Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- May 30, 2006

Swords into Plowshares

Ernest Partridge


"And He shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

Micah: 4: 1-3


"We have a secret weapon ... we will deprive America of The Enemy. And how [then will] you justify ... the military expenditures that bleed America white?"

Georgi Arbatov, Director
Soviet Institute of the US and Canada
Letter to the New York Times, 1987

An analysis of the events that have followed the fall of the Soviet Union fifteen years ago, leads to a tragic conclusion: The United States economy, as currently constituted, cannot maintain itself without an international enemy. The defeat of one enemy, Soviet Communism, did not result in a “peace dividend.” Instead it led to a desperate search for a new enemy to justify a continuation of the Military-Industrial-(Political-Academic-Media) complex. Then Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and “Islamo-Fascism” – George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” – obligingly stepped forward to fill this role. And so we continue to build multi-billion dollar aircraft carriers and submarines, and an unworkable missile defense system, and we have reinvigorated our atomic weapons program, to fight the new enemy: fanatics armed with box-cutters, and armed brigands hiding in the caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We now spend as much on our military as the rest of the entire world combined. Our military hardware is truly impressive, yet we cannot defeat an “insurgency” in a small country equipped only with small arms and improvised explosives, nor are we willing to furnish our troops with body armor and potable water.

Is this any way for a civilized nation to behave? Are there not better ways to invest national wealth? Are there not more appropriate adversaries that might promote international cooperation in the face of common peril? Must these adversaries be national entities or international criminal conspiracies? Must they even be personal “evil doers?”

I posed these questions in November, 1989, at a Moscow conference on “The Ethics of Non-Violence,” sponsored by the Soviet Academy of Sciences. What follows is a revised, updated and expanded reworking of the ideas presented to that forum. (The original essay can be found here).

On numerous occasions near the end of his Presidency, Ronald Reagan remarked that if the Earth were faced with a common threat of invasion from outer space, the United States and the Soviet Union would immediately set their differences aside and would form an alliance. This idea was by no means original with Reagan. In his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech in 1950, Bertrand Russell said:

If you are English and someone says to you: "The French are your brothers," your first instinctive feeling will be: "Nonsense, they shrug their shoulders and talk French. And I am even told that they eat frogs." If he explains to you that we may have to fight the Russians, that, if so, it will be desirable to defend the line of the Rhine, and that, if the line of the Rhine is to be defended, the help of the French is essential, you will begin to see what he means when he says that the French are your brothers. But if some fellow-traveler were to go on to say that the Russians also are your brothers, he would be unable to persuade you, unless he could show that we are in danger from the Martians.

In fact, the idea that alliances are usually formed against a common threat is prominent in the thought of political philosophers such as Hobbes and Machiavelli, and on back to the ancient Greeks where, as Herodotus reports, the rival city-states, Athens and Sparta, united to defeat the invading Persian army.

Common to all these observations is the assumption that the "common threat" is the armed force of an aggressor and that the alliances disintegrate upon the defeat of the aggressor.

Space probes have now assured us that there will never be a Martian invasion (though a possible “invasion” by a comet or asteroid  should concern us).  How then might nations cooperate absent a common military threat? Must we look for new "enemies," or will common moral purpose and common human interest suffice to ensure global cooperation and peace?

In the same Nobel Prize speech quoted above, Bertrand Russell offered an answer which is instructive, both in its truth and in its error:

We love those who hate our enemies, and if we had no enemies there would be very few people whom we should love.

All this, however, is only true so long as we are concerned solely with attitudes towards other human beings. . . You might regard Mother Nature in general as your enemy, and envisage human life as a struggle to get the better of Mother Nature.

Given the alarming news that is coming in from the environmental and atmospheric sciences, we would be well advised to regard Nature as a common threat. However, we would also be morally misguided to "regard Mother Nature in general as [our] enemy." Nature is not malicious or blameworthy. And yet, while nature is not a moral agent, it is, in an important yet figurative sense, launching a dreadful retaliation against us. For those scientists tell us that the same physical, chemical and biological processes which nurtured and sustained us as a species, have been so damaged and distorted by our thoughtless interventions upon the environment that we are about to face consequences that we can barely foresee or scarcely imagine.

