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Greenwashing the Pentagon

Joseph Nevins

As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, just one of many manifestations of perilous ecological degradation across the planet, the need to challenge war and militarism—especially in terms of the United States—becomes ever-more pressing. The U.S. military is the world’s single biggest consumer of fossil fuels, and the single entity most responsible for destabilizing the Earth’s climate.

The costs of U.S. militarism and war are high and many. In addition to the growing civilian and military death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, total monies appropriated by Congress for the two wars surpassed the one-trillion-dollar mark on May 30th. Among other would-be purchases, such an enormous sum could provide 294,734,961 people with health care for one year, according to the Northampton, Massachusetts-based national Priorities Project.(1) Instead, the monies are dedicated to death and destruction—all in the name of “national security”—greatly enriching military contractors in the process.

The costs that one rarely hears about—at least here in the United States—are the associated environmental damages that regularly and systematically occur. Indeed, it is far more common to learn of the Pentagon’s efforts to “go green.”

In March, the Center for American Progress, for instance, reported on the Pentagon building’s “big green renovation.” When completed in 2011, “the Pentagon’s 25,000 military and civilian personnel will not only work in one of the biggest office buildings in the world,” the article gushed, “but one of the most energy efficient and environmentally sustainable.”(2)

Beyond the Pentagon building itself, the U.S. military is “stepping forward to combat climate change,” asserts the subtitle of a 2010 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.(3) Meanwhile, President Obama recently extolled the military’s endeavors to reduce its fuel consumption via biofuel-using technologies, specifically the Navy’s FA/18 fighter jet, nicknamed the Green Hornet due to its putative eco credentials, and the Marine Corp’s Light Armored Vehicle.(4)

Such “greenwashing” helps to mask the fact that the Pentagon devours about 330,000 barrels of oil per day (a barrel has 42 gallons), more than the vast majority of the world’s countries. If the U.S. military were a nation-state, it would be ranked number 37 in terms of oil consumption—ahead of the likes of the Philippines, Portugal, and Nigeria—according to the CIA Factbook.

And although much of the military’s technology has become far more fuel-efficient over the last few decades, the amount of oil consumed per soldier per day in war-time has increased by 175 percent since Vietnam, given the Pentagon’s increasing use and number of motorized vehicles. A 2010 study by Deloitte, the financial services company, reports that the Pentagon uses 22 gallons of oil per soldier per day deployed in its wars, a figure that is expected to grow 1.5 percent annually though 2017.(5)

The worst offender is the Air Force, which consumes 2.5 billion gallons of aviation fuel a year, and accounts for more than half of the Pentagon’s energy use. Under normal flight conditions, a F-16 fighter jet burns up to 2,000 gallons of fuel per flight hour. The resulting detrimental impact on the Earth’s climate system is much greater per mile traveled than motorized ground transport due to the height at which planes fly combined with the mixture of gases and particles they emit.(6)

Among the ironies of all this, given that a central goal of U.S. military strategy is to ensure the smooth flow of oil to the United States, is that the Pentagon’s voracious appetite for energy helps to justify its very existence and seemingly never-ending growth.

In a direct sense, war and militarism produce landscapes and ecosystems of violence—and violated bodies. In Laos, unexploded ordnance from Washington’s illegal and covert bombing litters the countryside, and has killed and maimed thousands since the war’s end, and continues to do so at the rate of almost one person per day. In Vietnam, about 500,000 Vietnamese children have been born since the mid-1970s with birth defects believed to be related to the defoliant Agent Orange that the Pentagon dumped on the country. And in war-torn Fallujah, the aftermath of two U.S. sieges of the Iraqi city in 2004 has seen a huge rise in the number of chronic deformities among infants and a spike in early-age cancer.(7)

Beyond locations directly targeted by war, the ill effects of military consumption of environmental resources do not respect territorial boundaries. They exacerbate a growing environmental crisis on a global scale. From the degradation of the world’s oceans, to a steep decline in biodiversity and intensifying climate destabilization, war and militarism threaten humanity and life more broadly in unprecedented ways.

Such ecological “costs” are certainly not limited to the activities of the U.S. military. But given its engagement in multiple wars, a network of hundreds of military bases around the world and dozens more in the United States, and a budget now roughly the equivalent of all of the rest of the world’s militaries combined, the Pentagon must be the central focus of efforts to protect the biosphere by challenging war and militarism. More than ever, humanity—and Mother Earth—can no long afford them.


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