Redefining Security by Jessica Tuchman Matthews

Jessica Tuchman Matthews – REDEFINING SECURITY 

Source: ‘Redefining security’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 68, no. 2, Spring 1989, pp. 162–77.

The 1990s will demand a redefinition of what constitutes national security. Global developments suggest the need for analogous, broadening definition of national security to include resource, environmental and demographic issues. Population growth lies at the core of most environmental trends. Environmental decline occasionally leads directly to conflict, especially when scarce water resources must be shared. Generally, however, its impact on nations’ security is felt in the downward pull on economic performance and, therefore, on political stability. Environmental refugees spread the disruption across national borders. The majority of environmental problems demand regional solutions which encroach upon what people think of as the prerogatives of national governments. Achieving sustainable economic growth will require the remodeling of agriculture, energy use and industrial production after nature’s example–their reinvention, in fact. The developing countries especially will need to pool their efforts in the search for solutions.

THE 1990S will demand a redefinition of what constitutes national security.

In the 1970s the concept was expanded to include international economics […]. Global developments now suggest the need for another analogous, broadening definition of national security to include resource, environmental and demographic issues.

The assumptions and institutions that have governed international relations in the postwar era are a poor fit with these new realities. Environmental strains that tran- scend national borders are already beginning to break down the sacred boundaries of national sovereignty, previously rendered porous by the information and communica- tion revolutions and the instantaneous global movement of financial capital.The once sharp dividing line between foreign and domestic policy is blurred, forcing govern- ments to grapple in international forums with issues that were contentious enough in the domestic arena. […]

Individuals and governments alike are beginning to feel the cost of substituting for (or doing without) the goods and services once freely provided by healthy ecosys- tems. Nature’s bill is presented in many different forms […]. Whatever the immedi- ate cause for concern, the value and absolute necessity for human life of functioning ecosystems is finally becoming apparent.

Moreover, for the first time in its history, mankind is rapidly – if inadvertently – altering the basic physiology of the planet. Global changes currently taking place in the chemical composition of the atmosphere, in the genetic diversity of species inhabiting the planet, and in the cycling of vital chemicals through the oceans, atmosphere, biosphere and geosphere, are unprecedented in both their pace and scale. If left unchecked, the consequences will be profound and, unlike familiar types of local damage, irreversible.

Population growth lies at the core of most environmental trends. It took 130 years for world population to grow from one billion to two billion: it will take just a decade to climb from today’s five billion to six billion. […]

The relationship linking population levels and the resource base is complex. Policies, technologies and institutions determine the impact of population growth. These factors can spell the difference between a highly stressed, degraded environ- ment and one that can provide for many more people. […]

An important paradox to bear in mind when examining natural resource trends is that so-called nonrenewable resources – such as coal, oil and minerals – are in fact inexhaustible, while so-called renewable resources can be finite. […] There are, thus, threshold effects for renewable resources that belie the name given them, with unfor- tunate consequences for policy.

The most serious form of renewable resource decline is the deforestation taking place throughout the tropics. […] Tropical forests are fragile ecosystems, extremely vulnerable to human disruption. Once disturbed, the entire ecosystem can unravel. The loss of the trees causes the interruption of nutrient cycling above and below the soil, the soil loses fertility, plant and animal species lose their habitats and become extinct, and acute fuelwood shortages appear (especially in the dry tropical forests). The soil erodes without the ground cover provided by trees and plants, and down- stream rivers suffer siltation, causing floods and droughts, and damaging expensive irrigation and hydroelectric systems.Traced through its effects on agriculture, energy supply and water, resources, tropical deforestation impoverishes about a billion people. […]

The planet’s evolutionary heritage – its genetic diversity is heavily concentrated in these same forests. It is therefore disappearing today on a scale not seen since the age of the dinosaurs, and at an unprecedented pace. Biologists estimate that species are being lost in the tropical forests 1,000–10,000 times faster than the natural rate of extinction. As many as 20 percent of all the species now living may be gone by the year 2000.The loss will be felt aesthetically, scientifically and, above all, economically. […] […] The bitter irony is that genetic diversity is disappearing on a grand scale at the very moment when biotechnology makes it possible to exploit fully this resource for the first time.

Soil degradation is another major concern. Both a cause and a consequence of poverty, desertification, as it is generally called, is causing declining agricultural pro- ductivity on nearly two billion hectares, 15 percent of the earth’s land area.The causes are overcultivation, overgrazing, erosion, and salinization and waterlogging due to poorly managed irrigation. […]

Finally, patterns of land tenure, though not strictly an environmental condition, have an immense environmental impact. […] Land reform is among the most difficult of all political undertakings, but without it many countries will be unable to create a healthy agricultural sector to fuel economic growth.