No, nature is not our "enemy," nature is our Mother -- our source and our sustenance. And what nature is about to do to us, we will have done to ourselves by fouling our own nest. We have brought ourselves to this pass through our collective folly, and we must rescue ourselves through collective wisdom and restraint.

Clearly, we can not succeed with business as usual. Yet that is the policy of the Bush/Cheney administration. Their response to global climate change is ignore it, deny it, and then, when the public demand for action becomes irresistible, make false promises to “do something about it.” The Bush/Cheney response to the looming depletion of the world oil supply is to grab the foreign supplies, by military force if necessary, and then continue and even accelerate domestic consumption thus bringing us ever closer to the time of final depletion. They seem to believe that the rest of the world will sit still as we starve them of their share of this essential resource. The Busheviks are profoundly mistaken, as they and the rest of us are about to find out. For the industrial nations -- of Europe, the Pacific Rim, and the oil-rich middle East -- have the capacity to devastate the US economy without firing a shot, and we are coming ever-closer to provoking them to do just that.

Instead we should be planning, along with all the industrialized nations, a global strategy aimed toward a transition to a world economy based on renewable energy sources. To this end, the enormous American defense industry must be redirected to “do battle” against the global threats of climate change, environmental devastation and fossil fuel depletion. Instruments of destruction must now be transformed into instruments of survival: swords into plowshares.

Disarmament can be a very tricky business, which must be planned and implemented intelligently and comprehensively, with the full cooperation and coordination of the federal government and private industry. That was the case in 1945 at the end of World War II as American industry converted smoothly from war time to peace time production. The G.I. Bill, one of the most enlightened Congressional acts in our history, put hundreds of thousands of returning military personnel into colleges and universities from which they would emerge as the foundation of an expanded and flourishing middle class.

The “peace dividend” that followed the collapse of Communism in the early nineties was a different story. With no peacetime projects to take up the slack of diminished and cancelled defense contracts, thousands of defense workers were laid off causing ripple effects throughout the economy. I know, for I was a victim of the “peace dividend.” When the California defense industry was set back in the early nineties, state tax revenues declined precipitously. Consequently, state university budgets were slashed and thousands of untenured faculty had to be laid off, including Yours Truly. Throughout the state of California, the cry was heard: “Where are the Russians, now that we need them?” I was lucky, for after a year of part-time work I was appointed to an endowed chair at a Midwestern college. Others were not as fortunate.

This historical experience leads one to ask: If the United States decides to relinquish its self-appointed role as an international military bully and chooses instead to join a world-wide endeavor to escape the looming menaces of global warming, environmental deterioration and petroleum depletion, how is it to manage a non-disruptive change-over?

Suppose that the US decides to shrink its $500 billion military budget to a quite adequate $100 billion. What is to be the fate of the industries, the stockholders, and the workers that were sustained by that half-trillion dollars of federal appropriations and contracts? A repeat of the nineties’ “peace dividend” recession can be avoided if the spigot of federal funding is kept on while the flow is directed to dealing with the aforementioned global emergencies and to the requisite improvements in our domestic infrastructure. However, to the consternation of economic libertarians and free market absolutists, this must be a coordinated effort supported with tax revenues. And that means planning and administration at the federal level. Of course, these tax revenues would not be additional but would be reallocated from budgets formerly directed toward military contracts.

There will be no shortage of urgent projects that will require all of the $400 billion released from the military budget. Among them:

  • Balancing the budget and reducing the national debt. Fiscal instability is crippling our capacity to deal aggressively with the problems before us. Moreover our economic independence and national security have been bartered away in our massive debts to competitor nations.

  • Research and development of renewable energy sources: Solar, wind, tides, biofuels and possibly atomic fusion.

  • Construction of renewable energy production facilities: wind farms, biofuel digesters, solar collectors.

  • Increasing fuel-efficiency of automobiles and converting to non-fossil fuel sources.

  • Building a renewable fuel infrastructure. 

  • Severely reducing the commercial airline fleet and replacing it with high-speed railroads.

  • Research and development of technologies that will slow and perhaps reverse global warming. This might include methods of capturing and sequestering greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane. Also increasing the outward reflection (albedo) of incoming solar radiation (e.g. by increasing cloud and snow cover).

Full-length articles and books have been written about each of these items. Let’s examine just one: the advantages of railroad travel to automobile and airline travel.

