From red peril to green panic

America’s military industrial complex once chased communists. Now it obsesses over CO2 emissions.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

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For some years, America’s armed forces, intelligence apparatus and police have listened into and infiltrated environmentalist groups (1). In 1997, in fact, FBI director Robert Mueller, who is still in post today, declared that environmental and animal rights agitators perpetrating criminal acts were among the agency’s ‘highest priorities’ in terms of dealing with domestic terrorism. Those priorities explain why, for instance, police in Nebraska collaborated, just last month, with TransCanada, the firm responsible for the proposed Canada-through-to the-Gulf-Coast Keystone XL pipeline. The joint mission? Profiling activist critics held likely to engage in the destruction of property and ‘monkeywrenching’ – throwing a spanner in TransCanada’s works.

So there’s long been lots of spying on Greens in America. Moreover, top leaders and experts in security matters have also long warned, in print, about the possibility of social unrest over environmental issues; and they have also long insisted on the need to control such unrest. Yet there’s a paradox here. Though the American state targets Greens, its geopolitical and strategic visions of the future reveal a conceptual framework that is deeply green. When the Pentagon and its allies draw up a forecast, what dominates the authors’ imagination are two old green bogeymen – disasters caused by climate change, and wars over scarce natural resources.

The nightmares are legion. Published in May 2010, President Barack Obama’s National Security Strategy contains no fewer than 23 references to climate change, and identifies it, along with pandemic disease and transnational crime, as a major threat to the global order. Or take the US National Intelligence Council’s December 2012 prospectus, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. Two of its four ‘megatrends’ for the next 17 years are about the world’s increasing population, its growing urbanisation, and the strains this will put on supplies of food, of water and of energy. Notably, the forecast suggests that, in a kind of feedback effect, climate change itself will ‘worsen the outlook’ for the availability of these three resources.

Of course, as in the past, such Mosaic roadmaps of the future do envisage wellsprings of upheaval that are economic, social, religious and patriotic, not just environmental. But in their growing obsession with environmentally based upsets to come, the US militarists have drawn closer than ever to Green thinking. The US state may wish to paralyse what the depleted remnants of the international left are pleased to term New Social Movements – ineffectual, anti-leadership outbursts that flaunt a modish antipathy to capitalism, globalisation, environmental damage and industrial sectors which can be termed Big. Equally, however, the US state shares the very same apocalyptic and Malthusian premises from which those ‘movements’ begin.

A one-eyed view of war in the twenty-first century

American securocrats have a naturalistic take on the world of the next few decades. For them the forces of nation or class, which motivated intelligence assessments throughout the twentieth century, are now jostled with by climate change and resource shortages. The spooks fear that, at home and abroad, global warming will increase the incidence and intensity of droughts, floods, hurricanes and perhaps, after 24 people died in minutes in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, of tornados as well. In this scenario, civil breakdown and unprecedented mass migration tomorrow justify the vigilance and mobilisation of armed force today – both outside and inside the US.

In May 2007, the US Congress commissioned a National Security Assessment of Climate Change. Nor was Congress unique in seeking counsel here: in the same month, an influential group of advisers to the German government submitted a 248-page report to it on Climate Change as a Security Risk. At the peak of the panic years of the noughties, such alarmist accounts of the likely impact of climate change were, perhaps, to be expected. Yet while anxiety about climate change in mainstream government and among the public has since ebbed away around the world, paranoia about climate in military circles has continued unabated.

In decades gone by, the US military shared some of the US environmentalism’s worries about America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and its worries, too, about the vulnerability to terrorist attack of nationwide American energy grids (2). By 2009, too, it was already clear that the West would manipulate the issue of climate change to try to control the pace and direction of growth in the East (3). Yet now things have moved on again. Impressionism about climate’s effect on weather in the US seems to have combined with impressionism about the East’s demand for oil, minerals and other commodities to produce a new wave of panic at the Department of Defense.

