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The UC: America's Most Ecocidal "Green" University, Part II
[Continued from Part I, published on Sunday, April 5.]
Why is industrial capitalism inherently destructive of the earth? Many volumes have been written on the subject. In this space, we intend only to sketch the briefest outline of such an argument.
As with all imperialist systems, capitalist economies are based on material growth. This growth takes place with increasing rapidity over time. Thus, the capitalist system inevitably and inexorably depletes the earth’s so-called “natural resources.” Furthermore, through the scientific and technological revolution’s contributions to capitalist economic imperatives, depleted “natural resources” are often abandoned for newly identified “resources” as new productive processes and emergent technologies allow for the exploitation of what before was seen as raw, useless objects of nature. Thus, capitalism reaps without replacing in an unsustainable drive, and then dynamically moves on to harvest new, previously “useless” elements of the earth. In fact, in the very act of defining the world as a field of “resources” to be exploited, capitalism allows those in power, in their quest for ever-increasing levels of energy production, to cut down entire forests for fuel (early European deforestation), strip mine and deplete coal deposits (early industrial fuel), to tap and soon exhaust petroleum deposits (our current primary form of energy), and so on. In the process, they create ever-greater wastelands. This is the cause, more or less, of the current ecological crisis of planetary proportions we now collectively must face.
Since 1970, the year often cited as the birth of the modern environmental movement, more than 40 percent of the world’s remaining forests have been cut, at an average annual rate of depletion larger than England and Wales combined. Between 1970 and 2003, populations of “terrestrial species” declined by 31 percent. According to the moderate World Wildlife Fund, human societies are now consuming as many “natural resources” every three months as the earth generates in a full year. There are now more than 70,000 industrial chemicals in use, with around 1,500 new ones appearing annually and 30,000 never having been comprehensively tested for their possible health risks. Virtually every river and waterway on earth has been polluted with a toxic stew of chemical contaminants. All of this is in spite of the many important victories achieved by environmental activists since the late-‘60s. The social ecologist Murray Bookchin noted:
"To speak of 'limits to growth' under a capitalistic market economy is as meaningless as to speak of limits of warfare under a warrior society. The moral pieties, that are voiced today by many well-meaning environmentalists, are as naive as the moral pieties of multinationals are manipulative. Capitalism can no more be 'persuaded' to limit growth than a human being can be 'persuaded' to stop breathing."
Moreover, capitalist production passes on environmental costs to all of society, and is unable to consider its impact upon ecosystems and the biosphere at large. Economist James O’Connor explains that the ecological crisis is one of the two major contradictions of reproduction created by capitalism. The first is a crisis of labor: by so exploiting workers capitalism undermines its ideological and political legitimacy, leading to periodic repudiations of capitalism as a system. Workers revolt, organize, and push toward more socialistic systems. Thus far, the capitalist political-economy has been able to recuperate a semblance of balance and a workable regime of domination. Workers in the global north have largely been placated and co-opted while those in the global south have been brutally repressed. But capitalism also produces a second contradiction: It succeeds so well in transforming the earth into “resources” and exploiting them that it undermines the very ecological system that makes human society possible. Capitalism irrevocably (at least in terms of human historical timeframes) destroys nature.
Murray Bookchin concurs, and further explains that capitalism’s systematic thrust is toward a rationalization and simplification of the ecology. Simplification entails a rapid and irreversible destruction of the biodiversity and ecological multiplicity that complex life is based upon. The rapid species extinction that has proceeded concurrent with capitalism’s mass reorganization and expansion of industrial monocrop agriculture and rapacious resource extraction, the extreme climactic shifts taking place because of human-induced global warming, the vast deforestation and habitat destruction brought on by urban expansion and sprawl -- this and more is killing off the vast and incredibly interdependent webs of diverse life upon which we as human beings are reliant. The plutonium bomb is only the distilled version of this process writ large. The industrial mammoth it takes to mine uranium, mill it, refine it into plutonium and other elements, the parallel industrial chemicals and materials necessary for building a nuclear warhead, the industrial infrastructure for missile production, the military plant necessary to deploy the weapons, the barren “sacrifice zones” where tests have occurred -- all of this amounts to an immeasurable ecological scar and has contributed to multiple and interlocking ecological crises our society faces. The UC bears a large measure of responsibility for all of them.
Capitalism’s apologists often treat its expansion as essentially an inexorable force of nature. Because it is inherently a superior system, they say, any free people, when presented with an unconstrained choice between it and a more traditional communal lifestyle will embrace free market economics and its attendant industrial processes. In reality, capitalist expansion has always been, and will invariably continue to be, secured via military conquest; that is, by the means of violence and repression for which research universities are increasingly responsible for developing at the inception and research stages. In recent years, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has helpfully offered this analogy: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonalds cannot flourish without [military-industrial firm] McDonnell-Douglass.” More fundamentally, because industrial capitalism is expansionary by definition, it must uproot and destroy the human communities that stand in the way of the “resources” its seeks to extract, pervert, consume, and dispose of. As this system has grown to encompass virtually the entire globe, its instruments of violent enforcement and coercion likewise have become more total: hence, nuclear weapons.