As anyone who has traveled on Japanese and European railroads is fully aware, the American rail system is, by comparison, a national disgrace. In the last sixty years, 40% of the railroad tracks in the United States have been torn up. And in 2005, responding to his patrons in the auto and petroleum industry, George Bush proposed an elimination of all federal funding of Amtrak, the sole remaining national passenger rail service.

In the face of the permanent energy shortage immediately ahead, the planned demise of the American railroads is irrational in the extreme. The per-passenger energy consumption of existing railroads is half the consumption of automobile and air travel, and with advanced railroad facilities abroad that advantage approaches three to one. With speeds in excess of 180 mph,  modern trains provide faster, safer, more comfortable and more energy efficient downtown-to-downtown travel than airlines at distances up to 400 miles. Magnetic-levitation (MagLev) trains, now in operation in Germany and China, are capable of speeds up to 300mph. Via MagLev, one might travel from Manhattan to downtown Chicago in about four hours. The Los Angeles to San Francisco run would take an hour and a half. All this with enormous savings in energy.

Public subsidy of a railroad system?  “But that’s socialism!”  Yet public subsidy of auto transportation through highway construction, or of air travel through airport construction and air traffic control, somehow fails to arouse these capitalist qualms.

Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas are world leaders in the technology and construction of airframes. How difficult would it be for these industries to convert to the manufacture of state of the art railroad engines and railroad cars? How effectively might General Electric develop, manufacture and install a nationwide system of solar-electric production and distribution? How soon could Exxon-Mobil, Texaco-Shell and British Petroleum shift to the production and distribution of bio-fuels? With $400 billion of the military budget redirected to these essential “national defense” goals, these questions become rhetorical. As Bernard Weiner points out in the accompanying Crisis Papers article, the primary obstacles immediately before us are not economic or technological, they are political.

Just as drastic cuts in military spending have ripple-effects throughout the economy, so too would a conversion of military technology to a sustainable energy economy and infrastructure. But these would be positive “ripples.” There would be a demand for scientists, engineers and skilled workers – for jobs which, by their nature (i.e. building, maintaining and operating on-site infrastructures) could not be outsourced. Unlike military hardware, the output of this industrial conversion would be economically productive. A high-speed rail system contributes permanently to the national economy. Tanks, bombers, submarines and aircraft carriers, once built, produce nothing.

The military-industrial-(political-academic-media) complex is a giant tapeworm in the gut of the American economy, soaking up nutrients, contributing nothing, and starving the host organism. The “defense” industry flourishes, and what the Pentagon wants the Pentagon gets. Meanwhile, public education withers from neglect, rising tuition costs keep talented but poor students from professional careers of which they are fully capable, skilled workers are being laid-off as their jobs are shipped overseas, the nation’s infrastructure – bridges, highways, railroads, harbors, water supplies, sewage disposal – is rotting from within. Non-defense tax revenues required to reverse this deterioration are lost to “tax relief” for the very wealthy.

While the regressive-right has no problem with centralized governmental control of the military, all other federal institutions are withering from neglect, incompetence and under-funding resulting from the Reaganite aversion to big government – “the problem, not the solution.” Witness the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. As long as this ideology reigns supreme in Washington, an informed and coordinated national response to the incoming emergencies of climate change, environmental deterioration, and oil depletion is unlikely.

Meanwhile, competing national economies abroad, unburdened by the extravagant diversion of national income to useless military appropriations, race ahead with scientific research, industrial development and an energy infrastructure that anticipates the coming end of the petroleum age.

As the climate, environmental and energy emergencies that are now upon us are global, so too must be our response. And the gravity of these global emergencies are such that they require an international commitment and response sufficient to render obsolete and irrelevant all remaining violent disputes among nations. For there is in fact no national interest which transcends in importance the common international interest in halting the onset of global climate change, in repairing and restoring ecological balance, and making the transition to a post-fossil-fuel world economy, thus securing common survival on a functioning planet. Those are the simple facts of the matter. Can we now at last come to appreciate that these threats before us transcend any existing tribal feuds or national disputes and can we then proceed to invest and act accordingly? Upon the answer to that question, the future of humanity will be determined. For international cooperation is no longer merely an ideal, it is now a necessity.

Copyright 2006 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .