and Global Reconstruction:
A Blueprint for the Year 2010
by Jonathan Larson 1993
They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into
pruning hooks. Isaiah 2: 4
When Isaiah's great promise was engraved below the bronze statue outside the
UN about 50 years ago, the problem of converting military production
to civilian production was thought to be largely political. If politicians
could only agree to peace, it was assumed, peaceful production would follow
For most of human history, this assumption was correct. A good blacksmith could
beat a sword into a plowshare in about a day and could probably convert three
or four spears into pruning hooks in the same time. As late at the end of World
War II, conversion was more complicated, but still considered a minor issue
compared to the politics of war.
The end of the Cold War has exposed the extreme difficulty of conversion in
the late twentieth century. For almost fifty years, the best industrial brains
on earth with unlimited budgets, designed and constructed a highly-specialized
industrial infrastructure devoted solely to perfecting the instruments of mass
murder. As a result, beating swords into plowshares is not going to be the
sideshow to the big celebration of the outbreak of peace any longer. Rather,
military conversion will be the main event.
The conversion experience following World War II would prove virtually irrelevant
in the 1990s. Turning an assembly-line devoted to tanks into one producing
automobiles was easy. And of course, humanity still knows how to do that. Unfortunately,
the Cold War papered over the main conversion problems following World War
II. No one worried about the problems of what to do with a submarine factory
because the superpowers continued to build bigger and better subs. Conversion
after World War II was partial--in fact, only the obvious industries like automobiles
made the switch.
Before the possibilities for conversion can be fully understood, the special
role that arms production has enjoyed in industrial economies must be addressed.
While the output of the military-industrial complex may have been barbaric,
the economics that ruled such production was benign, if not humane. Weapons
production was exempt from harsh economic "laws" which ruled the
rest of industrial enterprise.
The military provided clear industrial design objectives. Everyone knew that
the goal was the efficient and ruthless destruction of an enemy, therefore
industry was free to find a niche in the collectively agreed-upon scheme. Let
a thousand weapons systems flourish: governments will select the best. A supra-politics
that mirrored the military-industrial reality provided the necessary consensus
to perpetually fund advances in technology. General direction and funding are
all societies can ever usefully give industry--the military-industrial complex
Without the Cold War, militarized industry no longer has a grand design to
guide them. It has no incentive to convert because it lacks an alternate vision
of where they should go. Worse, the reliable funds are gone because there is
no longer a political consensus to purchase military output. The lives of millions
of highly-skilled industrial actors are in danger of their very existence.
It is no wonder military-industrial lobbyists prowl the halls of the great
capitals of the world hoping that someone has found a reliable enemy threatening
enough to rebuild the shattered consensus for buying weapons.
Any scheme for conversion must be large enough to replace the grand design
objectives and political consensus of the Cold War. It must be so large that
governments and financial institutions around the world will agree to perpetual
funding. Fortunately, there has emerged a concept so huge, it comically dwarfs
anything offered by the Cold War. Called "sustainable development," this
grand idea was given a stamp of approval at the Earth Summit in Rio.
The conversion to a post-hydrocarbon, closed-loop industrialization is utterly
critical for human survival. As such, it can provide the necessary political
consensus. The shift in focus from military defense to environmental defense
is both small and logical. If the American public could be made to fear a shattered
Soviet Union in 1947, a threat that was at best manufactured, imagine how much
easier it would be to convince them of the very real environmental threat.
Stripped of the details, industrial-environmental design goals are clear. Humanity
must so arrange its affairs that it can live on the energy income from the
sun, and every product that is made must be able to be recycled into its elemental
parts. Humanity must understand that it can only get its power from the source--a
nuclear furnace 93,000,000 miles from earth, and that we only borrow from the
biosphere--everything we use must eventually be returned.
If this sounds simple, consider the implications. To cope with global warming,
the industrial countries--most especially the USA--will have to rebuild their
transportation systems to operate on electricity, rebuild and reinsulate virtually
all existing structures, and build all the solar and wind generators that must
be added to the electrical grid. To cope with ozone depletion, virtually all
refrigeration systems must be rebuilt or replaced--including much of the food
handling apparatus. To cope with solid waste, virtually all products must be
designed for disassembly and resource recovery. Low energy waste recovery methods
and simple-to-recycle plastics must be invented and produced. Credible, long-term
methods of dealing with 1950's nuclear technologies must be developed. To cope
with desertification, new long-term methods of agriculture must be invented
and implemented with emphasis on plant genetic diversification. Conversion
to sustainability implies nothing less than the second half of the industrial
There can be no doubt as to the magnitude of the conversion to sustainability.
If we survive as a species, the world 50 years from now will be dramatically
different from the one today. Furthermore, there is not a spare hand to waste.
The spaceship earth is in grave danger. Everyone, most especially the "rocket
scientists" of the world, are needed for this great effort. This is why
sustainable development is the logical replacement for the ideologies of Cold
War militarized industry. The military employed most of the rocket scientists,
and most of the other scientists as well. Their services are badly needed in
the repair of planet earth.
Still, there will be dislocations. Those who build submarines are not obviously
qualified to perfect the elegant technologies of sustainable development. It
should be remembered in this context, however, that those who build submarines
are divided into hundreds of different skills. On the personal level, most
skills have immediate applications to the new technologies. For example, those
who designed electrical generators for submarines are qualified to design the
electrical generators necessary for sustainable industrialization.
The State of Conversion
Any serious observer can see that with minor exceptions, a conversion from
a military-industrial economy to an industrial-environmental one has barely
started. There are cultural reasons for this. Militarized industries were formed
to provide the means of destruction and death. With such a mindset, environmental
concerns were never high on any list of important military-industrial objectives.
