The purpose of this article is to discuss the concept of rapid economic growth, sustainability and environmental security and to look at the roles some of the leading actors in environmental security have played in calling the worlds’ attention to the large scale damage to our global resource base as a result of unchecked industrial growth and rapid population explosion. This concept of sustainable development grew as a result of this concern by scientists and laypeople alike for the future of our universe. The concept of sustainable development received international prominence in the 1980s in a report published by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, 1987). The WCED report which later became known as the Brundtland Commission report became the guiding principle at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The World Commission on Environment and Development report underpins the document and agreements that emanated from the summit, including the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Convention on Biodiversity, the Convention on Climate Change, and Agenda 21. Not long after the Brundtland Commission report urging sustainability was published scholars like Oran Young (2002: 221-223) who have spent years studying and writing about the damages caused by massive industrial growth notes, “sustainable development is a negative concept that is extremely difficult to turn into an operational paradigm or, in other words, to translate into practical guide- lines in a manner that is acceptable to a variety of constituencies. Oran Young warned against the dangers of the economic growth and sustainability, suggesting that the idea of sustainable development, evocative as it is, will ultimately prove to be dead end in the sense that it will fail to provide a workable criterion for making decisions about human and environmental relations.

Sustainable development arose in the 1960s and early 1970s as people became aware of the negative effects emerging from the unchecked industrial growth in the North and rapid population explosion in the South; and the large scale damage to the resource base occurring the world over, while other resources near extinction. The early 1980s saw the emergence of an international environmental agenda, and what ensued over the next two decades in response to that agenda, can be thought of as the first attempt at global governance. Ecologist Jane Lubchenco (1998: 491) noted the significance of the development of the global population explosion in correlation to world economic output. She noted, “the conclusions…are inseparable during the last few decades; humans have emerged as a new force of nature. We are modifying physical, chemical and biological systems in new ways, at faster rates and over larger spatial scales than ever recorded on Earth. Humans have unwittingly embarked on a grand experiment with our planet. The outcome of this experiment is unknown, but have profound implications for all life here on Earth. Ecologist Peter Vitousek (1997: 494) stated the matter forcefully in an article in science when he wrote, “Humanity’s dominance of Earth means that we cannot escape responsibility for managing the planet. Our activities are causing rapid, novel, and substantial changes to Earth’s ecosystem. Maintaining populations, species, and ecosystem in the face of those changes, and maintaining the flow of goods and services they provide humanity, will require active management for the foreseeable future.” The pleas of Lubchenco, Vitousek and others is but the latest in a long line of pleas from the scientific community urging the governments and others get serious about protecting the global environment. Starting in the 1980s, governments and others did take notice and began the process of assuming responsibility for planetary management.

Major institutional Actors.

In the late 1980’s, the collective thought pattern shifted from what should be done to limit growth to what can be done.
This proactive paradigm shift was initiated in the early 1980s when members of the United Nations Commission on Environment
and Development (UNCED) traveled the globe on a fact-finding tour to survey the effects of development on the world’s nations. They looked at each country’s economy, as well as the condition of its people and environment. They found that a combination of poverty, unemployment, resource use and environmental deterioration has created conditions that are not sustainable and that humans need a new model for development. The UNCED’s report which later became known as Brundtland Commission Report (1978) entitled ‘Our Common Future’ warned that the very nature of our global economic development must change if poverty and the cumulative negative impacts of human activities are to be reduced dramatically. The Brundtland Commission Report is credited as responsible for crafting the most commonly accepted and widely use definition of sustainable development. The UNCED Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This deceptively simple definition hints five underlying “core” principles: respect for ecological integrity; efficient use of natural, manufactured and social capital; participation of stakeholders & environmental stewardship by all levels of decision makers. In contrast to the traditional definition, sustainable development recognizes the need to seek limits to growth and to lessen the human impact on nature. The 1972 Stockholm Conference on Human Environment was followed by the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and 2002 World Summit in Johannesburg South Africa.

