While Las Vegas is known as an adult playground of indulgence, Las Vegas is also a military town—it is home to Nellis Air Force Base. In fact, Nevada has a history of being used for defense-related operations, and, consequently, its environment has been marred with toxins. Air force bases contribute to air pollution and groundwater contamination due to their air toxic emissions and fuel spills, which can put nearby communities at higher risk of detrimental health effects. My recent research article reveals that neighborhoods in closer vicinity to military-designated zones in Las Vegas are predicted to have elevated cancer risk from air pollution. Latinx communities and poor neighborhoods face additional health risk.

Sociologists study social structures and their corresponding power dynamics through resources, policies, or culture. Social structures can be abstract such as the state (i.e., the government) or capital; they can also take concrete forms such as the Department of Defense or MGM Resorts International. Activists and scholars argue that the U.S. Military, as a social structure, contributes to elevated environmental problems and injustices. For example, in the pursuit of nuclear operations, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have contributed to the abandoned uranium mines near Navajo lands and the radiation contamination from nuclear bomb testing on Western Shoshone land in Nevada. This shows that the military contributes to detrimental environmental effects for broader society.

Communities of color and poor neighborhoods are often exposed to greater environmental toxics such as air pollution or water contamination—this pattern is referred to as environmental injustices. Sociologist David Pellow outlines a critical environmental justice perspective to oppose these environmental injustices for historically marginalized communities, especially ones that operate through the state. This perspective allows us to view the U.S. Military as an arm of the state that contributes to environmental injustices.

Sociologists Gregory Hooks and Chad Smith build the treadmill of destruction from the Marxist-inspired treadmill of production. The treadmill of destruction theory argues that the military has an expansionary logic, similar to capital, that erodes social justice and the environment. The military expands through geopolitical control and defense-related weaponry, and this leads to large consumption of resources and production of environmental toxins.

However, the military has different limitations than capital because the military acts within the state. Does this mean, then, that militarism works in isolation from capitalism? Political sociologist Michael Mann argues no. In fact, he writes, industrial capitalism exacerbates risk from militarism.

Bridging the critical environmental justice and treadmill of destruction approaches, we can hypothesize that U.S. Military-related activity contributes to environmental injustices. Since Las Vegas is a military town, it can serve as a case study to evaluate this hypothesis. We suspect that areas with greater military activity such as Las Vegas may experience elevated environmental problems.

I test this hypothesis by analyzing estimated cancer risk from air toxics data from the Environmental Protection Agency and neighborhood demographic data from the U.S. Census with local county data of designated military areas in Las Vegas.

Spatial statistics reveals neighborhoods in closer vicinity to military areas are estimated to have greater cancer risk from air toxics. Latinx communities and poor neighborhoods faced additional environmental health risk. Holding everything constant, for every 25 percent increase in Latinx residents in a census tract, there is a predicted increase of one cancer risk per million persons from air pollution. This effect increases as communities are in closer proximity to military areas. Black communities were not found to have higher risk.

The numbers reflect a reality where military sites cause greater production in everyday activities such as on-road transportation to defense-related operations such as aerial traffic. These military-related activities are more likely to increase Latinx environmental injustice.

Latinx environmental injustice due to militarism is tied to historical materialism. The geography of Latinx social and political patterns can explain some of the Latinx environmental injustice. Prior to the 1990s, Latinx residential growth was near the southwestern U.S.-Mexico border and major metropolitan areas such as Chicago or New York City. However, post-1990s due to stricter political tensions, Latinx residential growth is happening away from the border and metropolitan area, and instead is growing in “new destinations” such as Las Vegas or the South. We can see here that along with growth trends pushing and pulling Latinx communities in areas, this increases Latinx environmental injustice especially in military towns.

The story of military sites contributing to environmental injustices in Las Vegas offer us an important lesson of accountability on the U.S. Military for environmental injustices. Those on the frontlines, including nearby civilians and lower-rank military personnel, are more likely to experience detrimental health and environmental impacts from defense-related operations. Therefore, when thinking about contributors to environmental injustices, we must include the military into the equation.

Camila H. Alvarez is assistant professor of sociology and faculty affiliate of public health at the University of California, Merced. She specializes in critical quantitative methods, environmental justice, the military, and race/ethnicity.

To read more, see Camila Alvarez. “Military, Race, and Urbanization: Lessons of Environmental Injustice from Las Vegas, Nevada” in Sociological Perspectives 2021.

Image: Nellis Air Force Base via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).