Military for Sustainability

by John Elkington

John Elkington (British, born 1949) is cofounder of Environmental Data Services (ENDS, 1978), SustainAbility (1987), and Volans (2008), where he is executive chairman. He has written seventeen books, sits on over twenty boards or advisory boards, and blogs at

With honorable exceptions, when most of us in the sustainability field list economic sectors and corporations to target and influence, the military-industrial complex routinely falls into a collective blind spot.This is dangerous. It’s not just that we invest a great deal of money here. Global military expenditure rose in 2010 by 1.3%, reaching a record USD 1.6 trillion, or 2.4% of world GDP, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. But even though that figure represented the lowest growth rate since 2001— and a marked slowdown from the spending increase of 5.9% in 2009, thanks to the financial crisis—the impact of military expenditures on our economies and societies remains substantial. Like other major industries, the defense sector will (because it must) mutate and evolve over time, which raises the question of what role the military will play during the next forty years.

I am intrigued to see where cyberwarfare, “smart dust” sensors, miniature drones, or exoskeletons will take the military—and the rest of us—by the 2030s and 2040s, but I think it will take time before robotic systems replace humans in the field of war. As has so often happened in the history of conflict, however, many of these emerging technologies will likely find new applications outside the battlefield. By 2052, though, I expect significant focus on a new core business of the armed services: namely, recovering from natural disasters and fighting a growing range of unsustainabilities, including the destruction of key natural assets like fisheries, forests, and watersheds.

Only a wild optimist—or a fatalist—can believe that nation-states will disarm, following the example of Costa Rica. Indeed, that small Central American state can be seen as the exception that proves the rule. In addition to the ubiquity of death and taxes, we are guaranteed to have armed forces for the foreseeable future—but increasingly with the new purpose to deal with the consequences of large-scale environmental change.

For the armed services—and the defense industries—to legitimately play this new role, they will need to go through the same sort of transparency and sustainability revolutions that have hit a broad range of other sectors in recent decades. Think, for example, about the endemic corruption in so much of the defense world—and of the extent to which the military controls the economies in countries like Iran and China.

The only general to be elected US president in the twentieth century, Dwight D. Eisenhower, warned Americans against “plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow” and about the perils of underestimating the often-malign influence of the military-industrial complex:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.

Among the initiatives designed to view the future of security, defense, and the armed forces through lenses other than those typically used by right-wingers, I like the work of the US Truman National Security Project. I buy into their thesis:

Today’s world is a dangerous place. Our security is at risk from terrorists, belligerent states, and the proliferation of weapons that can cause unimaginable, massive destruction. We are also threatened by less obvious foes such as pandemic disease, weak and corrupt governments, and the spread of anti-Americanism.

The conservative strategy to meet today’s threats is bankrupt. They have missed crucial opportunities. Their rhetoric has squandered world sympathy and support. Allies we need to conquer terror have been alienated. Poor strategic planning has weakened military morale and capabilities.

Ideologically based Pentagon-focused policy-making is breeding instability abroad, exacerbating the conditions that make us vulnerable. The conservative strategy is making the world less safe.

And what is true of Americans is true of the rest of us. If we must continue paying for the military, we must ensure it does what we need to get done. We must learn in the coming decades how to reboot and repurpose military operating systems. By 2052, if we succeed, the armed forces of many countries will have specialized in helping their economies and societies adapt to natural disasters—particularly those caused by advancing climate change. This will still mean fighting wars, managing border disputes, and coping with refugees, but I think we will also look back on Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Green Cross” as an idea before its time.

Environmental regeneration, augmentation (including various forms of geo-engineering), and conservation will become a key part of military training—extended to a growing proportion of young people, partly as a means of educating, training, and disciplining populations. Ground forces will be tasked with protecting key elements of the biosphere from human depredations. Naval forces will be redeployed to protect the remaining wild fisheries, and the growing number of fish-farming and ocean-ranching operations. Air forces will be used for a range of related surveillance tasks, including future generations of smart-sensor networks and drones, the latter often evolved on the principles of biomimicry.

Intelligence services—including the satellite remote-sensing branches—will police eco-crime and intervene where there is evidence of the new crime of ecocide. The potential for “Big Brother” misuse and abuse of such systems is considerable, which is why transparency, accountability, and sustainability agendas will become central concerns for a growing number of countries.

Meanwhile, you can already see evidence of another trajectory in the military, with growing numbers of zero-impact goals being announced in relation to carbon, waste, toxics, and even fossil fuels.

Consider the US Army’s Net Zero Initiative. By the 2020s, sustainability versions of Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works”9—which gave disruptive innovators the space and resources to create transformative solutions—will be commonplace, with growing interest in spin-off technologies. This won’t be confined to lead-free bullets or biodegradable landmines but will be open to suites of technologies designed to support populations in low-energy, low-footprint ways.

Some exotic swords will be beaten into plowshares, like the NATO bunker transformed into a zero-energy data farm.

Leading intelligence services have been adapting for some time, including the Central Intelligence Agency. By 2052, however, we will also have seen a deeply unwelcome explosion of interest in “environmental weapons.” These started with cloud-seeding attempts aimed at causing landslides in Vietnam and Cambodia, soon expanding to attempts to make incisions in the ozone layer. As a result of bitter experience, new treaties will be drawn up to regulate the development and use of such weapons.

The history of conflict shows that every form of technology can be press-ganged into uniform. Our challenge is to press-gang the military into the sustainability business.