Sustainable Security

By Foster, Gregory D.; Wise, Louise B. | Harvard International Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Sustainable Security


Foster, Gregory D., Wise, Louise B., Harvard International Review


Abstract:

The environment is the most transnational of all transnational issues. The origins and reach of most environmental issues respect neither national boundaries nor traditional conceptions of sovereignty and territorial integrity. To acknowledge that the environment constitutes the entirety of our surroundings - air, water, land, natural resources, and wildlife - is to confront 2 questions of fundamental strategic import: first, whether humanity's role on earth is to be nature's master, servant, or steward; and second, whether everyone in varying degrees, demand sustained international attention and tending. Grandiose as these questions may seem, they lie at the heart of any attempt to link the environment to security, especially in the transnational context.

Text:

Transnational Environmental Threats and Foreign Policy

The environment is the most transnational of all transnational issues. The origins and reach of most environmental issues respect neither national boundaries nor traditional conceptions of sovereignty and territorial integrity. To land, natural resources, and wildlife-is to confront two questions of fundamental strategic import: first, whether humanity's role on earth is to be nature's master, servant, or steward; and second, whether nature's commons, in affecting everyone in varying degrees, demand sustained, collective international attention and tending.

Grandiose as these questions may seem, they lie at the heart of an-v attempt to link the environment to security, especially in a transnational context. They underscore the two major conceptual problems that have impeded progress to date in legitimizing and lending intellectual weight to the idea of environmental security: the definitional bounds of security itself, and the difficult, of establishing a conclusive causal relationship between environmental conditions and security-related effects.

If humans are considered stewards of nature who collectively bear responsibility for dealing with transnational environmental phenomena, it becomes imperative that the threat-based thinking inherited from the Cold War be extended to the domain of post-Cold "fat environmental affairs. By so doing, the world may discover that environmental threats, because of their insidiously pervasive endangerment of human well-being, loom as perhaps the greatest, yet least recognized, challenge to national, regional, and global security in the years ahead.

Threat Definitions

Environmental threats are those conditions of environmental degradation and scarcity-inducing natural resource depletion that directly or indirectly endanger security. They do so by, contributing to civil unrest, collective violence, interstate conflict, or destabilization anywhere in the world where important strategic interests are at stake.

This is a relatively "safe" definition that, in bowing to security and strategic interests, may be deceptively comforting to traditionalists while offering precious little insight to progressive thinkers concerned at the future. The alternative is to construe security as something quite more than mere defense-the narrow domain of military affairs-and draw a filial link between individual security and national, regional, and global security, making it more difficult to dismiss circumstances that seem only to affect individual health, safety, and well-being as somehow unrelated to larger security concerns. We must recognize that national interests extend beyond merely defending physical territory, maintaining access to vital resources, preserving ways of life, or fulfilling commitments, and realize that these interests include more nebulous considerations. Adherence to espoused values and principles such as the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as well as preservation of credibility (by, for example, assuming the leadership responsibilities expected of the self-proclaimed "world's only superpower") are crucial aspects of the national interest.

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