War in the Gulf: An Environmental Perspective

Editor's Note: in 1991, as the Persian Gulf War was entering its second week, the Political Ecology Group issued an Action Paper analyzing the war from an environmental perspective. While the article focused on the effects of the war on humans, news reports at the time were beginning to show also the massive loss of marine wildlife resulting from oil released into the Gulf by military action. As U.S. energy policy has not fundamentally changed for decades, much of this article reads as current news. An abridgement of the Action Paper is presented here not just as history, but also as a warning of the likely consequences of a new war in Iraq, under consideration by the current Bush Administration. The references in the article to President Bush are, of course, to the father of the current President. Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense and later an energy corporation executive, is now Vice President, promoting an energy policy similar to the policy described below. Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is now Secretary of State, promoting a "post-post-Cold-War" strategy to replace the elder President Bush's post-Cold-War "New World Order."

The war in the Persian Gulf marks a critical juncture for the environmental movement. We can either remain silent while a massive social and environmental tragedy unfolds, or we can question the premises and consequences of that "way of life" for which more than 400,000 young Americans have been sent overseas to kill and die. We can either define ourselves as a single-issue movement or we can recognize that environmental questions in the Gulf and here at home are intertwined with those of peace, social justice, and human survival.

At stake are issues that reach beyond the ruthless acts of Saddam Hussein, the massive deployment of US troops to the region, and the terrible impacts of war. Much of the world's future may be shaped by this conflict. By defining the US role in the "New World Order" as one of global police force, President Bush is charting a course for America and the rest of the world. This course is based on US military intervention to control access to oil and other natural resources in the Third World. In doing so, Bush is simultaneously declaring war on the peace dividend and on domestic social and environmental policy alternatives.

The Gulf War is the culmination of more than a decade of government energy policies that have consistently undermined efforts to promote efficiency and renewable alternatives to oil. The war is being used to give a powerful new boost to efforts to exploit oil and other natural resources in native lands and ecologically fragile wilderness areas. It is also being used to breathe new life into poisonous corporate energy "alternatives" like nuclear power. The war is something that US environmentalists cannot afford to ignore.

The U.S. is at war to control the flow of oil into the world's smog-producing automobiles and smoke-belching, toxic-waste-producing factories. With 5% of the world's population, the United States consumes 25% of the world's oil.


sea birds coated with oil during 1991 Gulf War

Oil soaked birds at the Jubail Wildlife Rescue Project during the 1991 Gulf War

(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)


War and the Environment: Recent History

Environmental warfare—the destruction of terrain, crops or entire ecosystems--has been a military tactic since biblical times. As technology has become more sophisticated the ecological consequences of warfare have become increasingly severe—whether they be the result of the strategic destruction of the environment or simply the consequences of battle. While in the heat of the moment, environmental concerns in the Persian Gulf may seem trivial, they must have also appeared that way to the policy-makers supervising US nuclear weapons production at Hanford Reservation and Rocky Flats, or to generals deciding to defoliate Vietnam. But the historical record clearly points to the grave ecological consequences of military build-up and warfare. To destroy a country in order to "save" it is to achieve a Pyrrhic victory. The clearest contemporary example of the environmental impacts of warfare is the case of Vietnam, where experts coined the term "ecocide" to describe the devastation.

In Vietnam, the US government employed a scorched-earth policy that deliberately destroyed the environment, in order to deny the Vietnamese guerillas cover, and to separate them from the local population. As a result, between one-fourth and one-half of the land of Vietnam suffered defoliation at some point during the war. During the 1960s and 1970s, vast areas of tropical forests, mangroves and agricultural lands fell victim to chemical weapons such as napalm, white phosphorus and herbicides--most notably Agent Orange. Planes dropped 13 million tons of bombs that pockmarked the land with 25 million craters, displacing 3 billion cubic meters of soil, and leading to disease and water shortages. Two million Vietnamese died in the war; hundreds of thousands more are suffering from cancer and other diseases, while thousands of children—Vietnamese and American—have been born with birth defects caused by these chemicals.

