Beating Swords Into Solar Collectors

Converting military industry to ecologically sound production
is no simple matter - but it can be done

One of the articles in Sustainability (IC#25)
Originally published in Late Spring 1990 on page 38
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

The end of the Cold War is likely to cause a few squabbles over how to spend the "peace dividend," where to draw the country lines on the world map – and what to do with the factories and workers who currently build military machinery. Michael Renner, a researcher with the Worldwatch Institute, has studied this last question intensively and written about it for Worldwatch in State of the World 1990 and in a Worldwatch Paper entitled "Swords Into Ploughshares: Converting to a Peacetime Economy." Military conversion is a tremendously complex problem, as Michael makes clear. But it also presents an enormous opportunity for learning how to shift industry in general to a more sustainable direction. Contact Worldwatch at 1776 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036.

Alan: What external forces – apart from the obvious example of changes in what used to be called "the Soviet bloc" – are forcing us to take conversion a little more seriously?

Michael: The changes in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe are certainly part of it, but equally strong is the whole question whether a continued military build-up can still be financed. That question applies in virtually every country. There is a lot of budgetary pressure on military spending. Global military expenditures may well have peaked.

Alan: Is the environment playing a role? I recently was astonished to hear former CIA Chief William Colby saying, in effect, "Let’s take the money out of the military budget and throw it at environmental restoration." How broadly is that kind of note being sounded?

Michael: It is probably an important factor, but I’m not sure it’s playing a crucial role yet. People feel that we have many other needs that we have to fund properly – and at this point that feeling is just at the level of "we really ought to," rather than being effective at actually pushing things along.

Alan: But grassroots efforts at promoting military conversion are strengthening, are they not?

Michael: That’s really exciting. Since the Lucas Aerospace campaign in England in the 1970s, plant-level initiatives have been quite important in making conversion not just a theoretical issue, but something that is graspable and very real for people. These initiatives have been successful at bringing up the issue and saying "Look, this has to be taken seriously." That alone is an important achievement.

Alan: Could you recap briefly the story of the Lucas Aerospace campaign?

Michael: In the early 1970s large scale layoffs were announced by the management of the company, and initially the unions looked to see if nationalization might be the answer in terms of preserving their jobs. In Britain at the time, nationalization was still an acceptable alternative.

But attention was redirected to a workers’ initiative for trying to figure out what could be produced within the company’s factories for the civilian market. The shop stewards did a skill audit, and they came up with a list of 150 alternatives summarized as "socially useful products" – which has since then become something of a buzzword for conversion initiatives.

One really ought to be careful about making the Lucas campaign into something that was easy and glorious, because it was really an enormous struggle. The union hierarchies often were unhappy about the activities of the shop stewards because they seemed to rival formal union structures. Management was very uncooperative, of course, and even the Labour government of the time wasn’t offering support to the campaign.

So some people have argued that the whole campaign was overrated, and that it really was a failure. And yes, none of the proposed alternative products were actually taken up by management – or at least not directly. But the enormous publicity generated by the campaign helped make it virtually impossible for management to go through with enforcing the announced layoffs. Some of the layoffs were made only years later, after the government changed from Labour to Conservative.

But the lesson of that campaign is that workers can come up with their own proposals for alternative uses of what exists on the shop floor, rather than having to rely on management or outside experts to tell them what to do. That’s what has been picked up by other groups, both in Britain and abroad.

Alan: Can you give some examples?

Michael: The Lucas campaign has been a catalyst for similar initiatives in West Germany in particular. And at least one of these working groups – in the southern city of Augsburg, where MBB, the leading West German military contractor, has one of many facilities – has been quite successful. After many months of negotiation between workers, local authorities, and management itself, they reached an agreement to look at alternative growth markets. They were spurred to do so because it’s becoming more and more clear that military budgets are not going to grow eternally into the future, and that they will have to look for some alternative to stay in business.