Being that it is based entirely on what economists refer to as “production,” industrialization has been directly aligned with these very same processes of expansion and extraction. Derrick Jensen describes production as defined by the dominant culture as the process of “converting the living into the dead.” One form that this process takes is the production of consumer goods; the mass manufacturing of disposable trinkets, cell phones, plastic water bottles, a billion automobiles, McMansions, pavement, strip malls, a billion iPods, luxury items of all sorts. All of these things entail transforming organic matter or intervening in cycles of material transformation to produce immense quantities of consumables which will be bought, used, and thrown out. These products which took so much energy to make each represent a moment of death because they have been removed from a cycle that previously produced complex and interdependent webs of life. They have been turned into disposable objects that often come with huge quantities of toxic byproducts. Production, in this sense, robs the earth of its natural cycles of death, rebirth, and renewal by converting that process to death – and that alone. Industrialization, despite the best efforts of well-intended proponents of “greening” such as Paul Hawken and Ray Anderson, is this process on a massive scale.
Another form of this process is encompassed by production for military conquest. The military exists in a constant state of mobilization and preparation for warfare, a process that increasingly involves experimentation with toxic pollutants, dumping of hazardous wastes, and militarization of previously thriving ecosystems. The US military is responsible for over one-third of the US’ toxic waste, more than that generated by the top five pollution corporations housed in the US combined. The pollutants it has introduced into the total environment – with consequences that remain relatively unknown and unpredictable -- have included pesticides and defoliants like Agent Orange, solvents, petroleum, perchlorate (a component of rocket fuel), lead, mercury, and of course depleted uranium. Within the U.S., one out of every ten Americans lives within ten miles of a military site that has been listed as a Superfund priority cleanup site.
It is here that we come to another particularly important point: Most humans targeted by military production’s “Universal Soldier” -- pollution -- are working class and impoverished people of color and, even more disproportionately, indigenous people. Thus, the military’s environmental wreckage is out of sight, out of mind for the most privileged of our planet, such as the vast majority of mainstream US environmental activists, especially students and graduates of elite universities. The important insights of environmental justice scholars and activists such as Robert Bullard or Monique Harden have hardly penetrated the most powerful foundations and NGOs that organize around “environmental issues.”
Meanwhile, the military is carrying out the biggest single environmental assault on the earth of our present era: in Iraq. The land, animals, and people on the receiving end of this now-five-year-old US occupation (the war began in 1991, of course) are littered with the rubble of decimated industrial plants and factories that have polluted ground water. As Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank have written on the Counterpunch web site,
“The damage to sewage-treatment plants, with reports that raw sewage formed massive pools of muck in the streets of Baghdad immediately after the Bush administration's “Shock and Awe” campaign, is also likely poisoning rivers as well as human life. Of the world's seven marine turtles, five are found in the Sea of Oman and four of those five are listed as "endangered," with the other listed as "threatened.” The Global Environment Fund contends that this region "plays a significant role in sustaining the life cycle of marine turtle populations in the whole North-Western Indo Pacific region." According to Friends of the Earth, the fallout from burning oil debris, like that of the first Gulf War, has created a toxic sea surface in the habitat of these turtles and elsewhere.”
The primary source of environmental degradation in Iraq, however, is of course depleted uranium -- a bi-product of the same radioactive processes that have created the vast “national sacrifice areas” and “clans of one-breasted women” in the United States, Russia, and elsewhere.
The “greening” of a system that relentlessly produces increasing ecological destruction is a Trojan Horse. Rather than offering us a way out of the car that is careening toward a cliff’s edge, it converts that car to biodiesel. The cliff remains, the car barrels forward as fast as ever. Simply put, the concept of “greening” lacks exactly that which activists working for ecological balance and restoration of the earth are most desperately wanting for: a comprehensive systemic analysis and a corresponding political practice.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that both the military and the nuclear weapons complex have their own versions of “greening.” The military recently installed the largest solar generating station in the US, at the Nellis Air Force Based in Nevada, directly adjacent to the Nevada Test Site. According to an Environmental News Network article heralding the project, “The energy generated will support over 12,000 military [personnel] and civilians at Nellis who are responsible for Air Force advanced combat training, tactics development and operational testing.” In the Fall of 2004 the DoD issued a modification to its service’s procurement policies urging the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and civilian staff to purchase “green” materials whenever possible, especially office materials such as paper or fuels like biodiesel. Just as “sustainability” has become a huge buzzword on campuses and in the general public, so too has the US Army adopted the term. One reporter for the Army News Service writes, “The new [Army] strategy is based on an organizing concept known as sustainability, which requires that the Army move beyond traditional environmental compliance to balance mission requirements, community needs, and natural resource protection.” Global conquest via “green” technology does not a healthy planet make.
In the case of the nuclear weapons complex, its work on “greening” is embodied in research at LANL’s High Explosive Science and Technology division. The division’s My Hang V. Huynh, a chemist, was awarded the Department of Energy’s 2006 Ernest O. Lawrence Award (it is fitting that the award is named for the UC’s most prized scientific icon) for “pioneering the groundbreaking discovery of Green Primary Explosives.” These explosives replace mercury and lead primary explosives with what are called “high-nitrogen transition metal complexes,” thereby making bomb detonations less environmentally polluting!
