NICK DEANE. The climate crisis and war

Oct 16, 2019

Groups like Extinction Rebellion (XR) focus on the physical impacts of the climate crisis. Message to XR – The pre-requisites for a comfortable, sustainable future include an end to militarism and, ultimately, the cessation of war.

Those who express concern about climate change, or, more correctly, the climate crisis, are definitely in the forefront of a movement to bring about meaningful social change (a movement that is still in its infancy, so hasn’t yet got a proper name). Extinction Rebellion (XR) has chosen a very apt name – but what is really needed is revolution, rather than rebellion (one should not shirk from use of that word, despite all the usual, negative connotations attaching to it). For a sustainable future, it is the neo-liberal, capitalist system, under which much of the world’s population lives, that must change radically in the not-very-long run. If no change is made, forces much greater than those that can be mustered by humanity will prevail. We either decide on a path to change, or change will be foisted upon us.

Thus far, I am in agreement with the environmental activists, because they are right. Earth has but to shrug, and we are dust. Or, as Paul Ehrlich expressed it years ago, “Nature bats last!”. Put simply – we can not go on like this.

There is, though, a weakness in the message being put out by groups like XR, in that the focus thus far is on the physical effects of the crisis – rising temperatures, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, fires, floods, droughts, storms and so on all get a mention – but there are other aspects that are likely to have much greater and more immediate impact. The social and political consequences of the crisis will probably touch us Westerners more forcefully than the physical.

One factor that does receive XR’s attention is famine. But even here, the full effects go unremarked. For what will famine bring with it? In every instance of famine that I can recall, the shortage of food has been accompanied by an abundance of weapons. Famine has partners – and they are migration and war.

An inevitable social consequence of the crisis is going to be increased instability. The physical manifestations of the crisis will cause huge, social upheavals. Humankind will respond to the hardships the crisis brings in the same way they have since prehistoric times – by migrating. Migration and movement is the uniquely human activity (in contrast to the seasonal migrations of birds and animals) through which almost every corner of the globe has been occupied. The drive to migrate is deep and fundamental to our specie. It knows no respect for the ‘national borders’ that have been established in the comparatively short and recent time of recorded history.

For the nation state then, the crisis, by rendering national borders meaningless, threatens to bring about a situation resembling anarchy – in so far as it means that the state may lose control. And if there is one thing that any state’s elite fears, it is loss of control. Whilst leaders of certain industries deny the crisis, others, particularly military leaders, are well informed about it and well aware of its trajectory. They appreciate that they are facing an era of huge instability in which they may lose control. It is their typically human response that presents problems. They know that their ‘authority’ relies, in the last analysis, on their control of the means of inflicting violence. Faced with the prospect of losing control, they only know one course of action – that of ‘improving’ their capacity to control, that is by increasing their military capability. (There is also a fundamental human proclivity at play here, under which any one of us faced with a ‘fight or flight’ situation will instinctively reach for his or her weapon…)

The sum of these factors is that, as the environmental crisis deepens, migrations will take place and the chances of wars will increase. Right now we are witnessing an increasing preparedness for warfare and increasing sums being spent on weaponry all over the globe. Faced with the prospect of losing control and of being ‘invaded’ by hordes of ‘uncivilised’aliens, who might gain access to the wealth that the nation state has managed to accumulate, current leaders only feel comfortable if they spend more on ‘security’ – i.e. spending more on all things military. As global emissions of CO2 rise, the global stock of weapons – and thus prospects for war – are rising, in rough parallel.

Almost by definition, all military activity and all preparations for war are environmentally damaging. Depending as it does on fossil fuels, military activity is a huge contributor to CO2 emissions. Waging war is nothing less than an exercise in destruction. The environmental impact of waging war is universally negative. Its impact on humanity is, without question, utterly detrimental.

In this gloomy prognosis, what the world’s population faces is the prospect of the effects of the climate crisis being made worse, by orders of magnitude, by militarism and war being added into the chaos that is coming. ‘Arming up’ as the crisis deepens is precisely the wrong way to go. To imagine that one sector of humanity fighting another will lessen the overall impact of the crisis is tragically delusional.

Collectively, by preparing for war in the face of the climate crisis, us humans stand to make our own situation very much worse than it could otherwise be. It is going to be bad enough. What is the point and where is the value of making it worse by preparing for or engaging in war? The pre-requisites for a comfortable, sustainable future include an end to militarism and, ultimately the cessation of war.

Nick Deane has a degree in Sociology and with a varied career in the Australian Public Service. He is a convenor of the Marrickville Peace Group and one of two members of the national committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.

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