Environmental decline occasionally leads directly to conflict […]. Generally, however, its impact on nations’ security is felt in the downward pull on economic performance and, therefore, on political stability. The underlying cause of turmoil is often ignored; instead governments address the poverty and instability that are its results. […]

If such resource and population trends are not addressed, as they are not in so much of the world today, the resulting economic decline leads to frustration, resent- ment, domestic unrest or even civil war. Human suffering and turmoil make coun- tries ripe for authoritarian government or external subversion. Environmental refugees spread the disruption across national borders. […]Wherever refugees settle, they flood the labor market, add to the local demand for food and put new burdens on the land, thus spreading the environmental stress that originally forced them from their homes. Resource mismanagement is not the only cause of these mass move- ments, of course. Religious and ethnic conflicts, political repression and other forces are at work. But the environmental causes are an essential factor.

A different kind of environmental concern has arisen from mankind’s new ability to alter the environment on a planetary scale.The earth’s physiology is shaped by the characteristics of four elements (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur); by its living inhabitants (the biosphere); and by the interactions of the atmosphere and the oceans, which produce our climate.

Mankind is altering both the carbon and nitrogen cycles, having increased the natural carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere by 25 percent. This has occurred largely in the last three decades through fossil-fuel use and deforestation. The production of commercial fertilizer has doubled the amount of nitrogen nature makes available to living things.The use of a single, minor class of chemicals, chloro- fluorocarbons, has punched a continent-sized “hole” in the ozone layer at the top of the stratosphere over Antarctica, and caused a smaller, but growing loss of ozone all around the planet. Species loss is destroying the work of three billion years of evolu- tion. Together these changes could drastically alter the conditions in which life on earth has evolved.

The greenhouse effect results from the fact that the planet’s atmosphere is largely transparent to incoming radiation from the sun but absorbs much of the lower energy radiation reemitted by the earth. This natural phenomenon makes the earth warm enough to support life. But as emissions of greenhouse gases increase, the planet is warmed unnaturally. Carbon dioxide produced from the combustion of fossil fuels and by deforestation is responsible for about half of the greenhouse effect. A number of other gases, notably methane (natural gas), nitrous oxide, ozone (in the lower atmosphere, as distinguished from the protective ozone layer in the stratosphere) and the man-made chlorofluorocarbons are responsible for the other half.

Despite important uncertainties about aspects of the greenhouse warming, a vir- tually unanimous scientific consensus exists on its central features. If present emission trends continue, and unless some as yet undocumented phenomenon (possibly increased cloudiness) causes an offsetting cooling, the planet will, on average, get hotter because of the accumulation of these gases. Exactly how large the warming will be, and how fast it will occur, are uncertain. Existing models place the date of com- mitment to an average global warming of 1.5–4.5°C (3–8°F) in the early 2030s.The earth has not been this hot for two million years, long before human society, and indeed, even Homo sapiens, existed.

Hotter temperatures will be only one result of the continuing greenhouse warm- ing. At some point, perhaps quite soon, precipitation patterns are likely to shift, pos- sibly causing dustbowl-like conditions in the U.S. grain belt. Ocean currents are expected to do the same, dramatically altering the climates of many regions. A diver- sion of the Gulf Stream, for example, would transform Western Europe’s climate, making it far colder than it is today. Sea level will rise due to the expansion of water when it is warmed and to the melting of land-based ice. The oceans are presently rising by one-half inch per decade, enough to cause serious erosion along much of the U.S. coast.The projected rise is one to four feet by the year 2050. Such a large rise in the sea level would inundate vast coastal regions, erode shorelines, destroy coastal marshes and swamps (areas of very high biological productivity), pollute water sup- plies through the intrusion of salt water, and put at high risk the vastly disproportion- ate share of the world’s economic wealth that is packed along coastlines. The great river deltas, from the Mississippi to the Ganges, would be flooded. Estimates are that a half-meter rise in Egypt would displace 16 percent of the population, while a two- meter rise in Bangladesh would claim 28 percent of the land where 30 million people live today and where more than 59 million are projected to live by 2030. […]

[…] [H]uman societies, industrial no less than rural, depend on the normal, pre- dictable functioning of the climate system. Climate undergoing rapid change will not only be less predictable because it is different, but may be inherently more variable. Many climatologists believe that as accumulating greenhouse gases force the climate out of equilibrium, climate extremes such as hurricanes, droughts, cold snaps and typhoons will become more frequent and perhaps more intense. […]

Greenhouse change is closely linked to stratospheric ozone depletion, which is also caused by chlorofluorocarbons.The increased ultraviolet radiation resulting from losses in that protective layer will cause an increase in skin cancers and eye damage. It will have many still uncertain impacts on plant and animal life, and may suppress the immune systems of many species.

