Another inconvenient truth...
war is good, peace is bad
for the global environment

After watching the Gulf War part deux on “reality TV” which included lots of footage of various groups including environmentalist protesting war, then watching miscellaneous financial programs on CNBC and PBS, while reading a Worldwatch publication I reached a startling counter-intuitive hypothesis about war and the environment. In sound bite form my theory is, “War is good, peace is bad (for the environment)!” A more nuanced explanation is the war on terrorism (which thus far has been limited in scope) is good for the environment, because of decreased global consumption. Conversely peace and prosperity is bad for the environment, because people have an opportunity to accumulate wealth which fuels conspicuous consumption within all social-economic levels of society.

Environmentalists Against the War in San Francisco, January 2003

Like the hippie movement of the 1960's, it seems the environmental movement remains relatively homogenous, white and middle class and attracts relatively few individuals with diverse ethnic and intellectual backgrounds. In the 60's hippie's had a slogan "make peace, not war," looking at the picture above, with people holding signs with slogans against the war, one has to wonder if individuals such as these have the honestly ability to intellectual question the role of war on the environment and isn't it ironic many christian fundamentalists support war.

The antidotal evidence for this surprising war/environment conjecture is based upon the idea that terrorism causes uncertainty in markets, which decreases business and consumer confidence.

When there is uncertainty in any economic system, businesses cut back production so they are not stuck with excess inventories. If fewer goods and services are produced, fewer natural resources are needed (this basic rule applies to any size business from large multinational corporation, to the local mom and pop shop). Because the world is so interconnected conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, and other so called “Axis of Evil” countries, will cause economic uncertainty all over the world.

On a local US domestic level (lets suppose we have a citizen of a small Midwest town in the United States), if there is a threat of economic uncertainty, there is a better than 50 percent chance one would try and put more of ones earnings into savings, just in case one lost a job (this is only common sense).

When people save more and consume less, there tends to be a ripple effect in both the local and global economy. On a local level more savings would mean less consumption (for now we ignore the variable of credit, and make the assumption being people eventually have to live more or less within their means). Less local consumption means retailers like the local Wal Mart would cut back future orders from lets say sweat shops in Asia (which seem to produce “excessive kitsch consumables” rather than life’s basic necessities).

In the United States, consumer spending accounts for something like 2/3 of the economy, while military spending is something less than 1/10 of the US economy. Consumption is highly inequitable between the richest fifth of the world's population (the US and GB for example) has 82.7% of the worlds income. The poorest fifth (Afghanistan, and Iraq for example) has just 1.4%.

Addressing the issue of actual damage caused by armed conflict in New York City or in Baghdad we see the bombed out hulks of buildings (i.e. the total destruction of the WTC or the Baath Party Headquarters). To be sure there is total environmental destruction on a very local level, however the interesting trend in warfare is the goal oriented target selection. The wide spread destruction such as carpet bombing of cities, which was in vogue during world war two, has been replaced by surgical strikes against prestige headquarters of some sort (financial or political) or individual military units.

The term “Shock and Awe” used by media pundits and military officials to describe tactics on the battle field, might also apply to consumers and businesses world wide who have been shocked into cutting back on their spending. Since there are orders of magnitude more consumers and businesses than actual armed combatants, logic indicates that increased local environmental damage due to fighting is nowhere near the decreased global environmental damage due to less consumption.

So during times of limited scale war (in undeveloped countries) when large numbers of people (in developed countries) put more of their earning into savings, because of economic uncertainty, less stuff is consumed. When less consumer goods and services are produced, less natural resources are used (such as oil used to produce plastics, oil for transportation, etc.), and there is less global environmental damage (hence the environment is saved).

The corollary of the idea that terrorism is good for the environment is, during times of peace and prosperity, the environment suffers because the norm becomes excessive consumption.

Lets again consider a citizen of a small Midwest town, this time living during the period of the mid 1990’s when it is possible to made a few bucks by buying into the dot com craze. If one has some extra cash from stock investments, or some extra spending power from easy credit, a natural place to blow a wad would be the local Wal Mart (where people seem to value quantity above quality).