They’ve also specifically taken the environmental crisis into account. The company will work to develop technologies that will help the local textile industry use less water and energy and reduce pollution. It’s a very small undertaking, but it is fairly unprecedented that management has directly taken up a suggestion by one of these workers’ alternative use committees. And it is doing this in partnership with local government, which means that management doesn’t have exclusive control. That could well become another model for other groups in West Germany and abroad.

Alan: Obviously the public isn’t going to start buying $600 dollar toilet seats, as the Pentagon does. How do you turn a military provider into a producer of "socially useful products"?What internal obstacles are in the way?

Michael: Conversion, of course, challenges the authority of management to make decisions, and that is a very big item in a list of obstacles. Another one is that military work is still, despite various changes, very profitable – much more profitable than civilian work on average. There is also a need for a government policy to establish a framework for new markets, so these companies feel there is something worth moving into.

But leaving those factors aside, something that conversion initiatives really have to grapple with is that a considerable share of the military industry is very firmly in the high technology sector.

These companies – and their engineers, scientists, and technicians – are used to doing "gold-plated" work that is very heavy on expensive, exotic technical solutions to things that could be done much more cheaply. Changing this whole orientation is very difficult. Some of the efforts by companies to diversify during the 1970s after the Viet Nam war really demonstrate that – such as that by Boeing-Vertol.

That company tried to produce trolley cars for the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority. There was a certain amount of arrogance on the part of management and engineers, who in effect said, "We are involved in such high-tech production, trolley cars will be a cinch." But they failed miserably. They were unable to produce a product that was reliable, sturdy and cheap.

Alan: The same was true with Grumman’s buses in New York City.

Michael: Right. And the same was also true for the Rohr Corporation, who tried to produce subway cars. Grumman also ventured into solar energy and failed just as miserably. So what needs to happen is a fundamental reorientation at all levels of a company. Otherwise failures like these will just be repeated on a fairly large scale.

Alan: Are there any success stories in this area? I know China has done a tremendous amount of conversion in the last decade.

Michael: It’s hard to apply the Chinese experience to the U.S., because the two economies are so different. But what’s interesting is that the various military industry firms that were trying to convert actually sent representatives to other companies with a history of producing civilian goods. They went to find out how such things were done, both within the factory and in terms of marketing their products. That may be one general lesson that can be applied to the U.S.

Alan: What about the Soviet Union?

Michael: In the Soviet Union, you have now the political will on the governmental level that is still pretty much lacking in the west. But there are unresolved problems in terms of how to produce quality goods for the population.

The Soviet military industry has always produced civilian goods as well, and the same is true for China. The path of least resistance is to keep going in that direction. All the televisions and VCRs produced in the Soviet Union are produced by military industry firms, for example. Both military and civilian firms have suffered from the country’s enormously rigid central planning system, but the military industry firms have benefited from greater allocations of resources, better quality inputs, and better trained people.

So people in the Soviet Union figure, "If we have the civilian firms take over, we’ll really be in a mess. So let’s have the military industry firms take over certain civilian production tasks." That’s kind of a funny idea, especially if it goes on forever. How much accountability do you have when the military sector essentially takes over civilian production? Who directs the process?

And as we were saying before, high tech military industry firms may want to stay close to what they’ve been doing. Sukhoi, a producer of Soviet war planes, is apparently talking to an American company, Gulfstream Jet Corporation, about a joint venture to produce a civilian corporate jet. It would be almost like a war plane – supersonic speed, and extremely costly. So the question arises, is this a "socially useful product"? Who is it useful for? What are the environmental implications?

It isn’t necessarily always positive to move from something called "military" to anything called "civilian." A much more thorough test needs to be applied to any changeover process.

Alan: That makes me wonder whether we’ll start seeing a greater push for space exploration and other high-tech ventures that military industries could more easily shift towards.

Michael: I think that’s likely. You could argue that in a country like the U.S., where supplying mass consumer goods is not a problem – it’s more a problem in terms of over supply – it may be more useful for some of these companies to actually stay at the leading edge of high technology. But that depends on what applications we’re talking about. I’m very skeptical about space exploration and the like, because the real problem we’re facing in western countries is a neglect of this area that is so nicely called "socially useful products."

