The Ethical Labyrinth of Sustainable War

Military eco-chic or hollow gesture? Photo credit:

Earlier this week, Zak Stone of GOOD Magazine posted an article about a successful research initiative conducted at the Australian National University, the conceit of which was the integration of solar panels into the standard kit of the Australian infantryman. In the past few decades, the soldier’s repertoire of tools has become increasingly dependent upon electronic devices, such as GPS, night vision goggles, and notebook computers—each of which consumes a considerable amount of electricity. Although significant gains in efficiency have been made to the batteries fueling these gadgets, the desire remained for a more practical and sustainable solution. GOOD Magazine appropriately categorized this story as relevant to both environmental and technological causes, but it is perhaps worth considering the deeper ethical implications of such a development.

All wars, regardless of their time and place, share a number of tragic qualities: foremost, quite naturally, is the catastrophic loss of human life. Although a bit of a truism, war is counterproductive to the sustainability of our very species, much less the surroundings in which we live. Resources which might otherwise be allocated for means of fruitful production are appropriated for the purpose of destruction, to both society and the environment. The results of such devastation are occasionally  quite obvious, as is the case with a “scorched earth” policy, a tactic used as early as Ancient Greece and as recently as the 2011 Libyan Civil War. In other cases, the environmental cost of war can prove more abstract and difficult to visualize, as is the case with carbon and particulate emissions.

In 2007, an American soldier deployed in either Iraq or Afghanistan consumed an average of 16 gallons of oil per day. That amounts to approximately 3.5 million gallons per day for all operations, or 5.3 olympic-sized swimming pools. But what are the consequences of such levels of consumption? Oil Change International estimates that the war is responsible for emitting 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere between 2003 and 2007. For perspective, that’s more CO2 than 139 of the world’s countries produce annually, as of 2009.

As for the aforementioned reallocation of resources, the easiest quantitative measure may be the raw investment of capital. The $600 billion that congress has appropriated to fund operations in Iraq could have built over 9000 wind farms at 50 MW capacity each—sufficient to meet 25% of domestic electrical demand. Perhaps even more sobering, in 2006, the United States spent more on the war in Iraq than the whole world spent on investment in renewable energy. These figures, of course, do not include allocations from the annual defense budget, estimated to be up to $1.4 trillion for fiscal year 2012.

It would be naive to suggest that these ineffably large sums of money fail to provide any benefit to humanity in their current form, but one wonders if a greater portion of such resources could be allocated to research and development in technology that could also benefit the civilian population. Lest we forget, it was the United States Army Corps of Engineers who accelerated efforts to master nuclear fission, leading to a method of power generation that produces 1/45th the CO2 of coal.

Ultimately, my survey of this issue has led to more questions than answers.

Are military conflicts and exorbitant defense budgets inevitable? If so, should we utilize the logistical and intellectual infrastructure of the DoD in creating sustainable solutions?

One response to “The Ethical Labyrinth of Sustainable War

  1. The relationship between the military and the field of sustainability is a fascinating one. As you mentioned in your article, billions of dollars and huge quantities of valuable resources are poured into the military on such a grand scale, it’s hard to comprehend. Your mentioning of what Iraq war funding could have paid for in domestic renewable energy development only continues to muddle this tricky relationship between the military and sustainability. On the other hand, the military is frequently at the forefront of energy efficiency. As was mentioned in class, the “Green Hornet”, a jet that runs primarily on algae, shows that the military has made significant strides in alternative and renewable energy research and development. In addition, military bases are some of the strongest leaders when it comes to LEED building construction. So it’s hard to say what kind of balance is struck between the two fields. Obviously, the military is a giant consumer of resources, but without the military, would we have made the same kind of technological advances that may be crucial to our future?

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