In meditating relatively less on nuclear conflagration and more about an overheated planet that runs out of the basics, the US military, always charged with guarding against risk, has picked up all the sensibilities of environmentalism. Under a Democratic Party president, it could hardly be otherwise. Nevertheless, the armed wing of the state in the US still betrays a tremendously one-eyed view of war in the twenty-first century. Could wars of the future have anything to do, perhaps, with America’s willingness to meddle, on humanitarian grounds of course, in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, the better to legitimise its domestic rule and insulate it from dissent? Might wars of the future also have something to do with the increasing arbitrariness in international relations nowadays, given that the resolute, unambiguous, goal-driven search for raw materials, markets and cheap labour no longer informs aggressive foreign policy postures in quite the way it did a century ago? About these causes of wars, we hear nothing from America’s far-sighted security prophets.

Their willingness to look the other way and instead focus on squabbles originating from the fate of the Earth’s ecosystems is all the more remarkable, given that environmental stresses are, if anything, not on the rise at the rates they were. After all, though the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has passed 400 parts per million (ppm), and world energy-related emissions of CO2 increased 1.4 per cent to a record high in 2012, there is good news: moving out of coal-fired power and into gas-fired electricity generation has helped cut US emissions, while the emissions increase in China, though a large amount, was one of the lowest in 10 years. Similarly, the pressure on resources has abated somewhat. Earlier this month, the US Energy Information Administration published bullish estimates of non-US reserves of shale oil and shale gas, suggesting that, respectively, they had added an extra 10 and 48 per cent to technically recoverable reserves of conventional fossil fuels. And, for a year or more, US politicians have barely been able to contain themselves about the unlikely prospect of America enjoying complete independence from external suppliers of oil and gas.

All of this is of little moment to the martial authorities in the US. One might observe that, just as turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, securocrats have no interest in playing down the military implications of environmental problems – any more than the CIA had an interest, just before the end of the Cold War, in predicting the fall of the Berlin Wall (4). But it would be more telling to observe that 10th-grade economics, in which a world of finitude is simply consumed by a growing and ever more greedy population, infects the US authorities as much as it does the world’s Greens.

Conclusion: agreeing with the Greens they crack down on

In all the rumpus about America’s National Security Agency (NSA), whingeing over invasions of individual privacy has tended to eclipse debate on the US state’s surveillance of larger, political organisations. In Britain, certainly, the willingness of the US tax authorities to harass members of the Tea Party, for example, has taken second place to the revelations of the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. But there can be no doubt that, as part of a wider culture of fear in Western society, the American state conducts plenty of electronic eavesdropping and human intelligence work on all kinds of radicals: not just on rather anarchist protesters like Occupy Wall Street, but also on green campaigners of every stripe.

Why, though, does the US state bother to do this covert and sometimes overt repression of its environmentalist critics? No doubt it exaggerates both the current and the putative influence of the more militant, ‘direct action’ end of American environmentalism just as much as it exaggerates the danger of Islamic terrorism on American soil. Yet if the peaceful language and street tactics of most of American’s environmentally-minded folk hardly inspires fear, that isn’t quite to the point. For the US state, as for very many environmentalists, narratives of the future forever revolve around a turbulent hell of shocking weather events and dog-eat-dog scraps over food, water, minerals and fossil fuels – and preparations must immediately be made for every possible consequence of that hell (5).

The only remaining question is why the US state represses environmentalists when it agrees so much with their ecological starting point. But that is just the issue: having lost a real opponent in the old Soviet Union, the US state now thrashes around trying to find new ones in Chechen losers (the Boston bombers), and also in environmentalists with whom it actually has a lot in common.

Bogged down in and trying to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s military could use some traction. From belligerent Bashir Assad in Damascus to limp opponents of fracking in the US, anyone can be drafted in to provide that traction. What lies before us with US spooks is not omniscience based on mass surveillance, but arbitrariness based on losing the plot and lacking a clear objective.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester, and editor of Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation.

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Topics Science & Tech


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