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Why Sustainability, not Terrorism, Should Be Our Real Security Focus.
Alex Steffen, 9 Aug 06

What really threatens us? How do we truly make ourselves safer?

The Cato Institute (a conservative thinktank) has released an outstanding paper, A False Sense of Insecurity (PDF), which makes the point 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." Whatsmore, many WMD threats are overblown and largely preventable. Indeed, with exhaustive research, the authors can 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

We, especially those of us in the U.S., have been kept in a panic state for the last five years, told constantly that not only is terrorism an immediate threat to ourselves and the ones we love, but that it is a danger to our very civilization. The result has been both that terrorists have been more successful in spreading terror and that authoritarian politicians have taken the opportunity to reduce government transparency and citizen oversight and erode protections for human rights and democratic process.

It also hasn't made us one lick safer, since, while we've been freaking out, fighting an unjustified war and pouring money into the terrorism porkbarrel, we've essentially ignored 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.

Meanwhile, what we've been taught about how to respond to real threats turns out to be not very helpful. is the official disaster preparedness Site of the Department of Homeland Security. The Federation of American Scientists analyzed, and found it so incomplete and poorly done that they felt compelled to create their own site,, to give people better information about the threats variosu kinds of terrorist attacks pose, and the kinds of responses possible (and to call for the government's site to be improved).

But both of these important efforts miss a still larger point, which is that 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, unneccessary hunger, solvable poverty and environmental degredation already cause far more death and suffering in the world than any terrorists ever could.

And the things we need to do to alleviate these problems also tend to make us more secure and our systems more stable in the face of whatever terrorism might occur: see, 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 better public health to green cars to building bright green cities -- these things bring us benefit now, they lessen the severity of the dangers facing us, and they will help make us less vulnerable to the things we fear.

We can build a bright green society, one which will give our kids a 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 both 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.

(image: Qbic, for We're Not Afraid)

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Posted by: Ben Wendt on 9 Aug 06 has been a running joke among my friends for years. I was in college in Washington, DC during 9/11 and the aftermath, when the DHS told everyone to purchase plastic sheeting and duct tape in order to seal off rooms in the event of terror attacks (among other things).

Few college kids wanted to go out and spend money on that, especially those of us living in drafty off-campus housing or older dorms. At one point, after I argued that it was useless to stock up on stuff like that, my parents sent me a kit in the mail, including duct tape and plastic sheeting. Of course, no amount of plastic could have sealed off any of the rooms in the 100+ year old rowhouse I was renting at the time. So what'd we do? Yeah, we used the plastic as a beer-guard under the table during party games.

Posted by: Rob on 9 Aug 06

Excellent piece Alex - I might add that sustainability in the context of bringing peace goes beyond the avoidance of disasters. It also weens us from our overly intensive use of resources and related conflicts. The likelyhood of wars for resources like oil (and possibly water in the near future) are inversely related to our ability to find new technologies and use resources more efficiently.

Also, recognizing the inseperable bond between the health of society, the economy, and the environment is, to me, the key cornerstone of sustainability and once people "get it" the solutions start rolling in.

Posted by: Nick Aster on 9 Aug 06

Great piece! I have been saying the same things since 9/11. Car crashes kill so many people it is not even funny, why don't we have a war private transit? Prescription drugs kill more people then illegal drugs, why don't we change the target of the war on drugs?

With the money that has been spent on Iraq we could have built cat 5 levees for all costal land that is in danger and restored the protective surrounding wet land.

There are so many smart people, like you Alex, that have simple implementable solutions to our problems. It makes me sick that they can not get their message out there because the air waves are filled with problems to be scared of instead of solutions to embrace.

Posted by: Joe on 9 Aug 06

Congrats to CATO for taking this stance.

In general people are irrational. They do not think in terms of probability but react mostly to emotions. Another example is shark attack, which strike deep fear to everyone. At the same time few people would have concern about the prospect of getting drowned in swimming pool, despite the risk is magnitude higher than being attacked by shark.

Yes, we need to go out and the story straight. It doesn't look that scary, but failure in sustainability is the real security threat. Many collapsed civilizations would attest to that.

Posted by: Wai Yip Tung on 9 Aug 06

read the book
False Alarm - The truth about epidemic of fear.
Great Book!

Posted by: daniel belanger on 9 Aug 06

Excellent post. Very strong support for Adam Curtis' brilliant documentary The Power of Nightmares (which I just found is available now at

Posted by: Gyrus on 9 Aug 06

It's important to remember that one of the reasons we've been spending so much money on "fighting terrorism" has been to *prevent* large, catastrophic attacks. If we completely halt all anti-terrorist activity, we leave ourselves wide open to all sorts of horrific possibilities that are unlikely in the current world order. I think the threat of a "major terrorist attack" (read: NBC attack on a major population center) is something that is disproportionately fear-inducing, but at the same time one we can't ignore entirely.

