Why Sustainability, not Terrorism, Should Be Our Real Security Focus 7


By Alex Steffen in WorldChanging.com

What really threatens us? How do we truly make ourselves safer?

The Cato Institute (a conservative thinktank) has released an outstanding paper, A False Sense of Insecurity (PDF), which makes the point that in any rational assessment, terrorism is really just not that big of a threat to the average person. For instance, about as many Americans have been killed by terrorists as have been “killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.” Whatsmore, many WMD threats are overblown and largely preventable. Indeed, with exhaustive research, the authors can conclude that:

Assessed in broad but reasonable context, terrorism generally does not do much damage. The costs of terrorism are often the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions.

A sensible policy approach to the problem might be to stress that any damage terrorists are able to accomplish likely can be absorbed, however grimly. While judicious protective and policing measures are sensible, extensive fear and anxiety over what may at base prove to be a rather limited problem are misplaced, unjustified and counter productive


We, especially those of us in the U.S., have been kept in a panic state for the last five years, told constantly that not only is terrorism an immediate threat to ourselves and the ones we love, but that it is a danger to our very civilization. The result has been both that terrorists have been more successful in spreading terror and that authoritarian politicians have taken the opportunity to reduce government transparency and citizen oversight and erode protections for human rights and democratic process.

It also hasn’t made us one lick safer, since, while we’ve been freaking out, fighting an unjustified war and pouring money into the terrorism porkbarrel, we’ve essentially ignored very big, well- documented threats, from the climate crisis to the weakening of the global public health system and the rise of epidemic disease to the destruction of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, what we’ve been taught about how to respond to real threats turns out to be not very helpful. Ready.gov is the official disaster preparedness Site of the Department of Homeland Security. The Federation of American Scientists analyzed Ready.gov, and found it so incomplete and poorly done that they felt compelled to create their own site, ReallyReady.org, to give people better information about the threats variosu kinds of terrorist attacks pose, and the kinds of responses possible (and to call for the government’s site to be improved).

But both of these important efforts miss a still larger point, which is that 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 can build a bright green society, one which will give our kids a future. We can build a much safer society, one which will increase our kids chances of growing up healthy to live in that future. By and large, the steps involved in building both are the same, and none of them involve color-coded terror alerts. The time has come to stop living in fear, and start building a better world.


7 thoughts on “Why Sustainability, not Terrorism, Should Be Our Real Security Focus

  • ScottSA

    Quite right. Lets just ignore it. I'm sure they'll get tired of bombing airlines, buses, market places, roadways, subways and discos if we just pretend terrorism doesn't exist.

    I mean who cares if sundry Mosques across the West and throughout the east preach the killing of Jews and infidels? What's a few Jews compared to the larger fads…oops I mean issues…like climate change?

    We're not quite certain that climate change is actually BAD for Europe or indeed the northern hemisphere, and we haven't quite figured out how the climate has changed before during the Big and Little Optimums, which happened a few centuries before industrial capitalism was even a gleam in Man's eye, but by all means lets direct our efforts at running around in hemp sandals and solemnly vowing to save the snowy owl or whatever the environmental crisis of the week happens to be. Brilliant.

  • Nur-al-Cubicle

    Yes, Mr. Murray, the juggernaut of BushCo + BlairLtd have the Anglo-Saxon world the fear barrel. How about a moral foreign policy for the Middle East so we can back to taking care of ourselves?

  • bungy

    Scott – I think the starting point here is not to ignore terrorism but to put it in perspective. Naturally "hard concerns" such as terrorism weigh heavier in our mind than "soft concerns" such as the environment, road safety et al, because they capture the public imagination more readily.

    The clue is in the name, an aim of terrorism is to inspire terror, disrupt civil society and provoke a disproportionate effect from its action both practically and psychologically. As Maggie said, we should not supply the "oxygen of publicity to terrorists" and get on with life as normal.

    The fact is that we are so absorbed in this issue is IMO a failure of leadership. The security services will do their job regardless.

    Sustainability IS on the other hand an issue that EVERYONE can take a role in. Whether you believe in human affected climate change or not, (or if you think it is a good thing) is actually irrelevant. If you have a finite resources then it makes sense to minimise your resource "footprint" and if you can reduce it to zero so much the better.

    The best resource example is Oil. Peak Oil is only a few years away and while the production levels will trail off slowly over the next few decades (NOT plummet) the demand is rising sharply (increased demand in the west and growth of other economies such as China, India etc.). Not only is our energy system dependant on oil but most manufactured products, medicines, plastics, clothing, oh and agricultural.

    Resource issues also apply to a number of other concerns including water.

    If we do not arrive at a situation where our societies are resource-sustainable domestically and globally the alternative would presumably be fighting it out with other groups for what remains. A hypothetical war with China over oil in the Caspian Sea region or Africa would be more destructive than any terrorist action.

    In a nutshell sustainability is about avoiding boom and bust. Remember the experiment in school biology. You put some bacteria on an agar plate. The new source of food/energy leads to a population explosion. When the resources can no longer support the population the numbers crash. This happens in all animal populations and interestingly the human population explosion happened since the industrial revolution.

    The way to avoid the bust phase (whether it comes by war, famine, economic collapse or whatever) is to develop sustainable societies. In the process this will also make your so-called hemp sandal brigade happy but really has very little to do with the sentiments you ascribe to them.

    This is where we need real leadership and direction.

  • halva

    A year or so back, Sir David King said that climate change is a worse threat than terrorism. If he is right, climate change "sceptics" should be treated as the political equivalent of sympathisers with terrorists.

  • ScottSA

    Bungy: Thank you for the grace of a polite rebuttal.

    Yes sustainability is important, and I believe demand is driving us in that direction and will increase as conditions warrant. As you suggest, production of oil will decline slowly even as demands for energy increase, but there is absolutely no reason to imagine that energy sources will not change to reflect that.

    Major transport and energy corporations did not get to be major corporations by blithely skipping along toward a cliff like so many lemmings. They are not only aware, better than most, of energy conditions but are taking steps based on demand to accomodate demand. This may go on a few directions, including biomass, nuclear, and hydro-electric (supplimented by wind and solar) while reserving oil for transportation until an adequate alternative is found.

    Having said all of that, it is not a zero sum game as Craig seems to suggest. One can worry about sustainability, but that does not mean one has to forget about terrorism or cease combatting it.

    The first step to combatting it is recognizing the source. The source is not poverty or ignorance or any of the usual neo-liberal suspects. The source is not disaffected young men, or British foreign policy or the war in Iraq and Lebanon. The source is Islam and the sooner we recognize it the better. Declaring war on "terrorism" in the absense of assigned causality to Islam is like declaring war on Panzers and Stukas instead of Germany, in response to the 1939 invasion of Poland.

    Unfortunately the west is far too afraid of calling down upon its head the dread accusation of "racism" to ever contemplate facing the truth.

  • bungy

    Hi Scott – I didn't think that the article reduced everything to a zero sum game. It is a matter of creating perspective, a heirachy of concern if you like.

    Sustainability-wise I am less confident than you, oil is not the only issue but that is a discussion of several pages.

    In terms of assigning causality I'd suggest a rather more fundamental and universal cause which is desire for power. A small number of idealogue radicals on the fringes of (un-?)Islamic thought exploiting religion as a mobilising ploy.

    Ideological 'excesses' are not unique in history to Islam or indeed religion. I do however think there are more intelligent and sustainable (no pun intended) ways of dealing with the current situation than pretty much anything we have done since the end of 2002.

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