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War and Peace

The history of our civilization is littered with wars, bloodshed and genocide. Brutality is deeply ingrained within our culture. So too is intolerance, repression, persecution and violence. We fight each other at the slightest provocation in the name of religion, race, rights, freedom, democracy... You name it.

We deliberately glorify war (at the same time using clever arguments to deny this) by continuing to commit vast resources from the state to enable warfare in all its various guises. And we celebrate armed confrontation in the endless telling of myths about crusades and heroes and battles and liberation. Why, we have even come to accept that our elected representatives will devote massive amounts of their time and our money creating the conditions whereby going to war can be justified. Except, of course, that there never can be adequate justification if that means sacrificing life, hope and morality.

Some claim this is a natural phenomenon. An ingrained human trait. They argue we are genetically programmed to fight to protect what is ours, whether that be land, property, or simply a belief system. Human beings, after all, are only partly rational. Why else would we continue to allow religious dogma and superstition to kindle fear and oppression to the extent that it hinders and retards human development?

Others, realizing the destructive nature and ultimate futility of conflict question the intelligence as well as the folly of such behaviour. Their argument is that dialogue, sensitively conducted in a spirit of reciprocity and with the intention of finding common ground, is far more likely to result in sustainable peace and social advancement. Yet the habit of taking up arms is one we cannot seem to kick.

Today though, there is an added imperative to take into account. Feuding comes at an enormous cost - in terms of lives and culture and capital. Increasingly the cost of conflict is one we can least afford; unless, that is, we choose the path of what used to be called MAD - or mutually assured destruction.

This time, however, communism is not the enemy. Nor is the threat of nuclear Armageddon. The enemy is us or, more precisely, it is our apathy and our indifference to scientists' warnings concerning climate change and global warming. Ironically, there exists in this contemporary call to arms a clarity of purpose that is universal: balanced against the trillions of dollars wasted on warfare is now the pressing need to save our planet from environmental destruction and subsequent civilizational collapse.

At a time when urgent action is required by all nations working together, the continued squandering of billions of dollars on the machinery of warfare is unspeakably shameful and just plain daft. The questions thrown up by the continued recklessness of most military undertakings go to the very core of who we are as human beings.

Take the situation in Iraq for example. At one level, the Iraqi invasion by the US in the Spring of 2003 was merely the end game in an extravagant drama of political interference that started as far back as 1968, when the CIA played a role in the coup that ultimately brought Saddam Hussein's wing of the Baath Party to power. This was also the peak year of the Vietnam war. Since that time the amount nations spend on warfare has escalated spectacularly.

In 2006 global military expenditure was estimated to have reached $1204 billion in current dollar terms. This represents a 3.5 per cent increase in real terms since 2005 and a staggering 37 per cent increase over the 10-year period since 1997. The US, responsible for about 80 per cent of the increase in 2005, is the pivotal factor in this trend, accounting for almost half of the world's total military spending.

Specifically the US government dished out an estimated $572 billion on the military in 2007. This amounts to about $1,800 for every citizen in the country. That is more than the combined GDPs of Sweden and Thailand, and eight times US federal spending on education. Although it is true that China and India are demonstrating a sustained increase in their military expenditures, their current budgets (in absolute terms) are only a fraction of the US.

The largest increases in the military budget during the Bush presidency have been connected with the Iraq offensive. This entire venture has been a moral, cultural, strategic and economic disaster for the United States. To date, the government has spent more than $522 billion on this offensive??. An additional $70 billion is already allocated for 2008.

Occasionally one hears advocates passionately asserting that the military budget is the mainstay of the US economy and that the Pentagon is a major sponsor of technical innovation as well as a key source of employment. At one level these claims are true but it is an erroneous argument. If any government injects $600 billion into the economy it cannot help but generate millions of jobs. Likewise, when it spends a significant portion of that budget on maintaining and bolstering the most powerful military force in history, this cannot fail to result in technological innovation. But it is innovation aimed at killing people rather than saving their lives.

Besides, is it not also true that channeling hundreds of billions of dollars into fields such as renewable energy, ecologically intelligent urban renewal, or mass transportation would create a hothouse environment supporting new technologies for environmental sustainability? The answer is a resounding yes!

Utilities operating concentrated solar power plants on a large scale, for example, could drive down the costs of electricity quite dramatically - at least for those people living in sunnier parts of the country. Currently these technologies lag commercial application because they cannot compete with the low cost of fossil fuels. Emerging technologies could advance much more rapidly toward cost competitiveness with coal, oil and nuclear power if they were to receive just a fraction of the subsidies that now go to support weapons development - as well as propping up the oil industry.

Obviously a great deal is at stake here. Wars and warmongering activities around the world devour valuable resources, hindering humanity's advancement by manufacturing confusion, death and destruction.

Choosing to end war is not a pipe dream but a viable leadership option. Fifteen nations with the highest military budgets account for 83 per cent of the total global spend. The US is responsible for 48 per cent of the world total, distantly followed by the UK, France, Japan and China with 4-5 per cent each. If these countries were to reach agreement and assign just one third of their total military budgets to peaceful alternatives, we could confidently consign poverty to history, reduce the impact of global warming almost instantly and still have some cash to spare.

Or perhaps we should allocate more funds to the UN. Established after World War II specifically to preserve peace through international cooperation and collective security, the current operating budget of the UN is just 2 per cent of the world's total military spend. While the UN is by no means perfect and has many internal issues that need addressing, I find it mystifying that we can willingly spend so much on the military while contributing so little to the goals of global security, international cooperation and peace.

Choosing peace over war must surely be the first serious step in re-designing a world based on abundance and a perpetually self-replenishing, life-enhancing, planetary ecology. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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