June 22, 2009

Reading Old Magazines: Natural Security

When our Veep Sharon Burke landed on the term “natural security” when developing this CNAS program late last year, our staff dug around to see how the term has been used in the past. The other cases we found of its use were quite different from the definition we use, and those writings were not directed squarely at the national security community.

Fast forward a few months, and I stumble upon an article, “Natural Security: To Avoid War, We Need New Policies for Managing the Earth’s Resources,” by Hal Harvey, footnoted in a piece on water from the early 1990s. This 1988 gem, from a magazine or journal called Nuclear Times, proved evasive, not to be found in any regular research databases or through basic Googling. Lucky for us, Mr. Harvey’s office was kind enough to scan a hard copy they had on file and email it over to us.

It marks the first case we have found of an analyst using the term “natural security” in the same manner as we do at CNAS. Harvey did not define the term natural security per se, but described four categories that show the role of natural resources in national security.

In the first, “competition and conflict,” Harvey wrote that the historical record proves that nations have sought empires and sparked conflict in “the quest for tea, tobacco, spices, gold and oil…phosphates, minerals, and even fish.” His second category, “environmental degradation,” included examples of foreign relations disputes over pollution and acid rain and the ill will stirred generated by the Chernobyl disaster. “Vulnerability and security,” the third category, includes historical examples of infrastructure and resources as targets and weak points – and foreshadows literature from recent years in which many scholars have focused on the vulnerability of the U.S. electric grid to sabotage and natural disasters. In his fourth basket, “energy and economics,” the author stated that inefficient energy and resource policies in the United States and abroad can reduce a nation’s economic advantage and even destabilize countries.

It is worth noting specifically that Harvey assessed that climate change would become a great security concern, which he categorized as environmental degradation. He wrote that CO2 emissions from human energy use “threatens to diminish agricultural yields in vital grain-producing regions…while possibly expanding yields in other countries. The resulting dislocations in global food supply and trade could well pit countries around the world against each other.”

Twenty-one years later, climate modeling has come a long way, and we can view maps of where changes in temperature, sea level rise, and precipitation will alter not only agricultural yields but also displace coastal populations and affect everything from energy infrastructure to military bases. Indeed, Congress required in the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act that the Department of Defense consider the impacts of climate change in its Quadrennial Defense Review and other strategy exercises (which we’ll be posting more on later this week).

If there is one way in which Harvey could have been even more forward-looking, it would have been to identify that the security community, including the U.S. military itself, must consider in all of its work how natural resources play a role in its roles and responsibilities. As written, his article was addressed to “the peace movement,” which I assume by the context he provides (having been the ripe age of 7 years old at the time it was written) was altogether separate from the community of national security scholars and practitioners, in particular the Department of Defense. Harvey suggested that with a series of successes in arms control, focusing on natural resources would provide the best policy options for the peace movement to offer given that its days of simply railing against U.S. weapons buildups may have been coming to an end. Yet as the author makes clear in his descriptions of how resources can spark competition and increase U.S. vulnerabilities, in most cases it is the military that will be charged with reacting when such insecurities become manifest. Harvey’s message is key for security policy makers today, and I hope that our program here at CNAS can build on his scholarship.

History is important. In one of our efforts to ensure that the Natural Security Blog provides interesting research at a greater depth than the 24/7 news cycle, we bring you Reading Old Magazines, a weekly feature in which we will comment on past articles about natural security issues.

Nuclear Times 1988 Natural Security