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It has now been more than two decades--well before the end of the Cold War--since the Worldwatch Institute's Lester Brown first issued a plea to adopt a new and more robust conception of national security attuned to the contemporary world. The threats to security, he argued even then, now may arise less from relations between nations than from man's relations with nature--dwindling reserves of critical resources, for example, or the deterioration of earth's biological systems:
The military threat to national security is only one of many that governments must now address. The numerous new threats derive directly or indirectly from the rapidly changing relationship between humanity and the earth's natural systems and resources. The unfolding stresses in this relationship initially manifest themselves as ecological stresses and resource scarcities. Later they translate into economic stresses--inflation, unemployment, capital scarcity, and monetary instability. Ultimately, these economic stresses convert into social unrest and political instability.(1)
Stewards and students alike of relations between the armed forces and society would do well to take Brown's entreaty to heart. He reminds us that, now more than ever, security encompasses not just military affairs but much more as well. He forces us to the realization that environmental conditions may underlie and contribute to political, social, and economic conditions having strategic and even military consequences. He underscores the general recognition that the state of the environment inevitably and invariably affects human well-being (and feelings of security). Finally, therefore, he implies two important things: (1) that, in the years ahead, militaries could be at least part of the national and international response to situations stemming from environmental decline; and (2) that the public's sense of well-being, a function in no small measure of environmental quality, may contribute materially to public trust and confidence in the institutions of government, to societal cohesion, and thus to the national will necessary for the state to act effectively, at home or abroad, militarily or otherwise.
Brown has been followed--cautiously at first, now more boldly--by others who have recognized the need not only to expand the bounds of national security thinking and discourse, but to take particular account of environmental concerns in such deliberations. Jessica Tuchman Mathews, currently president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argued over a decade ago, for example: "Global developments now suggest the need for ... [a] broadening definition of national security to include resource, environmental and demographic issues."(2)
One of the most powerful observations made to date--one that could be judged, in equal measure, as either visionary or hyperbolic--is that by writer-analyst Milton Viorst, who has argued that "population and environment ... seem the obvious sources of the next wave of wars, perhaps major wars."(3)
Whether or not, as Viorst contends, the groundwork for a wave of environmental wars is already falling into place, there is growing acceptance today of the proposition that the environment and security are indissolubly linked. The term environmental security is, in fact, now an established, if persistently nebulous, part of the argot of national security affairs. Two issues, however, continue to divide experts on the subject and, more importantly, to thereby undermine the legitimacy of environmental security as a worthy object of major national-security policy emphasis: the definitional ambiguity of the concept itself and the causal relationship between the environment and security. Both require elucidation and understanding by anyone attempting to grapple with the environmental security implications of any major international development--be it China's rise to great-power status, the spread of globalization, the expansion of NATO, the anticipated demise of the nation-state, or whatever.
Coming to Terms With Environmental Security
What is environmental security? This question dominates the literature on the subject--frustratingly, but perhaps understandably, in light of the uncertainties and confusions that dog the field of national security affairs in the post-Cold War era. It is a question that begs for an answer sufficiently compelling and definitive to give observers confidence that they can know the condition--as well as its presumed antipode, environmental insecurity--when they see it.
Most discussions of the meaning of environmental security focus on the nature of security--whether it is fundamentally a military phenomenon that, by implication, would tend to render environmental concerns largely irrelevant, or whether it is something more robust and inclusive that logically would encompass, and perhaps even revolve around, environmental considerations.(4)
Little attention is typically given to the meaning of environment--the assumption presumably being that the nature of nature is too obvious to warrant elaboration. Such an assumption, of course, does us little good if what we want is a reasonably systematic, fastidious analytical path that would lead us from the parameters that define the environment, to the state of that environment, to what we might consider environmental threats to security (Figure 1).
The Environmental Focus
Environmental [right arrow] Environmental [right arrow] Environmental Parameters Conditions Treats
Institutional definitions of the environment used by the likes of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Defense Department are largely unhelpful in specifying what the environment includes. The EPA defines the environment as "the sum of all external conditions affecting the life, development and survival of an organism." The Pentagon is only moderately more enlightening: "Air, water, land, manmade structures, all organisms living therein, the interrelationships that exist among them, and archeological and cultural resources."(5)
A more satisfying enumeration is found in China's original 1979 Law on Environmental Protection, which uses the term environment to encompass "the air, water, land, mineral resources, forests, grasslands, wild plants and animals, aquatic life, places of historical interest, scenic spots, hot springs, resorts and natural areas under special protection as well as inhabited areas of the country."(6)
This portrayal provides a basic point of departure for considering what is actually of more direct interest to us: the environmental conditions that hold potential for becoming environmental threats. A useful enumeration of such conditions is contained in the 1991 Beijing Declaration on Environment and Development, agreed to by the representatives of the 41 developing countries who attended that year's Ministerial Conference of Developing Countries on Environment and Development:
The more serious and widespread environmental problems are air pollution, climate change, ozone layer depletion, drying up of fresh water resources, pollution of rivers, lakes and the marine environment including the coastal zones, marine and coastal resources deterioration, floods and droughts, soil loss, land degradation, desertification, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, acid rain, proliferation and mismanagement of toxic products, illegal traffic of toxic and dangerous products and wastes, growth of urban agglomerations, deterioration of living and working conditions in urban and rural areas, especially of sanitation, resulting in epidemics and other such problems.(7)
Such conditions become problems that command our attention when they threaten or endanger something of value to us. What do we mean "something of value": regional stability? U.S. interests? U.S. objectives? U.S. credibility? For that matter, what do we mean by "us": the United States? the developed world? humanity? The answers aren't at all clear.
Then-Senator Al Gore, in his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, sought to identify, categorize, and differentiate environmental threats according to their presumed reach and impact. Using an ordering scheme similar to that commonly used to characterize different levels of military operations, he described as local (or tactical) threats such things as water pollution, air pollution, and illegal waste dumping. Problems such as acid rain, the contamination of underground aquifers, and large oil spills, on the other hand, are fundamentally regional threats, …