by Nick Rabb
When considering the climate crisis and its numerous intersections with other movements for justice, one that is often overlooked is the role of militarism. At first glance, it may seem that the two are worlds away, but a deeper analysis reveals that the climate crisis cannot be solved without addressing militarism. In fact, it may not have even occurred without militarism. For activists and organizers in the U.S., the role of militarism is particularly important to incorporate into any analysis of the climate crisis. The United States is a deeply violent society, but in a way that is so ingrained into the normative culture that even progressive organizers cannot see its connections to the issues they work on. By analyzing surface, structural, and ideological connections between climate and militarism, the crisis takes on a new complexity, revealing that the two have always been more intertwined than previously imagined.
To frame this analysis, it is important to acknowledge that this comes from the perspective of U.S. militarism specifically. This is not to say that militarism does not exist elsewhere, or that international analyses are unwarranted. The international analysis is simply outside of my area of expertise, and I believe that the U.S. picture is crucial to understand for anyone who, like myself, is organizing inside the heart of empire.
On the surface, there are a handful of issues that are gaining prominence in climate discourse. In terms of raw emissions, the Pentagon is the largest institutional greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter on the planet. It produces 59M metric tons of GHGs annually, which is more than 170 countries. In addition to GHG emissions, U.S. military bases pollute and contaminate the areas they occupy. Domestically alone, there are over 40,000 toxic sites left by the military. At the over 800 known bases around the world, the story is no different.
Often glossed over in analyses of the impact of the climate crisis is what happens to those who are most affected by the changes. The question becomes, do we humanely legislate and organize so that displaced people can recover with dignity, or do we hoard resources and double down on inequality? Both U.S. military operations and the climate crisis contribute to mass migration. Families flee violence and poverty from regimes propped up by the U.S. government in the Middle East, and South and Latin America. Climate disasters and changing conditions lead to food insecurity and ruin livelihoods for many who are tied to the land. To answer the motivating question, instead of accepting its role in creating disasters, the U.S. militarizes its border and demonizes migrants. When people rise up in protest of these horrors, they are repressed by militarized police and anti-protest legislation. While law enforcement programs like the 1033 Program arm municipal police with military weapons, there have also been over 180 bills introduced across the U.S. since 2016 designed to suppress protests. This entire system is fueled by an over $750B “defense” budget, while just 11% of that budget could power almost every of the 128M households in the U.S. with wind and solar energy.
These are simply the most visible connections. There is much more that lies beneath the surface. These examples are part of a historical structure that systematically employs violence in order to achieve the goals of the wealthy and powerful. This systemic violence takes many forms: physical, ideological, and economic, in the form of imperialism, propaganda, and inequality, respectively. These systems of violence have contributed to the climate crisis just as much as emissions and pollution have, as they have enshrined and normalized the extractive society that brought about the crisis.
The U.S. is a settler colonial state, and could never have been created without mass violence towards Indigenous people and African slaves. Settler colonialism, the most violent form of colonialism, relies not simply on designating land and people as a new “colony” of a larger state, but also on the subsequent dispossession of the indigenous population to make room for new settlers. U.S. imperialism has since spread all over the world, as the military has been used in overt or covert campaigns to bend foreign nations to the will of corporate powers looking to expand their markets. All of this is continually sold and resold to the population through a propaganda system that demonizes the “other” in order to manufacture people’s consent for wars, extraction, and negligence. It aids fossil fuel companies in their attempts to cover up climate science, and corrupt politicians in their anti-Socialist fear mongering against plans like the Green New Deal. Structural economic inequality fuels the military recruitment machine, as it historically preys on the financially vulnerable to enlist with hopes of social advancement. As climate justice movements call for a Jobs Guarantee and a Just Transition, such humane programs would likely deal too much of a blow to the recruitment machine to be allowed by an imperial state. All the while, the military-industrial complex makes off with billions of dollars of profits for contractors — entirely funded by public money — who in turn spend millions lobbying the political establishment to continue funding an enormous military budget.
Each of these structures leads to the surface issues: emissions, pollution, environmental injustice, migration, a bloated military budget. These deep structural forces show us that simply “greening the military” is not an option to address the climate crisis. A military powered by renewables would still enjoy a fully functional imperial mission, fear-based propaganda arm justifying it all, and a vast pool of financially vulnerable people to prey on. A “green military” would invariably still lead to pollution, ecological destruction, political instability, and draw funds away from a sustainable economy. Addressing the systemic level means abolition of the inherently violent systems that fuel the issues we see manifest day-to-day.
If the connections between climate justice and militarism were not yet palpable enough, deeper still lie connections in the culture and ideologies that pervade the U.S. and serve to justify the violent structures leading to the destruction of people and planet. At first glance, it may seem academic and too theoretical to analyze such abstract connections. Yet, many of us who are doing the work have realized that identifying and untangling internalized, oppressive ideologies has concrete value in our ability to organize effectively and situate issues like the climate crisis — often dominated by white, upper-class environmentalists — in their truly complex intersections. Beyond simply paying lip-service to these ideological connections, naming them plainly must drive us to show up for other movements for change if we are to truly achieve climate justice.
There should be no doubt that the ideological connections are likely too numerous for a short article, but identifying a few of the most deeply ingrained can be a useful first step. Racism and white supremacy have always been used to justify corporate expansion and violence. As long as there is some “other” to fear, there is a justification for the oppressive systems listed above. White supremacy culture reinforces these fears by protecting those who already hold power, afraid of losing influence. Violence itself, and the capacity to dominate, are deeply rooted in patriarchy. The emotional numbing required to indoctrinate oneself into patriarchal culture is the same that is required to commit violence to people and planet. Eco-feminists show that the masculine, technological domination of “mother Earth” is a patriarchal framing that enables predation of the planet. Finally, capitalist ideology pervades every corner of militarism and climate issues, as both rely on a mentality of scarcity that justifies violent extraction from people and the planet. Capitalism alienates us from our work, our community, and our natural environment so we can exploit ourselves, each other, and the planet for more profit. Militarism has always been at the service of capitalism; the two are fundamentally symbiotic in nature.
Pervasive ideologies are what makes the structures so hard to push back against. They are the myths that continually justify and rejustify systems of violence and extraction. But seeing them for what they are allows us to recognize the intersections between climate, militarism, and so many other fights for justice. Their replacement with ideologies centering cooperation, democracy, sustainability, and honoring people and planet, thus becomes crucial to the climate fight.
This complex view of climate and militarism may instinctively seem like overdoing it. Why not focus on tangible issues like transportation or renewables? The truth is that the issues are complex, and simplifying them does a disservice to our understanding and our organizing. It should come as no surprise that those organizing against the climate crisis who have been historically oppressed interweave militarism and complexity into their climate analyses. Plans like the Red Deal and the Red, Black and Green New Deal do not shy away from structural and ideological connections because they know that a climate solution only including renewable energy or infrastructure would leave intact systems of domination that lead to the rest of the issues feeding the climate crisis.
Embracing the complex view of the climate crisis leads us to see that it is a symptom of broken systems, and that the systems must change or be abolished. It brings the climate movement into purposeful alignment with other anti-militarist struggles like Defund the Police, campaigns against U.S. imperialism abroad, liberation movements in colonized areas, and much more. It shows that our vision cannot be realized without addressing these other struggles. Without this analysis, and similar others, the climate justice movement is bound to fall short of realizing its goal of bringing about a just and sustainable planet.