* 01 Sep 1993: Norman Myers: Ultimate Security: The Environmental Basis of Political Stability; Amazon, Google Books; New Scientist: Battle for the Planet: Review of Ultimate Security. Myers Norman: Environmental Security: Whats New and Different?.
Ultimate Security: The Environmental Basis of Political Stability
Norman Myers, 01 September 1993
“I do not see how anyone can claim to be informed about what is probably humanity’s single most important problem without having read Ultimate Security.” -Robert Heilbroner, New School of Social Research.
“In a provocative description of the new concept of environmental security, which he helped establish, the author offers much evidence that environmental factors-from deforestation and desertification to global warming and ozone depletion-will loom larger in world affairs. His book is chockablock with recent portents … and [predictions of] loss of stability or out-and-out conflict over natural resource related issues.” -Publishers Weekl.
“Myers, a widely published professional conservationist, brings together seven regional case studies and five global case studies to support his thesis that ‘environmental problems will likely become predominant causses of conflict in the decades ahead.’ Writing for the general public, Myers draws upon his field work in over 80 countries as well as his work with the World Commission on Environment and Development. … [He] marshals compelling data about the environmental threat and sounds the alarm that political leadership is failing to respond. An interesting, lively book.” -Library Journal
Just as the Cold War has dominated the last four decades, environmental conflicts will become the “principle threat to security and peace” in the years ahead, argues Myers ( Future Worlds ). In a provocative description of the new concept of environmental security, which he helped establish, the author offers much evidence that environmental factors–from deforestation and desertification to global warming and ozone depletion–will loom larger in world affairs. His book is chockablock with recent portents: how loss of topsoil in the Philippines pushed citizens to the guerrilla side; how Britain and Iceland nearly clashed over marine fisheries; how the threatened cut-off of water flows from rivers outside its borders helped cause Israel’s 1967 war against the Arabs. Looking ahead, Myers examines major international regions and predicts loss of stability or out-and-out conflict over natural resource-related issues in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. The number of “environmental refugees” alone could reach 400 million, he claims, as the greenhouse effect kicks in, causing higher sea levels and flooding. The author urges United States-led collective action by the world’s nations.
Ultimate Security: The Environmental Basis of Political Stability by Norman Myers, W. W. Norton, pp 308, $25
The message of Ultimate Security is that with the Cold War over, environmental problems will increasingly become causes of conflict if we do not reverse current trends. These problems already play a significant role in many wars and internal conflicts – either directly, as in the sharing of water resources, or indirectly as when populations are displaced because of soil degradation.
The most severe problems seem to be concentrated in tropical developing countries, although stratospheric ozone depletion, climate change and species extinction all have a global impact. Yet such are the physical, social and economic links between developing and industrialised countries that humankind has become globally interdependent. The world is becoming one world.
So we need to act collectively, to emphasise cooperation rather than confrontation. Only if we do is there any hope of achieving this ultimate security, which concerns less the state than the individual citizen’s quest for access to water, food, shelter, health and employment. Security concerns include the environmental resources that condition our material welfare.
If these deteriorate, the economies worsen, the social fabric unravels, political structures may destabilise and internal conflicts and wars break out.
In the Middle East, the main issue is water quantity and quality. The Jordan, Euphrates, Tigris and Nile are all transnational rivers. Access to their waters is a source of current and future conflicts. Salination reduces soil fertility, while populations keep increasing and reservoirs
become silted, so reducing storage capacity and electricity production. Only massive, costly international water management programmes could have a significant impact. In Ethiopia, erosion in the highlands was responsible for the migration of peasants to the lowlands near Somalia, and the ensuing Ogaden war. In the Philippines, deforestation – there will be no forests there by the end of the century – erosion and overfishing have severely damaged the natural resource base, and insurgents control 20 per cent of the country.
India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all dependent upon soil cover in the Himalayan region. Forests are being destroyed at a rapid rate. This causes soil erosion, adding sediment to the rivers that flow from these mountains. Sedimentation downstream aggravates flooding. India’s progress in achieving self-sufficiency in food is threatened by salination of irrigated
land. Everywhere population pressure increases. Yet Pakistan spends 8 per cent of its GNP on military activities (the corresponding figure for the US is 6.5 per cent).
In sub-Saharan Africa, where the world’s poorest countries are, half the people are undernourished and the population growth rate is still increasing. There has been a massive loss of soil fertility accompanied by periodic droughts. The region is also in political turmoil – there have been 200 coups since 1950.
Mexico suffers from general land degradation as well as from urban congestion and air pollution. Many of its citizens emigrate, legally or illegally, to the US. And on and on it goes. Myers has produced worst-case and best-case scenarios for each region, but I think that these are perhaps the weakest part of the book.
It is shocking that the world spent $1000 billion on arms in 1991, about 20 per cent of which was in developing countries. In this context we should remind ourselves that the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro estimated that we needed to spend $625 billion a year to achieve sustainable development, of which $125 billion should to be raised from developed countries. Yet the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility barely managed to put together $2 billion in March 1994 to address the problems caused by global change in developing countries.
Myers’s knowledge of environmental issues and their ramifications is impressive. He gives detailed notes and references for each chapter, a resource guide and a fine index, which is very useful to the reader who may want to check the myriad facts and figures quoted throughout the volume.
All this adds up to a valuable book, preaching a just and noble cause. It is left to the reader to determine what kind of scenario is credible and whether the trade-offs with military security that it proposes have any chance of being implemented.
Philippe Bourdeau works for the European Commission and directs the Environment Institute at the Free University of Bruxelles.