Greening the Military

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When you think of environmentally friendly groups, Greenpeace, REI, the Sierra Club, New Belgium Brewery, and Seventh Generation are some of the green companies and organizations that are likely to come to mind. But what about the US military?

The armed forces are surprisingly green. For example, the Air Force is the third largest buyer of alternative energy in the US. The US Army is also rapidly seeking energy alternatives. Officers are trying to adopt solar, wind, and bio-diesel energy sources to reduce logistics problems and conserve resources:

The effort will have to be really serious, as their energy costs have increased a full 40% during the last seven years, even while they have cut consumption by almost 8%. According to their latest numbers released this week in Washington, D.C., right now they are spending $2 billion on fuel every year.

Reducing energy use in Iraq and Afghanistan is a top priority. By reducing the need for fuel convoys, energy efficiency reduces exposure to IEDs. It also protects soldiers from toxic emissions that come along with diesel generators. In recent years, the focus on energy conservation has really started to pay off.

That’s all well and good, but helping the environment is clearly a fringe benefit for most military planners. There are signs that a green culture is growing within the armed forces though. Several branches of the military are working to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in everything from paint and electronics to fuel and explosives. For example, the US Navy is testing lead-free bullets.

If these bismuth alloy bullets perform as expected, there’s a good chance that shooting ranges will soon be lead free. Cleaning up lead is a huge expense, and lead dust is a major health danger that affects cleaning crews at every gun range. Also, lead can leak into groundwater from outdoor berms and harm the environment.

In recent years, environmental activists have also been successful in forcing the military to adopt several earth friendly policies. Protesters are increasingly likely to raise environmental issues. While the supreme court rejected arguments against the use of high intensity sonar, other efforts have resulted in legislation prohibiting sewage release in the ocean and disposal of toxic paints in furnaces. Due to environmental concerns, the US Marines are currently looking for eco-friendly ways to dispose of toxic ordinance and recycling mothballed equipment.

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Activists are crucial to enacting change – just look at Vieques. Vieques is a small island in Puerto Rico and the area was used as a naval firing range for most of the 20th century. After decades of public outcry, the Navy was forced to stop using Vieques as an ordinance testing ground.

There is a surprising twist to the story. Due to the Navy’s use of the island, Vieques has higher biodiversity than many surrounding areas. The firing range prevented development while most of the Caribbean was covered in resorts and boardwalks. Believe it or not, firing high explosive at wildlife is less destructive than building permanent structures. As a result, Vieques is currently booming as an eco-tourist destination.

The military still has quite a ways to go, but there are encouraging signs that the armed forces are becoming much better stewards of the planet.

Photo courtesy of Brent and MariLynn at