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Human Rights Quarterly 22.4 (2000) 1099-1103

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Book Review

Conflict and the Environment

Conflict and the Environment, edited by Nils Petter Gleditsch (NATO ASI Series, vol. 33, 1997)

In the 1970s, Japanese leaders first argued that national security means more than being safe from traditional military threats. They made this argument at a time United States leaders were pressing the Japanese to spend more on security. Japanese leaders argued that sums spent on protecting the environment or food and energy sources should also count toward national security spending. 1 Thereafter, this idea of a broader concept of security began to appear in the literature. Beginning in the late 1970s, Lester Brown, Johan Galtung, Richard Ullman, Jessica Mathews, and others urged the redefining of the security concept along the lines introduced by Japan. 2

In 1986, however, consideration of the environment as a security topic gained sudden prominence when Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of "ecological security." With the waning of the Cold War, a superpower leader could begin to think about challenges to security beyond those posed by the other superpower. In addition, Gorbachev was probably compelled to speak about the environment. The Soviet system had been extremely destructive of the environment. While few Soviet citizens died directly due to the Cold War, hundreds of thousands died or had their lives shortened due to the Chernobyl disaster, the dying Aral Sea, hazardous waste, polluted water and polluted air. 3

The end of the Cold War influenced thinking in the United States about environment and security as well--but probably for different reasons. A huge, entrenched bureaucracy suddenly lost its raison d'être. The United States military had grown to its enormous size and power mostly to defend the country from communism. NATO, the United States' military alliance with West European states and Canada, existed solely to respond to Soviet aggression. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the future of NATO was military security topic number one. 4 By 1992, NATO was involved [End Page 1099] in the inter-ethnic conflicts of the Balkans and had apparently re-established itself for the future. Nevertheless, the idea that environmental degradation, too, might pose a security risk--a risk that might fill the gap created by the demise of the Soviet Union, continued to be explored. All along scholars had continued their interest and by the early 1990s some began to argue that environmental problems did not need a redefinition of security to be a legitimate subject of concern. Rather, the environment could fit the traditional definition of security. NATO could view environmental degradation in the same category as oil shortages, aggressive ideologies, or weapons proliferation. 5 Like these, environmental degradation arguably can cause violent conflict that requires a military response.

To test the argument, a team of thirty researchers, led by University of Toronto scholar, Thomas Homer-Dixon, undertook a number of studies, in which they concluded that:

Scarcities of renewable resources are already contributing to violent conflicts in many parts of the developing world. These conflicts may foreshadow a surge in similar violence in coming decades, particularly in poor countries where shortages of water, forests and especially, fertile land, coupled with rapidly expanding populations, already cause great hardship. 6

The results were challenged by traditional security scholars, in particular, Marc Levy of Princeton, who argued, in part, that Homer-Dixon had produced only anecdotal evidence, that his results are "uninteresting," nothing new, and that his methodology is flawed. 7 In particular, Levy protested that Homer-Dixon did not compare areas where environmental degradation exists but no violent conflict occurs with those where it did. 8

Conflict and the Environment grew out of this debate. From 11-16 June 1996, NATO sponsored an Advanced Research Workshop ("ARW" in NATO-ese) on conflict and the environment in Bolkejø, Norway. 9 The Workshop Report states, a primary objective:

was to clarify the conditions under which environmental problems are likely to escalate into violent conflict. A second objective was to clarify the conceptual links between the environment, conflict, and security. A more general objective was to identify...


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