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  • The Environment as a National Security Issue
  • Richard A. Matthew

In 1994 a young journalist with a sharp eye for social anxieties and a flair for dramatic prose wrote an article that described environmental change as “the national security issue of the early 21st century.” 1 Robert Kaplan’s thesis in “The Coming Anarchy” is fetchingly simple: combine weak political systems, burgeoning urban populations, grinding poverty, and a flood of cheap weapons, and society becomes highly volatile. This lethal mixture, Kaplan suggests, already is generating high levels of violence in West Africa; soon it will affect the rest of the planet. This will happen because at the root of social collapse in West Africa is environmental degradation—a problem the entire world is experiencing. The pathways to chaos may differ from one place to the next, but all of humankind is being pushed along them. The state of the environment, Kaplan concludes, has become a matter of national security.

In Washington and elsewhere, security specialists proved receptive to the thrust of Kaplan’s argument. As an expression of threat and vulnerability, the Cold War had lost much, if not all, of its real world resonance by the mid-1990s. Meanwhile scientific evidence of the unprecedented magnitude of human-generated pollution, ecosystem simplification, and resource depletion was compelling. And more than three decades of environmental activism had raised the level of consciousness throughout society, giving concern about the environment legitimacy in every sphere of human activity. In this context, defense specialists began asking questions.

  • • Could environmental change, as it fed back into social systems in the form of disease and scarcity, trigger violent conflict or otherwise produce threats that would be relevant to the security community? [End Page 101]

  • • Could the environment become a cause célèbre for terrorists, or a medium through which terror might be spread?

  • • Should the arguments of chaos theorists—that complex nonlinear dynamic systems, such as the global environment, are prone to sudden collapse—be used to plot worse-case scenarios for national security planning?

  • • At the very least, was it plausible that the world would witness a steady increase in instability and tension resulting from differential access to fresh water and fisheries, from logging and other large-scale industrial activities and from pollution and scarcity driving large numbers of people into cities or across borders in search of a better standard of living?

Astute defense specialists had long been alerted to the possible security implications of environmental change through the pioneering work of thinkers such as William Ophuls, Lester Brown, Richard Ullman, and Jessica Tuchman Mathews. 2 Their arguments reinforced and expanded upon concerns about access to natural resources, as expressed in 1952 in the Paley Commission Report to President Truman, Resources for the Future. Up through the 1970s, several initiatives had been undertaken under the auspices of national security to protect access to scarce resources abroad. Now, faced with the argument that the end of the Cold War should enable drastic cuts in defense spending, the importance of identifying the principal threats and vulnerabilities of the post-Cold War era took on a special urgency. Perhaps environmental change could—and should—help fill this bill.

Many important relationships between nature and security had long been acknowledged by security specialists: the differences in the modalities of power of land- and sea-based states; the advantages and disadvantages conferred on offense and defense by topography and climate; the challenge of getting fuel and food to troops on foreign soil; and the risks to soldiers posed by unfamiliar viruses and bacteria. Perhaps addressing challenges posed by new forms of environmental stress and scarcity was the logical next phase of a well-established defense tradition. A significant number of people within the national security community—including researchers, policymakers, and high-level officials—began to take this idea seriously, and act upon it. 3

Thinking about nature and security, however, was by no means confined to the defense establishment. In the 1980s and 1990s a variety of perspectives sought to shape public perceptions, attract resources, and guide policy. 4 At the dawn of the twenty-first century, it is fair to claim that concerns about the magnitude...

Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4190
Print ISSN
0898-0306
Pages
pp. 101-122
Launched on MUSE
2000-01-01
Open Access
No
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