September 10, 2009

Reading Old Magazines: “To Prevent a World Wasteland: A Proposal”

This week’s edition of Reading Old Magazines takes us back to the dawn of the international environmental governance debate. Writing for the April 1970 issue of Foreign Affairs, George Kennan, a prolific defense strategist, diplomat, and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, defined a world beset by the “crisis of human environment.” In “To Prevent a World Wasteland: A Proposal” (subscription required), Kennan, in a clarion call, challenged the world to protect “the earth’s resources on which [our] survival depends,” and designed the blueprint for a world environmental organization that could accomplish the task at hand.

I would be remiss if I did not preface this post by noting that the sense of urgency with which Kennan wrote – a man whose list of accolades includes the title of “father of U.S. containment policy” –is perhaps telling of how he defined security: to include those challenges that extend beyond the Soviet bloc, with solutions that exist beyond military means.

Kennan notably advanced the international environmental governance debate by giving weight to the idea that environmental degradation – while by and large managed at the national level through legislation and enforcement – is not contained within national boundaries. “The entire ecology of the planet is not arranged in national compartments,” he wrote. For Kennan, the “crisis of human environment” was a challenge that would have to be met and managed at the international level.

Having noted the vast body of agreements, regimes, and ad hoc institutions – both private and intergovernmental – tasked with protecting the global environment, Kennan bemoaned that it was “evident that present activities [had] not halted or reversed environmental deterioration.” What was needed, he contended, was a new international agency, apolitical in nature, “fortified by extensive scientific expertise,” and subject to “no nation, no group of nations, no armed forces, no political movement and no commercial concern.”

For Kennan, the function of this new agency would be four-fold. First, the organization would serve as a repository for scientific information on “all aspects of the problem” that would be available to everyone, everywhere. This would include a “register of all conservational [sic] activities at international, national, regional and even local levels across the globe.” Second, the organization would serve as a hub to coordinate all activities – both research and operational – that address global environmental concerns. Third, the organization would set international environmental standards and help governments and other regional organizations improve their practices to meet these standards. Finally this body would police what Kennan aptly referred to as “the great international media of human activity;” those activities beyond sovereign territory that include “the high seas, the stratosphere, outer space, perhaps also the Arctic and Antarctic.” Most importantly it would establish and enforce “suitable rules” for human environmental exploitation in those ungoverned parts of the global environment.

 Kennan cautioned that no single country could possibly support the agency alone. Instead, he posited that the agency be made up of ten leading industrial nations from the East and West. This would lend the agency credibility and an ability to promote and enforce environmental standards and practices. After all, Kennan argued, “the devastation of the environment is primarily, though not exclusively, a function of advanced industrial and urban society.”  Kennan even projected that the cost for initiating and sustaining this agency would require an investment equal to at most 1 percent of each of the military budgets from the participating governments – a significant cost nonetheless.

Interestingly, for Kennan, “considering that the threat the agency would be designed to confront would be one by no means less menacing or less urgent (emphasis mine) than those to which the military appropriations are ostensibly devoted, this could hardly be called exorbitant.” One cannot help but wonder: is Kennan, the architect of U.S. containment policy and a seminal strategic thinker in U.S. national security strategy, to be read as suggesting that the “crisis of human environment” is as much as a threat as those things that require military solutions? This of course should not be taken to suggest that the global environment crisis requires military solutions, but rather that the two issues, while requiring different solutions, present similar challenges. It is a question worthy of consideration, especially as a parallel debate about whether climate change constitutes a national security threat continues to take form in Washington today.