War in Ukraine

April 8, 2022: destroyed building in Borodyanka, Ukraine after Russian occupation. Photo: Dmytryi Ozhhikhiin.

The war in Ukraine is only the latest example of the devastating environmental impact of armed conflict. The war is poisoning Ukraine’s air, water, and soil, which could take decades to clean up, and poses a grave risk to human health and the region’s plant and animal species. Learn more in the media coverage below.

Also featured is an interview by Scarred Lands, Wounded Lives Co-Producer Alice Day with Michael Nagler, Founder and President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence. Michael is author of The Third Harmony, Non-violence and the New Story of Human Nature (and director of the film by that name).

Media Coverage

National Public Radio

How the War in Ukraine Affects the Environment (4/24/22)

Moscow Times

The Environmental Impacts of War (8/3/22)

Avere Ukraine

War in Ukraine: Environmental Impact (9/12/22)

The Cost of War

Given the dependence of all living things on the natural environment, any threat to the natural environment is a threat to life itself. With today’s advanced technologies, to a far greater extent than ever before, when now we make war, we destroy not only the enemy, we destroy our earth as well.

Already by the year 2011, with the accelerating consumption of natural resources and with human numbers having increased from 6 to 7 billion within a scant 12 years, the scale of damage to the earth indicated that we were approaching the limits of sustainability. Human survival as a species now requires a major effort to preserve nature and minimize activities that deplete and destroy the earth’s sustaining ecosystems.Yet, we continue to allocate a huge portion of our national budget to the Pentagon, and persist in preparing for future military missions.

As American troops withdraw from Iraq and the war in Afghanistan enters its 11th year, it is vital to recognize that for Americans, as for people everywhere else in the world, national security depends ultimately on maintaining natural security (i.e., on the protection and preservation of ecosystems).

National budgets can indicate some of the costs of military activities and also suggest the extent to which these activities divert intellectual and monetary resources away from addressing human needs.For example, using official government data, True Majority Action points out that the $459 billions spent on the 10 years of war in Afghanistan could have provided all the needed repairs on America’s bridges, plus 10 years’ costs for the nation’s elementary school teachers, its police officers, and its university scholarships, plus all of the state budget deficits projected for 2012.

http://bit.ly/mT1dXO via @usaction #bridgesnotbombs. In an op ed in the NY Times, Paul Krugman, the economist, asks, “Why would anyone prefer spending on destruction to spending on construction, prefer building weapons to building bridges?” His answer, in its simplest terms, is that “the ‘military big spenders’ want the public to believe that cutting defense will increase unemployment, but that, by the same token, public spending on socially-useful programs will not result in job-creation.”

Bombs, Bridges and Jobs – NYTimes.com – New York Times Oct 30, 2011 … Bombs, Bridges and Jobs by PAUL KRUGMAN

Among the many studies of the share of military expenditures in national budgets, one produced in 2011 by the Eisenhower Study Group at Brown University is particularly thorough and comprehensive. Among other things it takes a long view of the economic costs of war by factoring into the total expenditures America’s commitment to veterans after the war ends, as well as military action’s share of the interest on the national debt and the costs of conducting large deployments of war-related personnel overseas.

The Costs of War Since 2001: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Eisenhower Study Group, Eisenhower Research Project, Brown University, June 2011

Alice Day Interview with Michael Nagler

Featured below is an interview by Scarred Lands & Wounded Lives Co-Producer Alice Day with Michael Nagler, Founder and President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

Read the Transcript

Alice: We are here today to have a conversation about principles of nonviolence and the war in Ukraine. Let me first introduce myself and Professor Michael Nagler, who likes to be called Michael, and is a powerful voice in the whole area of nonviolence. We are very pleased to talk with him on this subject.

I am a sociologist and a strong activist for peace and social justice. I started my work in sociology at Smith College, gained an MA at Columbia and completed my PhD at the Australian National University. At Columbia, I met my husband of 69 years, Lincoln Day. Together we created a documentary film, Scarred Lands and Wounded Lives: The Environmental Footprint of War. The film chronicles the violence of war against the environment. It draws on many of the same themes that Michael treats in his book.

Michael N. Nagler, PhD is a retired professor from UC Berkeley where for close to 50 years he taught comparative literature and classics. He founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program there and also taught courses on nonviolence and meditation. He is President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

His book, The Third Harmony: Nonviolence and the New Story of Human Nature, will be the focus of much of our conversation today.  And he’s also written a Handbook on Nonviolence and one about the Search for a Nonviolent Future.