Not surprisingly, the most serious environmental problems, as measured by "superfund" cleanup
sites in the USA, are located at the site of weapons production. Assigning
the problems of environmental renewal to history's worst polluters sounds like
the fox guarding the henhouse to most people. And because weapons production
always represented the highest flowering of science and industry, environmentalists
are loathe to think such enterprise can solve anything--even rational thought
has become suspect.
Ultimately, these cultural difficulties will be swept aside by one perfect
argument: Only those who designed and built the industrial infrastructure have
the relevant expertise to fix the problems. For example, a profound wilderness
experience may cause a person to want to clean up a toxic waste dump, but actual
clean-up must be done by chemists who can neutralize old poisons, heavy equipment
operators who can dig them up, hydrologists who must track the extent of the
damage, and so on. A spiritual experience may give a clear focus to one's efforts,
but to get the job done properly, it takes the work of people with scientific
and industrial experience. Industrial societies with industrial pollution must
have industrial environmentalism--there are no other choices.
The Economic Implications
The greatest remaining impediment to converting militarized industry to environmental
industry are preindustrial economic assumptions. Anyone who doubts that defense
contractors could produce an industrial-environmental complex clearly does
not understand the incredible scientific potential being wasted on armaments.
Technology is not the problem--the problem is funding. No government or business
can put people to work solving problems that clearly cry out for solutions
because after the absurd money games of the 1980s, everyone is in debt.
The time has come to haul the great UN statue down to Washington for placement
in front of the IMF or World Bank, for it is institutions such as these who
must now get the message. And the message is clear; no more economics of austerity!
Every time a nation or business becomes poorer, they become less capable of
servicing debt. The limits have been reached, there must be global debt restructuring.
The IMF and World Bank were chartered to encourage development. It is time
they live up to their charter rather than act as the ghouls of austerity. The
debt overhang must be eliminated, or at least ignored. If institutions such
as the IMF or World Bank are not up to the task because of intellectual of
financial bankruptcy from past error, new parallel institutions must be brought
into being. Industry built on the cheap is the cause of most environmental
dilemmas. An elegant industrial replacement is by definition more expensive.
This is hardly a time for economic austerity. Whatever it take to reflate the
global economy must be done first. Money is plentiful, but it must be placed
in the hands of those industries that can solve problems, not in the hands
of idle speculators who move it around the globe like so much electronic chaff.
If money is made available, the necessary industrial-environmental infrastructure
will be built. Industry has a long history of fulfilling needs when there is
money to be made. But what is as important as funds is the thinking behind
This means an end to the primitive assumptions of monetarism--most specifically,
the idea that inflation can only be properly fought with high interest rates
and a credit squeeze. High interest rates have led to the paralysis of global
debt. Inflation has been brought down by putting the planet on a going-out-of-business
footing. Bankrupt industry and countries cannot take on large new tasks--even
if those tasks are critical to human survival.
Worse than high rates are the assumptions behind compound interest. Nothing
can grow at compound rates in a finite biosphere without an eventual catastrophic
collapse. Compound rates must be based on real activity, and so they lead to
attempts at compound industrial growth--which is impossible to sustain. Sustainable
development depends on sustainable monetary assumptions. The maximum probable
sustainable, inflation adjusted, simple interest rate for industrial-environmental
projects of necessity is 1/4% per annum. Even at this seemingly trivial rate,
one need not cry for the IMF or World Bank. The sheer size of any conversion
to a sustainable infrastructure is so huge, what is lost through lower rates
will be more than made up in volume.
The monetary assumptions that caused governments and businesses to close or
be hobbled by debt, have also extracted a grave social toll. Businesses and
governments collapse: civil strife breaks out: and refugees flee. In the end,
the monetary assumptions of high rates do not even benefit those who would
seem to benefit most. No matter how rich or powerful, environmental dilemmas
will affect everyone. There is no fence for acid rain nor shield from ultraviolet
radiation. Governments can no longer guarantee bad debt--they are in debt already.
And when the politics of austerity cause the breakdown of social order, the
rich are the most vulnerable of all. Even when an industrial-environmental
conversion has flaws, at least it will get folks back to work and paying their
The North-South Implications
The South is properly suspicious of Northern environmentalists believing that
the South is about to be exploited or left behind again. This must not be allowed
to happen. New methods of elegant technology transfer must be developed. In
some cases, the North should share technology with the South out of historical
The best example would be the sharing of the Sahara's solar power. Logically,
this is the site of the solar collectors for Europe and Asia. Not only is the
Sahara's solar power reliable, abundant, and with advances in electrical transmission,
reasonably accessible, but the desert is almost devoid of human habitation--virtually
no one need be relocated. Even so, the history of African exploitation by Europeans
might pose political hurdles to widespread solar collectors in the Sahara.
The obvious answer is for Europe and Asia to trade technology for access. While
they are building the solar collectors for themselves, they could build some
for Africa as well. After all, it is in the interest of all of us that sub-Sahara
Africa grow trees rather than burn what they have for cooking and heat. There
is no North-only solution to environmental problems. We are all in this together.
The destruction of the biosphere is so advanced, the time has come for immediate
action. By 1994, there must be global monetary reform; by 1996, global industrial
standards and strategies must be in place; by 1998, pilot projects must be
completed in countries of advanced industrialization; and by the year 2000,
legal and other methods for North-South technology transfers must be perfected
There is so much necessary work to be done, it numbs the senses. There are
so many unemployed people who could do this work, it breaks the spirit. If
we cannot join our environmental dilemmas to our vast human potential, we are
doomed--and deserve to be. It would be a shame if humanity staggered towards
total chaos simply because we lack a little imagination about how necessary
work should be organized.
RETURN TO: VEBLEN FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM
RETURN TO: Correcting the history
of Thorstein Veblen