War: The Ultimate Environmental Disaster

it is indeed possible to point out the faults of someone that you support, or to criticize an agency for not living up to its promise or potential. In fact, it is not only possible but also imperative that we do so.”
– Michael Brune

The question of whether the Sierra Club should take a stand against the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was asked and answered in 2002, before the invasion of Iraq. That’s when a handful of Club members in Utah, known as the Glen Canyon Four, publicly declared their opposition to the Bush Administration’s war-mongering and in doing so identified themselves as Club leaders.
Patrick Diehl, the Glen Canyon Group’s Vice Chair, presciently declared, “The present administration has declared its intention to achieve total military dominance of the world. We believe that such ambitions will produce a state of perpetual war, undoing whatever protection of the environment that conservation groups may have so far achieved.”
A few weeks earlier, in November 2002, the Sierra Club Board of Directors had issued a resolution expressing concern for “the dire environmental consequences of war” and admonishing the U.S. and other nations to “recognize that their continued dependence on oil and other fossil fuels is, itself, a significant de-stabilizing influence in international affairs.” Notably, the resolution also said that the Sierra Club “supports disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.”
For its public opposition to the imminent war, the Glen Canyon Group was threatened with dissolution for “breach of leadership trust.” Diehl himself was removed from the Group’s ExCom by the Sierra Club Board of Directors. Similar flare-ups occurred elsewhere, but the Club has offered no further comment on Iraq or Afghanistan (or more recently, Libya) in the near-decade since that resolution.
The Sierra Club landed on the wrong side of history by supporting the invasion, but still, nine years and now three on-going wars later, that resolution stands as the Club’s only policy statement on America’s wars.
The May-June 2011 issue of Sierra magazine, however, appears to open the door to that issue once again, without doubt unintentionally and in a most disturbing way. The cover story, entitled “Wilderness Diplomacy,” is a bizarre photo-essay in which Afghan citizens pose with coffee-table books open to various photographs of America’s national parks. In one picture, a group of men stand before a wood pile with a photo of the Grand Teton range. In another, a woman in a berka displays Arches National Park.
Setting aside the question of whether the article is little more than a lengthy ad for the photographer’s book, you have to wonder, “What were they thinking?”—the editors of Sierra, I mean.
According to the text by Sierra’s Acting Deputy Editor, Steve Hawk, the image of Grand Teton “whispers to the [Afghan] woodworker that the American soldiers patrolling his streets come from a country that abounds in natural beauty.”
Say what?! … whispers? … to the woodworker!?
The men in the photo are more likely selling firewood than crafting furniture.
And would those be the same American soldiers who probably just dismounted from rumbling Humvees, wearing K-pots and Kevlar vests, carrying M-16 combat assault rifles, and staring out from behind Oakley shades?
The naiveté of this story is breathtaking. I’ve had occasion to know many veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. They’d find this piece laughable at best. But more troubling is the article’s tone deafness. Intended or not, these images of Afghan citizens posing as human bookstands for a display of America’s “natural beauty” betray a patronizing attitude toward Afghans and a pronounced sense of American exceptionalism. It’s almost impossible to avoid the inference that this is how the Sierra Club finally does see our wars. The implied message is that spreading the gospel of America’s wonders is one reason we’ve come to Afghanistan—and also, one may assume, to Iraq. That no one thought better of publishing this piece simply reinforces the ways in which such thinking is part of the deep structure of an unstated policy. We do have a policy after all, though it may not be what anyone intended.
War is both a human and an ecological disaster.
For perspective, consider just a few facts.
As the largest consumer of oil on the planet, the U.S. military has a carbon footprint unmatched in any industry or even by most countries. In fact, if it were a country, the military would rank 36th in oil consumption. A 2008 estimate put its annual carbon output at 75 million tons of CO2, none of which includes usage by our exhaustive network of contractors. Humvees average four miles per gallon, while Apache helicopters get just one mile per gallon. The U.S. Air Force burns 2.6 billion barrels of jet fuel annually. At the outset of the Iraq War, the “coalition of the willing” burned about the same amount of fuel as all of India did for the same period. According to one estimate, the Iraq War has added 155 million tons of CO2 or the equivalent to the atmosphere.
All of which makes my little efforts at composting, recycling, and pushing a push mower seem trivial, even pathetic. Offsetting this is useless. Stopping it is not.
David Brower, the Sierra Club’s first Executive Director, as well as a World War II veteran who served with the storied 10th Mountain Division, understood the connection between war and the environment.
“If we greens don’t broaden our thinking to tackle war,” he said, “we may save some wilderness, but lose the world.”
With a new Executive Director and several newly-elected Board members, the Club should review its non-policy on these wars. America’s wars are quite simply the elephant in the room. We may not be talking about them, but their imprint is everywhere, both at home and abroad. As a democratic and grassroots organization, it’s up to members to make it known to Club leadership that this issue matters. According to a Bloomberg poll, two-thirds of Americans want the U.S. out of Afghanistan now. The Sierra Club should be leading on this issue rather than playing catch-up.

Bob Sommer serves as the Kanza Group Chair and the Kansas Chapter Political Chair.

By Bob Sommer

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