Serious enough in itself, ozone depletion illustrates a worrisome feature of man’s newfound ability to cause global change. It is almost impossible to predict accurately the long-term impact of new chemicals or processes on the environment. Chlorofluorocarbons were thoroughly tested when first introduced, and found to be benign. Their effect on the remote stratosphere was never considered. […]

Not only is it difficult to anticipate all the possible consequences in a highly inter- dependent, complex system, the system itself is poorly understood. […]

[…] [C]urrent knowledge of planetary mechanisms is so scanty that the possibil- ity of surprise, perhaps quite nasty surprise, must be rated rather high. The greatest risk may well come from a completely unanticipated direction. We lack both crucial knowledge and early warning systems.

Absent profound change in man’s relationship to his environment, the future does not look bright. Consider the planet without such change in the year 2050. Economic growth is projected to have quintupled by then. Energy use could also quintuple; or if post-1973 trends continue, it may grow more slowly, perhaps only doubling or tripling. The human species already consumes or destroys 40 percent of all the energy produced by terrestrial photosynthesis, that is, 40 percent of the food energy potentially available to living things on land. While that fraction may be sus- tainable, it is doubtful that it could keep pace with the expected doubling of the world’s population. Human use of 80 percent of the planet’s potential productivity does not seem compatible with the continued functioning of the biosphere as we know it. The expected rate of species loss would have risen from perhaps a few each day to several hundred a day.The pollution and toxic waste burden would likely prove unmanageable. Tropical forests would have largely disappeared, and arable land, a vital resource in a world of ten billion people, would be rapidly decreasing due to soil degradation. In short, sweeping change in economic production systems is not a choice but a necessity.

Happily, this grim sketch of conditions in 2050 is not a prediction, but a projection, based on current trends. Like all projections, it says more about the present and the recent past than it does about the future.The planet is not destined to a slow and pain- ful decline into environmental chaos. There are technical, scientific and economical solutions that are feasible to many current trends, and enough is known about prom- ising new approaches to be confident that the right kinds of research will produce huge payoffs. Embedded in current practices are vast costs in lost opportunities and waste, which, if corrected, would bring massive benefits. Some such steps will require only a reallocation of money, while others will require sizable capital investments. None of the needed steps, however, requires globally unaffordable sums of money. What they do demand is a sizable shift in priorities.

For example, family-planning services cost about $10 per user, a tiny fraction of the cost of the basic human needs that would otherwise have to be met. Already iden- tified opportunities for raising the efficiency of energy use in the United States cost one-half to one-seventh the cost of new energy supply. Comparable savings are avail- able in most other countries. Agroforestry techniques, in which carefully selected combinations of trees and shrubs are planted together with crops, can not only replace the need for purchased fertilizer but also improve soil quality, make more water avail- able to crops, hold down weeds, and provide fuelwood and higher agricultural yields all at the same time.

But if the technological opportunities are boundless, the social, political and institutional barriers are huge. Subsidies, pricing policies and economic discount rates encourage resource depletion in the name of economic growth, while delivering only the illusion of sustainable growth. Population control remains a controversial subject in much of the world.The traditional prerogatives of nation states are poorly matched with the needs for regional cooperation and global decision-making.And ignorance of the biological underpinning of human society blocks a clear view of where the long- term threats to global security lie.

Overcoming these economic and political barriers will require social and institu- tional inventions comparable in scale and vision to the new arrangements conceived in the decade following World War II. Without the sharp political turning point of a major war, and with threats that are diffuse and long term, the task will be more dif- ficult. But if we are to avoid irreversible damage to the planet and a heavy toll in human suffering, nothing less is likely to suffice. A partial list of the specific changes suggests how demanding a task it will be.

Achieving sustainable economic growth will require the remodeling of agricul- ture, energy use and industrial production after nature’s example – their reinvention, in fact.These economic systems must become circular rather than linear. Industry and manufacturing will need processes that use materials and energy with high efficiency, recycle by-products and produce little waste. Energy demand will have to be met with the highest efficiency consistent with full economic growth. Agriculture will rely heavily upon free ecosystem services instead of nearly exclusive reliance on man- made substitutes. And all systems will have to price goods and services to reflect the environmental costs of their provision.

