Environmental ‘Security’: Bridge or Trap?

vietnamlandA new phrase “environmental security” has worked its way into the political vernacular in recent years. Until recently, “security” was considered a political issue: the enemy was always people, and almost always foreign states. Now, with political violence increasingly of stateless origin, the enemy has been reduced to “terror” — no longer the nations that sponsor acts, or even the individuals who commit them, but rather the acts themselves. We can no longer identify or even define the perpetrators, so we are reduced to fighting behaviours, no matter where they come from or what their cause. The next logical step is fighting thoughts that might lead to those behaviours. Orwell’s slippery slope. The propaganda war to that end is already underway.

Security has long been the purview of the military. When the strife is civil, or more recently when it has become stateless, and the military is incompetent to handle it, the domestic paramilitary takes over: “Homeland” Security. But the strategy has always been the same: root out and kill the enemy. When the enemy cannot be identified, it cannot be rooted out, and the result, if the enemy is sufficiently disruptive, is generally civil war and government collapse. The new government identifies a new set of enemies, and the cycle starts again.

These are simple strategies for dealing with simple problems. In centuries past the armies wore bright colours and carried their flags into battle to make identifying one’s enemy even simpler. Guerrilla tactics have made conflicts more complicated, resulting in the use of dysfunctional military tactics like massive aerial bombing — hugely expensive, ineffective, and ruinous to civilian populations and therefore prone to backfire, making things worse instead of better.

But vulnerability to random, devastating acts of violence that can be perpetrated by almost anyone for almost any reason takes the problem of identifying and rooting out the enemy beyond the merely complicated and into the realm of the complex. Neither military nor paramilitary organizations have any capability of dealing with complex problems whatsoever, so they respond in absurd, inappropriate, useless and dangerous ways: duct tape pamphlets, random round-ups of people with ‘swarthy’ complexions, brutal pointless torture, airport ‘security’ measures that would be comical if they weren’t so disruptive and inept. US Homeland Security has the largest budget of any centrally-managed organization in the planet’s history, but because they are still trying to reduce complex problems to merely complicated ones, they are squandering it all and accomplishing nothing. Less than nothing, since their actions and their obvious ineffectiveness create distrust, insecurity, and intolerance among the American people, polarizing and destabilizing the nation socially as well as economically.

It is no sheer coincidence that this same monstrous ineptness has been evident in military and paramilitary attempts to deal with ‘natural enemies’: hurricanes, floods, tsunamis and epidemic diseases etc. These are all complex problems, too, and defy the traditional military strategies of confrontation, destabilization, assassination, “shock and awe”, and preemption, because they are substantially unpredictable (we know they will happen, but not precisely how, when, where, or how devastating they will be).

The traditional military and paramilitary have no interest in taking on “environmental security”, even if it would increase their already bloated budgets — they are flummoxed enough trying to grapple with complex security problems with human perpetrators. They want the world to go back to the simple, symmetrical Us vs Them conflicts, with the colours of both sides clearly displayed for easy identification. Strategy in such conflicts is possible, and often critical.

The new enemy has changed the rules, disruptively innovating the entire war ‘industry’, and rendering all its methods and resources obsolete. The trillions that have been spent on Star Wars missile defense have all been wasted, a gift to the private defense industry for nothing of value whatsoever — because the military is still trying to reduce the complex problem of dealing with stateless, anonymous enemies to a simple or complicated problem. World poverty could have been ended for what the US has thrown away on this folly.

Nature has always been a complex enemy, but because her attacks have either been shrugged off as ‘acts of God’, or have been less devastating than acts of men, neither the military nor the political elite have paid much attention to them until recently. The military group charged with dealing with this enemy in the US has been the Army Corps of Engineers (you can thank them for the New Orleans levees and a lot of the man-made destruction — dams, diversions etc. — that helped make the levees necessary). The Corps treated nature as a simple enemy, and accordingly most of what they have done to ‘combat’ nature has in fact made the situation worse, and the people living near their constructions more vulnerable. When you don’t even try to understand a whole complex system, and just go in with massive power tools to fix isolated symptoms, tragic and unforeseen results are inevitable. “Shock and awe” is no more effective on nature than it was on the bombed civilians of Iraq.

A new WorldWatch paper advocates broadening ‘our’ concerns about military and political security to include environmental security. It points out that, ironically, the military and paramilitary are not the only ones resistant to such a call: So are environmentalists, who fear that if the state starts acknowledging nature as a threat to human security, environmentalism will be reduced in the public mind from a biophilial movement concerned with conservation and protection of diversity, to yet another front of the war on terror, and that nature will be (as it has been throughout most of the history of our human civilization) portrayed as an enemy to be controlled and defeated, and that what’s left of the budget of the disemboweled EPA will be turned over to Homeland Security. WorldWatch sees this as an ends-justifies-the-means coalition: If it’s the only way progressives can get conservatives to grapple with global warming, isn’t that better than doing nothing to deal with climate change?