Alice: Michael, would you start the conversation by describing the principles of nonviolence reflected in the title of your book, The Third Harmony: Nonviolence and the New Story of Human Nature.

Michael: Yes. I’d be happy to. I think it was Gandhi who was once asked, “Do you really believe that nonviolence is the best way?” And he said, “No.” And he went on to explain, “Nonviolence is the only way.” And that’s because nonviolence is the only positive constructive way to deal with—well, to deal with just about everything, including conflict. So, that’s the surprising thing. When you’re involved in a conflict, not to be kind of pulled under, so to speak, by the undertow of the conflict itself, but to represent a nonviolent position is very strong. The great advantage of it is that when you have applied nonviolence in any situation, even if it doesn’t seem to work, it has done some good and created a better environment going forward.

Whereas when you use violence, even if it does seem to work, it does the exact opposite. It does harm the environment. So, that’s the subject of The Third Harmony book and also, of our film. We have a film by the same title, The Third Harmony. And we have a Third Harmony Project which consists of the book, the film, and a board game. The board game is called Cosmic Peaceforce Mission: Harmony 3.

Alice: Yes, I’ve watched the film about four times. I think there’s something new about it every time you watch it, you go on a new journey and get new feelings about the meaning of life.

Michael:  And I think the important feature of it is that there had been a couple of films about what they call, “The New Story.” And in those films, there was a cameo appearance of nonviolence. You might see Gandhi walking across the screen. But there was no real understanding, no attempt to explain the relationship between this new vision of the world which we’re trying to bring about, in which everything is meaningfully interconnected. And we human beings have a very meaningful destiny, between that New Story and that technique, if you will, or methodology of nonviolence that Gandhi introduced into the world.

And so, my point was that just as violence is absolutely inevitable in the old story of separateness, nonviolence is absolutely inevitable in the New Story of interconnectedness. They really enhance one another. The New Story is not complete until you realize that nonviolence is there to be used when difficulties arise. And it could be used constructively, before difficulties arise. And on the other hand, nonviolence isn’t really going to make a lot of sense. You’re not going to understand it or even be able to imagine how it works in the old story of separateness. So, that was my big breakthrough and, I think, our big contribution with the Third Harmony Project.

You asked about The Third Harmony. As we explained in the film, we have to establish harmony with nature, of course. We have to establish harmony with our fellow human beings. And we have to establish harmony within ourselves. So, we get around to that as the Third Harmony. Though it actually is the first one in terms of priority. If we can’t do that, it will limit our effectiveness at the other two.

Alice: One of the quotations that I particularly enjoyed from the film was the person who said, “When you step out of the shower, you are fully armed.” Can you explain that?

Michael: Yes. That was Bernard Lafayette. And the point of it is, first of all, to create a contrast between war—or the way that you enter conflicts in the old story, relying on violence—and the New Story and how you enter the conflicts there. The big difference is that in the New Story, you are drawing upon your own human capacities. Whereas in war, you have to have armor and weapons and machinery and communication systems and all that, because you’re getting further and further away from what a human being really is.

Whereas in nonviolence—I mean like Gandhi. Here he is, walking along with nothing but a walking stick, no teeth. So, the Indian Freedom Struggle has been called a conflict between a nation that was armed to the teeth and a human being who didn’t even have teeth.

Nonviolence is our deepest human endowment. It’s a capacity that we were all born with, and that we achieve self-realization where we find it.

Alice: Yes, you have another one, I’d like to quote from Ali Abu Awwad, “Your humanity is my weapon.” That’s an amazing thing that he said. And he was talking about the conflict between Palestinians and the Israelis. It’s a powerful sequence in the film because he lost a brother to the Israelis. And he talks about people getting together in spite of that to heal themselves.

Michael: I completely agree with you. I really, really love that quote, “Your humanity is my weapon,” because that shows, perhaps, more clearly than any single statement, how nonviolence works. In nonviolence, what I’m doing is, I’m awakening your humanity.

Alice: But what about Ukraine? We tend to think that any kind of conflict, if handled in a nonviolent fashion, can reach some kind of solution. But is this the case in Ukraine?

Michael: Yes. I think when you go to assess whether you think nonviolence will work, you have to think clearly about what you mean by work. Do you mean, is it going to solve the situation? Or, do you mean is it going to be helpful? And nonviolence, in the latter sense, never fails. It’s always helpful. Now, there’s another model that I developed in the book that you have to take into account here, to sort of make a realistic assessment of what you’re up against in Ukraine. And that is the model of the escalation curve.