Paul Wachtel captured the “Wal Mart consumption mind-set,” to which I refer, in his book The Poverty of Affluence: A Psychological Portrait of the American Way of Life when he wrote: “Having more and newer things each year has become not just something we want but something we need. The idea of more, ever-increasing wealth, has become the center of our identity and our security, and we are caught up by it as the addict is by his drugs.”

During times of peace and prosperity, Wal Mart would see local demand increasing and would increase future orders from lets say sweat shops in Asia. Here more goods produced means more natural resources are needed for production and transportation.

Another thing to consider during times of peace and prosperity, is people travel more not only for business but also for pleasure (i.e. going on holiday). Instead of blowing a wad at the local Midwest Wal Mart on consumer goods, one might decided to go on a “eco tourism trip” say down to Coast Rica. When a tourist is in a foreign land they mostly likely would stay in some type of hotel, the fact is not many people hike in and crash in a tent (even so called eco tourists). In most cases, tourist usually fly to a destination (which results in the use of burning JP4 a carbon fuel, but it should also be noted that jets produce contrails which results in global dimming), and stay in some sort of hotel (which always causes some sort of environmental destruction, no matter how carefully designed), built inevitably along some sort of road, which might also be used for logging or mining. Keep in mind that in many third world countries there is little or no environmental regulation of natural resources, so when there is logging or mining there is lots of environmental damage.

One last thing to consider about the harmful effects of peace and prosperity and its harmful effects on the environment, is the increased demand for larger homes, vacation homes and larger vehicles such as SUVs. Physics indicates that larger homes consume more energy and require more materials to build. A vacation home is often times built in places where there are great majestic mountains such as Jackson Hole, Vail, etc. or near wetland areas. By building homes and communities in rural ecologically sensitive areas, people destroy parts of the vary environment they seek to escape to.

Basically during times of peace and prosperity, when people have an opportunity to make more money, more stuff is consumed. Although it might be argued the "Kuznets Curve" will be the saving grace (simplified argument: rich people, after they get rich raping the environment, will then turn around and preserve it), the fact that cannot be ignored is increasing demand for consumer goods and services increases, requires an increasing amount of natural resources (such as oil from ANWR, China Coal, wood from the Amazon, metals from mines, etc.) and the result is unimaginable amounts of environmental damage on a global scale.

If one of the unintended consequences of this war is less environmental destruction, should environmental groups like Earth First, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Worldwatch, etc. praise Bin Laden, Saddam, Kim Jong-il and let us not forget George W. Bush for increasing global economic uncertainty and really doing something measurable to decrease global consumption thus saving the environment? It will be a cold day in hell before this happens, because of the moral dilemma environmentalist might feel using “dismal science” to make a cold hard calculation of the value of the environment vs. the high human suffering costs associated with war.

Postscript

Over the past few years, I’ve had a few eMails and posts that basically disagree with my observation on war and the environment, so now that Al Gore has his movie an inconvenient truth I thought it was time to add a postscript with a few more links that further support my counter-intuitive hypothesis about war and the environment.

When I first posted this page a few years ago (2003), I was just bloging my observation that president bush, bin laden, kim the knuckle head great leader of north korea, etc., have done more to restrict damage to the environment in the short term by suppressing economic activity than groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have done thru public awareness campaigns of environmental issues over a comparable time period.

Truth be told I’ve supported many environmental groups in the past, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club and plan to do so again in the future. This is because these organizations act as counterbalances to the pure capitalistic tendencies of excessive consumption and development without regard to the environment. Having disclosed the fact that I support the mindset of the environmental movement I do so because IMHO conservation of resources makes business and environmental sense in the long run.

As for terrorism, it’s a psychological weapon which in economic terms creates uncertainty. Terrorism works because its human nature to fear that which we have no control over. Franklin D. Roosevelt may not have experienced terrorism as we know it, but he was dead on when he said “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Think about the fact that terrorist acts are carried out by just a few individuals who feel angry over some topic and exploit “weapons of mass disruption” not “weapons of mass destruction.” In the case of Al Qaeda, a small group of individuals (i.e. bin laden) having NO ability to exercise positive control over living conditions in that part of the world use suicide bombers to show themselves and their followers that they have great power. In the case of North Korea, the “great leader” is using the threat of nuclear weapons to try and extract concessions from the US.

