Rethinking National Defense

A nation of planetary villages would have less need for military defense

One of the articles in Being A Planetary Villager (IC#1)
Originally published in Winter 1983 on page 57
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

BECAUSE moving in the direction of decentralization and the development of planetary villages is different from the direction our society has been heading during the past century or so, it is likely to be dismissed at first glance as impractical and utopian. Yet in reality it is eminently practical and well within our means as a society. And not only is it appealing and workable at a human level, it also can provide creative and effective solutions to problems that presently seem both unsolvable and out of control, such as the arms race. The following article is excerpted from William Becker’s booklet, The Indefensible Society (Lorian Press, P.0. Box 147, Middleton, Wl 53562, $2.75 postpaid), reprinted with permission.

At present, we think of national defense and domestic development as two separate activities. National defense is regarded as the building of arms and armies, and the formation of military coalitions between nations with mutual interests. In truth, genuine national defense is intertwined with social and human needs. The decentralization of energy, food and industrial production not only returns a measure of control to people and their communities, it also makes the nation less vulnerable to disruption and attack. The development and use of renewable resources – combined with conservation – lowers household energy budgets, keeps more of the nation’s wealth from leaking away to mineral-producing nations, creates new industries and jobs, reduces pollution and eliminates most types of environmental damage. At the same time, renewables decrease our dependence on foreign governments so that we are not easily crippled by supply cutoffs or drawn into resource wars. Weaned from imported oil and minerals, we do not require a substantial military presence in far-off corners of the globe. The job of national security becomes much less complicated and expensive.

Saving money [now spent] on nuclear arms and overseas deployment, we can help retool American industry to produce life- supporting goods by environmentally benign processes. We can work more effectively at balancing the federal budget and paying off our $1 trillion national debt, helping to restore health to the economy. By making environmental protection and restoration a continuing priority, we can stabilize the nation’s life-support systems to avoid future sources of insecurity: among them the depletion of soils, drinkable water, forests, clean air, wildlife habitat and plants critical to the health of the ecosystem.

Passing along the lessons we have learned in domestic renewal, we can refocus our foreign policy to promote not dependence, but self- sufficiency among other nations. We thereby contribute to global stability while cultivating friendships based not on dependence but on partnership and strength. Promoting greater use of mediation and arbitration by international bodies like the United Nations, plus greater use of economic and resource (rather than military) leverage, we can retire military force as our principal instrument of foreign policy. Finding symbiosis between our needs and those of our neighbors, we can build a secure America and become a key force in the creation of a secure world.

New Defense Industries

In a world of this kind, conservation, solar technology, environmental protection, recycling, and small-scale food production become our key defense industries. The national landscape is sprinkled not with nuclear weapons systems, mammoth factories and big, vulnerable power plants, but with low-technology energy systems, a multitude of local power plants using largely renewable fuels, and small facilities producing goods close to their ultimate markets.

Moral, social and economic reasons aside, such a landscape should appeal to military tacticians. It would be nearly impossible to paralyze a country with such a diffuse, flexible fabric. Realizing this vision is not so hard as we might think. Two examples – one theoretical, one concrete – may help give the vision substance.

At the time of this writing [1981], President Reagan was proposing a defense budget of $1.5 trillion over the next five years, almost as much money as the nation has spent on the military since World War II. If only half the money were allocated to the military, the other half would go a long way towards building a defensible society. The impact of such a redirection would be astonishing. Half the budget would completely fund the $750 billion in new housing, industrial and transportation investments the federal Solar Energy Research Institute estimates would be needed to fashion a "new prosperity" and a "sustainable energy future" for America over the next 20 years. The investment would create valuable, lasting jobs, retool industry for renewable resource and conservation-oriented production, and dramatically lower the nation’s energy bill ($360 billion in 1980). Such a program would do much to restore our standing in the world community, while reducing our dependence upon imported petroleum to a trickle.

