In 1973 the Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz described the paradoxical relationship between market economics and the threat of ecological catastrophe: “All the advantages that man has gained from his ever-deepening understanding of the natural world that surrounds him, his technological, chemical and medical progress, all of which should seem to alleviate human suffering…[tend] instead to favor humanity’s destruction.”

Any rational assessment of our current military mindset seems to support this prophecy. The cold war has been over for more than two decades, yet the world continues to increase its military spending as if we were facing unending conflict. The latest figures for 2011 show that the arms trade numbers have reached US$1.74 trillion. The US is still number one, spending US$711 billion on its military, but China and Russia are catching up fast.

More remarkable is the seismic shift of military spending in Asia, with the frightening prospect of the start of a new cold war there. India is now the world’s largest importer of arms, and the four next-largest are South Korea, Pakistan, China and Singapore. Asian countries divert vast sums into buying weapons and armaments, despite millions of their people being deprived of basic rights, food, shelter, education and health care.

Militarism is the key driver of the economics of underdevelopment and the oppression of developing countries. Western countries install puppet governments and supply them with arms to tyrannise and control their own people, in return for unfettered access to natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals. Countries are sold weapons including small arms, cluster bombs and landmines

(110 million of which lie buried under the Earth), causing wars, environmental damage and poverty.

This extreme poverty is the cause of 2 billion people subsisting on less than US$2 a day. Every 3.6 seconds, someone dies of starvation. Every 30 seconds, a child dies of malaria. Every minute, a woman dies in childbirth. This is a genocide of neglect and abandonment. US president Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

The negative effects of this militarism on the environment and on global and human security including refugees, migrants and many other vulnerable groups are catastrophic. The environmental risks of nuclear contamination leaks are already well known from Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the recent Fukushima disaster. The immense possibility of a radiological fire threatens the Fukushima reactor unit 4 site, constituting a potential health hazard and a danger to our children and the whole of civilisation. What is not as well known is the pollution created by the US military – the world’s single largest user of petroleum. This profligate use of fuel is extremely harmful to the environment.

More than 36.4 million people in more than 120 countries have been affected by militarism. Refugees, migrants, internally displaced persons and stateless people flee from fighting or are forcibly driven out of their own countries as a result of internal disputes.

Yet poorer countries feel they must defend themselves from the ever vaster resources the rich world pours into its military-industrial complex. India, China, Pakistan and many other developing countries in which poverty is the overwhelming problem are wasting ever more of their scarce resources on expensive weapons systems and the fuel to operate them, rather than on irrigation, pollution control, education and the many other life-improving essentials that their people currently lack.

Africa continues to present the most disheartening example of the connection between militarism, resource theft and poverty. The World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report is the first to make this nexus of effects its central theme, interlinking violent crime and international disputes.

My book The Economics of Killing has explored the alternatives to this tragic scenario and has advocated for a shift from the war economy to a green economy; military reduction; cutbacks in the global arms trade; reform of the monetary system; and addressing the root causes of violence, wars and terrorism. According to the Global Peace Index, if countries cut back violence by 25%, as much as US$2 trillion could be saved. Eradicating violence altogether could create a stimulus of US$8 trillion, enough to tackle the financial crisis and climate change and wipe out extreme poverty.

We need to build a new social, political and cultural society that is sustainable, equitable and in harmony with the environment. Stopping militarism and deploying resources towards completion of the UN’s much-needed Millennium Development Goals would leave a lasting legacy for generations to come, ensuring the continuation and progress of our sacred civilisation and humanity. Then we would be able to meet the challenges of the paradoxical relationship described by Lorenz.

Vijay Mehta is the author of The Economics of Killing: How the West Fuels War and Poverty in the Developing World,