PBI-Canada presentation to ‘No War 2020’ virtual conference: From Weapons to Windmills

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Presentation by PBI-Canada to the #NoWar2020 virtual conference “Weapons to windmills” panel that asks: “How can we effectively make the transition away from the war system towards a peaceful, green, and just future?”

Hello everyone and thank you very much for the opportunity to speak about how we move from weapons to windmills, from an economy that manufactures for war, manufactures wars and is at war with the Earth itself, to a peace economy.

Peace Brigades International was formed nearly 40 years ago just south of Ottawa (on unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory) to undertake the task of peacebuilding inspired by the philosophy and experience of nonviolent social change and the commitment to overcome physical and structural violence to establish an enduring peace through accompaniment, advocacy and education.

I would like to speak briefly on the political moment of the pandemic, the economic challenges it has presented for militarism, what we could be learning from the climate justice movement, and how to apply that learning to the peace movement given the interrelationship between the movements and the need for intersectionality.

1- The political moment – human and economic toll

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is seeing a terrible loss of life. As of yesterday, 6,765 people have died in Canada from the virus. That’s almost ten times the number of Canadian soldiers who died in Afghanistan, Korea and all other post-World War II conflicts (697). There have been 238 deaths in Ottawa over the past two months, higher than the number of Canadian soldiers (158) killed in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2011.

In terms of finances, the Parliamentary Budget Officer now projects a federal deficit of $112.7 billion, an increase of $89.5 billion from previous forecasts, given government spending to address the economic fallout from the pandemic.

When we are through this pandemic, we can anticipate this will mean austerity measures, budget cuts to address the debt and deficit.

The Canadian military, with some big budget planned expenditures, including more than $19 billion for new fighter jets, knows it is vulnerable to spending cuts.

The Canadian military expects $553 billion in total “defence” spending over the next 20 years and there’s now a profound argument that this expenditure is both wrong and now unaffordable.

We can also anticipate that since the arms industry was deemed an “essential service” and arms production continued in Canada during the pandemic and in Alberta a wide range of environmental monitoring requirements (for surface water, wildlife and bird monitoring, air quality testing) in the tar sands were suspended or reduced, that there will be a push-back and a counter-argument that spending in these areas is now even more vital for security and the recovery of the economy.

2- The political moment – shifting attitudes

Within this political moment, we can also see shifting attitudes towards displays of militarism vs the imperative of funding for frontline health care services and the need to address the crisis within the long-term care system for the elderly.

As of May 6, 82 per cent (3,436 seniors and 6 staff members) of those who had died (4,167) to that point from the coronavirus died in long-term care homes in this country. Concerns are being raised about past funding cuts to long-term care and the high degree (40 per cent) of privatization in the system. There will be appropriate public pressure to spend on long term care (ironically supported by a Canadian Armed Forces report after soldiers were dispatched to help in five Ontario nursing homes during the pandemic).

In comparison, likely more so in the United States, we’ve seen a public backlash against military flyovers as a way to salute frontline workers.

While US President Trump announced his ‘Operation America Strong’ with the Blue Angels (Navy F-18s) and Thunderbirds (Air Force F-16s) to recognize health care workers, and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau announced ‘Operation Inspiration’ with the RCAF, concerns have been raised that flying these squadrons cost at least $60,000 an hour as frontline workers experience shortages of protective equipment.

3- The present and future crisis of climate breakdown

You may have seen the social media memes with the tidal wave of climate change overtaking the smaller wave of the pandemic.

The present pandemic has seen a global death toll of more than 350,000 people (357,807) and the United Nations has said the global economy is expected to lose $8.5 trillion in output over the next two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In comparison, an estimated 350,000 people die each year due to major diseases and health disorders (primarily malnutrition, diarrhea and malaria) related to climate change and that number is expected to increase to 800,000 people a year by 2030 unless measures are taken. Furthermore, the United Nations has said that the world’s gross domestic product could fall by $33 trillion under a “business as usual” approach that allows global warming of 2.5 degrees Celsius (if countries met their commitments under the Paris Agreement there would still be a 3.2 degree increase).

