The environmental and ‘anti-war’ movements

2009-01-12

in Bombs and rockets, Law, Politics, Security, The environment

Spiky plant in snow

Historically, there seem to be a fair number of areas of overlap between various aspects of the environmental movement and various aspects of the ‘anti-war’ movement. It seems important, from the outset, to stress that neither is really a unified force. There are a few people who still aspire to the complete abolition of war, while most others have the ambition of either stopping specific wars or curtailing some of the worst aspects of war in general (war crimes, nuclear weapons, etc). On the environmental side, there is arguably even more diversity. People differ on areas of concern (does animal welfare matter?), on the scale of action (local? national? global?), and on appropriate solutions. Overlapping with both camps are some groups (such as Marxists) who feel that changing some underlying aspect of society will address most or all of the problems of war and environmental destruction more or less automatically.

There are a few reasons for which the anti-war movement is a natural fit for the environmental movement. For one thing, they tend to galvanize the same type of people: predominantly students and older people of an anti-establishment bent. More concretely, there is also strong evidence that war causes environmental destruction and that some types of environmental degradation can encourage wars.

That being said, there are also reasons for which the environmental movement might be wise to distance itself from anti-war campaigners. For one thing, there is the danger of getting drawn into debates that are largely irrelevant from an environmental perspective: dealing with climate change is hard enough without needing to factor in the rights and wrongs of the Gaza Strip or Kashmir. For another, a lot of the anti-war movement functions in an extremely confrontational way. Of course, the same is legitimately said about elements of the environmental movement. While such agitation might be necessary to get things started and keep people honest, it tends to become counterproductive once you reach the point of implementing any specific policy.

Finally, there is a bit of a dated quality to the anti-war movement. It feels bound up with Woodrow Wilson, on one side, and the LSD of the 1960s on the other. Certainly, the idea that war can be eliminated as a phenomenon (or even as a tool of policy for rich democratic states) is no longer considered plausible by many people. Similarly, the idea that all wars are fundamentally unjust is hard to maintain given evidence of recent occurrences that (a) could have been stopped through the just application of force and (b) were themselves significantly worse than an armed confrontation would have been. What seems sensible in a post-Holocaust, post-Rwandan genocide world is the advancement of a ‘just war’ agenda, focused on using law and evolving norms of behaviour to avoid unjust wars as well as unjust behaviour in a wartime environment. In practical terms, this involves mechanisms like the arrest and trial of war criminals, interventions to stop genocide, and agreements to eliminate certain weapons and tactics.

A ‘just war’ movement would certainly find areas for profitable collaboration with environmental groups. Many kinds of weapons are of both ecological and humanitarian concern, for instance. What is necessary is a higher degree of nuance and consideration than exist on the activist side of both movements. Hopefully, more mature and sophisticated arguments and tactics will be able to generate progress in reducing the harm from both armed conflict and environmental degradation.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

. January 12, 2009 at 10:47 am
. January 12, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Move Over, Thoreau
Rationalist environmentalism better prevail, and fast.
By Johann HariPosted Monday, Jan. 12, 2009, at 6:55 AM ET

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau by Bill McKibben.I have just swallowed my greens—1,000 pages of them—and I am torn. If the planet warms by 6 degrees in my lifetime, as the climatologists say it really could, we will face vast and violent weather of mass destruction. The last time the world warmed so much, so fast, was 251 million years ago—and almost everything on Earth died. So I have no doubt environmentalism is the most urgent ideology left standing, reducing every other disagreement to a second-rank squabble. Yet it is—as an intellectual tradition—muddled and messy.

alison January 12, 2009 at 9:59 pm

war & environmentalism? what about information policy & environmentalism? the prof I work for (Andrew Clement) has written an interesting article on the subject:

Information/communications rights as a new environmentalism? Core environmental concepts for linking rights-oriented computerization movements.
http://www3.fis.utoronto.ca/iprp/cracin/publications/pdfs/presentations/info_enviro.pdf

Tristan January 13, 2009 at 1:22 am

“Overlapping with both camps are some groups (such as Marxists) who feel that changing some underlying aspect of society will address most or all of the problems of war and environmental destruction more or less automatically.”

I would say that this is part mis-charactirization of Marxists, but mostly “marxists” mis-characterization of Marx. The point of “Marxism” is not that “we put into place this new system that fixes everything”, but “this system will inevitably fail due to its inherent contradictions with an organization which does not have those contradictions” – not meaning at all that the new organization will be without contradiction and especially not that it will be without problems. The revolution isn’t suppose to “address” social problems in the sense of solving them – insofar as the revolution is related to social problems this is because the social problems are seen as a systematic and not accidental result of the current socio-economic organization.

