The Environmental Factor

The Environmental Factor

Geoffrey D. Dabelko

Should American foreign policy address deforestation in Haiti and population growth in Africa?

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1m 12sec

It should have been the best of times for a little-known assistant professor at the University of Toronto. In a lengthy 1994 Atlantic Monthly article that electrified readers all the way to the White House, journalist Robert Kaplan not only paid homage to the research of then 37-year-old Thomas Homer-Dixon but compared him to George F. Kennan, the architect of the containment doctrine that guided the United States during a half-century of cold war. Citing Homer-Dixon's 1991 work in the academic journal International Security--"even bolder and more detailed" than Kennan's "X" article of 1947--Kaplan sketched a dark view of the global future in which growing scarcities of water, forests, arable land, and fish, along with rapid population growth and other ills, would breed civil strife and war. The environment will be the national security issue of the 21st century, Kaplan declared, and Homer-Dixon held the keys to understanding it.

Kaplan's own travels through the chaos of West Africa, where he saw governments and entire societies in places such as Sierra Leone and Togo crumbling under the weight of unbearable environmental and demographic stresses, seemed to bring these academic hypotheses to life. "Africa may be as relevant to the future character of world politics as the Balkans were a hundred years ago, prior to the two Balkan wars and the First World War," he suggested.

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About the Author

Geoffrey D. Dabelko is the director of the Environmental Change and Security Project at the Wilson Center and editor of the Project's ECSP Report. He is coeditor with Ken Conca of Green Planet Blues: Environmental Politics from Stockholm to Kyoto.

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