New Internationalist

Darkness At Noon

Issue 221

new internationalist
issue 221 - July 1991

Darkness at noon
The year is 2025 and two children are watching a television documentary.
Brian Tokar and Gayle Hardy look back at the present.

Infernal plumes of fire soar into the sky, surrounded by billowing black clouds. Rotting carcasses and thick black pools punctuate the greyish yellow sand. Tammy, aged 13, is sitting wide-eyed watching this grim apocalypse on a megascreen when 11-year-old Tommy comes in. They are staying with their grandmother, Sarah. They do not have a megascreen at home. Their parents say it's a waste of energy.

'You'll get into trouble,' warns Tommy.

'She told us to go to bed ages ago.'

'Ssshhh... She won't remember.'

'What are you watching?'

'It's the Gulf war. Now shut up.'

'You'll give yourself nightmares... Why are you watching it?'

'It was a turning point in the history of humanity, that's why. Now be quiet will you or go to bed. I'm trying to hear the commentary.'

The commentator's voice intones gravely:

'By initiating an historically unprecedented bombing campaign against Iraq in January 1991, the US, the UK and their allies un-leashed an environmental holocaust on a scale which they barely understood. They also succeeded in distracting the world's attention from many of the most profound environmental and human problems, such as global warming and world hunger.'

'What's all that black stuff?'

'Ssshhh!'

'The most striking immediate consequences of the Gulf war itself - beside the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives - were the raging oil-well fires in Kuwait and the massive oil spills in the waters of the Gulf. Both of these had consequences for the entire Middle East, and places far beyond.

'The burning of oil wells began in the second week of the War, and reached a ghastly climax in its final days. By the beginning of March 1991, at least 600 Kuwaiti oil wells were ablaze, incinerating over five million barrels of oil a day. The skies of Kuwait were blackened even in midday - and severe acid rain was measured as far west as Bulgaria and as far east as Pakistan.

'The wildlife...'

'I didn't know there was ever any wildlife in the Gulf ...'

'... was devastated by the effects of 60 million gallons of oil being spilled in the Gulf's waters. Then in March of 1991 Carl Sagan and other scientists began to predict that the cloud of soot from the burning wells could easily reach South Asia, blocking sunlight and perhaps bringing freezing temperatures well into the spring and summer. In a worst scenario, 20 to 40 per cent of the northern hemisphere would be affected.'

'That must be the Big Chill Grannie talks about ...'

'But there were other less obvious consequences. Allied bombing of chemical and nuclear facilities resulted in releases of highly toxic substances including cyanides, chlorine, nitrogen dioxide and dioxins. The bombing of sewage and water facilities created a widespread epidemic of cholera. Allied bombing also created uninhabitable chemical zones and contaminated rivers and canals that fed the Tigris River upstream from Baghdad. Neither side was forthcoming as to whether any nuclear facilities were hit, but there were reports during the war of elevated levels of radioactivity measured in the mountains of Turkey.'

'Were they still using nuclear power then? '

'Oh yes. They were still environmentally illiterate in those days. Ask Grannie.'

'The Gulf war also illuminated the environmental damage done by all military activities. For example, allied tanks in Saudi Arabia destroyed fragile desert soils. And soldiers left waste and sewage equivalent to a city of half a million people. They also used huge quantities of water and fuel. And US forces used oil for everything - from jets to air conditioning. Even in peacetime they would burn up 37 million tons of oil a year. But during the war they used more than 20 million gallons a day. It's not surprising, considering that an aircraft carrier would average up to 150,000 gallons a day, a B52 bomber 3,600 gallons per hour.'

'I don't understand. I thought the war happened because oil was a valuable, limited resource. If it was so precious what were they doing wasting it? All they had to do was use alternative energy sources. Didn't they know about solar, wind and wave power?'

'Sure, they knew. It just wasn't in the interests of those with the power to invest large sums developing it.'

'But...'

'Look, I'm trying to follow this programme...'

'The military also left massive pollution. In the latter half of the twentieth century armies used and disposed of vast quantities of chemical solvents, paints, acids, lubricants and other toxic materials, in addition to fuel and explosives. In the 1980s the US Pentagon was generating more toxics in one year than the top five US chemical companies combined - without even counting the emissions from the Department of Energy's nuclear weapon plants.'

'Why didn't the military protect the environment like they do now?'

'They were too busy developing technology to kill people and poison the earth.'

'In 1991 government officials in several countries exploited the fear, insecurity and censorship of information fostered by the war to implement policies which might never have passed public scrutiny just one year previously. The US administration proposed opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration and reviving the moribund US nuclear power industry. And the military was exempted from the law requiring that the environmental impact of all new activities be assessed. In Canada a massive hydroelectric dam project in James Bay was pushed ahead - although it would displace thousands of native Cree and Inuit people and upset the ecological balance of the entire northern wilderness.

'What had happened to the peace - and the green - movements at this time you may ask.'

'What did happen?'

'Shut up and you'll find out.'

'Well, despite widespread demonstrations of opposition to war, the peace movement did not have much impact. Opposition was often quite scattered and reactive, while the governments and military were unusually successful at manipulating the terms of debate. The environmental movement was also plagued by a piecemeal, issue-by-issue approach. The radical alternatives that were clearly necessary often got lost in a mire of technical policy debates.

'In next week's programme we will be looking at...'

'Damn!'

'What's the matter?' says grandmother Sarah, who has just drifted in.

'I want to know what happened next,' Tammy replies.

Sarah can't quite make out her green grandchildren, with all their permaculture eco-talk and mania for measuring acid rain. At their age the only acid she was into was House.

Tommy turns to her: 'When did soldiers stop killing people and start defending the environment?'

'Phew! I guess it started really happening round about the time of the Great Famine after the Gulf war. The Famine affected everyone, in some way. The politicians tried to pretend it wasn't anything to do with militarism and social injustice. But it had become so obvious that they were lying. That's when people got into their heads that real 'security' was about bread, not guns. it took a while though ... But hang on, didn't I tell you to go to bed?'

Brian Tokar is the author of The Green Alternative: Creating an Ecological Future (R & E Miles, 1987), which will soon be available in a revised edition. Gayle Hardy is a short story writer.

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