A Change in the Climate of Opinion?


War has never been exactly popular, though it has always been possible for those in power to overcome the natural reluctance of the people to risk death, and to take their community to battle.  There has always been a minority who could not be persuaded, thank goodness.  Imagine, if there were to be no dissidence at all!  What would that say about our bloodthirsty, or at least very tame, species!  Yet a glance at history does demonstrate that the awkward peace-lovers have rarely been able to prevent military adventures.  Until now, that is.

Readers will probably wonder at the naivety of such a hope.  What is so different today, from all the past centuries?  Well, maybe there is a change in the climate of opinion.  Two major factors are working in favour of a more peaceful future.  One is the popular view of the disastrous current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These are conflicts that have been deliberately embarked upon by leaders of democracies, in the teeth of much public opposition.  The deception, the outright lies, that enabled leaders to carry the day are now exposed and generally recognised.  If, tomorrow, these same discredited leaders were to exhort us to go to war against Iran, they would assuredly have some trouble in carrying us along.  Tony Blair and George Bush might have to put on their armour and depart alone on their crusade.  Perhaps they might be able to persuade the day after tomorrow, but not tomorrow.  Right now, public distrust is at an all-time high.

The other factor making war more unpopular is not likely to change, ever.  That is, the battle mankind has to keep its nest clean and unpolluted.  Given current numbers, this is a struggle that will always be with us now.  Once upon a time, so geneticists assure us, the future of mankind depended upon the success of a little band of maybe no more than 250 humans.  Other tribes existed, and had tried to make the break north out of Africa, but were wiped out.  All present-day people have relatives in the tiny group that crossed the Red Sea.  But now, we have succeeded so well that we crowd the planet, and make unsustainable demands on its resources.  From now on, care has to be taken with our environment, lest it deteriorate to the point where it will not sustain life of any kind.  The Stern report seems to have shaken everyone, though it contained no surprises for scientists.  Great reductions in carbon emissions are proposed.  Not token reductions, which will do little or nothing to help, but massive reductions of 80% by 2030, according to Paul Rogers.  Everyone seems energised by the suddenly-perceived need to act to preserve the benign environment that has been in place for billions of years but is now threatened by human waste products. 

In this dire situation, the additional gratuitous waste of war would be quite calamitous.  In our militarised world, the military use up huge amounts of energy and are responsible for a large percentage of carbon emissions.  For example, the US military is responsible even in peacetime for 14% of all carbon emissions of that country.  $600 billion has been misspent so far by the US on the Iraq war.  It is not only the waste, but the diversion of resources, and the distraction war entails from the necessary task.  Like squabbling children frightened by the sudden appearance of a great bear, we will have to forget tiny differences and react to the common danger.  A cure must now be found for what Tom Paine called ‘the wretched and quarrelsome condition of mankind’.

Yet old habits die hard.  A Guardian letter-writer tells of an incident at a fringe meeting of the last Labour conference, when a student asked, ‘Why do we fight so many wars if we want to reduce global warming?’  The writer continued: ‘The silence of 70 adults greeting this audacious query filled the room.’

Harry Davis