How Green Grows My War Economy

“America is addicted to oil.” It’s been more than five years since George W. Bush made this bizarre declaration. For a president who opposed virtually every piece of legislation to curb the use of fossil fuels, it was, shall we say, ironic. And even more so in light of the Iraq War, which may or may not have been about oil, but which certainly consumed huge amounts of it. In 2006, when Bush made this argument that the nation’s dependence on oil posed a threat to its security, the Pentagon consumed 320,000 barrels of oil a day, making this one department of the US government a bigger guzzler of oil than all but 35 countries in the world. Here was a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

With the war in Afghanistan and the upkeep of America’s vast military apparatus around the world, the Pentagon continues to be the government’s biggest consumer of oil. In addition to contributing to the nation’s long-term security threat, this situation poses a more immediate danger. Oil, the lifeblood of modern war, has become a target on the battlefield. Nowhere is this more evident than along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where dozens of US convoys carrying fuel have been exploded by insurgents. These attacks are just the latest examples of a vicious circle in which oil begets war and war begets oil.

If asked to offer a solution to this seemingly intractable problem, a Martian looking down on planet Earth might recommend a drastic reduction in the nation’s military ventures, thus tackling the oil problem by tackling the war problem. But the self-identified guardians of US national security would surely label such advice dangerous and naïve. Instead, the Pentagon has offered its own solution to the problem, one that will allow it to keep its wars but lose its oil. Last week, The New York Times and others reported that the military is, to use the proverbial phrase of our day, going green. This transformation will involve changes across the spectrum, from powering assault vessels and aircraft with algae and other biofuels to using solar panels and efficient light bulbs on military bases.

The coverage of this announcement has been overwhelmingly positive. The story in The New York Times quoted military spokespeople and officials who outlined all the strategic and economic advantages of the initiative. Writing for Slate, Fred Kaplan suggested that this development “could lower the entire nation’s energy costs.” And Jon Stewart had a bit in which he suggested that this was a progressive initiative, which conservatives would oppose, if they were actually consistent with their principles.

These responses aren’t surprising. Greening, we all know, is good pr for any organization. Then, there is the more specific association of innovation in the military with innovation and economic uplift for America writ large. When we get excited about greening the military, we think of how military initiatives such as the interstate highway system, NASA, and early computers, ultimately benefitted the country and the economy as a whole.

Before we pop the recycled cork and let the organic champagne flow, let’s take a moment to consider the problems with this position. First, there is no assurance that the promise of a significantly greener military will actually be realized. This isn’t the first time the Defense Department announced a green initiative. As with most organizations that promise to become green, the results of these past initiatives have been much more modest than their advertisements. Second, as The New York Times reports, “Because the military has moved into renewable energy so rapidly, much of the technology currently being used is commercially available or has been adapted for the battlefield from readily available civilian models.” So far, at least, the military is not really innovating green technology so much as consuming it.

Many progressives, including myself, would support the government using its buying power to invest in green energy. It’s unfortunate that such initiatives only gain broad support in the context of war spending. America, it seems, is addicted not just to oil or even to war, but also, to the war economy. This is an addiction that we could break, if only we stopped using war to solve all of our problems.