Kerrie January 13, 2009 at 2:27 am

There is nothing antiquated about the anti-war movement. If governments put a tiny fraction of the resources and effort they devote to murder into peace-making and peacekeeping, we wouldn’t have any of these problems. There are lots of examples of prevention and minimization of violent conflict in history. Of course, they tend not to come from patriarchal/colonial societies whose very existence depends on the domination and subjugation of others.

I find it hard to believe that someone like you who views smoking and homophobia as the most vile, barbaric habits can believe that an end to war is “implausible” and that those that advocate for it are antiquated and naive. The humanitarian situations you refer to as preventable by war are actually preventable by committed collective action, which can be qualitatively different than war.

What is tragically implausible is when world leaders claim that Dictator X or So-and-So Y can “only ” be dealt with by force when they had 1000 chances to stop the situation from happening in the first place, and their gullible citizens follow along and then five years later, wonder what happened to make the situation so crappy. And all this can be paid for-for the low low price of $1,000,000,000,000+ per year, a price which no other venture on earth has been considered worth paying. It’s a shame to see you play along with the “Big Dick” politics of IR. Does it occur to these macho IR hacks that peace has never actually been attempted by major actors in the international community?

Milan January 13, 2009 at 8:43 am

Kerrie,

I definitely agree that force should only be used when any remaining options are worse. You are entirely right to highlight how preventative action earlier often has the potential to avert violent confrontation later, and it is very important to seek out and take advantage of such opportunities.

That being said, I do think it is naive and dated to believe that we can “put an end to war.” While there are alternatives to the Wikipedia definition (“War is the reciprocal and violent application of force between hostile political entities aimed at bringing about a desired political end-state via armed conflict.”), it does not seem to me as though war by that definition has any likelihood of being eliminated across the span of the future that can be imagined. The best we can hope for is the aversion of wars whenever possible, the mitigation of the worst aspects of war, and the most rapid conclusion possible for wars, without violating the aim of making them less nasty (i.e. no hasty ends through nuclear obliteration).

What would it mean for peace to have been “attempted by major actors in the international community?” It certainly seems to me that situations approximating this have taken place. I will reveal my IR (rather than history) background by citing the twentieth century examples of the post-WWI settlement (deeply flawed, but an attempt), the Locarno Pact, and the post-WWII settlement.

There are probably previous examples in earlier periods of history. Probably, a lot of them were right after especially large and nasty conflicts.

Milan January 13, 2009 at 8:45 am

Tristan,

All I meant to indicate with the comment about Marxism is that there are those who see problems like war or environmental degradation as somehow ‘too small’ to be solved on their own; they can only be solved by dealing with something at a higher level. Some of the most ‘spiritual’ environmentalists tend to believe something similar, about getting re-incorporated into nature and so forth.

Milan January 13, 2009 at 8:50 am

Kerrie,

What actually got me thinking about this was the Buffy Sainte-Marie song “Universal Soldier.”

It struck me as a flawed account for a couple of reasons. Among them, the assertion that soldiers generally believe that fighting in whatever conflict they are in will “put an end to war,” and that non-soldier citizens can somehow achieve that end by changing their thinking about those in the armed forces.

Tristan January 13, 2009 at 9:25 am

“there are those who see problems like war or environmental degradation as somehow ‘too small’ to be solved on their own”

is a considerably different and smaller claim than

“Overlapping with both camps are some groups (such as Marxists) who feel that changing some underlying aspect of society will address most or all of the problems of war and environmental destruction more or less automatically.”

Mostly due to the notion of “automatic” in the 2nd. I’d argue that it’s exactly this idea of communism being “automatically” the solution to many problems which, ungrounded in anything Marx actually said, makes Marx appear to be some kind of utopian.

Milan January 13, 2009 at 10:11 am

This is, in any event, a minor side-argument.

All I wanted to flag was the fact that there are groups of people who don’t see issues like war and the environment as suitable to being addressed directly. Rather, they think some higher order change is necessary first.

Milan January 13, 2009 at 10:39 am

I find it hard to believe that someone like you who views smoking and homophobia as the most vile, barbaric habits can believe that an end to war is “implausible” and that those that advocate for it are antiquated and naive.

I also think that seeing an end to homophobia and smoking is implausible.

What we can do is work to constrain the situations in which such things occur, as well as the degree of harm they cause.

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