On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, finding that human-induced climate breakdown is accelerating rapidly. “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of an IPCC working group.
The IPCC report was released five days after Russia launched an imperial war of aggression against Ukraine—a war that itself is fossil-fueled and wrapped up with energy and economic interests, and that will contribute further to carbon emissions. Furthermore, this report comes one day after the Russian president ordered his country’s nuclear forces to be put on “combat duty,” escalating the risk of nuclear war and threatening climate catastrophe.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has already seen violations of international humanitarian law and human rights, including Russian forces using banned weapons such as cluster munitions and using explosive weapons in populated areas, hitting hospitals, homes, schools, and other civilian infrastructure. The conflict has also already involved severe environmental impacts, including pollution from military sites and material, as well as from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, radiation risks from fighting at the Chernobyl nuclear power facility, groundwater contamination, and more.
Now, it risks becoming nuclear, putting the entire world at risk. The use of even a single nuclear bomb would be absolutely devastating. It would kill hundreds of thousands of people, it would destroy critical infrastructure, it would unleash radiation that will damage human bodies, animals, plants, land, water, and air for generations. If it turns into a nuclear exchange with NATO or the United States, we will be facing an unprecedented catastrophe. Millions of people could die. Our health care systems, already overwhelmed by two years of a global pandemic, will collapse. The climate crisis will be exponentially exacerbated; there could be a disastrous decline in food production and a global famine that might kill most of humanity.
In this moment, everyone must condemn the threat to use nuclear weapons, as well as the ongoing bombing of civilians, the war in general, and the Russian government’s act of imperial aggression. Providing humanitarian relief, ending the war, and preventing it from turning nuclear are top priorities. But we must also recognise what led us here. This crisis is the inevitable result of building a world order based on militarism, just as the nuclear dimension is an inevitable result of the possessing nuclear weapons and claiming they are a legitimate tool of “security”.
Nuclear abolition is the only answer to the extreme risk of nuclear war. Disarmament and the abolition of war and dismantling of the global war machine are the answers to prevent the human suffering we have already seen from this conflict and so many others before it. All of this takes on even further urgency in the context of the climate crisis, which requires not violence but peace, justice, degrowth, and international cooperation and solidarity if we are going to survive.
Confronting the threat of nuclear annihilation
Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling demonstrates very clearly the danger that the mere existence of nuclear weapons poses to our world. Nuclear weapons are not deterrents. They are for mass murder. The idea that nuclear bombs bring “stability” to a world that spends staggeringly more on weapons and war than social good is upside down. Weapons of mass destruction can’t prevent war, they can only bring mass destruction.
The solution—nuclear disarmament—is simple. The only thing that makes it complicated are the capitalist and political interests involved in perpetuating nuclear violence.
As with the climate crisis, where we know the solutions to walk us back from the cliff—ending the use of fossil fuels, degrowth in relation to energy use and consumption, etc.—we know the solution to the nuclear crisis. The solution is nuclear disarmament. We even already have an international agreement that most countries in the world support, a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and providing for their elimination. We know, from a technical perspective, how to dismantle a nuclear weapon, how to irreversibly and verifiably destroy bombers and missiles and warheads.
Yet as with the solutions to the climate crisis, we are told that nuclear disarmament is a utopian dream, something that only naïve people demand. We are told that nuclear weapons keep the peace and prevent war. But nuclear-armed states have been warring with each other for decades through proxy conflicts; nuclear weapons have caused harm everywhere they have been used, tested, and produced; and we are now staring into the precipice of a potential nuclear war being launched by one of the two largest nuclear-armed states.
We are told that nuclear disarmament is impossible, that “you can’t put the nuclear genie back in the bottle.” But of course we can take things apart. We can dismantle and destroy them, and bolster the legal, political, and economic incentives against possessing nuclear weapons.
