Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

A Clean, Secure Future: Environmental Security Is Essential to World Harmony

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

A Clean, Secure Future: Environmental Security Is Essential to World Harmony

Article excerpt

The first brown smudges of life appeared on earth some 3.8 billion years ago. Since then, many millions of species have emerged and disappeared; the planet has been rocked by asteroid strikes and volcanic activity far exceeding the destructive potential of the world's nuclear arsenal; and five mass extinctions have occurred, each one reducing biodiversity by as much as 99 percent.

Homo sapiens - perhaps no more than 150,000 years old - is a relative newcomer to the epic of evolution. But in this short time, our species has had a profound impact on the planet's environment. Harvard scientist E.O. Wilson and others insist that human activities - such as cutting forests; burning fossil fuels; and polluting air, water, and soil - are rapidly triggering the sixth mass extinction of life.(1)

Contemporary environmentalism, which emerged in the 1960s amid growing scientific evidence of the negative consequences of human-wrought environmental change, claims that we must significantly alter our behavior if we hope to avoid such a catastrophe.

Meanwhile, specialists from various fields interpret the realities of the current situation in different ways. Ethicists contend, for example, that our capacity for choice and our unprecedented level of awareness make us responsible for our actions in a way that does not apply to other species. Many economists argue that environmental problems can be solved through the creative use of market forces. Demographers, for their part, are less optimistic and question whether the strategies we have developed to live comfortably can sustain the doubling of world population likely to occur in the next century.

Political scientists share those concerns and many envision growing scarcities of water, food, and fuel; unprecedented health woes; and escalating tensions within and between societies, all combining to produce mass suffering, institutional collapse, and war.

Despite the different perspectives of each of these fields, there is general agreement that current patterns of consumption, production, and waste disposal contribute to environmental changes that threaten our welfare and security, as well as that of many other species.

The pervasive nature and sheer magnitude of the challenges we face can make them seem overwhelming. But, ironically, we humans have an innate capacity for isolating ourselves from many of the negative environmental impacts we cause. For example, we exploit renewable resources such as forests and fisheries much faster than they can recover, projecting onto future generations problems such as biodiversity loss and food shortages that may result from overexploitation. Pessimists characterize this tendency as Homo sapiens in denial.

Around the world, in fact, societies act to meet current needs by discounting the future. All the while they draw down environmental resources at unsustainable rates. Rich and powerful developed nations shift their most destructive activities overseas, taking advantage of the poverty and desperation of developing countries. In the process, they ignore the most fundamental of environmental maxims: everything is connected to everything else.

Poor nations, many of which are endowed with disproportionately large shares of wild lands and genetic diversity, implement ill-conceived economic-development plans and resent often-intrusive Western environmental policies on the grounds that such policies obstruct rapid economic growth.

Life in the Balance

In the face of current environmental challenges, policymakers are not wholly lacking in will or imagination. Nongovernmental organizations work tirelessly to educate and influence behavior to limit environmental destruction. For example, Conservation International initiated the highly successful "debt for nature" swaps; the Cousteau Society has educated the world about maritime issues; and the World Wildlife Fund has developed an educational network that spans more than 100 countries. …

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