The U.S. military push for coal-based synthetic fuels reminds us that in the long run, solving climate chaos is incompatible with an aggressive military policy. Solutions will ultimately have to draw on traditional American virtues of thrift and cleverness, not the domination and power expressed in the new U.S. Air Force motto: Air Force Above All, which probably sounded more impressive in the original German.

Militarization has a long history of pushing us down less sustainable paths in the U.S. Part of that is direct meeting of Pentagon needs. For example, one reason we have today’s super-highway system is that Eisenhower was impressed by the military advantages of the German autobahn network — both for the Germans and for the allies when their turn came to use it.

The “National Defense Highway System,” as it was called when first inaugurated, was built wide enough to allow tanks and military convoys to travel freely across the U.S. without depending on rail. The financial structure was similar to the autobahn’s as well. The national highways trust is based largely on fuel taxes paid by both rail and trucks, but which rail gets almost no benefit from — that helped ensure the gradual shift of freight from trains to trucks.

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Similarly, after WWII, many unions supported shifting military spending to housing — including Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion house, an inexpensive luxury home which would have greatly exceeded, in the late ’40s, today’s Energy Star efficiency standards. The money went to cold war military escalation instead.

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However, direct competition for money and unthrifty choices are not the main problems. Militarization and aggression compete with sustainability, and all progressive causes, for mindshare. They encourage fear of external enemies, a kind of constant terror that can be exploited to fight or distort any progressive gain.

For example, when Truman proposed universal single payer health care in the ’50s, the insurance industry paid a movie actor named Ronald Reagan to ride the new wave of cold war fear (promoted in part by Truman himself) to paint health care for all as the first step to totalitarian communism — which everyone knew was at our doorstep, waiting to kill us all.

Or take Jimmy Carter, elected on a platform of renewable energy, whose energy plan turned out to be millions for renewables and efficiency but billions for Synfuel made from coal [PDF]. Given that Carter chose to frame the goal as “energy independence” — a national security goal, rather than a way of making day-to-day life better — that was a logical outcome.

I understand why many environmentalists hope to make the military services allies in the fight against global warming fear to alienate the military by going after their budget to fund green transformation. They are politically powerful, and hey, they put out that study emphasizing climate chaos as a force multiplier.

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But hopefulness in this area is simply naïveté. Whatever the intentions of parts of the military, such studies (if not ignored) will be used to bolster military budgets to protect against the new hypothetical threats, not to support reducing emissions. And in a thousand ways, direct and indirect, as long the military stays a dominating force in our society, attempts at progressive change will be thwarted or distorted.

Until we manage to disentangle our souls from the grip of war, it will always be weapons über alles!