The threats we face today as Americans respect no nation’s borders. Think of them: terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, drug trafficking, ethnic and religious hatred, aggression by rogue states, environmental degradation.” This passage from Bill Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union address places environmental problems squarely alongside America’s most popular post–cold war enemies. The addition of environmental degradation to these market-tested demons is no accident. Despite its weak performance on environmental cooperation, the administration has undertaken a concerted effort to repackage the environment as a security issue. Although sometimes touted by environmentalists as a way to generate attention and action, the linking of environmental problems to national security and “strategic” American interests is deeply troubling. It distorts the problem, blurs underlying responsibility, legitimizes coercion, and diverts attention from where action is most badly needed.
American environmentalism follows the times. In the 1960s a progressive, grassroots movement elbowed its way to the table next to the staid conservation organizations of an earlier era. The go-go 1980s saw the emergence of free-market environmentalism; pollution permits became a fashionable instrument of policy; and the vague yet comforting idea of “sustainability” promised that we could have nature’s cake and eat it, too. But if the 1980s were about unfettered growth and cowboy economics, the watchword for the 1990s has been insecurity. Its hallmarks are economic anxiety, a steep decline in America’s self-image as an affluent society, the rise of anti-immigrant xenophobia, and a desire to be insulated from turbulent change. Predictably, we hear more and more tough talk about “environmental security,” which frames the planet’s ills not as a shared problem facing humanity but rather as a threat to American strategic interests.