That's not to say that we're being at all efficient or maximally effective in terms of protecting ourselves, of course- but that's a whole other topic.

Posted by: Felix on 9 Aug 06

Solar Is Civil Defense

For emergency and disaster you are advised to have a radio, a flashlight, and an extra set of batteries.

My bedside radio is a solar/dynamo flashlight/radio I had modified to charge rechargeable AA batteries so I have the radio, flashlight, and extra set of batteries right at hand plus the capacity to produce low voltage DC electricity day or night by sunlight or muscle power.

Seems to me that this would be a good way to ease people into a solar culture.

PS: My reading lights are solar powered LEDs too and videos of all these and more of my solar experiments are available on my blog,

Posted by: gmoke on 9 Aug 06

Excellent feature and words do not express the admiration for the wonderful graphic.

Posted by: Ron Mader on 9 Aug 06

a related post;
“America faces decades of red ink”
“The nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth is a government program.”
- President Ronald Reagan
I wonder why Americans politicians are not listening to their Comptroller General. Following are excerpts from a recent speech David Walker gave World Future Society conference (emphasis mine);

Posted by: paul on 9 Aug 06

Nicely argued! It can tap into people's current interest in security against terrorism in the service of peace and environmental protection.

Posted by: Kim on 10 Aug 06

The analysis is interesting, and I appreciate the emphasis on sustainability for security. Great editorial for stirring up the waters on this issue.

I think Felix has a good point. I'm not one to get all up in arms about terrorism. I'm not coming out against or in support of Alex's words about the money spent, authoritarianism, etc. But saying that terrorism has harmed far fewer people than we're lead to believe it could... strikes me as the same conundrum the green movement faces when talking about earlier warnings about population and other issues. Population didn't go through a malthusian crash because we did something about it. We still have an ozone layer because we spent a ton of money, created smart regulations, and managed to have a tremendous success story for the environmental movement. Arguing by analogy is a slippery slope, but is often the only thing we can do in the real world (that is, outside the laboratory). By analogy, perhaps terrorism hasn't caused as much pain and suffering as peanut allergies because we've worked darned hard to make it so.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 10 Aug 06

In light of today's news, this post is quite well-timed, eh?

I was reading through the new regulations issued in the US today (no shampoo, water bottles, etc). One thing they specifically noted was that people should "simplify" and "declutter" their carry-on luggage to make searching simpler.

Let's look on this as an opportunity. Here is a way that people might start to realize that they don't really need half the stuff they are lugging around with them. It is really possible to fly for 3 hours (or even 12) without 19 million little doo-dads for entertainment, tons of food and drinks, and all kinds of personal care items.

You just don't NEED all the crap.

It's a real oddball way for people to start simplifying, but maybe, just maybe, it will work for some people.

Posted by: Kim on 10 Aug 06

Felix - Stephen -- We're spending more money to create more terrorists than we are trying to prevent attacks. Compare the budget for invading Iraq and the budget to do police investigation work.

And then, most of the money spent on security is spent abysmally. Suspecting terrorists of using liquid bombs, how do we deal with it?

Follow the link; it's an apt metaphor for how we conduct security in this day and age. The only ones gaining are the companies selling security "solutions".

Terrorism killed thousands on 9/11 because of incompetence. Only this time the Pakistanis saved our bacon. Not data mining, not biometrics, not more guards looking out for the wrong things, not more soldiers in Iraq, not people snooping in on your phone conversations.

We can't ignore these threats. The ones that really understand security are proposing measures that will deal with the larger problems at the same time- or at least not make the larger problems more difficult to solve.

People like Alex and CATO are doing us a great favour here. Unless we understand the larger threat model, we can't tell who is proposing real solutions. If that ever happens, dumping various liquids together willy-nilly in open spaces will be a career-ending move for those who proposed it.

Posted by: Daniel Haran on 11 Aug 06

If the liquids being seized from passengers are in almost every case nonexplosive, but a small fraction of passengers have two bottles each, one containing peroxide and the other a fuel, pouring them all in a receptacle is an adequate defense; the receptacle contents will be mostly water, a little dilute fuel -- sucrose, for instance -- and even diluter oxidant. Only if every passenger, or a very large fraction of them, had a binary bomb could the receptacle's mixed contents be explosive.

Posted by: G. R. L. Cowan, former hydrogen fan on 21 Aug 06

One other by-product of concentrating our resources on building a sustainable society and putting human needs first, might be the de-funding of the military adventures and economic imperialism that made us a terrorist target in the first place.

Posted by: Chuck on 23 Aug 06



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