Green Engineering And National Security

The US Army Corps of Engineers looks to the future and embraces the concept of sustainable development

One of the articles in Dancing Toward The Future (IC#32)
Originally published in Summer 1992 on page 40
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute


Lt. General Henry J. Hatch commands the US Army Corps of Engineers, a job that also includes serving as the Army’s Staff Engineer and, as of a few years ago, its Staff Environmentalist. In the past few years he has led the Corps of Engineers through a significant change in direction that has involved embracing the concept of "sustainable development" and, in some cases, actually working to undo the environmental damage caused by the Corps in an earlier era. He has said that the Corps must begin to think of itself as the Corps of Environmental Engineers – which would give a whole new meaning to the green of Army uniforms.

The Corps – and of course the Army as a whole – is not the first organization that comes to mind when dreaming about regreening the Earth. And even the Corps’ current work to mitigate environmental damage often comes under fire from critics. But within our large public institutions, change of the sort being promoted by Hank Hatch is absolutely vital. It deserves our appreciation and merits close attention (as well as continuing constructive criticism).

General Hatch’s views on sustainable development differ from others’ in this issue, but within the context of the US Army, they are nothing less than transformational. I spoke with him by telephone from Seattle – a conversation that was made possible, in part, by electricity generated by Corps-run dams on the Columbia River.

Alan: How did the Corps come to recraft its mission in the direction of sustainable development?

Hank: Well, first, the Corps is not an independent entity and is not really in a position to craft its mission. But it is certainly a responsible public service agency. It has the obligation to do what it can, in concert with higher authorities, to redirect its efforts to be more responsive to the needs of our society.

Throughout its history as a public organization, the Corps’ duty has been to respond to the needs of those it serves. In the last century, it was exploring, mapping, and chronicling the wonders of the West; in the earlier half of this one, it was constructing massive flood control devices and structures in response to perceived needs for channelization, dredging, and development of navigable waterways and deep-water ports. Rather than acting independently, the Corps was responding to the direction set by Administrations and Congresses.

It occurred to us a few years ago that if we didn’t project ourselves out far in advance, we would always be lagging behind, years or even decades, in our response to what our nation and the world needs. We started a strategic thinking process, something that is perhaps not terribly common among public sector agencies. We recognized that the environment was a clearly emerging area of need, and that what we had been doing before wasn’t going to be sufficient. We had been working to comply with environmental requirements as we pursued our traditional business, then adding environmental values to a project, in some cases late in the game. So we decided to approach the environment from a different angle altogether: to recognize that our nation and the world face, and will continue to face, an environmental challenge, and to include directly addressing environmental issues in the mission of the Corps.

If environmentally sustainable development is going to be a need of our society, then we need engineers to participate. As the largest public-sector engineering agency in the free world, the Corps of Engineers ought to be a piece of that. Without engineers, environmental challenges and problems will not be solved.

Alan: Despite your acknowledgement that you are responsive to your superiors, it seems the Corps’ position, as you have articulated it, is very forward-thinking compared to other large agencies in the government sector. Is that the case, and if so, how does that sit with your superiors in the Army and the Administration?

Hank: We have perhaps been more proactive than some other agencies in extending our vision and planning horizon beyond the next five-year program or the next Presidential term. We try to recognize that our institution will probably be in existence for the next two hundred years, as it has been for the last two hundred. And so, yes, we’ve pushed the limits somewhat. We’ve continued to stretch the envelope of the past vision of what the Corps of Engineers is, and what its purposes are. We have been both supported and directed by our higher authorities in this regard. Do we always agree? No. Do we generally? I would say yes. And I would say we’ve been responsive to the direction I get from our current Commander-in-Chief. I do read his lips.

Alan: You’ve said in previous interviews that there is a direct connection between sustainable development and national security. Could you explain that connection?

Hank: One of the easiest ways to do that would be to reference the August, 1991 version of a document entitled "The National Security Strategy of the United States." It is a little blue pamphlet, not very thick, that represents a fascinating and challenging departure from its predecessors. In this document, the environment is highlighted among other facets of national security. The President moves definitely away from the national security strategy hinged on containment of Communism and deterring war against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations, and focuses on the broader aspects of national security to include – beyond the military – economic, environmental, and other elements that would contribute to the promotion of peace and stability in the world. Promoting the development of democratic institutions and market economies also figures in.

If we can accept that the environment is no longer just an issue "in my back yard" – that it is in fact a global issue – we can see easily that the environment, along with economic, social, and political issues, is a component of our national security. I can clearly anchor my concerns for environmentally sustainable development into this broader concept of national security. It all ties together, in my mind, very nicely.

Alan: There seems to be broad divergence of opinion about what "sustainable development" means, ranging on a spectrum from "continuous economic growth" to "environmental protection." How do you define "environmentally sustainable development," and articulate that guiding ethic within the Corps?