These developments unfolded in the 1980s and 1990s in response to the emergence of an agenda of global-scale environmental concerns. Also in this period were numerous reports from the scientific groups, especially panels and committees organized by the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the U.N. Environment Prorgamme (UNEP). These reports included the now- famous study by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina (1974) explaining the potential of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to deplete the stratospheric ozone layer. In addition, these reports included the first effort of the U.S. National academy of Sciences on the problem of global climate change, the “Charney Report” in 1979, which said most of what one needs to know about climate change to take action. Collectively, these reports stressed ten principal concerns: depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer by CFCs and other gases. Loss of crop and grazing land due to desertification, erosion, conversion of land to non farm uses, and other factors. Depletion of the world’s tropical forests, leading to loss of forest resources, serious watershed damages (erosion, flooding, and siltation), and other adverse consequences. Mass extinction of species, principally from global loss of wildlife habitat, and associated loss of genetic resources. Rapid population growth, burgeoning Third World cities, and ecological refugees. Management and shortages of fresh water resources. Over-fishing, habitat destruction, and pollution in the marine environment. The threats to human health from mismanagement of pesticides and persistent organic pollutants. Climate change due to increase in “green- house gasses” in the atmosphere. Acid rain and, more generally the effects of a complex mix of air pollutants on fisheries, forests, and crops. The Stockholm conference also had a further important consequence in the creation of a United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which had a major impact in the 1970s in promoting the global agenda. The United Nations Environmental Programme made estimates for deforestation and called for international action, it promoted international agreements on the protection of migratory species. In short, the global environmental agenda emerged and moved forward due primarily to a relatively small, international leadership community in science, government, the U.N., and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Although the precise level of acceptable environmental degradation is an unresolved element of sustainable development, there is common understanding that respect for ecological processes that “shape climate, cleans air and water, regulate water flow, recycle essential elements, create and regenerate soil, and enable ecosystems to renew themselves” (IUCN, 1991).

In practice, this requires maintaining the ability of the environmental-and avoiding irreversible harm to this ability-to act as provider of inputs (carrying capacity) and as a “sink” for wastes (assimilative capacity). Technology is important in determining carrying and assimilative capacities. Within limits, technology can increase the inherent productivity of natural resources and reduce the negative environmental effects of resource exploitation. If carrying capacity is exceeded, however, basic resources such as vegetation and soil became degraded, which threatens the stability of the ecosystem. Sustainable development also respects the biological diversity on which basic ecological processes depend-processes that provide a stream of tangible and intangible services to humans. Efficient development has the following characteristics: sustainable resource use; waste management based on pollution prevention; full-cost accounting; and anticipation, prevention, and precaution in the face of uncertainty. Respect for ecological carrying capacity requires the sustainable use of natural resources. The sustainable harvesting of renewable resources respects regeneration rates and avoids harm to the economic productivity of such resources (e.g., the store of biological diversity).
Goodland (1995:1-24) argues that “sustainable development also requires the use of nonrenewable in a way that limits the negative impacts of activities associated with their production and consumption on the continued productivity of renewable resources and environmental life-support functions. Goodman’s argued that sustainable development should integrate social, environmental, and economic sustainability and use these three to start to make development sustainable.”The number of people in poverty globally is increasing (intragenerational component) while fewer are available for future generations (intergenerational component). Goodman discusses the importance of both intergenerational and intragenerational sustainability in creating sustainable development. Sustainable development also requires that the costs and benefits of development be shared equitably between the industrial and developing countries. Although the definition of equitable distribution is obviously a value judgment, sustainable development requires, at a minimum, that decisions account for distribution impacts within society, between regions, and between generations. Principles of environmental stewardship are premised on recognition that each individual’s actions have environmental, social, and economic significance, and therefore all individuals have a role to play in contributing to sustainable development. Those “core” principles may be useful inform policies and programmes to design sustainable futures, but sustainability remains an elusive concept. It is still evolving and sometimes means different things to different people.

Environmental Security

The issue of Environmental Security reflects the ability of a nation or society to withstand environmental asset scarcity, environmental risks or adverse changes, or environment-related tensions or conflicts. Chalecki (1998: 95-112) illustrates the potential for economic activity to cause environmental changes that lead to conflict: “Human Economic Activity, with Carbon Oxide Emissions, will lead to Regional and Global Climatic and Environmental Changes, which will in turn lead to Changes in Agricultural Output. The changes in Agricultural Output in turn will Alter Resource Availability which will in turn lead to Political Disputes, Ethnic Tensions, and Civil Unrest. Because of Regional Defense Agreements, conflicts between neighboring states might lead to Regional Conflict that if not controlled might lead to Global Conflict.”Unlike potential conventional military threats, these environmental threats are real and ongoing. However, not every environmental issue will result in a security problem, and most security problems are generated from complex situations involving for instance, environmental, political, social, and economic issues. Therefore when considering problems of environmental security, it is important to recognize that higher-order effects result from more intervening variables. In a study on Environmental Change and Acute Conflict, a project by Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon (1993) of the University of Toronto found that scarcities of renewable resources – including cropland, forests, water and fish – are already contributing to violent conflicts in many parts of the developing world, even though these conflicts often appear to be caused solely by political, ethnic or some ideological factors. Homer-Dixon wrote, that the Earth’s human population is expected to pass eight billion by the year 2025, while rapid growth in the global economy will spur ever increasing demands for natural resources.
The world will consequently face growing scarcities of such vital renewable resources as cropland, fresh water, and forests. Homer-Dixon argues in this that these environmental scarcities will have profound social consequences that will contribute to insurrections, ethnic clashes, urban unrest, and other forms of civil violence, especially in the developing world. However, Homer-Dixon was careful to point out that the effects of environmental scarcity are indirect and act in combination with other social, political, and economic stresses. He also acknowledges that human ingenuity can reduce the likelihood of conflict, particularly in countries with efficient markets, capable states, and an educated populace. But he argues that the violent consequences of scarcity should not be underestimated – especially when about half the world’s population depends directly on local renewables for their day-to-day well-being. Homer-Dixon’s Project concluded that these conflicts foreshadow a surge of similar violence in coming decades as the environmental scarcities worsen in many developing countries. Homer-Dixon’s project gathered evaluated, integrated and disseminated existing data on causal linkages among the growth of population, renewable resource scarcities, migration and violent conflict. Through close analysis of the relationship between environmental scarcity and conflict, researchers for the Project on Environment, Population and Security have identified common physical, economic, and social dynamics in a variety of contexts. The main findings are as follows: Under certain circumstances, scarcities of renewable resources such as cropland, fresh water, and forests produce civil violence and instability. However, the role of this “environmental scarcity” is often obscure. Environmental scarcity acts mainly by generating intermediate social effects, such as poverty migrations, that analysts often interpret as conflict’s immediate causes. What this mean is that environmental scarcity – in interaction with other political, economic, and social factors – can generate conflict and instability, but the causal linkages are often indirect. Scarcities of cropland, fresh water, and forests constrain agricultural and economic productivity; generate large and destabilizing population movements; aggregate tensions along ethnic, racial, and religious lines; increase wealth and power differentials among groups; debilitate political and social institutions. Poverty migrations, ethnic tensions, economic disparities, and weak institutions in turn often appear to be the main causes of violence.

