Throughout my career as a researcher, government official, and advocate, I’ve tried to understand what causes instability around the world and the best way to build security. At times, that’s been a very rewarding undertaking: many global indicators of human development and peace have improved in recent decades. Unfortunately, there has also been an ecosystemic cost to all that progress, which is still falling short for too many people around the world. The question now is whether the United States can find a new balance between human security and environmental sustainability, between the present and the future.
Today, the biosphere is showing signs of acute distress, as the consequences of the industrial age mount. We are all living in a horrific, unintended natural experiment: Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are higher than they’ve been in 3 million years, long before human history; people have altered the landscape in most places on the Earth, to a crescendo of extinctions; and gyres of microplastics swirl through millions of square miles of the planet’s oceans, ending up in the bodies of fish (and those who eat fish). Increasingly, these consequences are interacting with other stressors in human society, such as inequality and poverty, to create suffering, unrest, displacement, and violence. COVID-19 is both symptomatic, as a facet of habitat loss, and an aggravating factor, swiftly setting back those years of progress in human development and peace and security around the world, especially for the disenfranchised and vulnerable.
I never thought, though, that one of the countries that would be most destabilized by this kind of shock would be my own. I’m aware of the flaws in our polity here at home, even though I focus on foreign policy. But it’s one thing to say that the United States will likely experience social turbulence during the demographic transition away from a white majority, and another thing entirely to live through it. For all the times I’ve written about how environmental change might provoke unrest and exacerbate underlying inequities, I didn’t picture police gassing protestors two blocks away from my office or an angry mob sacking the Capitol just nine miles away from my home, where I would be hiding from a pandemic with my family.
Back when the coronavirus first hit, we were launching a new project on climate change governance in America. As we moved to an all-remote format, we also found our questions were changing. From a port commissioner in Seattle to the chief resilience officer in Tallahassee, we spoke to local leaders around the country about how they were handling the triple crisis in public health, the economy, and race, and how it was affecting their efforts to deal with climate change. We heard stories of creativity and perseverance, but also just fatigue and frustration, even fears about being left behind. “We’re a stranded asset,” one civic leader in Louisiana said to us, “and the rest of the country doesn’t even know, let alone care.” The Biden administration has wasted no time in tackling COVID-19, climate change, and the economic losses with the power of the federal government, but it remains to be seen if it’s enough to bring our broken country together.
When it comes to foreign policy, the U.S. government is not well-aligned to building security, whether that’s Tunisia before the Jasmine Revolution, Pakistan in the wake of nuclear weapons testing, or Afghanistan under the brutal reign of the Taliban, all areas on which I’ve worked. As a nation, we’ve more heavily invested in military ways and means for protecting and promoting our interests, rather than the largely civilian tools for preventing conflict and building peace. With 20 straight years of war, more than $6 trillion spent, and no good resolution on any of the battlefields where we’re engaged, this approach is clearly not working out too well for us. Even more worrisome, with the shift in focus to geopolitical rivalry, especially with China, the stakes of an overly militaristic approach are much, much higher.
This is a dangerous global moment, dominated by fear, sickness, falling standards of living, technological shocks, nativism, and increasingly bitter geopolitical rivalries—just as the natural environment is undermining the future. This is the kind of brittle moment that can raise the risks of a wider war, if events of a century ago are any guide. That means there’s urgency to rethinking the American approach to national security, underscored by the fact that the enemy laying waste to the country today is a microscopic virus, something the annual trillion dollar defense spending didn’t prepare us for at all. We need to find a better balance: between domestic and foreign investments, between peace and war, between the present and the future. The urgent question now is whether we can address the roots of our own instability, rise together and help chart a more hopeful course forward for ourselves and humanity. I worry that if Americans cannot navigate through this moment, no one else will be able to do so.
image: Antwon McMullen / Shutterstock.com