If you were a being from another planet looking upon the Earth at the start of this new decade, or simply a human being able to look at our world from a larger perspective, here are the two most significant things you would notice. The first is a global climate crisis which has, as one of its opening acts, turned a nation into an unstoppable and raging bonfire. The second is, once again, the drumbeat of war. These things are not unrelated and together they lay the groundwork for turning the planet into the dystopia of science fiction.
The two global events that mark the first week of 2020 are both well known. The violent fires across Australia have now decimated more than 23,000 square miles — akin to burning every square foot of West Virginia — and it’s just getting going. Firefighters say that the only thing capable of stopping its advance is days of sustained rain, and in the midst of a historic dry season, not a drop is expected anytime soon. This of course is the second time a continent in the southern hemisphere has exploded into flame during this year’s record hot southern summer, the other being the earlier fires across the Amazon in Brazil and Bolivia that destroyed 7,000 square miles, an area the size of New Jersey.
The World Meteorological Organization now reports that the last five years have been the hottest five years on Earth since humans started keeping track of such things, and July of last year the single hottest month. We don’t know what the 2020s will be remembered for as yet, but the 2010s will certainly be remembered as the decade that climate change became not a set of predictions about the future but a hard reality in the present.
Then there is war. Nations have had wars for as long as there have been nations, one of the worst afflictions our species has refused to give up. History is full of moments that have seen the lives of thousands snuffed out by a single battle or attack (7,000 at Gettysburg, 23,000 in the Battle of the Bulge, at least 100,000 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Since the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York what the U.S. has now is a ‘perpetual war’ against one country or force after another.
This week President Trump made an escalation of that perpetual war more likely with the U.S. drone assassination of Iran’s top general. To be clear, there seems to be a solid global consensus outside Iran that he was a barbarian who got what he deserved. But wars are generally always started by one nation delivering to another a blow it thinks is deserved. They are wars nonetheless and the price is paid in the lives of those who had no real say in the matter, as will be the case this time.
But the point of this side-by-side, of the climate crisis and the new drums of war, is this essential truth: At the very moment when humanity is getting its most urgent warning call to date, that it needs to set aside its differences and deal with the threat to the thing we ultimately share, this fragile blue ball floating about alone in space, we are instead putting our resources and energies into weapons.
Here are some figures to ponder. In 2019 the U.S. national defense budget was $693 billion, or about $1,800 per every man, woman, and child in the U.S. The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $2.5 trillion, enough to have given every graduating high school senior in the U.S. for the last ten years a $67,000 college scholarship. It would also have been more than enough to have made the urgent investments we need in sustainable energy and infrastructure to genuinely address the climate crisis. Instead we spent the money on killing people and blowing things up.
I have close family who work for defense contractors and it is easy to understand why. They look around for a job that offers stable work and a decent salary and what our economy offers back is the opportunity to help build weapons and send them into battle. Those jobs even come with the whiff of patriotism, in corporations that play up their role in ‘defending America’ and play down their role in killing civilians and sucking up a seventh of the national budget.
Imagine if my family and so many others could commute to those same buildings and were instead helping build the nuts and bolts of a clean energy grid, or buildings that use a tenth as much energy to be heated or cooled, or any of the many other things we actually know how to do but don’t because all the money is being invested instead in war, like the one President Trump is threatening now by drone and Tweet.
We talk a lot in the U.S. about ‘national security’ and all of us want to be secure. But if you look around, at the wild fire that destroyed Paradise California in a single day, at the once-a-century hurricanes that now descend on the U.S. several times a year, at the deadly toll headed our way from the climate crisis, you can see that this is the immediate threat to our security and safety. And yet, we invest our best energies and our scarce resources in war.
Human beings individually and in small communities are amazing things. We make music and art, we make sacrifices for our children and offer help to our neighbors. We grow food and think up amazing inventions. But collectively we are just a phenomenally stupid and reckless species. As the decade begins, zoom out your perspective for a moment, away from the riveting NFL playoffs, the latest show on Netflix, and the newest app on your smart phone. What you will see are the twin ingredients of human suicide playing out before us in the two global stories of the moment. Somehow, for our children and the others to whom we will pass along this borrowed world, we have to do better.
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Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of The Democracy Center and works with social justice and environmental activists across the world. He is author of the forthcoming memoir, My Other Country, Nineteen Years in Bolivia (NFB Publishing) and currently lives in Lockport, New York. He Tweets at @jimshultz and can be reached by email at JimShultz@democracyctr.org.