Hank: From the Brundtland Commission on, people have picked up the expression "sustainable development" and have applied it across that rather broad continuum of definitions. On a scale of one to ten, with one meaning "strictly development, with modest modifications," and ten meaning "strictly environmental protection," I’m probably about a three. That is, our goal is clearly development, but it is heavily modified by the expression "environmentally sustainable."

I remind people that "environmentally sustainable development" is a three-word expression. It has one adverb and one adjective, but only one noun. The noun is "development" because development is absolutely essential if we’re going to be able to sustain and support whatever rate of growth our populations are going to have on Earth, and if we’re going to achieve the level of economic interdependence in this world that represents, in my view, the cornerstone of peace in the future. I view environmentally sustainable development as continued growth and development, but tempered in such a way as to ensure that we do not foreclose the natural resource-base alternatives for future generations.

Alan: Herman Daly, an economist at the World Bank, warns that economic growth to the levels that the Brundtland Commission says are required to achieve a basic living standard for all Earth’s people is actually greater than the Earth’s photosynthetic processes can support. What is your view of such analyses?

Hank: I don’t necessarily believe population projections. We tend to reach limits much more asymptotically than people realize, and those that are given to extrapolationism sometimes take us off on tangents. There are systems that tend to be self-adjusting – sometimes very humanely but sometimes brutally – in terms of their ability to support humanity. Daly’s comment may well be true, and if so, he has just identified a system that will not allow population to grow to the extent projected.

Alan: To what extent is the ethic you’ve been describing shared by others in the Army, and other branches of the military?

Hank: As the Army’s Staff Environmentalist, I am responsible for the Army’s military environmental program, as well as for integrating the Army’s environmental efforts with those of the Department of Defense. Within the Department, there is a fast-growing environmental ethic. It is a very honest and, I believe, productive effort to integrate environmental ethics with the military’s other professional ethics.

The Army is spending over a billion dollars this current fiscal year on a variety of environmental programs. The Defense Environmental Restoration Program [DERP] is probably the only growing program in the Defense budget, as directed by the hand of the President, the Administration, and the Secretary of Defense, as well as through the appropriations and authorizations process by the Congress. Although the total size of the military is in the process of declining by plus-or-minus 31% from a few years ago, the DERP and other environmental programs are growing. So even though budgets are the tightest they’ve been for decades, the Army, as well as the rest of the Defense Department, is putting an increasing level of resources into the environment.

There are four pillars in the Army’s environmental program: first, complying with environmental laws and regulations; second, restoration, and the cleanup of hazardous toxic waste; third, preventing future environmental damage throughout the life cycle of systems that we design and procure, and the operations that we conduct on our military installations; and fourth, conservation. Conservation includes training area management, with the protection of the environment in those training areas as the dominant purpose. We’re being very thoroughly supported by tactical commanders in that regard, because they recognize that we’re not only protecting the environment, we’re also enhancing training. By providing a physically better environment, we provide a more realistic training ground to promote the readiness of the armed forces. I think the Department is seriously moving in a positive direction.

Alan: Is there a recycling program in the military? Is energy conservation practiced?

Hank: Recycling is picking up on military installations; energy conservation has been a major program, stimulated primarily for economic reasons over the last couple of decades, and now also for environmental reasons. And there are a number of programs to enhance the overall energy efficiency of military systems and installations.

Alan: I grew up in Florida, and I vividly remember taking our sailboat down what we called the Government Cut, a straight line channel through once meandering waterways that was built by the Corps of Engineers. Now the Corps is planning to unstraighten some of those waterways, including one section of the Kissimmee River. Why is that?

Hank: I think the Kissimmee project is a terrific case study. The Corps of Engineers effort there began as a response to local and state desires to provide navigation and flood control. Admittedly, there was little recognition of the environmental value that might be sacrificed in attaining those purposes.

Over the past decades there has been a growing recognition of those environmental values, and a desire to change this publicly-funded project so that it is more responsive to the changing values of the American people. We now value the environment, the wetlands, the fish and wildlife that suffered because of navigation and flood control projects. We can not totally undo the projects, but in concert with state and local authorities, we can significantly modify them so that some of those fish and wildlife values can be restored.

Alan: How far along is the Kissimmee project?

Hank: We’ve been nibbling at it. Just within the last few weeks, I approved a Chief of Engineers Report that will go through the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works and eventually to the Congress for possible inclusion in the next Water Resource Development Act, to be authorized as a project.

Alan: That’s quite a window on the bureaucracy you work within.

Hank: Oh, it takes a little time. But that bureaucracy saves us all from some pork-barrel politics that might go on if we didn’t have it.

Alan: Another specific I’m curious about is the salmon recovery project in the Columbia River Basin. There’s a great deal of controversy about current plans to periodically halt generators and draw down our reservoirs to speed salmon fingerlings – which get trapped behind dams or chewed up by turbines – toward the sea. Is this also an example of the legacy of patently unsustainable development in years past? And is this damage we can successfully mitigate, in your view?

