Events

Land, Water, People -- Conflict?

March 21, 2000 // 11:00pm

Reported by Justine A. Kwiatkowski

Political scientist Samuel Huntington has famously prophesied a clash of civilizations in the wake of the Cold War. But for a group of environmental thinkers, the ending of the Cold War opened up the possibility of battles far more primordial than those fought along ethnic lines -- namely, disputes over land, water, and other scarce resources.

These environmental researchers would prefer less money be spent on tanks and automatic weapons and more on solutions to the problems of population growth, environmental degradation, and inequitable distribution of wealth that, they say, are provoking political strife around the world.

The documentary film Land, Water, People, and Conflict explores the plausibility of associating a nation's security with a healthy environment. Screened on March 22 at the Wilson Center on behalf of the Environmental Film Festival, the film belongs to an American Defense Monitor series critiquing the American military's relationship with the environment. Like the rest of the series, the film combines testimony from experts with opinions from regular people to make a compelling case for redefining traditional notions of security and defense spending. Read film transcript .

For Jessica Tuchman Mathews, an expert who appears in the film, this new understanding of national security is the product of a gradual evolution over the past twenty years. At the panel discussion following the Wilson Center screening, Mathews explained that in the 1980s, but especially the 1990s, it became the trend within academic and policy circles to identify environmental degradation, population growth, and shortages of vital resources as threats to world peace.

Environmental problems contributed to the making of four of the six conflicts in which the United States became involved in the 1990s, Mathews said -- namely, Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, and the Middle East. (Conflicts in Bosnia and North Korea, she said, are not widely seen as outgrowths of environmental or demographic crises.)

Of these, Haiti is the most widely cited example of an environmentally induced political crisis. As the Wilson Center's Geoffrey Dabelko explained in article for the Autumn 1999 Wilson Quarterly, one cannot fully understand the coup in Haiti without taking into account its massive environmental problems. Decades of rapid population growth pushed Haiti's poor farmers into marginal lands, stripping the country of its forests and topsoil. They migrated by the thousands to the cities, where overcrowding and poverty provoked protests and riots. The instability weakened President Aristide's government and encouraged the 1991 military coup against him. It is unlikely that the coup would have occurred had the rural farmers been able to earn a living off the land, Dabelko argued.

Another environmentalist featured in the film, Michael Rennerof the Worldwatch Institute, has written a book (illustrated left) exploring the nexus between security and the environment. Renner believes that the greatest threats to security today come from within nations, not from invading armies, and points out that environmental crises often underpin, or else exacerbate, a nation's ethnic conflicts. During the panel discussion, Mathews picked up on Renner's concern about the rise of intrastate conflict, arguing that conflicts within nations are often made more acute by resource shortages or a burgeoning population. Environmental problems "further polarize societies that were already divided," she said.

Because environmental issues are seen as falling under a nation's "internal affairs," the international community typically does not pay attention until too late -- i.e., when the strains produced by environmental problems lead to outbreaks of violence. It is therefore rare for an environmental problem to be addressed at the prevention stage.

Mathews stressed, however, that "the connection between environmental degradation and population growth, and conflict is not at all inevitable." She noted that policy makers have an array of options at their disposal should they decide to give priority to ensuring that an environmental crisis does not become a crisis at a political or humanitarian level. Along with panelist Robert Engelman, Mathews recommended that countries

* calculate their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to more accurately reflect the value of natural resources as well as real risks. An environmentally accurate GDP would "eliminate a lot of bad policy decisions," Mathews said. It would also be helpful to incorporate the many bilateral and multilateral environmental treaties into international law.
* embrace "environmentally rational pricing,"according to which the price of a resource reflects its true value.
* tax products to compensate for the environmental damage they cause.

In closing, the panel said that the link between the environment and security is still viewed with skepticism, and military programs continue to receive a higher priority for funding. But panelists sensed that the tide was turning, and were hopeful that with growing recognition of the environment-peace link, it will be possible to avoid many conflicts. If countries use diplomacy rather than guns, said Engelman, these conflicts present a "tremendous opportunity for cooperation and compromise." And although organizations like the United Nations could play a role, Engelman, along with the rest of the panelists, said he puts most of his faith in the power of non-governmental organizations and the news media to raise public awareness of the need for preventive diplomacy. "Sociocultural change is absolutely essential" to the prevention of environmentally induced crises, Engelman stressed.

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