War, ecocide and eco-socialist transition

War’s destruction of human and non-human life destroys the social and ecological conditions we need to build a better world.
Kai Heron
Just As Well

When COVID-19 began to rip through the world's population in 2020 environmentalists were quick to make the connection between the pandemic and capitalism's destruction of the human and non-human world. The premature death of 6.17 million people from a novel respiratory disease (at the time of writing) and the ecological crisis were not just related, they were one and the same. The pandemic was a symptom of a deeper problem: capitalism was killing the planet.

In contrast, when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the crisis appeared to displace ecological questions. The war seized our collective attention completely, drawing us into speculations about the possibility of nuclear escalation on Europe’s borders, debates about who, or what, was to blame for the war, and what could be done about it.

These are essential questions, but it is nevertheless striking how little has been said about the connection between the war and ecological destruction. It might be tempting to blame this disconnect on mainstream news cycles which seem unable to report on more than one story at a time — it's the Ukrainian War or the shocking new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the Ukrainian war or simultaneous record high temperatures in the Arctic and Antarctic.

But it also seems that the Global North's anti-capitalist left has lost the ability to make important connections between anti-war movements and struggles for global climate justice. While some commentators have observed that the war is likely to delay action on global heating, not one has argued that the war — and indeed all wars — are intrinsically anti-ecological. That the struggle for peace, the struggle for climate justice, and the struggle for eco-socialism are one and the same.

It wasn't always this way

The connection between anti-war and environmental struggles used to be common sense in both liberal and anti-capitalist movements.

Towards the end of the 1960s, for instance, the anti-nuclear and environmental movements were all but indistinguishable. In her 1962 classic, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson observed that the introduction of insecticides such as DDT and chemical fertilisers were part of a broader shift in humanity's relation to non-human nature. "Along with the possibility of extinction of mankind by nuclear war", she argued, "the central problem of our age has therefore become the contamination of man's total environment with such substances of incredible potential harm." War and ecological destruction were intimately connected. Military metaphors infused Carson's writing and inspired the crosspollination of ideas between anti-war and anti-nuclear movements and a burgeoning ecological movement. "The chemical war", Carson writes, "is never won, and all life on earth is caught in its violent crossfire."

Military metaphors infused Carson's writing and inspired the crosspollination of ideas between anti-war and anti-nuclear movements and a burgeoning ecological movement. Image: Flickr.

For socialist thinkers like Raymond Williams and Barry Commoner, the connections between war and ecological destruction were similarly obvious. Williams dedicated the final chapters of his 1985 book, Towards 2000, to addressing the socialist potential of anti-war, feminist, and environmental movements. It's in these pages that he writes the first version of his famous claim that "to be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing". For Williams, anti-war, feminist, and environmental movements held the potential to do precisely this. Barry Commoner, meanwhile, described the US war on Vietnam as 'ecological warfare' and in 1992 he published a pivotal eco-socialist book with a title that, like Carson before him, analogised war and ecological destruction: Making Peace with the Earth.

Christian Parenti has argued that as the ecological crisis escalates and tensions grow between declining and emerging world powers, wars over resources will become increasingly likely. This means there is an urgent need to re-learn what Williams and Commoner among others knew well: anti-war struggles and environmental struggles are essential elements in any possible revolutionary socialist transition.

War is a way of organising nature

War is ecologically destructive in obvious ways. Over the past month reports from Ukraine have told of ecological destruction at small and large scales. Besides the extreme instance of a near catastrophic accident when fire was exchanged outside Ukraine’s largest nuclear plant on 3rd March, the war’s ecological toll includes increased emissions from military activity, toxic spillages and greenhouse gas emissions following the destruction of industrial sites and fuel storage facilities, and the contamination of water supplies and soil from heavy metals and chemicals used in bombs or destroyed military equipment. If former battlefields in France and Belgium from World War One are anything to go by, Ukraine’s ecosystems could take over 100 years to recover — and may never return to their pre-war condition.

As atrocious as these discrete instances of ecological deterioration are, they only hint at the deeper confluences of war and ecological destruction that we must confront as part of struggles for a just transition. We must go further and see that war, like all capitalist social relations, is a way of organising nature to maximise the power and profits of a few at the expense of human and non-human life.

"Capitalism is a way of ordering relations between human and non-human nature to maximise capital accumulation."

The idea that war is a way of organising nature comes from Jason Moore’s work on capitalism as a world-ecology. Capitalism, Moore argues, is inextricable from complex socio-ecological relations because it is a socio-ecological relation. It is a way of ordering relations between human and non-human nature to maximise capital accumulation through racialised, gendered, and classed differences.

Moore illustrates this point by showing how even institutions and processes that we might consider 'social' are also indelibly 'natural'. His go-to example is Wall Street. When we think about how human activity impacts nature, we tend to think about things like farming, forestry, resource extraction, fossil fuel consumption, conservation, or urbanisation. We tend not to think about the digitised exchanges of 1s and 0s, of contracts like derivatives and futures, that comprise the sinewy networks of financialized accumulation at a world scale.

Yet Moore's point is that all capitalist social relations intervene in non-human nature, reorganising it, regenerating it — or destroying it. Exchanges of 1s and 0s are ecological transactions. They underpin the rush to achieve net-zero in the UK and beyond through the enclosure of land for totally ineffective carbon offsetting schemes. They underwrite the rise and fall of investment in new fossil fuel infrastructures or green extractivist projects that carve their way through or pollute poor, racialized, and indigenous communities.

