31 May 2018

Two Lancaster political ecologists win an Outstanding Research Award for their groundbreaking research on the US Navy’s development of biofuels

Dr Patrick Bigger, an expert in environmental finance, became curious when he saw videos online of F14 fighter jets with a green logo on them.

“I found out the military had been playing a bigger and bigger role in financing research into third generation biofuels, moving beyond ethanol: I started wondering why would the US Navy be so interested in developing these very high tech biofuels.”

To explore this question, Patrick teamed up with his Lancaster Environment Centre colleague human geographer Dr Ben Neimark, who was working on biofuels and the bio-economy.  Their resulting article Weaponizing Nature: The Geopolitical Ecology of the US Navy’s Biofuel Program (Political Geography 2017) has won the Virginie Mamadouh Outstanding Research Award. The Award is given by the Political Geography Speciality Group of the American Association of Geographers to an article or book chapter published in the last three years which ‘makes an innovative, original contribution to the conceptual and/or methodological embrace of political geography’.

Ben and Patrick examined both the US military’s approach to climate change and the military’s role as an environmental actor - for bad and for good.

They followed the development of the US Navy’s ‘Great Green Fleet’, a tactical group of warships and aircraft with energy-efficiency retrofits running on a blend of conventional fuels and bespoke, military-grade biofuels produced from algae, crop and timber residues, used cooking oil and inedible beef and chicken fats.

They discovered that the military is actively supporting advanced biofuels by subsidising their development and facilitating wider marketisation, and that the refineries used to produce these fuels did not exist prior to the Navy’s interest and financial backing.

While many observers believe this is just a form of ‘greenwashing’, the two Lancaster researchers came to the conclusion that it reflects the US military’s larger desire to reduce military reliance on conventional fossil fuels, which can be difficult to source and to transport to the front line, and is a response to the perceived threat that climate change poses to an interventionist US foreign policy.

They quote former Secretary of the US Navy Ray Mabus saying: “We’re not doing it to be faddish, we’re not doing it to be green, we’re addressing a specific vulnerability.”

They argue that: “The move to biofuels is primarily about maintaining (the US military’s) power and dominance. The core objective is to secure energy sourcing and provisional flexibility in the context of the ever-shifting military theatres of globally dispersed conflict hotspots. 

“It is no small irony that the US military, the world’s largest single consumer of fossil fuels, has been on the cutting edge of ‘second and third-generation’ biofuels, especially as an explicit strategy to adapt to a changing climate to which it has so significantly contributed.

They conclude that: “while environmental change is unlikely to foment new conflicts in and of itself, these conditions will exacerbate conflicts in a global but uneven manner. For military officials, these looming challenges range from melting ice that will open the Arctic as a new ‘battle space’, to climate-induced drought that may destabilise entire regions throughout vast swathes of the Global South.”

The Award recognised the novel approach used by the two academics, which they term geopolitical ecology, combining the lenses of critical geopolitics and political ecology to evaluate the role of very large and powerful geopolitical institutions in environmental change.

“We didn’t invent geopolitical ecology from scratch, but we picked it up and ran with it, mobilising the concept alongside ‘weaponising nature’ as a theoretical provocation. 

“We hope that geopolitical ecology may be useful for both academics and activists. It provides ground for scholars to observe the military’s political, economic, and environmental role in shaping the terms of debate around climate change, and what kinds of futures are desirable, or even possible.”

Ben and Patrick picked up their award in April at the Annual Conference of the American Association of Geographers Political Geography Speciality Group, where the geopolitical approach was already generating a lot of interest among critical scholars and students.


Read the winning article Weaponizing Nature: The Geopolitical Ecology of the US Navy’s Biofuel Program, and a recent blog on the subject by Ben and Patrick.