I feel as though every decade in North America another article, report, or paper emerges in which The Environment (note the capital letters) is pitted as public enemy number one. The latest of such reports was issued just recently by the Canadian Armed Forces entitled Army 2040: First Look, which sounds like an awful Michael Bay movie. And if the report is to believed, one day it just might be.
But Army 2040 is not the first of its kind, nor does it pretend to be. And in the brief snippets we have had access to so far, the report differentiates itself from its predecessors in some interesting ways.
One of the most influential and publicaly available reports on The Environment as public enemy came from Robert Kaplan, who wrote the infamous ‘The Coming Anarchy’ in February 1994 for The Atlantic magazine. While Kaplan often walked a fine line between reporting reality and espousing out-and-out speculative fear-mongering, his article was nothing short of groundbreaking, helping to change the way in which politicians viewed the environment as a driver of foreign affairs.
Kaplan writes that:
Mention The Environment or “diminishing natural resources” in foreign-policy circles and you meet a brick wall of skepticism or boredom. To conservatives especially, the very terms seem flaky. Public-policy foundations have contributed to the lack of interest, by funding narrowly focused environmental studies replete with technical jargon which foreign-affairs experts just let pile up on their desks.
And to his credit, we have come a long way since foreign policy advisers would laugh off the thought of climate-change as a political concern, and some of that shift in thinking is due to Kaplan. That thinking emerges in Army 2040. The report states that “there can be little doubt that unrestricted access to reliable energy supplies is a global strategic issue, one for which, recently, numerous nations have been willing to fight, and have indeed done so.” It goes on to state that “the trend that envisions depletion of fossil fuels such as crude oil in coming decades may also contribute to international tensions if not violent conflict.”
Kaplan was one of the first to write in a very public forum that The Environment was the national-security issue of the 21st Century, a point that subsequent events, wars, natural disasters, and reports have only strengthened.
He does veer off into speculation when he indicates that “the political and strategic impact of surging populations, spreading disease, deforestation and soil erosion, water depletion, air pollution, and, possibly, rising sea levels in critical, overcrowded regions like the Nile Delta and Bangladesh—developments that will prompt mass migrations and, in turn, incite group conflicts—will be the core foreign-policy challenge from which most others will ultimately emanate, arousing the public and uniting assorted interests left over from the Cold War,” but he can be forgiven on account of how plausible the picture he paints is.
And while few would reference the Cold War today as openly as Kaplan did in 1994, none of the drivers of environmental conflict that he outlines have been eradicated as potential sources of violence.
Without having read all of Army 2040 (it has still not officially been released), the snippets I have read seem to differentiate it from articles such as Kaplans in a number of key ways. Aside from the obvious difference that they were written for different audiences at vastly different periods in time, Army 2040 does not seem to create a people vs. The Environment scenario like Kaplan does. It is not something so monolithic as The Environment that is to be blamed for future conflict, but rather specific resource-based issues: depletion of oil reserves, scarcity of freshwater, climate change-driven differences in soil and temperature and drought.
In this way, while Army 2040 paints an equally terrifying picture of humankind at war over resource availability as ‘The Coming Anarchy’ did in 1994, the former report breaks the enormous problem down into manageable issues, and includes the incredibly central role that humans play in climate change and resource depletion.
According to the Vancouver Sun, “‘collective human wisdom and judgment will be crucial in shaping (science and technology) progress and developments in ways that deliver the greatest benefit to humanity while avoiding conceivable catastrophes,’ said another section of the report authored by science adviser Regan Reshke.”
All in all, Army 2040 balances the role that humans play in creating the problems with the vast potential humans play in creating the very solutions that may – or may not – allow us to remain living happily and safely on this planet for the forseeable future.
It becomes a report that we all – collectively – hope will be entirely, utterly, wrong.