As my readers know, I’m not a fan of ends-justify-the-means. If the military, paramilitary and conservative establishment somehow embraced global warming as a security issue, they would deal with it the same inept ways they have tried to deal with other complex problems. They would try putting tinfoil in the stratosphere to deflect the sun’s rays away. They would spray chemicals to try to neutralize particulates. They would invent bombs that would blow up CO2 in the atmosphere and direct the freed oxygen at the ozone holes. In short, they would do what they always do: Apply large-scale ‘fixes’ to deal with specific symptoms of the problem in isolation. They would try to simplify global warming, imagine it reduced to an enemy that their traditional arsenal of tools and methods would combat. When all you have is hammers, you tend to see everything as a nail.

The other flaw in the WorldWatch argument is the claim that once it is embraced as a security issue, people will start to approach it strategically. In the first place, governments have neither the competence nor the interest in being strategic. Their short-term mandates dictate that the primary objective is always re-election, and to get re-elected you don’t use (long-term) strategy, you use (short-term) tactics. Politics is a simple, traditional conflict with colours clearly shown. Notwithstanding the arguments that US conservatives have been strategically plotting since Nixon to take back power, the truth is that they have never really been out of power, and most of the tactics they have employed successfully to stay in power have been very short-term focused and uncoordinated. It’s a four-year game, and the strategy, if there is one at all, is usually jettisoned in favour of tactics that parry the latest tactics of the other side.

What’s more, strategies don’t work when dealing with complex problems. To have a strategy, a ‘way to achieve the desired end’, assumes far more understanding of the problem than can ever be achieved when the problem is complex. In dealing with global warming, we have no way of knowing what the desired end is, nor even the faintest inkling about how to achieve that end even if we knew what it was. The problem requires an enormous amount of coordinated study, almost certainly more money and resources than we would be prepared to commit for such a long-term project (the opposing administration, if they unseat us in the next election, would take credit for all our work!), probably more money and resources than we can, in the current, fragile, overextended economy, afford, and very likely more time than we have left before the consequences of our previous ignorance of the problem begin to overwhelm us. When that happens, we will return, as we always do, as is natural (for us and all creatures), to dealing with the immediate symptoms.

So I don’t think embracing ‘environmental security’ as a cause will enable progressives to bridge ideological differences and find common cause with conservatives. I think it is a dangerous trap, one that could further marginalize environmental efforts and enable conservatives to reframe global warming as a fight against nature instead of a consequence of our ignorance of our place in it.

What we need instead is to start educating ourselves and conservatives about the nature of complexity and the need for very different approaches to complex problems. This flies in the face of everything we are taught, and much of what we find easy to believe. It does not lend itself to simplistic solutions, sound bites or slogans. It requires that we start to think in holistic terms, about ourselves as part of complex, largely-unknowable systems that we can influence but never control, about the fact that this planet is too small, too fragile and too exhausted for us to have any time or room to fight among ourselves. Our only real enemy, now, is time.

Image: A 2003 Stringer/Reuters photo of a Vietnamese farmer coping with the resultsof drought, and of flash floods caused by illegal logging nearby.

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8 Responses to Environmental ‘Security’: Bridge or Trap?

  1. Meg says:

    My mind went a little blank after looking at that photo and acknowledging that reality.

  2. Agata says:

    I would be cautious about differentiating “complex” and “simple” problems. First, to some people (myself included) hearing the epithet “complex” is a deterrent, and an excuse not to tackle this particular problem while there are many simple issues around to be dealt with. Second, is there an objective criterion to determine a degree of complexity? Is global warming more complex than issues underlaying past military conflicts (these battles fought between well-identifiable enemies). Let’s think for a moment about this latter issue. I’d say that these historic military operations were made transparent for a number of cultural reasons (like moral codes of honour, fairness and honesty even towards ones’ enemies). So, even though the root cause of a war was a clash of values or unreconcilable cultural differences (fairly complex issues), on the surface it was made “simple”. Anyway, after many centuries it’s been (re)discovered that ‘undercover’ operations are more effective for the agressors. But why? Is it because the artificially simplified forms of conflict resolution didn’t deal in depth with the underlying causes of the conflict? I wonder whether this apparent decline in moral values (e.g. lack of respect for innocent civilians) was a cause of paramilitary operations, or rather a symptom of frustration over governments’ ineffectiveness to represent interests of their citizens, which would agree with the idea of using simplistic solutions to patch up the symptoms of complex issues. But the success of terrorism lies in the advantage of the hidden enemy over their targets, in that societies used to think and act in rigidly structured ways cannot predict the attacks and defend themselves. We do not deal well with the unexpected and uncertain. Yet, modern sciences tell us that the reality is just like this. We are not conditioned to instinctly understand things like quantum mechanics, our brains didn’t evolve to tackle such concepts. It requires a different way of thinking to make sense in the subatomic world. Now, compared to issues of modern physics, is the science behind global warming more complex? I’m no expert in any of these areas (and one should be an expert in both in order to compare them). But I’d risk to say that a holistic look at a problem (however complex or simple problem) gives a different perspective than a reductionist one. It’s more about how we look at the reality, because if we find a right point of view a complex problem will become simple. It’ll be a horrendous task to address global warming from a self-interested short-sighted point of view. On the other hand, we are an inegral part of Earth and her processes, here lies our power. But if people won’t start seeing this problem as a simple one (though this requires a global shift in consciousness – not an easy goal), there is no hope of fixing global warming in its complexity.