The longer you wait in a development of a conflict, the more the hostility between parties, the more costly it’s going to be to resolve, and the fewer options will be available to you. But that doesn’t mean that there are never any options.

At the very least, I can decide to suffer without bitterness. And that will do something to the world around me. But if I intervene earlier, and if I have learned about nonviolence, then I have more options and the suffering may be less and the likelihood of success will be greater.

Alice: But I think there’s another strong point that Ukraine has, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Volodymyr Zelensky, I think, sounds somewhat nonviolent in his approach. He has many things that he can’t give in on as a leader who sees his country being smashed and the people killed the way it has been. But he is open to negotiation, and he wants to try to have a settlement that gets away from violence as soon as possible.

Michael: Now, the one kind of model or precedent that is prominent for me when I think about the situation in Ukraine is called Prague Spring. It happened in 1968-69, where you had a very similar situation, in a way. You had a Slavic country, Czechoslovakia, still not divided at that time. And the new president of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, was creating some reforms. He wasn’t being non-communist, but he was creating what they called, “Communism with a human face.” Moscow didn’t like that, and they invaded Czechoslovakia from three directions.

And the people were extremely creative. They did things like change road signs around so that when a tank column came in from Poland and drove all day, it would find itself back at the border where it had come from. They fraternized wherever they could. They engaged with Soviet soldiers. And those things are all happening in Ukraine. The problem is that the invasion is much less human than Prague Spring. It’s mostly rockets and bombs. So, there’s less that you can do.

And I agree with you that President Zelensky is a very noble individual. I have no doubt that he would be wide open to discussing how nonviolence could be more systematically organized in his country.

So, I think, for me, the lesson of Ukraine is that we were behind the curve. We should have been developing nonviolence much more systematically. Once we saw what happened in Czechoslovakia, we should have put all our education and all our resources into developing that. Gandhi said at one point that no big country will be able to tyrannize over a small country ever again because nonviolence is now here in the world.

Alice: And the plausible strategy as an alternative to violence, what would that be in this case?

Michael: Well, what is required in late-stage violent conflicts like this, which is highly escalated, I’m afraid it would require what you might call almost a superhuman courage. That is, it would require in the first instance—and it’s going to be a little bit shocking—it would require people not fighting back with weapons.

There have been some images of people standing weaponless. Women standing weaponless in front of tanks, in front of soldiers. And those are the gems of a nonviolent response. But nonviolence doesn’t seem to work very well when it’s combined with violence. It just becomes kind of a strategy, kind of a ploy. It doesn’t really change human consciousness. It doesn’t awaken the humanity of the ‘other’ effect.

Alice: So, I suppose the marvelous scene of the Standing Rock people—Wesley Clark’s son going to apologize for what we’ve done to the Native American people—I suppose that really doesn’t have much relevance to Ukraine, or does it?

Michael: Well, the relevance shows that there is this phenomenon which is getting pretty well known now called “Moral injury,” stating that when the injury that you cause to yourself by hurting others is greater than any injury that they can inflict on you. The more we could get people to realize that and recognize it, the less it will be possible to carry out a war. So, the fact is that as we speak, American service people—this is hard to say, but I think I have to say it—are committing suicide at the rate of 20 a day.

Alice: Goodness. Americans?

Michael: Americans. Back home, safe from the war, but deeply, deeply traumatized in their humanity by what they have done. Not what others did to them, but what they did to others. And because we don’t recognize it, we don’t treat it. We have no resources for them, they end up in despair.

Alice: Probably the Russian soldiers will feel similarly.

Michael: Any human being would. So, the point is to face up to that phenomenon of moral injury and recognize it for what it is and the lesson it has to teach us. If we could only do that, I think we would really be on the way to peace.

Alice: Before we close, do you have any suggestions for what people who want to do something, desperately, to increase the culture of nonviolence and help with the Ukrainian situation, can do?

Michael:  As far as the second one, you know, what we can do right now about Ukraine, I would say there are all these resources that we have put on our website. And then as for the first, I think again, what we need to do is learn from the shock that we were not prepared. We needed to do—and must do now—is learn nonviolence and pour resources into that, into our schools, into our media, into our books, everything, so that people know about this resource because as Martin Luther King said, “We do not have a choice between violence and nonviolence. We have a choice between nonviolence and nonexistence.”

So, if we are to survive as a people, to keep the human experiment going on this planet, nonviolence is what’s up next. We need to learn about it, train for it, and do it, use it.

Alice: And that, of course, includes nonviolence toward the Earth?

Michael: Oh, of course. That would be the First Harmony.