Tanks to Trains
Why we need a Green New Deal for Defense Conversion
A common strain throughout mainstream US climate policy is the implicit idea that we can essentially just swap out fossil fuels for renewable energy (often loosely defined) and otherwise keep most things mostly the same. There might be rhetorical nods to, or even crumbs of ostensible investments in, justice but the underlying systems of racialized, gendered, and economic exploitation that drive our climate and ecological crises are not in question. Nowhere is this tendency more glaring than when it comes to the US military-industrial complex (MIC).
The MIC as a concept was famously popularized by President Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell address in which he warned of the undemocratic threat of the expanding power of the increasingly intertwined US defense industry and military. But he had just used his eight years in power to preside over said expansion, and even in this speech reinforced the underlying assumptions of the necessity of the MIC and US empire. At that time, the US military budget was $464 billion in 2021 dollars. In a landslide bipartisan vote last Wednesday, the US Senate quietly approved $768 billion in defense spending, which is around 40% of global military expenditures and more than the next 11 countries combined. As historian Michael Brenes details in his excellent book on the political economy of the MIC, For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy, the MIC is politically durable in large part because of how it functions as industrial policy and what Brenes calls the “warfare state” (as opposed to a welfare state), providing substantial jobs to workers and of course immense profit to capitalists. At the end of the Cold War there was talk of a “peace dividend” that did not go very far, and then the War on Terror provided an ideological justification for renewed MIC expansion.
As a reflection of the MIC’s power, countries are not obligated to include their military greenhouse gas emissions in their Paris Agreement targets. This is despite the fact that the US MIC produces more emissions than 171 countries and the US Department of Defense is the “the single largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the world.” But the environmental harms of the MIC go far beyond even its significant contribution to the climate crisis, and not just in combat but in testing, training, manufacturing, and everything else that goes into the existence and maintenance of a modern standing military. At this moment, Hawaiians are dealing with contamination of their water supply from a Navy facility. As of 2014, around 75% of Superfund sites, areas contaminated with hazardous substances and designated by the EPA for cleanup, were connected to the MIC. Hundreds of US military installations are contaminated with PFAS, a class of toxic “forever chemicals” that never naturally break down. And those are just some domestic examples. The international environmental devastation includes birth defects from depleted uranium in Iraq, a variety of horrible human health and environmental impacts to this day from Agent Orange in Southeast Asia, and all the immeasurable death and destruction dealt out to human and nonhuman life around the world from the MIC’s weapons.
As maybe the most intransigent part of both the ecological crisis and ruling class power, taking on the MIC is a tall order to say the least. But it is a vital task for the US left, particularly now as sabre-rattling for a new cold war with China escalates—the MIC requires perceived threats and enemies in order to manufacture consent for its business. I think that reducing the size and power of the MIC, stopping our climate and ecological crises, and building the new systems of a better world requires connecting them together in both movements and policy—a Green New Deal for Defense Conversion.
Defense conversion is repurposing military industry and infrastructure for civilian use and control. Attempts at defense conversion have never gained much traction in the US over the years, which Brenes suggests may have had something to do with a lack of concrete vision and a lack of worker buy-in—basically a mirror image of how attempts at starting a just transition from the fossil fuel industry have gone—in part because workers depend on the material security those jobs provide. Researcher Bue Rübner Hansen termed this “batshit work” because “a crazy contradiction arises when making a living is also a part of unmaking life on many scales: becoming sick from pollutants, destroying local environments, destabilizing the global climate.”
A Green New Deal for Defense Conversion could create a just transition for all the batshit work intertwined with the MIC. Defense contractors could be nationalized and stripped of everything but their useful non-weapons assets, with their workers guaranteed unionized, high-paying green jobs using their skills on socially beneficial tasks. In addition to its massive budget that could be defunded and redirected, the US military has valuable research and logistical capacities and infrastructure that are already sometimes used for non-military functions and could be converted to civilian control and the public good. Soldiers could become civilian public employees in the Civilian Climate Corps doing the work of restoration, remediation, and building green infrastructure. Nuclear weapons could be dismantled and used to create energy in existing nuclear power plants.
Defense conversion would obviously help free the rest of the world, too. The US could close its over 750 international bases in 80 countries and stop acting as the capitalist world police, and US companies could stop providing the weapons used for genocide. A Green New Deal for Defense Conversion could provide reparations for imperial and ecological damage in the form of money, technology, and infrastructure. As part of the larger movement for a global, transformative Green New Deal, it could help forge international solidarity and connect working class people across the geographies of harm and exploitation that the MIC produces around the world, creating constituencies to fight for a better world where no one’s immediate freedom and security depends on destroying people and the planet and no one is on the receiving end of death and destruction just because someone else profits from it.
In discussing the idea of a Green New Deal for Defense Conversion, I use “defense” in reference to the MIC because that is the common and official terminology, but it is worth thinking about the assumptions and ideological weight behind this. Who exactly is the defense industry and the Department of Defense defending, and how and why are they doing it? This status quo notion of defense based on militarization and competition provides what philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò refers to as “antagonistic security,” which is necessarily violent and unequal. He contrasts this with “collaborative security,” which is based around the common good with “policies that benefit the collective and can also reduce the kind of pressures and anti-social sentiments that inspire harm and violence in the first place.” Global cooperation that fosters collaborative security and is the only viable and moral solution to our climate and ecological crises.
Anything resembling a modern military, especially the preposterous US military, cannot be made just or sustainable to any meaningful degree and is necessarily an active cause of environmental degradation and injustice. How could a cluster bomb ever be green? Why would a society built around care and repair have fighter jets? And physical resources are zero sum—every ounce of material extracted from the Earth and turned into weapons is one that is not going towards sustainable and socially useful goods and infrastructure—so the more resources used in harmful or unnecessary things, the harder it is to transition to a society that is no longer burning fossil fuels or causing a biodiversity crisis.
Dismantling the military-industrial complex is just as important as dismantling the fossil fuel industry. Let us beat tanks into trains, for our collective security and well-being depends on it.