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Why Sustainability, not Terrorism, Should Be Our Real Security Focus

By Alex Steffen | WorldChanging Aug 2006

The Second Superpower – Cooperation, Politics and Activism

What really threatens us? How do we truly make ourselves safer?

The Cato Institute (a conservative thinktank) has released an outstanding paper, A False Sense of Insecurity (PDF), which makes the point that in any rational assessment, terrorism is really just not that big of a threat to the average person. For instance, about as many Americans have been killed by terrorists as have been “killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.” Whatsmore, many WMD threats are overblown and largely preventable. Indeed, with exhaustive research, the authors can conclude that:

Assessed in broad but reasonable context, terrorism generally does not do much damage. The costs of terrorism are often the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions.

A sensible policy approach to the problem might be to stress that any damage terrorists are able to accomplish likely can be absorbed, however grimly. While judicious protective and policing measures are sensible, extensive fear and anxiety over what may at base prove to be a rather limited problem are misplaced, unjustified and counter productive

We, especially those of us in the U.S., have been kept in a panic state for the last five years, told constantly that not only is terrorism an immediate threat to ourselves and the ones we love, but that it is a danger to our very civilization. The result has been both that terrorists have been more successful in spreading terror and that authoritarian politicians have taken the opportunity to reduce government transparency and citizen oversight and erode protections for human rights and democratic process.

It also hasn’t made us one lick safer, since, while we’ve been freaking out, fighting an unjustified war and pouring money into the terrorism porkbarrel, we’ve essentially ignored very big, well- documented threats, from the climate crisis to the weakening of the global public health system and the rise of epidemic disease to the destruction of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, what we’ve been taught about how to respond to real threats turns out to be not very helpful. is the official disaster preparedness Site of the Department of Homeland Security. The Federation of American Scientists analyzed, and found it so incomplete and poorly done that they felt compelled to create their own site,, to give people better information about the threats variosu kinds of terrorist attacks pose, and the kinds of responses possible (and to call for the government’s site to be improved).

But both of these important efforts miss a still larger point, which is that much of what is insecure in our societies is also what is unsustainable about them.

Let me be even more blunt: sustainability is a national security priority. Perhaps the national security priority. If scientists are correct, far more people have already lost their lives from the direct and indirect effects of climate change than terrorism. The health effects of sprawl, car accidents, chemical spills, environmentally-influenced cancers: all of these things are probably bigger threats to the lives of average Americans than terrorism. Certainly preventable disease, unneccessary hunger, solvable poverty and environmental degredation already cause far more death and suffering in the world than any terrorists ever could.

And the things we need to do to alleviate these problems also tend to make us more secure and our systems more stable in the face of whatever terrorism might occur: see, for instance, the notion of passive survivability, which notes that green buildings are safer and more sustainable, sure, but they also protect their residents more effectively in an emergency, whether that emergency is an earthquake or a city paralyzed by a train station bombing. Similar points can be made, of course, about everything from better public health to green cars to building bright green cities — these things bring us benefit now, they lessen the severity of the dangers facing us, and they will help make us less vulnerable to the things we fear.

We can build a bright green society, one which will give our kids a future. We can build a much safer society, one which will increase our kids chances of growing up healthy to live in that future. By and large, the steps involved in building both are the same, and none of them involve color-coded terror alerts. The time has come to stop living in fear, and start building a better world.

(image: Qbic, for We’re Not Afraid)

Posted by Alex Steffen at August 9, 2006 08:33 AM |

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"