Sustainable future calls for peace


Advertise with us

IF truth is the first casualty of war, hope must be the second.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe:

Monthly Digital Subscription

$4.75 per week*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.


IF truth is the first casualty of war, hope must be the second.

Dreams and possibilities are exploded in the same instant as your home is destroyed.

On the first anniversary of Russia’s latest assault on Ukraine, however, there is more hope than most people expected. But to talk of winning, of victory, really misses the point.

War in the 21st century has no winner. In the end, we all lose — some just more quickly than others.

Regardless of the news from Ukraine (or any of the other current conflict zones), we are in the midst of a rapidly worsening climate crisis. People (especially politicians) still debate what it means to be green, as though there is some kind of good alternative to a sustainable future.

There isn’t. The future will be sustainable for all of us, or for none of us. Regardless of wealth or privilege, on a round planet, there are no corners in which to hide.

Our dilemma, of course, is that sustainability — the sustainable development of the UN’s 2030 Agenda — requires both justice and peace. In wartime, there is neither.

So, while it seems like a bitter oxymoron, we need to talk about sustainability and war, together.

First, we don’t live in an age of declining conflict, or increasing peace. Conflict may take different forms; war may wear different faces; but from the victim’s perspective, all are just as brutal.

The “better angels of our nature” are buried in the streets of Bucha and a thousand other places in Ukraine.

Second, wishing for peace — and most do — doesn’t make it happen. Wishing for a sustainable future — and we all should — doesn’t make that happen, either.

We need to take clear, concrete and specific steps to solve both problems, together. In our generation, we face an existential threat we must solve, together, or none of us will live for long into the horrible future being brewed right now.

Third, we are approaching the planetary boundaries of self-sustaining ecosystems. While the primary global driver would be rising temperatures from greenhouse gas emissions, there are hosts of smaller local problems that are also tipping the scales of survival against us.

We need to buy time for the social and cultural transformation a sustainable future requires. War (of any kind, at any scale) accelerates the trajectory of disaster instead.

Every dollar spent on war is not spent on something else. Every life lost, every building destroyed, every plume of smoke rising from a shattered city, adds a burden to a planet already in crisis.

Fourth, war is never a solution. It is a foolish choice that, in the 21st century, makes things worse. Yet those making that choice are rarely held to account.

Wars are started (and continue) because some people think they are insulated from its risks. Charles Yale Harrison’s 1930 novel nailed this point in its title: Generals Die in Bed.

So do the politicians who give those generals their orders. If the leaders on all sides were ever in the front lines, they would quickly discover other options than fighting. Anyone who thinks war is a good idea has never seen its face up close.

Only armaments manufacturers celebrate war, because it is good for business. A simmering conflict adds a predictable revenue stream well into the future, while peace is a serious threat to profits.

When that peace — or at least a truce — finally occurs, then the process of reconstruction begins. The billions of dollars spent to rebuild Iraq, funnelled to contractors linked to the defence industry that had destroyed everything, is only a garish example of a long-standing hypocrisy.

Regardless of its justification, however, war anywhere is a threat to us all, everywhere. The longer any war continues, the greater that threat becomes, quite apart from the further nightmare of a nuclear exchange.

Finally, peace always costs less than war. So does sustainable development. The climate crisis will inevitably lead to more conflicts ahead, especially in places where access to food, to water, to shelter are battered by fierce storms, longer droughts and rising sea levels.

In such places, we can literally buy peace — and hope — but only if we have not already spent everything we have on guns and bombs instead. Wars may still be fought, but they must be limited in ways (and means) toward a specific goal, and not merely some perpetual fight, fuelled by old grudges.

We know there can be no peace without justice, and no justice without peace. But a sustainable future requires both to be a priority, right now, because we are running out of time.

Peter Denton is adjunct professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada, and a sustainability activist.

Report Error Submit a Tip


Advertise With Us