Plain and simple the person or group doing the terrorism is just like a rapist IMHO because they get off by trying exercise control of some other party. Put another way its just a dumb power game, where individual players use violence to try and reinforced the idea in their own minds that they are all powerful. Its only human nature to be scared of individuals seeking to harm others, but I’d hope people also think about problems and put things in context.

In the case of Al Qaeda, N. Korea or the conflict in Israel, the number of people killed over the past 30 years by terrorist acts numbers in the thousands.

BUT IF YA LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE there have been millions of people killed prematurely in the USA because of smoking (about 400,000 each year), being over weight (estimates are 200,000+ killed each year), auto accidents (injure millions and kill around 40,000 a year according the Federal Highway Administration), etc., etc., etc. I’d say the numbers speak for themselves, we are doing a much better job of killing ourselves than terrorists are.

In keeping with the big picture theme, I think environmentalists should acknowledge the idea that consumption and economic prosperity is the greatest danger facing the environment and like it or not in many cases conflict on a limited scale which produces economic uncertainty can indeed be good for the global environment.

For anecdotal examples why limited conflict is good for the environment consider the DMV between north and south Korea, which is a thriving environment filled with wildlife. Another example where conflict was good for the environment is Nicaragua where the Sandinista Revolution took place. When I was down in that area a few years ago bumming around, I talked to a field biologist and he mentioned that because war there was less de-forestation during the period of conflict. I also learned in the war torn country side during the ’80s the land began to revert back to a natural state (at the time I didn’t give that conversation much thought and only much later connected the dots and realized the big picture).

To graphically illustrate my hypothesis about war and the environment, lets consider constructing two graphs which could be over laid upon one another. The first graph would be TIME vs GDP and a second graph would be TIME vs BIODIVERSITY. The basic statistical model (over short periods, not geologic timescales) would be increasing GDP is related to decreasing BIODIVERSITY (and vice versa).

A few side notes: I know there is no simple BIODIVERSITY equation, since a BIODIVERSITY measurement depends on sampling technique, which is especially true of the lower levels of life forms, and arises because the number of species found depends on the area sampled, but also about the proportional number of species (called heterogeneity diversity). I am also using "biodiversity" as a generic term to describe the current state of the global ecosystem.

environmental economics: increasing GDP results in decreasing BIODIVERSITY (and vice versa)

Looking at historical data of the USA, a graph over time would show a steady growth in GDP starting low when the USA was a colony of GB, to a high GDP today when the USA is the worlds only superpower (both in terms of its military and economy). Over the same period the measure of BIODIVERSITY in the USA would show a steady decline. To illustrate where limited conflict is beneficial for the environment, I'll bet that solid data (if it existed) from Nicaragua would show that when the revolution took place, GDP of the country declined and BIODIVERSITY increased.

Many devout environmentalist would not consider using economic analysis to study the interaction of war and the environment because it directly contradicts bleeding heart liberal sensibilities where no value can or should be placed on human suffering. I also doubt environment groups will widely acknowledge that economic prosperity has very very high environment costs, because its a message most people don't want to think about and its a easier to market a warm and fuzzy image of a whale or a panda. Suppose environmental groups did an in your face marketing champaign to tell the masses who shop at malls, drive suvs, eat fast foods, etc., that in effect they were short sighted idiots. If such a marketing champaign were done, it would be close to impossible to get those people interested in environmental issues.

The dismissal of a valid academic field of study, in this case economics and how it relates to the environment, would be akin to president bush ignoring scientific advice on the environment because it does did not agree with his politics or preordained views. Albert Einstein’s quote(s) of “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by the age of 18” and “Science without religion is lame, religion with out science is blind,” sort of explains why people cherry pick methods of analysis when faced with an issue like the environment, war, politics, religion, etc. Its not human nature to step back and look at the big picture without having some kind of emotional bias.

Environmental economics is just one more tool that is useful in understanding the big picture and seeing how things relate to one another. IMHO understand a problem is the first step necessary to develop lasting solutions to problems that effect people and the environment.

Because GLOBAL WARMING is a subject in the public zeitgeist and since it seems like things are getting worse and worse, the prudent thing to do would be to have economic incentives that create technologies that can be marketed by individuals, corporations and governments to mitigate our collective carbon footprint and uncouple the historical inverse relationship of the GDP and BIODIVERSITY curves.

To share your own comments about environmental damage from human activities, use the graffiti wall.