental catastrophe that arises when one drops a nuclear weapon on defenceless citizens. The devastation to the environment that millions of litres of agent orange or of napalm on the countries of Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos are also pretty easy to think about.

What I will focus on here are two aspects that are less obvious than “total war” but which allow us to think about, 1) the consequences of the military doctrine on a global scale and, 2) how the dominant economic forces on the planet benefit from destruction of the environment. I will illustrate that the same global forces which maintain a system of inequality are the ones which drive the agenda leading to unregulated assault on the earth’s environment and which disproportionately affects underprivileged people on this planet.

Here is part of a speech given by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and reported in the Chicago Tribune on May 16th of this year 2003:

“The federal government is America’s biggest polluter and the Department of Defence is the government’s worst offender. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, unexploded ordnance waste can befound on 16,000 military ranges across the U.S. and more than half may contain biological or chemical weapons. In total, the Pentagon is responsible for more than 21,000 potentially contaminated sites and, according to the EPA, the military may have poisoned as much as 40 million acres, a little larger than Florida. That result might be considered an act of war if committed by a foreign power. “

These comments were made earlier this year at a time when the U.S. Defence establishment was attempting to have more of its activities exempted from environmental laws in the US. Bob Feldon of the economic think tank, Dollars and Sense, wrote earlier this year that:

“The U.S. Department of Defense is, in fact, the world’s largest polluter, producing more hazardous waste per year than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined. “

Indeed, even members ofthe US military and the Pentagon itself have admitted that the military bases in the US are an environmental catastrophe. Admiral (ret.) Eugene Carroll, before the First International Conference on US Military Toxics and Bases Clean-up in 1997 stated in reference to Cold War rationale:

“In a mindless, criminally negligent process, we poured resources into military expansion both at home and abroad without any regard for the environmental consequences. Pollution was ignored on the grounds that “national security” took absolute priority over all other considerations.”

The effects of these activities in the US are known, of course, by the people who live around or on the military installations all through the US. Citizen groups have formed and have documented the extent of the damage to the local environment. For example, the Environmental Health Coalition released a 30 page report documenting Military Toxic waste throughout the US. In another report by the Environmental Working Group, documentation of massive perchlorate contamination, (used in all rocket propellants) in the water table is available. This study also discusses on page 32 a study conducted by the main manufacturer of rockets in the US, Lockheed Martin, where perchlorate was feed to human subjects at a dose 83 times higher than the permissible levels in California… the subjects received $1,000 compensation for this risk. This experiment was part of an overall campaign to have the regulated levels of perchlorate in the environment relaxed, thus allowing greater contamination and helping to avoid law suits.

This pollution nightmare occurring by the US government on US soil correctly predicts that US industrial-military activities outside of the US on foreign soil would also occur at an incredible level. For example, in a horrific incident that took place in 1968, a B52 bomber crashed before landing on a runway in Greenland. This bomber was loaded with 4 nuclear weapons. The land upon which it crashed had already been confiscated by the US during the 1950’s in order to build a massive military base as part of the DEW line. A Danish group recently detelmined that extremely high levels of radioactivity still exist on the ground as well as in the fish in the ocean around the crash site. The Pentagon has also conceded that not all of the plutonium was recovered following the crash.

I will mention one other location before discussing the “economic” considerations. I mentioned in the context of Greenland, the military base that was part of the DEW line. The DEW line or “Distant Early Warning” line was established to monitor the Soviet Union and detelmine if some sort of launch or attack was under way. What is now apparent was that the establishment of those military bases across the entire northern region of Canada was accompanied by a massive environmental insult in arguably the most delicate ecological region in the world. So for example, in order to withstand the extreme conditions of the north, PCBs were used in many of the building materials, such as paint, and in electrical equipment. When these northern bases were finally closed, the extent of the degradation became known where, for example, leaking barrels of PCBs were left out around the bases contaminating the soil. The Canadian Government estimated that it would take 400 to 500 million dollars to clean up the sites. They are in fact, using this clean up as a “make work” project by assisting and promoting the establishment of Inuit-owned companies to clean up the sites.

Another important aspect of this problem is the economic forces driving these environmental catastrophes. In a bid to clean up these northern DEW Line bases, the Canadian Government asked the US government to help pay for the clean up. The US originally refused but then offered $100 million dollars for the cleanup. However, the $100 million dollars was not in cash but were credits for the Canadian Government to purchase US-made military equipment. So, the actual financial burden remains in Canada along with all of the toxic waste. As is typical in this country, that burden lands again in the laps of the indigenous peoples in this country on whose land these bases were set up in the first place without their permission. Thus, this represents one example where pollution of the environment by the military is “good for business”. Not only does it offer job opportunities for cleaning up the mess, in the case of Canada, it helps finance the US military industries who will benefit from the 100 million dollar “guns-in-lieu-of-cash” deal to sort out this mess.

How do military industries get around this problem of environmental regulation. The easiest way it to get exempted from the regulations. So, the DoD turns out to be partially or totally exempt from provisions in every piece of legislation that controls US environmental degradation. Indeed, this last year, given the hysterical opportunity the attacks on the world trade centre afforded, the Pentagon attempted to have even more of its activities exempted from these statutes. This was supported by heavy lobbying by military contractors and coalitions of industries who wanted their activities free from regulations and free from the consequences of being caught violating those regulations.

This attempt to get around environmental rules is, in fact, an integral aspect of the global economic system. All of the trade agreements which have been or are in the process of being negotiated, specifically exempt the activities important for security and the military of a nation from these rules.

Recent Posts

See All

SfP Bulletin archive

SfP Bulletin February 2017 The President’s Corner: Science for Peace as a Foreign Language Metta Spencer Report of the Working Group on Global Governance Helmut Burkhardt Report of the Working Group o


bottom of page