Leaving a Century of Wars, Facing One of Environmental Imperatives

Lamont C. Hempel is associate director and assistant professor at the Center for Politics and Policy of the Claremont Graduate School.

In his acceptance speech for the 1949 Nobel Peace Prize, William Faulkner sadly observed that only one question really mattered: "When will I be blown up?" It was a poignant moment, rich with irony and full of dark forebodings about the technologies of annihilation. Although he went on to express his faith that humanity would somehow endure, even prevail, Faulkner's question was a haunting reminder of life's fragile hold in the atomic age.

Today we give guarded expression to the hope that the arms race that began in the middle of the 20th Century has run its course. But even as we dream about "the end of history," a new set of alarms are sounding about irreversible changes in the global environment--changes that in their own way summon us back to the solemn question Faulkner posed 40 years ago. Holes in the ozone layer, global climate change, swelling human population, the vanishing rain forests, mass extinction of species and continued erosion of precious topsoil: All are part of an interlocking set of slow-motion crises that may soon surpass nuclear war as the most plausible threat to life on Earth.

We live in a period of transition between two centuries--the passing one shaped largely by world wars and ensuing cold wars, the emerging one shaped by global environmental imperatives, demographic changes, the decline of U.S. and Soviet hegemony and the expansion of powerful new technologies. Against the old backdrop, human freedom appears, ironically, as the protectorate of nuclear arsenals, while its domestic meaning is narrowly defined as the absence of government constraint. In the emerging world, however, freedom can be defined as the preservation of meaningful choice: the choice to breath clean air, to experience wilderness, to bear children who will not overcrowd the planet. It is a freedom that fundamentally depends on the preservation of healthy ecological systems.

This past week, more than 1,000 leaders from business, politics, education and environmental movements met in Los Angeles to consider these things and propose policies for U.S. action. The Globescope Pacific Assembly was the first U.S. hearing on the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, entitled "Our Common Future."

If the 20th Century is remembered as an era in which national security interests triumphed over those of global community, perhaps the 21st Century will mark the triumph of common security over national security. Common security--the idea that the welfare of people depends upon the welfare of the planet--is based on the ecological concepts of interdependence, diversity and sustainable development. The concept of sustainable development is, in turn, based on the belief that progress must be compatible with ecological processes and basic human needs in order to endure.

All the microchips, space shuttles and computer-literate people in the world cannot replace sustainability--environmental, social, cultural and economic--as the true measure of a society's progress:

* Environmental sustainability requires that industrial and agricultural development conform to the changing carrying capacities of biotic communities.

* Social sustainability requires that just and informed citizens participate in the governance and improvement of human communities.

* Cultural sustainability requires that people respect the political limitations and educational opportunities inherent in a multicultural, multilingual world.

* Economic sustainability, finally, requires that environmental costs be included in consumer prices, and that wealth be shared more equitably. Just as development cannot be sustained without environmental progress, prosperity for the rich cannot be sustained without the progress of the poor.

Looming across the horizon of future international progress is the shabby shadow of greed and resurgent nationalism. It is as if the priorities for militarism and environmentalism had been reversed without stopping to think about whether current institutions could accept and promote the international cooperation needed for the switch.

Despite its drain on public treasuries, the race to the moon provided us with at least one incomparable treasure: the awesome picture of planet Earth, one system, rising in blue-and-white splendor above a stark lunar horizon. That picture, more than any other symbol of the high frontier, is helping to transform a fragmented world into a planetary home. The gnawing question is whether this image can be sustained against a background of unruly nationalism, racism, religious fanaticism and ruinous disparities in wealth.

The twilight of the 20th Century is a time when instrumental thinking flourishes and constructive critical thought is fading, even in the universities. The world's most educated societies are still investing their best minds in the pursuit of legal sufficiency, short-term profit and military security. We need to develop a foresight capacity that transcends these pursuits, and transcends the budget cycles and terms of elected office that constrict public agendas. We need, in short, to create alternative images of the future that are more conducive to the enhancement of life on Earth.

Conceptions of the future--whether of a simple Arcadian age, George Orwell's "1984" or something in between--are shaped in large measure by how well we understand the political and economic lessons of the past, by how the technological culture of the present influences our sense of what is possible and desirable and by our need for a utopian vision, usually born of crisis, that is capable of stimulating the human imagination and perhaps the will to act. We have before us the conditions for building fundamental changes out of crisis-activated policies. The problem of greenhouse warming calls for a mobilizing vision of globally sustainable development. But even as the vision beckons, world leaders will continue fine-tuning at the margins of a creeping disaster. No one wants to tell the emperor of coal, oil, and timber that he has lost his clothes, particularly when enormous profits are still to be made.

Achieving development without destruction--progress without poverty--will require rich and poor nations to cooperate in bold and clever ways. But cooperation remains a fragile hope, one that may not survive the politics of scarcity and the climate of indifference that continue to confound awareness of an interdependent world.

Protecting the atmosphere offers a way around the reefs of insular sovereignty, but it will require hard choices and, in the short term, inequitable sacrifices. Although the measures needed for protection may vastly improve the global economy, powerful interests will resist reform and nations will shrink from assuming their share of global responsibility. Cooperation may break down repeatedly. The key question is whether we can find the political will and administrative capacity to keep repairing it. Accomplishing this feat will require environmental learning and alarmed response, political unlearning and hopeful change--for the bridge from crisis to opportunity can only be crossed in this way.

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