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Even if we never push the button, war may destroy Earth

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Historically, what is the world's most environmentally damaging, anti-development, manmade (avoidable) activity? War _ and preparations for war.

There is to be a U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) in Brazil during June. Leaders from 150 nations will gather at this "Earth Summit" to chart a sustainable growth model for all nations. Many important and contentious issues are scheduled for discussion.

Conspicuously absent from its agenda is any reference to military activity. The long series of revolutions, civil wars, "low intensity" wars, "scorched earth" tactics, fire bombings, chemical defoliations and other chemical attacks has caused immeasurable damage through the centuries. The worst of the worst, nuclear weapons _ their testing and use _ have caused irreparable harm to the environment.

Even if there were no environmental consequences, the exorbitant chunk of money spent on the military by almost all countries diverts enormous resources from meeting human needs or helping development plans. More than 50 percent of the U.S. budget is allocated to military activity. And the cost of toxic and radioactive waste cleanup at U.S. military sites will be colossal.

For 50 years the nuclear weapons and power businesses have generated radioactive waste for which no technology or site exists that can isolate it from our biosphere. Radiation from bomb tests, nuclear fuel preparation, the normal operation of nuclear power plants and serious accidents from military and power operations have caused adverse effects on much of the world's population.

Internationally recognized Dr. Rosalie Bertell, director of research for the International Institute of Concern for Public Health, in Toronto, says the human gene pool has already been damaged by radiation. She claims that the startling increases in birth defects, mental retardation, respiratory ailments, immune deficiency problems, infectious diseases, cancers, rare leukemia and many other disorders are caused by the elevated levels of radiation in the environment. She believes the diminished mental capability of coming generations will make them less able to deal with more complex problems that we are causing with our high-tech society and irresponsible toxic legacy. Talk about fouling our nest.

If all this is so, why hasn't anything been done about it? No government is going to accept responsibility for destroying or damaging its own people. Our corporations and banks have too much money tied up to take the lead. Shouldn't this be on the agenda at UNCED? It is not. Yet.

Non-polluting, safe, inexpensive energy sources (solar and other renewables) are already available and are basic to the development needs of all countries. Control of oil supplies has been one of the primary causes of war and intervention abroad, so there would be a double benefit to having each country become more energy self-sufficient. This should be on the UNCED agenda. But it is not.

Increasing population worldwide has enormous implications for development and environment. Again, this is not on the agenda. Yet.

Planners for the UNCED will meet this March to establish the final agenda. There is time to demand these necessary additions to the agenda. Write our senators and representatives as well as State Department officials Curtis Bohlen, Assistant Secretary of State, (OES), and Ambassador Robert J. Ryan Jr., coordinator, U.S. UNCED Preparations, Washington D.C. 20520, to insist that these urgent issues be included on the official agenda.

A conference dealing with development and the environment cannot wear blinders about these most serious threats to survival and quality of life. Otherwise, it is like going for a physical exam in which the doctor only takes your temperature. We need the complete physical. This is an opportunity to discuss the really tough problems and come to agreements that could result in a sustainable quality of life.

Patricia T. Birnie is coordinator of the Tampa Bay branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and a member of the national board. She lives in St. Petersburg.