In accepting the award, Huynh declared, “In my scientific work at [the Laboratory], I have always tried to focus on relevant issues of great consequence to human safety and environmental problems. I am pleased that my work at the High Explosive Science and Technology group has allowed me to have an impact on national security science as well as a potential positive impact on the world’s environment.”
Hunyh’s statement is a perfect illustration of the kind of thinking that enables weapons scientists to build parts for holocaustal weapons without probing the larger destructive processes they are participating in and contributing to. Her desire to contribute to the betterment of our collective lot is admirable, yet her thinking is utterly shameful in its tacit acceptance of the inevitability of the existing order of human relations. But to what degree can Hunyh’s logic really be differentiated from that of “greening” industrial capitalism? There is a substantive difference, of course, but not a fundamental one. Hunyh’s work focuses on “greening” bombs, which destroy communities, villages, people, mothers, fathers, children, levees, canals, roadways, forests, vegetation, food crops, and so on. Much of the mainstream environmental movement, on the other hand, focuses on “greening” industrial capitalism, which destroys our planetary ecosystem while immiserating the overwhelming majority of the world’s people. Is it too far a stretch to compare all of this to Lawrence Livermore scientists’ dream in the 1950s-‘70s of the “clean” atomic weapon, or of the neutron bomb device that would kill the human beings but leave the factories, homes and streets intact?
Far from now being a “green” campus, the University of California is actively engaged in ecocide. Taking into account its management of the nation’s two nuclear weapons labs, the UC can only meaningfully be ranked as the least sustainable university. Moreover, the same set of social relations which brought about the university’s superior work in developing weapons of mass annihilation – positive science subsumed by big business and federal government agencies, particularly those of the military – likewise produces ecological degradation in a multiplicity of forms, perpetually and inexorably.
To acknowledge as much implies responsibility for more than just minor “lifestyle” adjustments, small changes in individual behavior, or lobbying of campus administrators to institute better recycling or more eco-friendly purchasing programs. UC students, faculty, staff, and alumni with an interest in protecting and preserving the earth are uniquely situated with the political agency to halt environmental destruction wrought by the nuclear weapons industry, by nascent military-industrial technologies under development at UC campuses, by the development of a wide range of other technoscience being churned out as a matter of course, year in and year out, on each of the university’s campuses. To do so embodies a larger strategy for challenging the systems of authoritarian power that are simultaneously causing and violently enforcing the destruction of our precious planetary ecosystem.
Yet, at this late date, UC campus environmental organizations continue to pursue campus “greening” as primary political strategies. Large mainstream environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club laud them for doing so. Most of these UC environmental groups also explicitly emphasize collaboration with the UC Regents and UC administrators as their chief political strategies. The Regents cannot merely be persuaded to give up their ties to the weapons labs or other campus-based facilities devoted to environmentally destructive initiatives, however, so the mainstream campus environmental groups direct none of their energy to these core university functions.
The enormous challenges of our times demand of us that we see the dynamics that have led us to this point as clearly and coherently as possible, rather than within the kind of mental straitjacket that confines unwitting apologists for planetary destruction such as most advocates of “greening.” The system of social relations in which the UC nuclear weapons labs are embedded is set up perfectly to disconnect those with most power to stop the atrocities we have described in this article from their moral responsibility to do so. Congress typically funds the weapons labs’ programs without fully understanding them; rather, they typically leave such understandings to weapons lab technocrats. The weapons lab administrators are employed by the UC; yet, most Regents play their role of “benevolent absentee landlord” with aplomb. For their part, even the most socially conscious of nuclear weapons scientists exist in a world of paranoid secrecy and rigid compartmentalization. They often do not know specifically how their tiny fragment of the larger megamachine will be applied. Even when they do, they almost invariably insist that it is not up to them to determine the ends to which their work is put, but rather someone on a different part of the irresponsibility treadmill.
We can extrapolate from this contorted policy-making process and apply its lessons to virtually any other case of large-scale environmental degradation you could name.
The word responsibility comes from the Latin root “to give in return.” It is a definition disproportionately few human beings raised in an advanced capitalist society cognitively grasp, much less have internalized. To whom are we each responsible? To whom do we give the things that produce life in return? In a strictly material sense, no less a spiritual one, the planet earth has given us our lives (hence, Mother Earth). To be truly responsible means doing what is necessary to protect and preserve the planet, regardless of how physically difficult or emotionally convulsive such a process often may be.
By virtue of a remarkable turn of fate, UC students, faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni have been made incidental accomplices to some of industrial capitalism’s most ecocidal structures: the nuclear fuel chain and that set of interlocking profit-driven institutions which begot it, the military-industrial complex, being chief among them. We need no longer be accomplices. In the truest sense of the word, we need no longer be irresponsible. Our social position and context demand of us that we truly end the UC’s decisive support for the process of planetary annihilation it has done so much to promote and sustain.