by Linda Thyer
With just a hint of annoyance, I gently place the spider on a nearby white poppy after brushing the strands of her web from my face in the early morning. The sticky silk reminds me of my small place in the complex web of nature, and the white poppy reminds me of peace – two interwoven issues brought to mind on September 21st, the International Day of Peace.
Canadians of my generation may take peace for granted, most of us having never directly known militarized conflict. As a physician, I am deeply aware that war and militarization cause short and long-term harms and disabilities, both mental and physical, with each carrying significant costs to individuals, communities and society, with the harmful effects cascading through generations.
My parents grew up in Europe during World War II and I am left with a conscientious objection to war and militarism. Yet I am obliged, against my conscience, to support the federal government’s ongoing commitment to militarism, this year demonstrated through the purchase of 88 F-35 fighter jets in a multi-billion dollar deal. In Canada, we must all pay for such machines of war through our taxes.
Previously, soldiers paid with their life for war; around half of lives lost directly in World War I were those of combatants. These days, wars are fought mainly by machines at much greater distances with the death toll now 90% borne by civilians.
But the costs of war and militarism extend far beyond human lives. War and the military-industrial complex contribute significantly to global carbon emissions, including during fabrication of arms, training of personnel and execution of military operations. These emissions are foolishly overlooked in carbon budgets and are not even considered in IPCC reports, despite Mother Earth, the head carbon accountant, surely feeling their impact. Post-conflict rebuilding further increases demand on natural resources, all with enduring costs to people and nature.
In my clinic, I see the effects of climate change on physical and mental health as the result of our war on nature through centuries of pollution of the land, air and water. The rise in droughts and wildfires, storms and floods along with food and water shortages are displacing a growing number of people from their homes. With the increasing numbers of climate refugees comes the ensuing risk of conflict over diminishing resources and safe homes.
It is distressing to imagine the future in an accelerating climate crisis, but the added stress and destruction of war are unimaginable. The effects of these two crises on physical and mental health would be compounding and synergistic. We must avoid militarized conflict at all costs and work towards every possible peaceful alternative.
Peaceful strategies have been successfully used to resolve conflict in the past, such as the compassionate and strategic negotiations between warring factions in Northern Ireland . Or the creative grassroots “battle” of Estonians to free themselves from Soviet occupation, by uniting with their voices raised in song. What could our country (and the world) look like if we moved away from the violent colonial mindset and instead contributed the same money, brain-power and energy to research on truly peaceful conflict resolution strategies in a Department of Peace? Could Canada’s current $36B military budget be better used for climate mitigation and adaptation with military workers retrained in prevention and recovery from climate disasters?
A century ago, the far-reaching and lasting impacts of war were recognized by the women of the Cooperative Women’s Guild in the UK, made up largely of women who had lost husbands, fathers, sons, brothers and friends in World War I. The Guild first produced white poppies in 1933 to represent 3 themes: remembrance for all victims of war, both military and civilian; a challenge to any attempts to glamorize or celebrate war; and a commitment to peace. This tradition continues on today and the white poppy is often worn alongside a red poppy on Remembrance Day.
It’s time to stop unravelling of the web of life and commit to peace – towards our fellow humans and towards all of the living and non-living beings with whom we share this beautiful planet. Let’s unite in wearing a white poppy for a healthier future.