Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The Greening of The Arms Industry

PEACE, too, inflicts casualties. The cold war's end has brought the threat and reality of unemployment home to millions of workers around the world. From Slovakia to Semipalatinsk, Silicon Valley to Route 128, a plunge in weapons orders has thrown the lives of those dependent on the defense dole into turmoil. The danger is most acute in the East where, in their idled state, scientists and technicians responsible for designing and deploying weapons may be tempted to sell their knowledge to anyone with cas h.

In the West, conditions are not as desperate. Yet even here, the reordering of priorities essential to the economic revival is being impeded by powerful forces fearful of losing jobs and profits. Two years after the cold war's end, the US defense budget remains only marginally smaller (and will shrink by just 2 percent a year for the next several years) largely because politicians need to boost the defense contractors and workers in their own districts.

About these ads

The White House halts efforts to shift the US economy from dependency on defense dollars. While professing concern for defense workers, the administration sabotages programs that would assist in locating non-military work. Perhaps it prefers workers so fearful that they fight to build weapons we no longer need.

Military contractors are cautiously seeking out civilian markets - diversifying rather than converting wholesale to non-defense work. From solar cars to post-office automation, they are looking for market niches. But these are mostly pilot projects, dwarfed by bread-and-butter Pentagon contracts. Having been burned by notorious conversion failures during an earlier era of defense cutbacks, many remain skittish about committing major resources to civilian production before they are certain of a return. In stead, most lobby hard for continued high military budgets and increased foreign arms sales (a market the US now ranks Number 1 in).

Congress is considering legislation to provide $1 billion for retraining displaced workers at arms plants, and assisting communities in planning a transition. But the gesture seems more symbol than substance. Given the scale of the restructuring necessary, an effective conversion program would cost several times as much. Funds would come by canceling or curtailing many of the big-ticket weapons in next year's $275 billion arms budget.

Federal conversion programs have so far proven inadequate. The White House is only now distributing $200 million earmarked for conversion two years ago. The agency distributing this largesse, the Pentagon Office of Economic Adjustment, limits itself to $300,000 grants to communities seeking to restructure their economies after plant or base closings. Yet this same agency produced a study some years ago demonstrating that converting military bases to civilian uses generates more jobs than it ends. A study

by Employment Research Associates in Lansing, Mich., concluded that every $1 billion shifted from the military budget to civilian production yields 6,800 jobs.

But focusing solely on jobs, as the debate often does, distracts from the larger issue: What kinds of products and services should military-serving industries now generate? What does this society most need that they can best provide? As the repositories of the nation's most advanced technology and expertise, these industries could, if properly redesigned, become the foundation for a post-cold war "green" economy. Technologies for conservation and energy efficiency; pollution control; environmental protec tion, restoration, and monitoring; new options in public transport; and so on are categories with potential for markets at home and abroad.

European governments and industries sense the economic opportunities in a shift from red technologies of war to green technologies of peace. At the Earth Summit, many announced plans to develop environmentally benign products and services. Unfortunately, as elsewhere, US policy is shortsighted. Will this country lag behind in the post-industrial revolution?

About these ads

Converting from a military to a civilian economy concerns more than the employment of displaced defense workers. It is a question of what kind of economy and society we build. If left to current trends, we can anticipate an increasing disparity between what we produce and what we require - a future of obsolete industries, unemployed workers, and unmet needs. If the federal government invests in a sustainable economy by providing incentives for military industries and communities to shift decisively from red to green technologies, we can look to the future with confidence that it will be worth inhabiting.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.