Planet sweet or sour?

Ultimate Security: - Scarcity or Abundance?
January 6, 1995

I was recently at a 90th birthday celebration where the very lively honorand gave it as his opinion that there were two types of people in the world: the go-getters and the tooth-suckers. There seemed to be no intermediate categories nor did individuals migrate from one group to the other. I was reminded of this when reading the Myers-Simon "debate" recorded in the first of these books, for it seems clear that here are not merely two different intellectual approaches founded on rational inspections of evidence but two contrasting world views: one founded in a go-getting faith in western notions of progress and the other based on a profoundly cautious view of the direction that human-environment relations are taking.

Those familiar with this type of literature will recognise the signatures of Julian Simon, professor of business administration at the University of Maryland and optimist about the supply of resources, the growth of the human population and the future of the biophysical systems of this planet, and of Norman Myers, an independent writer and environmental consultant, recent author of several books on biodiversity and consistent prophet of the possibility of ecological breakdowns on a large scale.

The Myers-Simon book results from a public debate which took place at Columbia University in 1992. The two men were each invited to prepare a "pre-debate" statement, they then met in public and stated their positions, heard and replied to audience questioning and then wrote a "post-debate" statement and supplied references and further reading. These segments, in order, form the material of this book, with the subjects of disagreement being mostly resource supply, human population growth, species loss and global-scale environmental contamination. Neither participant alters his stance much from what he has previously published on these topics, and therefore much hinges on what can be extrapolated from statistical trends or read into current technological and political developments. Simon thinks of population as "the ultimate resource", whereas Myers thinks of extra people as producing more environmental degradation; Simon bets that any indicator of human welfare will show improvements year on year, while Myers is convinced that we are living a few seconds before midnight doom. As the moderator of the debates puts it, there are deeper differences: for Simon the world consists of separable and measurable entities whose trajectory can be defined and given a precise value, but for Myers the globe is organic and Gaian and many of its essential processes and qualities are of a different ontological order to those of Simon.

Herein to my mind lies the value of the book. It brings together in a reasonably concise framework two conflicting sets of views and so is a useful tool for anybody needing a brisk introduction to this part of the environmental discourse now in progress. I can envisage it being assigned to students taking the sort of "free unit" course in "Environmental Problems" that so many modular programme structures encourage, for it will be equally comprehensible to majors in English literature and engineering. What it will not do, I think, is change the minds of the even half-way committed since the very nature of the arguments deployed allows the adversaries to talk past each other rather than hammering out a "true" interpretation of a piece of information or a data set. Hence perhaps the rather plaintive statement by the Columbia chairman, that he "had hoped for a livelier debate with more disagreement between our speakers . . ."

A book review is not the place to rehearse my own view on the substantive issues except insofar as it may affect my judgement on the book itself. I will obtrude one verdict, which is that both antagonists sound as if they have a view of the world in which enough is determinate (human ingenuity in one case and ecological disintegration in the other) for good predictions to be made. But one of the lessons emerging from ideas about the nature of the human-environment interaction seems to be that this is better described by notions of chaos and complexity than by systems characterised by determinism. Thus to predict complex system behaviour with better than, say, 66 per cent success, is likely to be rare, especially as continuous historical data is generally incomplete. So the likelihood is that both Simon and Myers will turn out to be wrong, a view that places this reviewer well behind the tooth-suckers -- somewhere beyond the Arsenal supporters perhaps.

Ultimate Security, the single-author book by Myers, is in the tradition of his earlier work, whose intellectual homeland is that of the Ehrlichs, Lester Brown, Eckholm, and the World Resources Institute. It is a restatement of the environmentalist case in support of the proposition that environmental degradation leads to conflict and thence to an absence of political stability. As such it is good to have this focus introduced by such an experienced and well-informed writer into the market for the general public. The concept of environmental security is mostly defined with respect to the United States but its wider application is defined as involving all scales of society from the individual to the community of nations. Those who need the lesson will find in the book examples of how resource shortages and the fear of shortages can lead to conflict, how population growth may exacerbate such processes and for example cause migrations which lead to warfare and how predicted global changes (such as those of climate) might induce large-scale conflicts, for instance, on the Indian subcontinent. Curiously, sea-level change is not mentioned in this scenario though it might affect, say, Bangladesh quite seriously. There are some interesting examples and stories, such as the precipitation of the 1967 war in Palestine by the Arab moves to divert the headwaters of the River Jordan, though the map of water resources in the Middle East ignores ground-water, dew and desalinated supplies as parts of the regional water flows. Though conflicts over fish are briefly mentioned at the beginning, there is no development of any of the examples. For higher educational use, much of this material can be found in other sources where it made more comprehensive and immediately accessible by means of, for instance, maps and diagrams, of which this book has very few indeed.

Given the capacity of humans to turn almost anything into a grievance, it is certainly not difficult to take most human-environment relationships and say "here are the seeds of conflict". What this book most lacks to my mind is any meaningful generalisations: how, for example, does environmental stability/security relate to political stability? Are there any patterns in which the one usually produces the other? Is it in fact in all peoples' interest to have political stability if the regime is a peculiarly nasty one, or based on a discredited ideology? Might not resource shortage lead to a kind of wartime state with stability but no choice for the individual? How might we try to avoid strife in ways other than adopting the household-style recipes (valid for all kinds of other reasons, no doubt) for cutting energy consumption and recycling materials?

We have problems and potential problems at many scales, but these are referred to households (mainly in the US, at whom the whole book is clearly directed) for action; though the bigger players are discussed, their failings rather than their necessary potentials are emphasised. In the end, the term "security" seems to me to have some of the failings of "sustainability": it sounds like a good thing to aim for but often proves a very elusive (and indeed elastic) concept, especially when no time-frame is specified. Furthermore, while nobody doubts that wars and other struggles can result from environmental degradation and resource shortages, the case for them being necessary outcomes at different scales is not made here.

Nevertheless, if a general reading public needs a common enemy now that the Cold War appears to be over, then environmental degradation is a good one. But just as there were good guys on the other side of the Curtain all along, there are good environmental changes brought about by human hands as well as degradations: to discriminate the good ones from the bad ones is a deep challenge for environmentalists everywhere. The problem in all its aspects goes deeper still, of course. We are in a situation where we have to choose between different Goods, and where a Good at one scale becomes a Bad at another. Hence it would be useful to be able to place Ultimate Security alongside a go-getter's approach to this problem: somebody with an "end of history" approach maybe? Even better would be a debate similar to the one with Simon but more focused. Then we would have a book of distinctive value in a very crowded field.

I. G. Simmons is professor of geography, University of Durham.

Ultimate Security:: The Environmental Basis of Political Stability

Author - Norman Myers
ISBN - 0 393 03545 X
Publisher - W. W. Norton
Price - £17.95
Pages - 308pp

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