But if Wall Street is a way to organise nature, then so too is war. Sometimes the destruction of non-human nature is an intentional act of war waged on a land and its peoples. For this, the US war on Vietnam is the modern archetype. As Felicity D. Scott details in her magisterial work, Outlaw Territories, the US’ colonialist, anti-communist, assault on Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s systematically targeted the Vietnamese people's ecological conditions for survival. Many are familiar, for example, with the infamous Operation Ranch Hand, which used chemical agents including cacodylic acid, picloram and of course Agent Orange, Agent Blue, and Agent White to deny Vietnamese people food or cover.

"If Wall Street is a way to organise nature, then so too is war." Image: Suzanne Lawrence.

Less well-known examples include the 'Rome Plow' programme, in which heavily armoured tractors equipped with gigantic forest-clearing blades and ploughs cut indiscriminately through the landscape tearing up towns and forest alike. Known as 'forest eaters', these machines moved through the landscape in formation to ensure maximum efficiency and devastation in a flagrant breach of Hague regulations which forbid indiscriminate destruction of both occupied and unoccupied terrain.    

The Rome Plow programme was combined with carpet bombing campaigns and landmines to wage an all-out assault on the landscape’s capacity to sustain human and non-human life. As Scott writes, "together, the chemical burning, bulldozer scarring, bombing and craterisation rendered the earth scorched, uninhabitable, and almost moonlike."

Ecocide is not a thing of the past

For Arthur Galston, the botanist who coined the term 'ecocide' in response to the war on Vietnam, the US' war on independence struggles in the Third World — in Vietnam and beyond — was also a war on the ecological conditions for all life on earth.

Ecocide is not just a thing of the past. Israel's settler colonial occupation of Palestine, for example, has devastated the region's native life-sustaining trees and crops including oaks, carobs, hawthorns, olives, figs, and almonds. In their place, Israel has planted pine trees to make the region look more 'European'. Israel's illegal settlements, walls, fences, and military checkpoints have also destroyed, cut through, or interrupted important habitats and ecosystems. Decreases in biodiversity including insect eating amphibians has contributed to a rise in disease carrying insects such as mosquitos. The Israeli regime is, in other words, waging an ongoing ecocidal war on Palestine's human and non-human inhabitants.

Palestinian children playing by the Israeli West Bank Barrier. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Even when war does not take ecocide as its object it organises nature. In 2021 the UK spent over 2% of GDP, or £45 billion, on its military. By contrast, in the same year the UK spent just 0.01% of GDP, or £145 million, on mitigating climate change. This misdirected social wealth is made worse by the fact that the UK spends around £10 billion a year on tax breaks and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and has for decades subsidised ecologically destructive agricultural and fishing practices. Since 2015 the UK has sold £20 billion in military equipment to Saudi Arabia to fuel its war on Yemen. In the same time period the UK has sold more than £387 million in military equipment to Israel to assist its war against Palestine, including F-35 warplanes used to bombard the Gaza strip. In other words, through payments to fossil fuel companies, agribusiness, and arms trades, the UK directly finances the destruction of human and non-human nature. It is paying billions to speed up ecological collapse. War, then, is intrinsically anti-ecological. It is an act perpetuated by factions of capital and their state representatives against the most basic interests of the world's working classes and oppressed peoples: peace, self-determination, and a liveable planet.

Eco-socialist transition

We exist, to borrow from Moore again, in a web of life. A complex arrangement of socio-ecological relations that war destroys to sustain the conditions for capital accumulation at a world scale. More than this, war's massive destruction of human and non-human life, its waste of accumulated social wealth, destroys the socio-natural conditions required to build a better world for the world. So where does this leave struggles for an eco-socialist transition today? There are two lessons to be learned.

The first is the need for a shift in perspective. We must follow previous generations of eco-socialists and understand that the struggle against imperialist wars and environmental injustices everywhere are part of the struggle for an eco-socialist future. By destroying human and non-human life, by wasting accumulated socio-ecological wealth, by crushing alternative hopes and visions for the future, war robs us of the conditions required to build a world of human and non-human flourishing.

Lesson two is less comfortable. We must admit that our opportunity to win a world of human and non-human flourishing for everyone has already passed. In the first week of the war in Ukraine the IPCC published part two of its Sixth Assessment Report. Focused on impacts, adaptability, and vulnerability, the report concluded that "any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all." This week, the IPCC published the third part of its report, focused this time on mitigation. The report concluded that it is "now or never" to stop catastrophic ecological changes. Strong stuff, but even these reports are too optimistic. For many the window to secure a liveable future has already closed.

As both reports acknowledge, the effects of climate collapse are here, they are massive, and they are irreversible. Cruelly, they are felt unevenly and most forcefully by those in the Global South who bear the least responsibility for global heating. Wracked by deforestation, drought, wildfires, floods, forced displacement, and war, for many the worst is happening and has happened. In the coming decades — and it will take decades to achieve any kind of transition, eco-socialist or otherwise — this reality should be at the forefront of the minds of those of us fortunate enough to live in relative comfort. It is both too late to act and never too late. Revolutionary eco-socialist transition today is an ecological and social necessity.

Kai Heron is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He lectures and writes about environmental politics, political economy, and contemporary political theory.

Feature image: Flickr.

Kai Heron
Just As Well

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