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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 6 (1999)

Ultimate Security: The Environmental Basis of Political Stability by Norman Myers (1996) Washington, DC: Island Press. xi, 308 pp.


Reviewed by K. Mark Leek, Research Scientist, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

When it comes to environmental protection and the long-term health of the planet, most citizens of the industrialized world must at some level recognize the pervasive role of denial in how they choose to structure their lives. On a daily basis, we have available clear indicators of the global and environmental implications of our actions, yet we choose to ignore them. Our consumer purchases, large and small, are often justified because our status, comfort, pleasure are more greatly prized than the planet's long-term welfare. It is a tradeoff we are willing to make.

Myers' thesis in Ultimate Security is that we continue to ignore the increasingly alarming global and environmental consequences of our actions at our peril. As a society, Americans can no longer afford the luxury of our denial and conceit. Events are overtaking us too quickly, and unless we recognize the immense destructive capacity of our actions and take steps to change now, it will soon be too late. Myers' book is more than a wake-up call; it is a high-decibel, full-frontal call to arms. Myers means to be alarming, and he has marshaled a formidable body of current scientific knowledge to make his case.

The strength of Myers' book lies in his description of the problem of global environmental degradation and what is at stake for the future of the planet, including our global interdependence. This is no small feat. Problem definition is one of the vital functions of policy analysis.

But a great strength can also be a source of weakness. For Myers, the environmental perspective alone provides the basis of the appeal for action. By action, Myers means primarily action on the part of the United States government. As the sole remaining superpower, as well as the source of a disproportionate share of the worldâs pollution, Myers' view is that the U.S. has a special mandate to assert world leadership in this area. U.S. citizens should be so outraged over what is happening to the environment that they demand action from their government. This is laudable; many of us would like to see more done to save the planet. But environmental degradation alone hardly has proven to be of sufficient prescriptive value to carry the argument for more government action. And it is the prescriptive value of Myers' book, that is, its use to policy makers as a guide to action, where serious problems emerge.

Ultimate Security appears as part of the Island Press series on the environment whose purpose is to "provide solutions-oriented information to professionals, public officials, business and community leaders, and concerned citizens who are shaping responses to environmental problems." One wishes Myers had given more attention to the seriesâ policy mandate. The challenge policy makers face is how to conceptualize and frame government response. Mobilizing state action differs substantially from mobilizing individuals. It is the state's role in the environmental response equation that is missing from Ultimate Security.

The case for state action in Myers' argument begins to unravel when he dismisses the need to develop a link between the environment and national security as a justification for government action. Myers is unabashedly dismissive about the need to develop this connection. For Myers it is a chimera that detracts from real concerns about saving the planet from environmental degradation.
But the link to national security does matter because it informs policy makers why they should care about the environment as a policy issue. Governments, like individuals, operate in a world of scarcity. The challenge policy makers face is to know when and under what circumstances they must expend scarce state resources on environmental issues. When are vital national security interests at stake? Certainly one would not wish to claim that national security interests must be viewed in military terms alone. Threats to sustainability and quality of life, particularly when they threaten public health and vital economic interests, are legitimate national security concerns. Policy advisors who ignore them are viewed as negligent.

At the same time, national policy advisors are rarely encouraged to give equal weight to global and national environmental concerns. It is not necessarily that these advisors (and state officials) do not care about global environmental issues, or that they fail to recognize the link between global and national environmental concerns. It is more that policy advisors and government officials are expected to put the interests of their country first. This is the logic that drives them to relegate global environmental concerns to secondary importance, or to ignore them altogether. The crush of other pressing domestic and international priorities is too great, and the interests protecting them too entrenched, to leave room in the budgetary mix for other, seemingly less urgent concerns. Capturing a meaningful allocation of funds to address global environmental concerns is a battle, and to make the case, the link to vital national security interests - military, economic, public health or otherwise - must be demonstrated. While altruism is a legitimate driver of policy, in the main it must be shown that state action can make a difference, serves a vital national interest, and is cost-effective.

So what criteria would Myers use in place of a link to national security as a guide to government action? Here we discover just how much Myers has invested in the concept of "ultimate," as in the title, Ultimate Security. "Security" for Myers is the elimination of material insecurity for every human being on the planet. Sources of insecurity that must be eliminated include social inequality, poverty, overpopulation, resource disparity between developed and developing nations, including lifestyles of first world nations that threaten the individual security of the rest of the world. Eliminating personal insecurity in all of its manifestations will result in the end of the degradation of the environment. It is as if Myers means to eliminate the role of economics and scarcity from human affairs.

From a policy perspective this is untenable. Myers is presenting a utopian argument that, like all utopias, is revolutionary in its implications. And like all utopias, it is utterly unachievable. What is he suggesting, ultimately? That we dismantle the nation-state apparatus and start over? It certainly appears so. But what would replace it? Lurking just below the surface is a constant and pervasive sense that Myers' solution is a move toward one-world government, ostensibly as an instrument for leveling global resource inequalities. If this is what he intends Myers should be up front about it and address the challenge of defining government response in these terms.

What difference does it make that Myers shifts the definition of security from the national to the individual level? After all, as he suggests, shouldnât the welfare of individuals be our chief concern? Isnât it wrong to place the interests of states before the welfare of individuals?

The state is useful as a unit of analysis for two reasons, one instrumental and the other substantive. Right or wrong, and for all its weaknesses and glaring deficiencies, the nation-state apparatus has developed as the instrument of choice for mobilizing public response to international problems, including the externalities associated with environmental degradation. NGOs play an important role, but their impact pales in significance when compared to nation states. As inadequate to the problem as they are, and as difficult as it is to approach global policy change in a rational manner, the nation-state system defines the field on which we must play.

The substantive reason for retaining the state as a unit of analysis is more compelling. The NGO flourishes only in a world framed by nation-states. Without the nation-state in the response equation NGOs have only a moral authority to enforce a vision of change and sustainability. The best that Myers can offer is a recommendation for more cooperation among nations in addressing global environmental issues. But his main prescription for action consists of five recommendations for things to do to make a difference. Each one is addressed to what individuals can do, while not a single recommendation is directed at the challenge policy makers face in mobilizing state action. It is as though the nation-state simply dropped off the face of the earth.

Why should policy makers read Ultimate Security? The book is useful for learning about problems of environmental degradation facing different regions of the world, and it is informative about various environmental threats and trends, including overpopulation, ozone-layer depletion and global warming. In virtually every instance a worst-case scenario is presented. Myers is successful in demonstrating our global interdependence.

Less satisfying are the sections on policy solutions in this interdependent context. The essential argument is that policy makers must change their vision of where we are going and what is possible. We learn of the failure of policy, of misguided tradeoffs, and of the inappropriate and shortsighted use of resources. The environment could be saved if only policy makers would do the right thing.