Converging on conversion

Milan Rai

One thing that the climate and disarmament movements can learn from each other about, and co-operate with each other on, is in the area of solutions. If both movements are successful, that means we are moving towards demilitarised, decarbonised economies. We are going to transform the energy and industrial sectors of our economies, a bigger issue in countries like Britain, France and the US which have high emissions and high military spending.

In the climate movement, it’s common to talk about a ‘Just Transition’ to a low-carbon economy. In 2008, the British trade union congress (TUC), the national federation of trade unions, defined a Just Transition as one that wins public support for desperately-needed environmental policies by ensuring ‘a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of those policies across the economy’, and by involving those affected by the changes in making the economic plans. Part of a Just Transition is a ‘national framework or mechanism to ensure long-term planning and representative decision making on environmental transition’.

The TUC emphasised that ‘Just Transition measures are needed to ensure that job loss as a result of environmental transition is minimised and that change within sectors does not occur at the expense of decent work and decent terms and conditions’. They also pointed out that a ‘Just Transition strategy is also required to ensure that environmental initiatives not necessarily related to employment – for example, green taxes – do not impact on lower income groups’.

There are moral responsibilities here, and also strategic issues. If this kind of provision is not made for workers in high-carbon industries, they and their families, the communities they live in, and the unions who represent them, are likely to resist and slow down the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Nuclear Conversion

There’s a connection here to something that’s important for the nuclear disarmament movement. For example, there are moral issues and strategic questions around the effect on jobs if the British government decides not to replace Trident with a similar submarine-launched ballistic missile system. This ‘Main Gate’ decision on ‘like-for-like’ replacement will be made in 2016.

Protesters at a rally against Trident replacement
Protesters at a rally against Trident replacement

The Nuclear Education Trust carried out a review in 2012 of alternatives for Barrow-in-Furness, where nearly 5,000 people are employed building Britain’s military submarines. Two of their four recommendations were:

  1. 'The Government should make a clear and binding statement of its responsibility to Barrow (as well as any other towns exceptionally dependent on military contracts) in the event that military procurement decisions are changed.
  2. In the event of a decision to proceed with an option other than a like for like replacement and which means a step down in employment, the Government must provide immediate, sustained and considerable support, which should include for instance regeneration funding at the level of £100 million for every 1,000 jobs lost to the local economy.’

This is pointing in the direction of a peace movement equivalent to the TUC’s Just Transition concept, a Just Transition away from military production towards socially-useful production.

The major thinker on the conversion of military industry to civilian production was Seymour Melman of Columbia University, New York. Melman once observed that the US had an arms control and disarmament agency in Washington that did not include ‘one single person directed to think about problems of how to formulate, negotiate, or implement a reversal of an arms race’. He added:

‘Indeed the idea of reversing the arms race as a way of improving security is virtually wiped out from public discussion. The press doesn’t talk about it. The journals of opinion don’t talk about it. The universities don’t talk about it. And worst of all, in my view, the peace organizations don’t talk about it. As long as peace organizations don’t take up the reversal of the arms race and the parallel problems of what to do with the state capitalist controlled economy of the arms race, then the peace organizations are participating in a type of charade. A lot of talk about peace, but what is peace? In our time, peace is not simply the momentary absence of war. Because of the sustained operation of war planning, war preparation, peace has to mean diminishing the decision power of the war-making institutions. If that is set in motion then we are moving in a peaceful way.’

Melman emphasised the need to empower working people in the process of conversion. The legislation that he supported laid down that, in every military factory, laboratory or base employing at least 100 people, an ‘Alternative Use Committee’ should be set up of at least eight people, ‘with equal representation of the facility’s management and labor’. Melman wrote: ‘The firsthand knowledge of defense establishment employees is essential for conversion. Thus, conversion must be done locally; no remote central office can possess the necessary knowledge of people, facilities, and surroundings.’

So there would be national legislation supporting economic conversion planning, and there would be decentralised action at military facilities themselves. There is a clear parallel here with the German experience with renewable energy, that Naomi Klein invokes in her book, This Changes Everything:

‘The solution is most emphatically not energy nationalization on existing models. The big publicly owned oil companies... are just as voracious in pursuing high-end pools of carbon as their private sector counterparts.... A better model would be a new kind of utility – run democratically, by the communities that use them, as co-ops or as a “commons”, as author and activist David Bollier and others have outlined. This kind of structure would enable citizens to demand far more from their energy companies than they are able to now.... The transition [to renewable power in Germany] has occurred, first of all, within the context of a sweeping, national feed-in tariff program that includes a mix of incentives designed to ensure that anyone who wants to get into renewable power generation can do so.... This has encouraged small, noncorporate players to become renewable energy providers – farms, municipalities, and hundreds of newly formed co-ops. That has decentralized not just electrical power, but also political power and wealth.’

The German renewable revolution created nearly 400,000 jobs as the share of renewable power in electricity generation went from 6% in 2000 to nearly 25% in 2013.

Another aspect of Melman’s work that might be relevant to climate policy is that his favoured conversion legislation also created ‘a national commission directed to encourage capital investment planning by cities, counties, states and the federal government in all areas of infrastructure – the network of facilities and services that are the underpinnings of a modern industrial society’.

We can see how these kinds of ideas on the disarmament side are converging with recommendations in the Just Transition tradition on the climate side of things. There is much more that can be explored here – and that must be explored if we are serious about winning changes on either civilisational challenge that we face.

Milan Rai is Peace News editor. These ideas will be explored at Peace News Summer Camp 2016, 28 July-1 August.

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