Security First - 2003

Alarmed by migration, terrorism and disease, members of the affluent minority fear that they too will be engulfed. Even some of the more prosperous nations feel the sting as infrastructure decays, technology fails and institutions collapse. As OECD economies falter and their populations age, social programmes introduced in the 20th century but neglected year after year, begin to unravel.

These and other factors lead to a dramatic swing in approaches to governance. Having stood by, sometimes willingly, and seen their powers eroded, governments strive to reassert their authority. To stem the collapse, the forces of order react with sufficient cohesion and force to impose an authoritarian order throughout much of the world. In many regions these shifts appear merely as a continuation of normal practice or a return to the not-so- distant past. In others, though, sacrificing long cherished ideals (such as democracy, transparency and participation in governance) for greater security is no easy trade-off. A growing sense of lifeboat ethics - an acceptance that only by letting some drown can the others remain afloat - allows the governments and citizens of these countries to make certain consensual choices. Other decisions are eventually made without popular consent and are accepted without question.

This process takes time to develop, but a pattern gradually emerges. In rich nations, the wealthiest people flourish in protected enclaves and the general public receives some assurance from the increased level of security. Strongholds also persist in the poorer nations, protecting the remaining elites and strategic resources. In some regions, control is unstable; the power base shifts as one faction or ethnic group overpowers another.

The strongholds are ‘islands of prosperity in an ocean of poverty and despair’ (Hammond 1998), descendants of the walled cities of earlier eras and the gated communities of more recent times. Sometimes the walls are physical; at other times they are more metaphorical. Nevertheless, these bubbles of wealth are not isolated. They are connected in a global network with shared economic, environmental and security interests. Through this network, globalization continues, albeit in a distorted form.

Within the walls, life proceeds with some semblance of order. Technological advances continue to be made. Health and educational services continue to be provided, consumption patterns do not shift dramatically and environmental conditions hold steady. Businesses assist in the provision of some socially important programmes, especially those directly related to their interests, for example, education to address skill shortages and provision of basic needs to workers. Still, there is always a recognition that security is of paramount importance. It is pursued by various authoritarian policies and institutions, whose methods include surveillance and the profiling and harassment of particular dissident groups.

Outside the walls, the majority is trapped in poverty. The provision of basic needs - water, health services, sanitation, food, shelter and energy - is piecemeal or often non-existent. Many people are denied basic freedoms. By comparison with the cohesive societies within the walls, this world is increasingly chaotic and disconnected. Technological progress continues to be made in these communities, at times by theft or leakage from within the walls, but also by indigenous enterprises. Such breakthroughs tend to be small-scale, however, and the lack of harmonization and capacity building prevents dramatic advances that might prompt large improvements. The inability to achieve economies of scale further hinders progress and growth.

The interplay between life inside and outside the enclaves goes well beyond merely policing the borders between the two. The bubbles of prosperity depend heavily on a constant flow of resources from areas not fully under their control. Where the elite are able to exert control, there is strict management of source areas for products of commercial value and those that serve a more basic life support function. These well-protected areas, both on land and in the oceans, provide a haven for many other species, but do little to improve the lot of people who are excluded. Where areas are simply mined and abandoned, those on the outside are expected to deal with the aftermath.

The elite also rely upon the broader world to absorb the excesses of their lifestyles. Wastes produced within the strongholds are transported into outlying areas. The pressures that such wastes place on unprotected natural systems add to the problems of people struggling to survive. These problems include overuse and fouling of water sources above and below ground, the effects of uncontrolled use of dirty fossil fuels, contamination from untreated solid wastes, continued deforestation to provide fuelwood and the degradation of marginal areas used for agriculture.

Trade also crosses the boundaries between the two worlds. Those inside the walls have not lost their taste for products that must come from outside, including illegal drugs and those derived from rare species. Both money and military supplies find their way outside in return, where they trigger not just external chaos and lawlessness but also periodic terrorist attacks against the fortresses.

In this atmosphere, both the informal and legitimate small enterprises flourish by serving local needs. Charities and other welfare providers in civil society try to assist where governments and businesses fall short in the provision of basic needs, which happens in many cases, but the task proves far from simple and their efforts far from effective.

By 2032, an air of uneasy stability has begun to settle on this divided world. It is unclear, though, how long this truce can last. The forces for further breakdown are ever present. At the same time, dreams of a better way still beckon. Whereas many of the fears of the pessimists have come true, fresh opportunities for positive change have not ceased to appear. Outside the walls, small islands of calm exist and work is under way there to build links with others and with progressive elements within the fortresses, offering hope that someday, like the phoenix rising from its ashes, a better world for all might yet emerge.

Copyright © 2002, United Nations Environment Programme

Security First is the "Bush Doctrine" - tinhorned dictators embrace it also; it always is a miserable failure.

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