Vietnam's environment remains devastated from the war; according to a report issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, "much of the damage can probably never be repaired." This tragic saga of environmental destruction has been repeated frequently in recent years in the US scorched-earth bombing in El Salvador, the Contras' targeting of environmental projects in Nicaragua, the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Chemical and Biological Warfare

Before the US began bombing its facilities, Iraq reportedly had the industrial capacity to produce as many as 700 tons of chemical warfare agents annually and has produced significant quantities in recent years. The government has reportedly stockpiled thousands of tons of mustard gas. The Iraqis also have hundreds of tons of the nerve gasses tabun and sarin. Iraq is also suspected of possessing the chemical agent phosgene, which was responsible for 80% of the gas casualties during World War I. Some 125,000 tons of chemical weapons were used, killing 94,000 people and causing long-term suffering for close to a million more. Nerve gasses were first confirmed to have been used in combat during the Iran-Iraq war. While non-persistent in the environment, they are six to twelve times as lethal as mustard gas, and kill almost instantly. Even more frightening, Iraq is suspected to have significant quantities of biological weapons such as anthrax, which can make an area uninhabitable for up to forty years.

The United States, which still possesses the second largest chemical weapons stockpile in the world, reserves the right to retaliated in kind if attacked by chemical weapons. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has refused to rule out the use of any weapon, stating that the U.S. is prepared to use "the full spectrum" of weapons.

War on the US Environment

Even without war, the energy policies of the last fifty years have left a legacy of wrecked oil tankers, smog-choked skies, leaking radioactive storage barrels, and acid- rain-killed lakes and trees. The human toll from this destructive path has been massive, ranging from fishermen losing their livelihoods from oil spills in Alaska to increased birth defect rates in central Pennsylvania after Three Mile Island. In the US, 150 million people live in areas with air that the EPA deems unfit to breathe.

Major corporations and the Bush administration have been scrambling to find ways to counteract a growing citizen's movement to protect public health and the environment. The National Energy Strategy contains a whole set of polices specially crafted to cut the public out of the review process for energy projects. The Gulf crisis serves as a convenient tool to defuse growing opposition to domestic environmental destruction.

Under the heading "Energy Security," the National Energy Strategy calls for opposing all Congressional moratoria on offshore drilling and promotes exploration for oil in Alaska, both on the coastal plain of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and throughout the Northern Slope. ANWR's coastal plain represents the last 100 miles of the Arctic coastline not yet open to exploration.

Ironically, although national security is used as an excuse for these actions, little is likely to be gained in real energy security. There is only a 6% chance of finding an oil field in the ANWR coastal plain large enough to provide the US with even 200 days of its oil consumption.

Shaking the Oil Addiction

Our demand for energy is not fate, but choice. The US has barely tapped the potential for improving efficiency. A glimpse of that potential: since the first oil crisis in 1973, California improved its energy efficiency 30% more than the rest of the nation. Several major automobile manufacturers have developed prototypes that get from 60 to over 100 miles per gallon, but so far the companies have refused to build them. Once efficiency has reduced the quantity of oil we need, renewable sources of energy can eventually replace the rest. One million buildings in the US already use solar energy to provide heat, cooling and light. A 350-megawatt solar power plant in California is now providing electricity at a price competitive with subsidized nuclear power. Wind generators equivalent in total to two nuclear plants are providing electricity at 5-8 cents per kilowatt-hour, and the best wind sites have yet to be tapped.

The technology is available; the issue is one of political will. The Department of Energy and the corporations can choose to continue to promote expensive, wasteful and polluting ways of heating and lighting our buildings, of getting us to work, and of producing goods. Or they can choose to develop cheaper, more efficient and environmentally safer ways. The US government can continue to base our national security doctrine on controlling oil resources in the Middle East, sending our sons and daughters off to kill and be killed for oil, or it can choose real security by relying on sources of energy that don't depend on controlling other countries' resources.



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