Militarisation, poverty and environment

Johannesburg: militarisation the missing ingredient?

The World Summit due to take place in Johannesburg this summer is supposed to be dealing with two central issues: how to avoid disaster for the environment and how to reduce the intolerable gap between the world’s haves and have-nots.  Admirable aims - but what is not going to be discussed makes the whole operation highly questionable.

The militarisation of the planet, and now of space as well, is not on the Johannesburg agenda, crucial though it is to the problems being discussed.  The Rio summit of 1992 was warned in advance of the consequences of failing to deal with militarisation.  Said Mostafa Tolba, then Director of UNEP, before that conference started: “Disarmament and other security issues are not on the agenda, but global discussions and international agreements are worthless without progress on these issues”.

True, there were two references to militarisation in Rio’s concluding principles.  However, Agenda 21, the campaigning proposals which emerged from Rio, ignored the subject altogether.  Busy as we all are collecting our bottles, recycling our paper, and protecting our parks, what the military do to the environment would never, if Agenda 21 were all that we had to go by, enter our heads.  Even Agenda 21’s section 22 on “Managing radioactive wastes” makes no mention of nuclear waste resulting from military reactors and nuclear weapons.

The same omissions, miracles apart, are going to occur at Johannesburg.  It is as if a large hospital had on its literature, in small print, a paragraph saying “we deal with every illness except cancer”.

The scale and consequences of world militarisation cannot be ignored.  The global annual arms bill adds up to about $800 billion a year, of which about half, post-September 11th, is spent by the United States alone.  This is well over ten times as much as the world spends on the United Nations and all its specialised agencies.

The inflationary consequences of such expenditure are obvious.  The economist, Barbara Ward, said thirty years ago: “It is simply fantastic how little substantial responsibility financial experts, bankers, finance ministers and heads of treasuries, are willing to take to remove one of the root causes of inflation in our present society... Nothing so quickly causes inflation as the production of weapons of war.”

Inflation is only one cause of poverty.  So also are arms sales, running at over $55 billion a year, with Britain usually number two in that commercial race.  Money spent or borrowed for planes and tanks cannot be spent on hospitals, schools or anti-Aids drugs.  Nor do weapons remain unused.  According to the US Center for Defense Information, there are thirty-eight “on-going significant conflicts [ie wars] going on at the moment with another twenty-four in suspension”.

The connection between militarisation and environmental damage is equally obvious.  Ruth Leger Sivard (World Military and Social Expenditure 1991) is quite blunt:  “The world’s armed forces are the largest single polluter on earth”.  About one quarter of the world’s jet fuel is used by the military, about 10% of global iron and steel, and more aluminium, copper and platinum, than is used by the entire third world.   About 1.5 million square kilometres of land are occupied by the military for training and other purposes.  In the UK more land than the country of Surrey, and in the US more than the state of Virginia.  Over 500 nuclear reactors are on naval ships at sea.  About 50 nuclear warheads and at least 11 nuclear reactors lie on various parts of the ocean floor.

It is too soon for an environmental assessment of the damage done to Afghanistan, but we do know about Vietnam.  Forests there were defoliated by 50 million litres of Agent Orange, and as a result of war the country lost over 80% of its original forest cover.  If human beings are part of the flora and fauna that needs protecting, then at least 30 million have died in war since 1945.

For a world gathering like the one in Johannesburg to discuss poverty and environmental damage without taking militarisation into account as a major cause of both is to short-change the public.  Both governments and respectable non-governmental organisations probably find militarisation too sensitive an issue.  It is time to tread on a few corns.

 


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