Conclusions from the political moment

As such, the political moment tells us: the economic costs of this pandemic creates the situation where cuts to military spending may be needed, that spending on the military may be seen as less important than on health care and long term care, and the crisis of climate breakdown may seem more real given what we’ve experienced with the pandemic. We can also anticipate both the arms industry and fossil fuel industry launching well-financed lobbying and public relations campaigns against any shifts.

So, how do we build a movement that shifts from a war economy to a peace economy? I have five quick suggestions on that:

1- Recognize the similarities between the arms and fossil fuel industries.

Both industries are heavily subsidized by the state ($60 billion to the fossil fuel industry in 2015, a baseline of $32.7 billion a year for the Canadian military by 2026-27), both have powerful industry lobby groups (the Canadian Association of Defence and Security Industries – CADSI and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers – CAPP), both employ thousands of people, and both were seen as “essential services” during the pandemic.

2- Learn from the climate justice movement.

As we seek to demilitarize in order to decarbonize, it makes sense to look at some of lessons learned from the climate justice movement and some of the ongoing tensions that exist within that movement. The key lessons that movement has learned (and is learning): uplift the frontline communities most impacted by extractivism, recognize Indigenous leadership in the struggle, understand that some see climate breakdown as a symptom of a toxic system (of colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy and other oppressions) and that this needs to be addressed concurrently.

3- Human rights are indivisible

I also want to highlight that 207 land environmental defenders were killed in 2018 trying to protect their communities from destructive extractive industries. The deaths of human rights defenders related to fossil fuel, mining and agribusiness mega-projects underscore the need for a transition to a green economy.

But the violence and infringements on Indigenous rights that has been seen by the Peace Brigades International-Mexico Project when wind power megaprojects have been imposed on communities also tells us that the transition from “weapons to windmills” must adhere to human rights norms and the right to free, prior and informed consent.

4- Emphasize the need for a just transition for workers.

In moving from an economy in Canada that employs about 190,000 workers in the oil and gas industry and about 60,000 workers in the “defence and security” industry, we have to be mindful about what a transition looks like for them.

We may be deeply opposed to the Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) being manufactured at the General Dynamics plant in London, Ontario, but we also need to remember that plant employs about 2,000 people (represented by Unifor Local 27).

Here we can argue, as the climate justice movement has, that public spending on renewable energy creates far more jobs than the fossil fuel industry. We can highlight that the clean energy industry in Canada employed 298,000 people in 2017 (Missing the Bigger Picture report) and that $1 million invested in natural gas creates 5 jobs, while the same amount invested in solar power would create 14 jobs (Pear Energy study).

5- Adopt strategies commensurate to the severity of the crisis.

I would suggest that a major recent dynamic within the environmental movement has been a criticism of mainstream non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by grassroots Indigenous and climate justice movement activists.

That criticism has focused on a critique of e-petitions, symbolic weekend rallies and banner drops as woefully insufficient to change entrenched power structures and has urged creative nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience including bridge occupations, blocking pipeline construction equipment, turning off the valves on pipelines.

The peace movement has a rich tradition of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience in terms of sailing ships into nuclear test zones (as done by PBI founder George Willoughby in 1958), burning draft cards (as done by PBI founder Gene Keyes in 1963), blocking military bases that have nuclear weapons (the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp that began in 1981), and blocking arms shows (as the Quakers have done at the DSEI arms show in the UK for many years).

Let me conclude with these quick points on what is to be done, what I think should inform our commitment to decarbonizing and demilitarizing the economy:

1- Let us build an intersectional movement.

2- Let us be creative and bold in our actions.

3- Let us see education as a precursor to action.

4- Let us find a way to blend both the urgency of the situation with the perseverance required to undertake a multi-year campaign.

5- Let us remember that the institutional forces we are up against may at times seem insurmountable, but violence can be resisted and we are in a unique political moment where it is possible to effectively do so.

Thank you.

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