Environmental scarcity is caused by the degradation and depletion of renewable resources, the increase demand for these resources, and/or their unequal distribution. These three sources of scarcity often interact and reinforce one another. A reduction in the quantity or quality of a resource boost demand for that resource; and unequal distribution can cause some groups to get portions of that resource that are too small to sustain their well being. The down side to unequal distribution of resources is that environmental scarcity often encourages powerful groups to capture valuable environmental resources and prompts marginal groups to migrate to ecologically sensitive areas. These two processes – called “resource capture” and “ecological marginalization” – in turn reinforce environmental scarcity and raise the potential for social instability. Degradation and depletion of renewable resources can interact with population growth to encourage powerful groups within a society to shift resource distribution in their favor. Ecological Marginalization i.e., unequal resource access can combine with population growth to cause large-scale and long-term migrations of the poorest groups within society. This will result in their move to ecologically fragile regions such as steep upland slopes, areas at risk of desertification, tropical rain forests, and low quality public lands within urban areas. In the absence of adaptation, environmental scarcity weakens states. The multiple effects of environmental scarcity increase the demands on the state in some poor countries. This stimulates predatory elite behavior, reduce social trust and useful intergroup interaction, and depress state tax revenues. These processes in turn weaken the administrative capacity and legitimacy of the state. Conflicts generated in part by environmental scarcity can have significant indirect effects on the international community. The minimization of Environmental scarcity can contribute to diffuse, persistent, subnational violence, such as ethnic clashes and insurgencies. In coming decades, the incidence of such violence will probably increase as environmental scarcities worsen in some parts of the developing world. Subnational violence may have serious repercussions for the security interests of both developed and the developing worlds. Civil violence within states can effect external trade between nations, cause refugee flows, and produce humanitarian disasters that call upon the military and financial resources of developed countries and international organizations. Moreover, countries that are destabilized by environmental stress may fragment as they become enfeebled and peripheral regions are seized by renegade authorities and warlords. States might avoid fragmentation by becoming more authoritarian, intolerant of opposition, and militarized. Such regimes, however, sometimes abuse human rights and try to divert attention from domestic grievances by threatening neighboring states.

The lessons to be learned from examining the numbers of studies and literature on the nexus of sustainabity, environmentalism, and security issues are applicable not only to the developing countries, but to the whole world. First, the scholarship and literature on climate change demonstrate that we must take responsibility for our role in causing environmental degradation. Second, all countries both North and South must cooperate in order to mitigate the effects of environmental degradation, including limiting greenhouse gas emissions, conserving natural resources, and developing and sharing energy efficient technologies. In the short term, policy makers will be forced to rely on military assistance to recover from the effects of environmental degradation, but in the long term, nations must work together to reduce the insecurity that comes from those non-military environmental threats. What is your position on this issue of Economic Growth, Sustainability and Environmental Security? What do you think of Homer-Dixon’s analysis?


Chalecki, Elizabeth. (1998). Responding to Global Climate Change. Mayer, Nicola, and Wendy Avis, eds: Ottawa: Environmental Canada.
Homer-Dixon, T. (1993). Global accord: environmental challenges and international response. Cambridge, Mass: MITT Press. Goodland Rowland. (2002). Institutional dimension of environmental change. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Lubchenco, J. (1998). Natures Services: Societal dependence on natural ecosystem. Entering the Century of the Environment
Washington, D.C: Island Press.


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