Human survival is most at risk from two threats: environmental disaster and war. The two are closely linked, so much so that if you care about one, you can’t ignore the other.
First, because militarism is hostile to the environment. The US is the biggest villain in that department, with the Pentagon being the worst institutional polluter on the planet, more than 140 countries combined. That’s not just from flying drones, driving tanks and moving around fleets of ships; it’s also from heating, cooling, powering and otherwise keeping up nearly 800 bases around the world, and from feeding, clothing and outfitting at least 1.3 million active personnel. Additionally, the military is also responsible for an untold amount of toxic waste, some of it radioactive, at an uncountable number of locations around the world, including 900 superfund sites in the US.
Secondly, US warmongering is a significant roadblock to the kind of one-for-all/all-for-one global cooperation that’s needed to tackle the multiple environmental crises we are facing, from climate change to agricultural pollution to habitat destruction. Everyone is constantly kept on edge by the big bully who doesn’t want to see anybody acting independently. Sanctions, coups, missile strikes and full-on invasions are among the all-too-common punishments for those who dare try, as recent news bears out.
US militarism fits the description of imperialism. That’s an unpopular word in the US, but to any honest student of history, it is clear that the US is a indeed bona fide empire. No, it’s not the same shape as the British Empire, but that one was in turn different from Napoleon’s or Alexander’s or Genghis Khan’s. Each takes its own form.
In the case of the US, “empire” refers not just to the nation’s role in the world, but also to the circumstance of its existence on the North American continent. The area was invaded by several European powers starting in the 16th Century and most of the original inhabitants were killed or driven off and their land stolen. But this is not merely a set of events in the past; it is an ongoing reality. The “Indian Wars” never ended.
What we label as “the United States” is not a legitimate nation but an illegal occupation.
I was introduced to the concept of “settler colonialism” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. She demonstrated how the continent was taken over by waves of violent, armed civilians who illegally settled in Indian territories and then “called in the cavalry” when conflict inevitably ensued. In the 20th Century, the assault shifted from open battle to other means including forced cultural assimilation, further treaty breaking and legislation to dissolve tribal structures.
All of us alive in the US today who are not indigenous remain colonialists—whether we are personally descended from 19th Century settlers or not—because we actively benefit from past and present criminal activities. That’s how we have land to live on and to farm, forests to cut, rivers to dam, mountains to mine. We have a “homeland” only by taking someone else’s.
Any antiwar perspective must take this into account. Yes, absolutely, we need to bring all the troops home, and we also need to reconsider what “home” means.
All of which points out a third way that militarism/empire harms the environment: by repressing indigenous cultures whose collective wisdom shows the way forward.
Indigenous communities living traditional lifestyles make up less than 1% of the global population. Yet they have over 99% of the knowledge for how to live on this planet sustainably. So said an indigenous speaker to the United Nations in the 1990s, and I believe her.
We can beat our swords into plowshares, but in a broader sense, the plow has been the tool most responsible for leading anti-indigenous imperialism for millennia. Farming societies have been stealing from migratory cultures for as long as agriculture has existed, and wiping out the ecosystems that were their homes.
As François-René de Chateaubriand put it: “Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them.” This is the long war that has been cursing us for 10,000 years.
It happened in Europe at one point: native populations of gatherer/hunters were overpowered by foreign invaders who seized their land in order to domesticate everything and everyone. Sound familiar? That’s where we got it.
It’s clear whose lead we must follow at this point: not the Silicon Valley technophiles, with their delusions of uploading our “consciousness” into computers (as if they have the faintest notion what consciousness is); not the Green New Dealers, with their fantasies of making Western consumption “green” (as if that’s not logistically impossible); and not the socialists, with their dreams of the worker-run “development” of natural resources (as if that’s not also ecocidal exploitation).
Now is the time to look to our brothers and sisters who never took the wrong turn. Because the way is different, it might seem difficult or even impossible, but in actuality it is the path of least resistance. Naturally, because it is a return to true living.