Alan: I’m struck by the enormity of what we’re discussing – "military conversion" involves massive money flows, distribution networks, and infrastructures that all have to be totally rethought. It’s not just changing a missile factory into a baby carriage factory.

Michael: Right. It’s not just a nice little idea, because it links into so many other issues of modern society. What do you do within the factory? And who does it? How is the work of these alternative use committees embedded in labor and job market policy, or technology policy? We need to set national and even international priorities, and we also have to make sure the environment doesn’t suffer – that it can even be improved in the process.

Alan: In reading your paper, it struck me that the military-to-peacetime conversion process is a model, or perhaps a subset, of the unsustainable-to-sustainable conversion process.

Michael: European trade unions have made the strong point that conversion does not apply only to military industry, but to all economic activity. You could say that a transformation of economic activity and existing economic structures is taking place all the time, and the question is simply who decides the direction, the desirability of that direction, the speed of the change, and so on. So far that has been left either to management or governmental institutions. Workers and communities and grassroots groups have been left out. Conversion is a concept that can equally be applied to these kinds of transformations.

I don’t think that the environmental movement has given a lot of thought to what the implications would be if some of its fundamental priorities were actually put in practice. To deal with the greenhouse effect, for example, you would have to find alternative jobs for most of the people employed in all of the fossil fuel, automobile, and trucking industries – enormous numbers of people involved there.

I think the reason why the environmental movement has given insufficient or even no thought to these issues is that it is mostly an upper middle class movement. They are talking about the jobs of other people, not their own. That’s a fairly strong criticism of the environmental movement in general – if environmentalists took these considerations more seriously, they could gain politically by building a stronger coalition with the labor movement and other social change movements. That’s a very difficult issue because of the possibility for turf battles. It’s easier said than done to actually weave a broad ranging coalition. But I think it’s necessary.

Behind The Ironic Curtain

An Interview with Joel Goodman, by Diane Gilman

IC co-founder Diane Gilman recently spoke with Joel Goodman, director of the Humor Project, to get an update on that group’s shenanigans since our issue on "Play and Humor" (IC #13). (See "Resources" in this issue for an address and project description.)

Diane: Is there a place for humor in dealing with the very serious ecological problems we face?

Joel: I make a distinction between people who are serious about their mission and people who are solemn about it. It’s a matter of survival for us to be serious, but I don’t think we should be solemn. That’s a fuzzy line, but if humor can help us to keep going in the midst of either steep odds or what appear to be frightening predicaments, that’s worthwhile in and of itself.

Humor is both a societal and an individual safety valve. It’s also a vehicle for social change – and a mirror of reality. Will Rogers used to say he had the entire government working for him as a speechwriter. He didn’t need to make it up – he would just tell it like it was, and it was funny.

Diane: Just how essential is humor?

Joel: As Erma Bombeck says "When humor goes, there goes civilization." I think it’s probably true, but I don’t want to test it to find out!

Diane: What have you been up to lately?

Joel: We’ve been participating in some Soviet-American exchanges – sort of a summit of humorists. The initial idea came from Jim Boren, a very funny guy who started the International Association of Professional Bureaucrats – a wonderful spoof organization that he uses to prod bureaucracy into action. His original concept was to "exchange humor instead of bombs," and when he first proposed this idea, his Soviet colleague looked at him in disbelief and said, "Are you kidding? Do Americans have a sense of humor?"

Later they came up with a more nonviolent concept: "Laughter has no accent: A step behind the ironic curtain."

One of the things we did was to take these Soviet humorists up in hot air balloons. We found out only later that some of them had a tremendous fear of heights. The fellow I went up with had once fallen from the roof of a 15-story building and been caught by his pants on a hook, and he hung there for two hours waiting for a rescue – like something from a Charlie Chaplin movie! So when he made this breakthrough, it was an incredible act of courage. We were arm in arm going up in the balloon, and his knees were shaking violently, and we were saying, "We’re doing this for our sons and daughters." We were either going to fly together or crash together. That became a metaphor for our time.

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