America is a land of opportunity. But when it comes to climate change and national security, it has been a land of lost chances (see Part 1).
The nation’s top scientists have warned presidents at least as far back as Lyndon Johnson that climate change is an issue that should not be ignored. We have known at least since the 1970s that we lack energy security and, by extension, economic security.
Past presidents have spoken eloquently on the need for energy independence and climate action. They apparently were “firing for affect” because we remain more insecure than ever. In fact, we live in a fundamentally indefensible society, deep in denial with little control over our own vital energy supplies, laced with fragile energy supply and communications lines and living in a “target rich” environment for terrorists.
To illustrate our lost chances, I dredged up a short book I wrote in 1981, aptly titled The Indefensible Society.
In those days, the clouds hanging over national security were the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Even then, a subculture of Americans given voice by alternative media such as Robert Gilman’s “In Context” magazine, envisioned a different type of national security strategy characterized by “soft energy”, small and decentralized energy systems and local self-sufficiency.
Here is an excerpt from the book published by “In Context” under the title “Rethinking National Defense”:
At present, we think of national defense and domestic development as two separate activities. National defense is regarded as the building of arms and armies, and the formation of military coalitions between nations with mutual interests. In truth, genuine national defense is intertwined with social and human needs. The decentralization of energy, food and industrial production not only returns a measure of control to people and their communities, it also makes the nation less vulnerable to disruption and attack. The development and use of renewable resources — combined with conservation — lowers household energy budgets, keeps more of the nation’s wealth from leaking away to mineral-producing nations, creates new industries and jobs, reduces pollution and eliminates most types of environmental damage. At the same time, renewables decrease our dependence on foreign governments so that we are not easily crippled by supply cutoffs or drawn into resource wars. Weaned from imported oil and minerals, we do not require a substantial military presence in far-off corners of the globe. The job of national security becomes much less complicated and expensive.
Saving money now spent on nuclear arms and overseas deployment, we can help retool American industry to produce life-supporting goods by environmentally benign processes. We can work more effectively at balancing the federal budget and paying off our $1 trillion national debt, helping to restore health to the economy. By making environmental protection and restoration a continuing priority, we can stabilize the nation’s life-support systems to avoid future sources of insecurity: among them the depletion of soils, drinkable water, forests, clean air, wildlife habitat and plants critical to the health of the ecosystem.
Passing along the lessons we have learned in domestic renewal, we can refocus our foreign policy to promote not dependence, but self-sufficiency among other nations. We thereby contribute to global stability while cultivating friendships based not on dependence but on partnership and strength. Promoting greater use of mediation and arbitration by international bodies like the United Nations, plus greater use of economic and resource (rather than military) leverage, we can retire military force as our principal instrument of foreign policy. Finding symbiosis between our needs and those of our neighbors, we can build a secure America and become a key force in the creation of a secure world.
In a world of this kind, conservation, solar technology, environmental protection, recycling, and small-scale food production become our key defense industries. The national landscape is sprinkled not with nuclear weapons systems, mammoth factories and big, vulnerable power plants, but with low-technology energy systems, a multitude of local power plants using largely renewable fuels, and small facilities producing goods close to their ultimate markets.
Moral, social and economic reasons aside, such a landscape should appeal to military tacticians. It would be nearly impossible to paralyze a country with such a diffuse, flexible fabric…
At the time I wrote this, President Reagan was proposing a defense budget of $1.5 trillion over five years, almost as much money as the nation had spent on the military since World War II. I continued:
If only half the money were allocated to the military, the other half would go a long way towards building a defensible society. The impact of such a redirection would be astonishing. Half the budget would completely fund the $750 billion in new housing, industrial and transportation investments the federal Solar Energy Research Institute estimates would be needed to fashion a “new prosperity” and a “sustainable energy future” for America over the next 20 years. The investment would create valuable, lasting jobs, retool industry for renewable resource and conservation-oriented production, and dramatically lower the nation’s energy bill ($360 billion in 1980). Such a program would do much to restore our standing in the world community, while reducing our dependence upon imported petroleum to a trickle…
It is within our means to make national policy in which every can recycled, every BTU of energy conserved, every solar collector installed or drop of water preserved moves us towards global security and healing. We can fashion policy in which those activities are supported and empowered, rather than contradicted and undermined, by the policies and resources of government. Such policy makes full use of technology, but remains people-centered rather than technology-centered. It replaces our sense of hopelessness and fatalism with a sense of individual contribution to the future. It aligns government action with personal action so that each of us, wherever we live and work, becomes a key participant in making and preserving peace. It engages rather than ignores our genius.
If we wish to find national security, that is where our search must lead us: to new understandings and social policies which empower each of us as a peacemaker and a healer; to a determined commitment by all of us to serve as soldiers in a peaceful army building a civilization worthy of our potential as human beings.
At the Presidential Climate Action Project, where we are designing a climate action agenda for President Obama or President McCain, we suggest that the real challenge before us is to build a new post-carbon economy that brings us security, opportunity and stewardship in this new Century. None of the energy solutions advocated by the soldiers of the status quo allow us to reach that future — not more drilling for oil, not oil shale, not tar sands, not liquid fuels from coal, not begging for greater oil production in the Persian Gulf. These stale ideas are carbon-rich and security-poor, ultimately of benefit to no one but the entrenched interests of the carbon economy.
Winston Churchill observed that “Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.” We’ve known for a long time what the right thing is. We have exhausted all the alternatives. The question today is whether we have the right stuff to break through denial and get to work.
— Bill B.