The Case of Soldiers Grove

The concrete example can be found in the hilly countryside of southwestern Wisconsin. After a century of persistent flooding from the temperamental Kickapoo River the tiny village of Soldiers Grove (population 525) was offered a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levee in 1975. The village told the engineers that it wished instead to move its floodplain buildings, including the community’s entire central business district, to higher ground. One of its reasons: The people wanted to make peace with the river. They realized that flood damages were their fault, not the river’s. The river simply was trying to behave like a river. The villagers had unwisely built their community in the path of one of nature’s highways.

Because the Corps of Engineers has traditionally dealt with such problems by trying to subdue rivers with dams, levees and other structural works, the government was not receptive to the idea. Placing the burden of change on people rather than nature was a radical notion, long considered politically volatile by the Corps and by Congress. The villagers tried unsuccessfully for three years to win the federal assistance they needed to undertake relocation. Finally, in July 1978, the Kickapoo resolved the stalemate by hitting Soldiers Grove with the largest flood in the village’s history, completely destroying a number of buildings. Embarrassed federal officials finally responded by offering partial funding.

As they prepared for relocation, the villagers decided to engage in holistic planning. By that, they meant they would design a new central business district which was as environmentally benign as possible and which respected the need for resource conservation. They chose wood as their primary building material since it was a renewable, local resource which used comparatively little energy for processing and transportation. Then, passing the first ordinance of its kind in the nation, the villagers voted to require that each of the 40 new commercial structures in the relocated downtown be designed to receive at least half its heating energy from the sun.

The villagers now are completing construction of the nation’s first solar-heated business district. They carried out extensive "microclimate" analysis to ensure that each building made maximum use of solar heating while taking advantage of terrain and vegetation to block winter winds and to use summer breezes for cooling. The typical new structure contains insulation levels of R-36 in its walls and R-72 in its attic, several times higher than required by state building codes. The typical building receives not 50 but 75 percent of its heating energy from passive and hybrid solar systems, an unexpected achievement in the north country. Through intelligent planning, most of the buildings have been constructed at a cost of less than $40 per square foot – comparable to the cost of conventionally heated buildings in the region.

Thus, facing the crisis of repeated flooding, the villagers assured their future as a community, doing so in a way which respected natural and human needs. They thought beyond their immediate situation to consider their obligations as a village interrelating with the rest of the world. Yet the ecological ethic did not mean sacrifice. It produced greater benefit. The new energy systems, high energy efficiency and careful use of the elements mean that Soldiers Grove will not be greatly affected by future cutoffs of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, each businessman’s fuel bills have been greatly reduced – one 7,000 square foot supermarket used no fossil fuels for heat during the winter of 1980-1981.

The relocation project is remarkable not only for its demonstration of new energy and flood-damage prevention techniques, but because the innovation was conceived and employed by a low-income community, inhabited mostly by elderly and conservative rural folks in the Snow Belt. The project has completely turned around the spirit of the village, from a mood of depression and pending crisis to high energy and excitement because the people found a way to take the future back into their own hands.

Multiplied to national scale, the creativity exercised by the people of Soldiers Grove would produce similar benefits. It would reduce the taxation of environmental resources, improve the economy, insulate us from energy interruptions and liberate the United States from the need to exercise military muscle in remote and unstable corners of the world.

Our Challenge

Soldiers Grove challenges the rest of us to follow. If one unlikely village can transform itself, so can we all. We can make peace and prosperity based on thoughtfulness and cooperation rather than on conflict. Self-realization and interrelationship sound fancy, but they are stuff that we build with our hands.

It is within our means to make national policy in which every can recycled, every BTU of energy conserved, every solar collector installed or drop of water preserved moves us towards global security and healing. We can fashion policy in which those activities are supported and empowered, rather than contradicted and undermined, by the policies and resources of government. Such policy makes full use of technology, but remains people-centered rather than technology-centered. It replaces our sense of hopelessness and fatalism with a sense of individual contribution to the future. It aligns government action with personal action so that each of us, wherever we live and work, becomes a key participant in making and preserving peace. It engages rather than ignores our genius.

If we wish to find national security, that is where our search must lead us: to new understandings and social policies which empower each of us as a peacemaker and a healer; to a determined commitment by all of us to serve as soldiers in a peaceful army building a civilization worthy of our potential as human beings.