We are told that nuclear disarmament is a bad idea because in the future an “irrational actor” might violate international law and norms and build a nuclear bomb. This cannot be the reason we allow a handful of states to possess thousands of nuclear weapons today. “Irrationality” is here and now, in the policies and practices of all of the nuclear-armed states that believe their fantasies of deterrence can proceed uncontested forever.
All of these arguments have nothing to do with what’s actually possible. We have been taught these arguments, and to ridicule the idea of disarmament, because there are vested interests in the maintenance of the fantasy of nuclear deterrence. Private companies, especially those with political entanglements, make nuclear weapons. They profit from building devices of mass destruction. In many cases, these are the same companies profiteering off war in general—they also build bullets, bombs, tanks, and aircraft. And in some cases, they are also the same companies profiting from militarising borders, to ensure that people fleeing wars (that their weapons facilitated) and climate change have no escape.
The grand narratives of “geostrategic stability” and “mutually assured destruction” and other such phrases generated by the nuclear-industrial complex are meant to be intimidating, smart-sounding phrases to help manufacture confidence in and consent for what is in reality a policy for the mass murder of civilians and the possible destruction of the entire planet. The nuclear-armed states and several of their allies, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), have gone out of their way for years to try to smash any opposition to or stigmatisation of nuclear weapons, to prevent the prohibition of nuclear weapons, and to compel the elimination of these weapons of mass destruction. Now that we are at the nuclear precipice, will their position change?
Retrenchment of militarism
Many antinuclear and antiwar organisers, in this moment, are feeling despair. Not just because we are looking at a serious threat of the use of nuclear weapons and potential nuclear war, not just because yet another war is causing horrific human suffering, all of which is obviously devastating. But the despair also comes because we know all too well what the mainstream reaction will likely be from the nuclear-armed states, and the other heavily militarised countries, and their think tank, academic, and industry cronies. It will likely be to double down on nuclear weapons. It will likely be to walk back arms control. It will likely be to invest billions more into the “modernisation” of weapons and militaries, even after spending billions on these projects already. It will likely be to invest more in new systems of violence, including autonomous weapons and cyber warfare.
We can see this already from Germany’s announcement about investing a hundred billion euros into its military. Looking at this militarised crisis, the governments that have already invested so much in weapons and war will want to keep on this track. As if they’d only had more militarism, they could have prevented this conflict. As if it wasn’t militarism itself—and the impunity for militarism, such as the US invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel’s occupation and apartheid in Palestine, Russia’s bombing of Syria and imperialist expansionism, NATO’s aggression, etc.—that led to this crisis in the first place.
The world spends nearly two trillion dollars a year on militarism. The United States dominates the charts, followed by mostly western countries, which are also major arms exporters. The world is awash with weapons. People have suffered the impacts of war non-stop since World War II. The horrific attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure we have seen the last few days in Ukraine have been preceded by the devastation and deliberate targeting of civilians in Viet Nam, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen—the list goes on. The kind of imperialist expansion and illegal occupation based on “spheres of influence” at play with Russia’s war have already devasted countless Latin American, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, and African countries.
All of this has been primarily about protecting economic interests of the most militarised countries in the world. It has facilitated the extraction of resources and labour, the exploitation of humans, animals, land, and water. As wealth for a few is extracted through war and violence, people everywhere suffer, including in militarised countries launching these wars. The United States spends more than $750 billion a year on weapons and war while health care, education, jobs, housing, food security, and general well-being flounder. The profound harm caused by militarism occurs on both sides of the gun.
Further, this militarism and violence has reinforced systems of white supremacy and racism, criminalising those on the receiving end of the violence as terrorists or potential militants; criminalising people from the countries suffering from war or economic exploitation—or who just look like people who might be from those countries—with border restrictions, surveillance, harassment, incarceration, detention, deportation.
