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Leaving a Century of Wars, Facing One of Environmental Imperatives

November 05, 1989|Lamont C. Hempel | 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.

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