Can the armed forces embrace sustainability?


Can the armed forces embrace sustainability?

John Elkington explores the role of the military in a more sustainable future


Posted 17 August 2011, by , The Guardian (Media Limited),

In the aftermath of the rioting and looting in London and other cities, a citizen’s army brandished their brooms and began the great clean-up. Hopefully, this extraordinary reflex action presages similar movements that will need to be mobilised as we start the giant clean-up to repair the damage after our environmental excesses over the past 150 years. But, just as some called for the armed forces to be mobilised to control Britain’s rioters, here again it is far from clear that citizens can do this environmental clean-up on their own. So what future role might there be for the military?

This is an area in which you have to be very careful what you ask for. Turkey, for example, is still struggling to put its military – which has often seemed to run a parallel state – back into the bottle. But the question of how we might mobilise the best elements of our intelligence and armed services has been in my mind for a while. And the thought-train was given a sharp nudge earlier in the year when I visited Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, in Washington DC. He has recently been musing on what it would take to repeat a mobilisation at least on the scale of that which brought America into WWII.

He quotes Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her book No Ordinary Time, in which she describes some of the unlikely transformations American companies went through in tooling up for war. “A spark-plug factory was among the first to switch to the production of machine guns. Soon a manufacturer of stoves was producing lifeboats. A merry-go-round factory was making gun mounts; a toy company was turning out compasses; a corset manufacturer was producing grenade belts; and a pinball machine plant began to make armour-piercing shells.”

Astonishing, that corset example! In any event, while everyone else seemed to be on holiday this past week, or being called back to deal with riots and financial meltdowns, I have been labouring away on my new book, The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier. And at times it has seemed that the appetite of companies to embrace zero targets would far outpace my speeding fingers on the keyboard.

The “zeronauts” of the title are innovators, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, investors and public policy-makers who are pushing towards zero emissions, carbon, waste, toxics, poverty, pandemics or proliferation. And a growing number of companies are embracing zero-based targets, particularly—paradoxically, given its stance on climate change—in America.

But what about the military, meanwhile? I was prompted to think even harder about the future role of the armed forces when I was recently asked by Jørgen Randers, part of the original Limits to Growth team in 1972, to write an essay for a new book he plans for 2012. My title: ‘The Limits to Military Growth.’ At times, as we seem increasingly tempted to wield our military muscle around the world, it seems as if the British armed forces are likely to shrivel away as we watch under the onslaught of budget cuts.

Only a wild optimist – or fatalist – would argue that nation states should disarm, following the example of Costa Rica. Indeed, that small Central American state can be seen as the exception that proves the rule. In addition to the ubiquity of death and taxes, we are guaranteed to need armed forces for the foreseeable future, but increasingly with the new purpose to deal with the consequences of large-scale environmental change.

For the armed services – and the defence industries – to legitimately play this new role, however, they will need to go through the same sort of transparency and sustainability revolutions that have hit a broad range of other sectors in recent decades. Think, for example, about the endemic corruption in so much of the defence world – and of the extent to which the military control the economies in countries such as Iran and China.

We must learn in the coming decades how to reboot and repurpose military operating systems. By mid-century, if we succeed, the armed forces of many countries will have specialised in helping their economies and societies adapt to natural disasters – particularly those caused by advancing climate change. This will still mean fighting wars, managing border disputes and coping with refugees, but I think we will also look back on Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Green Cross” as an idea before its time.

Here’s how it might go. Environmental regeneration, augmentation (including various forms of geo-engineering) and conservation will become a key part of military training – and be opened up for a growing proportion of young people, partly as a means of educating, training and disciplining populations. Ground forces will be tasked with protecting key elements of the biosphere from human depredations. Naval forces will be redeployed to protect the remaining wild fisheries – and the growing number of fish farming and ocean ranching operations. Air forces will be used for a range of related surveillance tasks, including future generations of smart sensor networks and drones, the latter often evolved on the principles of biomimicry. Intelligence services – including the satellite remote sensing branches – will police eco-crime and intervene where there is evidence of the new crime of “ecocide”.

You can already see evidence of another trajectory in the military, with growing numbers of zero-impact goals being announced in relation to carbon, waste toxics and even fossil fuels. Consider the US Army’s Net Zero Initiative. Those driving this trend in the US are dubbed Green Hawks.

By mid-century, however, we will also have seen a deeply unwelcome explosion of interest in environmental weapons. These started with cloud-seeding attempts, soon expanding to attempts to make incisions in the ozone layer. As a result of bitter experience, new treaties will be drawn up to regulate the development and use of such weapons. The history of conflict shows that every form of technology can be press-ganged into uniform – and many will. But a key part of our challenge in the coming decade will be to press-gang the military into the sustainability business.

John Elkington is executive chairman of Volans, co-founder of SustainAbility, blogs at, tweets at @volansjohn and is a member of the Guardian’s Sustainable Business Advisory Panel

This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. Become a GSB member to get more stories like this direct to your inbox


(Ed note: Please visit the original site for more content associated with this article.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: