Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What's the Real Threat?

Alex Steffen has a must-read post up at WorldChaging today in which he responds to a Cato Institute article (yes, that Cato Institute) claiming that the threat of terrorism to any one individual (not just American individual, either) is so low that our current national "War on Terror" seems at best an overreaction and at worst a cynical attempt to manipulate the public's fears. As the paper notes, we've all got a better chance of drowning in our bathtubs or being struck by lightning. No real news there -- Michael Moore made the same point a number of years ago (yes, that Michael Moore). From this observation, Alex goes a step further and considers the costs of environmental degradation in terms of the human lives it's taken:

...much of what is insecure in our societies is also what is unsustainable about them.

Let me be even more blunt: sustainability is a national security priority. Perhaps the national security priority. If scientists are correct, far more people have already lost their lives from the direct and indirect effects of climate change than terrorism. The health effects of sprawl, car accidents, chemical spills, environmentally-influenced cancers: all of these things are probably bigger threats to the lives of average Americans than terrorism. Certainly preventable disease, unneccessary hunger, solvable poverty and environmental degredation already cause far more death and suffering in the world than any terrorists ever could.

And the things we need to do to alleviate these problems also tend to make us more secure and our systems more stable in the face of whatever terrorism might occur: see, for instance, the notion of passive survivability, which notes that green buildings are safer and more sustainable, sure, but they also protect their residents more effectively in an emergency, whether that emergency is an earthquake or a city paralyzed by a train station bombing. Similar points can be made, of course, about everything from better public health to green cars to building bright green cities -- these things bring us benefit now, they lessen the severity of the dangers facing us, and they will help make us less vulnerable to the things we fear.

We've already seen "energy conservation hawks" adapt the language of national security to address how we power ourselves in the United States: the phrase "energy security" is fairly common now. Why not also deal with massive threats like global warming with the same rhetoric? Of course, we run the risk (as we're often accused) of scaring people to the point of hopelessness. At the same time, the idea of a "security threat" seems to bring many Americans and others to their feet, ready for action. I'm not suggesting this cynically, as in "let's get people to do what we want them to do by scaring the hell out of them"; rather, let's make a concerted effort to show people literally the human costs that have been tallied through environmental destruction. Ultimately, I think this will underscore the message, heard most prominently in An Inconvenient Truth, that addressing global warming is a moral issue: if we owe it to our families and communities to protect them from terrorists who will likely never show up, how much greater is our obligation to take on threats that endanger every one of us, and have taken a much higher number of lives? We've got many of the tools and technologies we need -- we're lacking, however, in will. Maybe such arguments could create some...

Nick at TriplePundit has thoughts on this, also.

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