By Tom H. Hastings, Guest Columnist
“Another such victory and I will be undone.” ~ Greek king and general Pyrrhus after a string of “victories” over the Romans that decimated the Greek forces
With “victories” like Pyrrhus experienced in 280 and 279 BCE, his message was, essentially, who needs losses?
And with regards to our environment, with protectors of our country like the military, who needs invaders?
There are laws, you know. To protect the environment.
There didn’t used to be.
You own a coal mine? Dump the overburden anywhere.
You make cars? All the chemicals in paints, solvents–let ’em go down the drain and into the river.
You own a pesticide factory? Same thing. It’s your factory, not the business of the damned government to interfere in your business.
Then came the studies connecting cancers, birth defects, sterility, and more to industrial effluents. Then came Rachel Carson and Silent Spring. The public realized it was time to forbid certain practices. No more black water in coal country. No more unbreathable air around chemical factories. No more dumping into unlined waste ponds dug on private corporation land.
Corporations fought back and lost when the 1969-70 National Environmental Policy Act was passed, then the Clean Air Act of 1970, and then the 1972 Clean Water Act, the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Still, the truth is, the little people — homeowners, landowners, tiny companies, small farmers — have always been the ones to be disproportionately enforced while major companies have found workarounds and continued much of their nefarious contamination.
Along the way, there have been two major sectors of polluters that have much more successfully circumvented most or all environmental laws.
Petroleum and war industries. The oil and gas corporations have used the same argument that the military and its attending suppliers have used: national security.
Can’t regulate the supply of oil to serve and save the country. Can’t restrict the operations of our national defense.
And so, even though many such operations have gone through the motions of filing Environmental Assessments or even Environmental Impact Statements, they are rarely stopped from doing whatever they want. We see Cancer Alley in Louisiana, a stretch of petroleum and chemical plants, often selling to the Pentagon, with highly elevated rates of many sorts of cancer. We have military bases themselves that are concentrated sources of effluents and other ghastly pollutants with terrible effects on military families and increasingly on the communities around them as the pollution migrates, especially via aquifers or atmosphere.
Peterson AFB and 189 other U.S. Air Force bases, for example, have been contaminated with perfluorinated chemicals that cause testicular cancer in men with zero family history of it, other cancers including formerly rare types, cause drastically underweight births and exceedingly high rates of miscarriage.
Housing for military families is a special and widespread pollution problem, with entire tracts built on waste dumps, leaky underground fuel tanks, radioactive waste dumps and other ticking health time bombs.
Many military bases are making sincere efforts to remediate past environmental bad practices but their budgets for such work are scant compared to the budgets that tend to produce more pollution, more contamination, and use more carbon-based and nuclear energy, causing more climate chaos.
Indeed, the U.S. military is the single largest consumer of fossil fuel on Earth. Imagine if we could manage national defense with a far smaller pollution footprint.
The range of assaults on our land, air and waters — and human health — by the military and the contractors who supply them, is quite remarkable, with damage from radiation, volatile organic chemicals, PCBs, PFAs, open burn munitions, paint and thinners and other chemicals, airborne lead (yes, who knew?),
It is entirely possible. The military funded research that replaced old tech with cheap computer chips — they did that in the 1960s, not only underwriting that research but purchasing so many of the chips that the price was reduced from a whopping $50 per chip to approximately 25 cents.
What if battery and solar roofing tech were underwritten until it became cost effective for all new buildings and most re-roofing jobs to turn our structures into energy producing, power-independent homes and businesses? Not only would we clean up the environment, we could stop fighting for oil around the Middle East and elsewhere, completely eliminating oil imports and thus closing most or all of the foreign U.S. military bases — currently some 800 of them in many of the hottest conflict zones in the world.
These are the sorts of positive feedback loops — change helping to accelerate even more change — that can give us hope.
It’s the opposite direction from the current administration, but this too shall pass, if we make sure our democracy is run by well informed voters next time out.
Let’s get prepped for some real victories, the kinds of wins that can count for the health of our coming generations. It will take all of us.
Dr. Tom H. Hastings, Ed. D., is the director of the Oregon Peace Institute’s PeaceVoice program, as assistant professor in the Portland State University’s Conflict Resolution Department, and author of the book, A New Era of Nonviolence.