A vital first step, one that can and should be taken in the very near term, would be to reinvent the national income accounts by which gross national product is mea- sured. GNP is the foundation on which national economic policies are built, yet its calculation does not take into account resource depletion. A country can consume its forests, wildlife and fisheries, its minerals, its clean water and its topsoil, without seeing a reflection of the loss in its GNP. Nor are ecosystem services sustaining soil fertility, moderating and storing rainfall, filtering air and regulating the climate-valued, though their loss may entail great expense.The result is that economic. policymakers are profoundly misled by their chief guide.

A second step would be to invent a set of indicators by which global environmen- tal health could be measured. Economic planning would be adrift without GNP, unemployment rates, and the like, and social planning without demographic indica- tors – fertility rates, infant mortality, literacy, life expectancy – would be impossible. Yet this is precisely where environmental policymaking stands today.

Development assistance also requires new tools. Bilateral and multilateral donors have found that project success rates climb when nongovernmental organizations dis- tribute funds and direct programs. This is especially true in agriculture, forestry and conservation projects.The reasons are not mysterious. Such projects are more decen- tralized, more attuned to local needs and desires, and have a much higher degree of local participation in project planning.They are usually quite small in scale, however, and not capable of handling very large amounts of development funding. Often, too, their independent status threatens the national government. Finding ways to make far greater use of the strengths of such groups without weakening national governments is another priority for institutional innovation.

Better ways must also be found to turn the scientific and engineering strengths of the industrialized world to the solution of the developing world’s problems.The chal- lenges include learning enough about local constraints and conditions to ask the right questions, making such research professionally rewarding to the individual scientist, and transferring technology more effectively. […]

On the political front, the need for a new diplomacy and for new institutions and regulatory regimes to cope with the world’s growing environmental interdependence is even more compelling. Put bluntly, our accepted definition of the limits of national sovereignty as coinciding with national borders is obsolete. […]

The majority of environmental problems demand regional solutions which encroach upon what we now think of as the prerogatives of national governments. This is because the phenomena themselves are defined by the limits of watershed, ecosystem, or atmospheric transport, not by national borders. Indeed, the costs and benefits of alternative policies cannot often be accurately judged without considering the region rather than the nation. […]

Dealing with global change will be more difficult. No one nation or even group of nations can meet these challenges, and no nation can protect itself from the actions – or inaction – of others. No existing institution matches these criteria. It will be necessary to reduce the dominance of the superpower relationship which so often encourages other countries to adopt a wait-and-see attitude […].

The United States, in particular, will have to assign a far greater prominence than it has heretofore to the practice of multilateral diplomacy. This would mean changes […] that [allow] leadership without primacy, both in the slogging work of negotiation and in adherence to final outcomes.Above all, ways must soon be found to step around the deeply entrenched North-South cleavage and to replace it with a planetary sense of shared destiny. […]

Today’s negotiating models – the Law of the SeaTreaty, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even the promising Convention to Protect the Ozone Layer – are inadequate. Typically such agreements take about 15 years to negotiate and enter into force, and perhaps another ten years before substantial changes in behavior are actually achieved. […] Far better approaches will be needed.

Among these new approaches, perhaps the most difficult to achieve will be ways to negotiate successfully in the presence of substantial scientific uncertainty.The pres- ent model is static: years of negotiation leading to a final product.The new model will have to be fluid, allowing a rolling process of intermediate or self-adjusting agree- ments that respond quickly to growing scientific understanding. […] [It] will require new economic methods for assessing risk, especially where the possible outcomes are irreversible. It will depend on a more active political role for biologists and chemists than they have been accustomed to, and far greater technical competence in the natu- ral and planetary sciences among policymakers. Finally, the new model may need to forge a more involved and constructive role for the private sector. Relegating the affected industries to a heel-dragging, adversarial, outsiders role almost guarantees a slow process. […]

International law, broadly speaking, has declined in influence in recent years. With leadership and commitment from the major powers it might regain its lost status. But that will not be sufficient.To be effective, future arrangements will require provisions for monitoring, enforcement and compensation, […] areas where interna- tional law has traditionally been weak. […]

Reflecting on the discovery of atomic energy, Albert Einstein noted “everything changed.” And indeed, nuclear fission became the dominant force – military, geopo- litical, and even psychological and social – of the ensuing decades. In the same sense, the driving force of the coming decades may well be environmental change. Man is still utterly dependent on the natural world but now has for the first time the ability to alter it, rapidly and on a global scale. Because of that difference, Einstein’s verdict that “we shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive” still seems apt.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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