Hank: In this case, it’s not as easy as the Kissimmee. There was a massive investment of taxpayers’ money in hydropower and associated navigation facilities on the Columbia River, at a time when we were responding to that perceived need of the public. To go back now and obtain a balance that reflects 1990s priorities among navigation, flood control, and fish and wildlife values is much more difficult, physically, because we have these massive structures.

We already recognize there will be a sacrifice, at least in part, of the two initial purposes of those structures, hydropower and navigation. We’ve already tried fish-ladders, turbine screens, and trucking fingerlings around the dams, and now we’re entering into another phase of exploring what mitigation means. Hopefully the decisions will be based on the best data available; they will be political decisions, because the full array of the political processes will apply to them. A lot of compromise will be associated with that.

Alan: Do you think we’ll go so far as to spend the several hundred million dollars some people project it would take to completely rebuild the dam system?

Hank: I find it difficult to forecast that level of expenditure. If we were to look at national priorities, I think it would be difficult to justify. Something less, maybe, but that’s just my personal opinion.

Alan: Let’s turn to engineering in general. In a recent speech to the Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development, you said "Before engineers can assume their facilitative role [in sustainable development], deficiencies in their education must be remedied." What are some of those deficiencies, and how must they be remedied?

Hank: The deficiency is primarily the narrowness of the education, which is focused excessively on science and technology at the expense of social issues and subjects. We are training technically competent individuals at the expense of developing more broadly and liberally educated citizens and contributors to society – competent members of teams and organizations. At times there seems to be a kind of technical arrogance at the expense of the broader sense of social involvement, engagement, and responsibility.

Much of what I’ve just said coincides with corporate America’s criticism of engineering education, particularly the aspects of multidisciplinary understanding, the ability to work in teams, and the ability to engage in public debate associated with projects and works. There’s a developing groundswell of concern in corporate America, the employers of our graduate engineers, that the whole gamut of engineering education warrants a review and an adjustment. Part of that adjustment will include the environment.

Alan: The architecture community has been shifting strongly toward sustainability, both in colleges with design programs and in professional associations. Are the architects out in front of the engineers?

Hank: The architects are the right-brains of the crowd, and the engineers, as scientists, tend to be left-brained. I would expect the artistic among us – the architects, who have always been concerned with the environment even if only in terms of aesthetics – to have a leg up. They are generally the more creative members of our combined architect-engineer professional team, and I would expect them to be the leaders in this way of thinking.

But I would say that the engineering profession at large is moving. The World Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development is a small group that is just beginning. Both the US and international organizations of consulting engineers now have clearly stated positions on environmental sustainability.

A few professional engineering associations are holding back. They feel that the engineer’s or consultant’s job is solely to respond to the will of the client. I respectfully reject that notion. What I say to engineers is that we will have arrived, in terms of environmentally sustainable development, when we would no more recommend an environmentally unsound alternative, solution, or design to a client than we would a structurally unsound solution. When I word it that way, it stimulates a certain level of serious thought. I am suggesting that we incorporate the notion of environmental sustainability into our professional ethics.

A given building must in itself be structurally sound. An individual project cannot always, in and of itself, be environmentally sustainable, though you can do a lot of things with it. But a collection of projects, or development on the scale of a region or section of a city, can and should be.

Alan: The Corps, as you mentioned earlier, responds to public needs, and sometimes suffers in its public image when those perceived needs change. Some environmentalists are very skeptical about the Corps’ engagement in environmental issues. How do you respond to such skepticism and criticism of the Corps’s environmental record?

Hank: Well, we have a 200-year record laid out in steel and concrete for everyone’s retro-inspection. And I would simply ask those environmentalists, where were you in the 1930s, 40s, and 70s when we needed a stronger environmental ethic in the United States, when we were responding to navigation and later flood control needs? Our nation didn’t have an environmental ethic then. We had people like John Muir, but the environment was not an active consideration in our political processes the way it is today.

I’m very careful not to be critical of my predecessors. Things will be happening in this next century that will make what we’re doing today, and what you and I are discussing now, look foolish or too narrow. I’m careful in dealing with hindsight. What I ask is that people not throw anecdotal evidence up as a barrier to our being partners in solving this Earth’s problems. We won’t always agree. Sure, be skeptical, keep tongue in cheek, see if we put our money where our mouth is – that’s fine. But let’s maintain a dialogue. As I and the Corps have become involved in this discourse, I’ve been absolutely inspired by the willingness of many – I would hesitate to say most – of those who consider themselves strictly environmentalists to engage and say, "Let’s get on with solving these problems."

To environmentalists, I say that you will fail miserably in attaining your objectives if you do not exploit the scientific and engineering capabilities of our nation. To engineers, I say we will fail miserably if we do not meet our broader obligations to society and the world, as well as simply taking advantage of some of the economic opportunities in environmental engineering. We’ve got to work as partners.

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