New Environmentalism

Article excerpt

The awards of Nobel Peace Prizes to Al Gore (2007) and Wangari Maathai (2004) were initially greeted with the question: What does the environment have to do with peace (or war)? Maathai answers this question ("An Unbreakable Link: Peace, Environment, and Democracy," Winter 2008) with a new view of the relationship between the environment and politics--one that increasingly recognizes that the character of environmental relations has much to do with peace and war.

This relationship is the focus of a new field of study that has emerged in the past dozen years called "environmental security." Early contributors to this field suggested that resource degradation, scarcity, and attendant human impoverishment lead to conflict, or the so-called "green war." But many social scientists now argue that the reality is just the opposite, and that political conflict itself is responsible for degradation of resources and impoverishment of proximate peoples. They critique the green war stance as neo-Malthusian thinking, which unjustly blames the victims of conflict and degradation for their fate.

It is a measure of the progress in both academic and popular thought on the subject that "over-population" does not dominate environmental discourses today in the way it did a generation ago. In the years since the first Earth Day in 1970, placing blame on the reproductive and other behaviors of local peoples has become suspect, and social scientists have now attempted to shift the analytical focus to the role played in resource mismanagement by wider political-economic forces. This evolution is reflected in the history of Maathai's own Green Belt Movement, which started in 1977 by focusing on "the immediate needs of rural women," but then grew into a movement to educate them about "the links between the problems they were facing, the degradation of the environment, and governmental policy."

The shift in focus to wider national and even international forces creates a tension for activists and academics alike in thinking about the role of the individual actor. Is the individual merely a passive recipient of external influences? No activist could accept such a view and, indeed, Maathai calls for "each one of us [to] protect the environment through simple, deliberate, conscious efforts every day. …