Alex Steffen edits Worldchanging.com, the leading sustainability site on the planet. He is also the editor of the forthcoming book Worldchanging: A User's Guide For The 21st Century, an overview of the latest tools, models and ideas for building a bright green future, which will be available in stores November 1, 2006.
For the last five years, we’ve been kept in a panic state over terrorism, told constantly that it not only presents an immediate threat to ourselves and the ones we love, but is a danger to our very civilization. The result has been both that extremists have been more successful in spreading fear and authoritarian politicians have used this opportunity to reduce government transparency while eroding protections for human rights and the democratic process.
But is terrorism really the biggest threat facing the United States? And is more military spending really likely to make us safer?
The Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank) recently released an outstanding report, A False Sense of Insecurity , which argues that in any rational assessment, terrorism is really just not that big of a threat to the average person. For instance, about as many Americans have been killed by terrorists as have been "killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts." What’s more, many WMD threats are overblown and largely preventable. Indeed, with their exhaustive research, the authors conclude that:
Assessed in broad but reasonable context, terrorism generally does not do much damage.
The costs of terrorism are often the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions.
A sensible policy approach to the problem might be to stress that any damage terrorists are able to accomplish likely can be absorbed, however grimly. While judicious protective and policing measures are sensible, extensive fear and anxiety over what may at base prove to be a rather limited problem are misplaced, unjustified and counter productive.
In other words, the Bush administration’s War on Terror hasn't made us one lick safer. Because, while we've been duct-taping our windows, fighting an unjustified war and pouring money into porkbarrel anti-terrorism, we've essentially ignored both common-sense moves—like better port security and coordination among local police and the FBI—and very big, well-documented threats, from the climate crisis to the weakening of the global public health system and the rise of epidemic disease to the destruction of New Orleans.
Our political elite today ignore an obvious truth: Much of what is insecure in our societies is also what is unsustainable about them.
Let me be even more blunt: Sustainability is a national security priority. Perhaps the national security priority. If scientists are correct, far more people have already lost their lives from the direct and indirect effects of climate change than terrorism. The health effects of sprawl, car accidents, chemical spills, environmentally influenced cancers: all of these things are probably bigger threats to the lives of average Americans than terrorism. Certainly preventable disease, unnecessary hunger, solvable poverty and environmental degradation already cause far more death and suffering in the world than any terrorists ever could.
And the steps we should take to alleviate these problems will also tend to make us more secure and our systems more stable in the face of whatever terrorism might occur. Take, for instance, the notion of passive survivability , which notes that green buildings are safer and more sustainable, sure, but they also protect their residents more effectively in an emergency, whether that emergency is an earthquake or a city paralyzed by a train station bombing.
Similar points can be made, of course, about everything from greener cars to smarter urban growth, organic farms to wind farms. Moving to become a more sustainable society will strengthen our economy and save our planet, but it will also help make us less vulnerable to the things that terrify us, no matter how unlikely, both as a nation and in our own homes.
We can build a bright green society, one which will give our kids both a sustainable and more prosperous future. We can build a much safer society, one which will increase our kids’ chances of growing up healthy to live in that future. By and large, the steps involved in building each are the same, and none of them involve color-coded terror alerts.
The time has come to stop living in fear , and start building a better world.