This racism is on full display with the reaction to refugees from Ukraine right now, with Ukrainian citizens being welcomed into neighbouring countries while people of colour living in Ukraine are being blocked from fleeing the war. Not to mention that Fortress Europe has spent billions on keeping out refugees and asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East and facilitates their drowning at sea or detention in horrific conditions. White supremacy also informs the shock many white people seem to be having at seeing war in a European country, in which commentators express disbelief that this could happen on a “civilised” continent.
Hope in the midst of despair
Despair is a natural reaction to what seems like an overwhelming “way of the world”. We know that militarism begets violence and the endless of cycle of death and destruction is constantly perpetuated by so many political leaders and the military-industrial complex.
But despair should not be our only reaction. Resolve, inspiration, hope, and action—these are urgently needed, especially amongst those of us not grappling the immediacy of survival in this moment. Right now, people in Ukraine are opposing the Russian invasion, including through non-violent resistance, with people confronting tanks and soldiers in the street. Russians are taking to the streets to protest their government’s actions, even in the face of detention and incarceration. People around the world are protesting the war and calling for peace, disarmament, de-escalation.
Peace groups, antiwar organisers, and disarmament activists are working to mobilise governments to end this conflict and to prevent its escalation through further militarisation. There are hundreds of petitions, statements, webinars, direct actions, calls to elected officials, advocacy at the United Nations, and more. Humanitarian organisations and ordinary people are working to provide for refugees and displaced people.
Ending this war is crucial. Preventing the next is vital. But to do so, we need to recognise that war is also ongoing around the world, with primarily Black and brown lives on the line. Our opposition to war cannot be limited to Ukraine, it must be about all war. Solidarity for the harm and violence caused by war means acknowledging that this harm and violence is not limited to one place or one situation but is systemic and structural. War is the manifestation of a global, violent political economy that treats some human life as meaningful and most as not, that treats profits as more important than people or planet.
War, capitalism, racism, colonialism, border imperialism, the carceral system, the climate crisis—these are all intimately connected and have been built by many governments over many years. And so while we oppose the war in Ukraine, true solidarity means opposing war everywhere, and confronting the aspects of our world that lead to, facilitate, and perpetuate war.
Instead of investing in militarism as a response to this war, we need the opposite. We need to reduce military budgets. We need to dismantle the weapons we have and not build new ones. We need to instead use financial resources and human ingenuity for disarmament, for providing for people everywhere—education, housing, food security, and overall care and well-being—and for confronting the climate crisis.
We can find hope in those organising locally, nationally, and globally for these things already. We can find hope in those governments and people that reject militarism, that see the answer lies not in more weapons but in collective and cooperative approaches to the problems that the capitalist, extractivist, militarised world order has created. We need to double down not on militarism but the value of international law, created painstakingly for generations; the refusals and denouncements of war; the nonviolent resistance and protest; the mutual aid projects.
The value of being “unrealistic”
The abolition of nuclear weapons, of war, of borders, of all the structures of state violence that we can see clearly at play in this conflict is at the core of the demand for real, lasting, paradigm-shifting change that we need in the world. It can feel like vast, overwhelming, and inconceivable. But most change is inconceivable until we achieve it.
Even in the midst of crisis, we need to plant the seeds for peace. If the broader context of what led to war is not addressed, if the process to achieve peace itself is not feminist, does not put human and planetary well-being at its centre, then we will be find ourselves right back here again as we have so many times before.
Many will say that doing anything other than sending more weapons or bolstering global militarism is “unrealistic” as a response to this crisis. But it is the credibility of the militarists that must be put in question in this moment, not those working to build the structures and culture for peace, cooperation, and well-being.
Everyone who has ever tried to do anything progressive throughout all of history has been accused of being unrealistic. The only reason change has ever been occurred in the world is because people ignored those criticisms and kept working. Change is not bestowed upon us by benevolent leaders. Change is compelled, by people. Being “unrealistic” means being on the front line of change. It means helping to alter what people conceive of as unrealistic, who they see as credible to speak or act on an issue. And ultimately, it means helping to dismantle the systems of harm and oppression and building something better.