  3. medaille says:

    I kind of get the impression that politicians don’t care about the results they get against complex battles. I think all the battles are just an illusion, so that they can win the battle they’re really interested in, which is domination over everything else. It all seems really simple to me (maybe too simple). “Oh, here’s a huge problem for US. We need to solve it urgently. Give me some money and some of your power and I’ll fix it.” Then you have two options, either “Jeez, the problem was too big for us to fix, who would’ve thought it’d be this hard. No worries, we just need more of your money and more of your power and we’ll fix it.” “Phew, It’s a good thing we saved you from that problem, we’re safe now, but wait!!! Look over there, there’s another life threatening problem and it needs to fixed urgently, you know the drill, more money and more power, NOW!!! or else you’ll die and your kids will die or you’ll be poor or starving or slaves or something bad.”Gotta grab the money and the power, results are irrelevant as long as people don’t catch on to the racket and stop giving them power and money.

  4. This article captures a great deal of my attention with some profound and interesting observations, however, I just can’t feel that the idea of reducing global warming, in the manner that does not use technology, has been thouroughly thought out. What I would love to see on these (liberal-minded) pages is the “vision” of our Canada; the lifestyle, activities and daily life of the typical person in the “new world” of no greenhouse gases and the Canadian economy, how it functions and on what it is based, how people earn income.When I think it through to a logical end, I only see simplification and a return to a limited agrarian society, subsisting in small pockets. It would be a truly conservative society without the oil, mining, manufacturing and natural resource sector to fund liberal ideas and social programs.Please give me a better understanding of the “vision” not a list of perceived errors in the current social and econimic systems. Talk about how the (so-called) conservative military establishment is inept or misused does not help the “understanding”. It only serves to place barriers to discourse.

  5. Politicians care about today. Voters have to care about tomorrow, and give politicians the proper nudges they need today to carry through on voters’ hopes for tomorrow.Responsible voting, giving, working, on complex issues is the responsbility of every human being.Complex problems require intuitive answers, and those answers need people who can follow through.

  6. medaille says:

    That’s a good point Barbara, but I think that its clear that most of the politicians on the national level (at least here in neocon land) tend to think about lining their and their friends pockets first and everybody else’s priorities second. Politicians only care about the “short term” because it allows them to keep lining their pockets and gaining power for longer periods of time. Combine that with the fact that its near impossible to get a responsible candidate the media exposure they deserve and it becomes clear that responsible voting in and of itself isn’t enough. So we all still have to do the work ourselves, which is backwards because that’s what they get paid to do, but that’s just the way it is.

  7. Jon Husband says:

    Gotta grab the money and the power, results are irrelevant as long as people don’t catch on to the racket and stop giving them power and money.Exactafrickinlutely !And that’s why, in my opinion, processes such as blogging MUST continue and spread (as it has been doing) .. because there is the (eventual) hope that enough transparency and peeks behind the curtain will reveal that the governance (as a general statement) of lo, these last several hundred years .. (when societies began to grow large enough amd peoples on the different continents began to become more aware of other parts of the world and other hierarchical power-and-control systems) .. has more often than not been less about general public/societal well-being and more about accessing, gaining and then sustaining power and control.Of course society and countries have developed much, in many areas like health, education, infrastructure, technology during this process .. that’s one of the core things humans do .. invent, tinker, create, improve, grow things … … and of course as there have become more people, better eductaion, literacy, the spread of ideas and knowledge due to the printing press and other communications technologies … the means of gaining and sustaining power and control have become more and more about ideas and perceptions .. along comes tv, radio, propaganda, the orwellian manipulation of language to creat reality, etc., etc.It would be so very interesting to be able to access lucid dreaming that would provide scenarios of what things will be like in 2016 ;-)Which brings to mind one of my favourite quotes (don’t remember who) …. 100 years from now ? All new people !

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