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Peter Seligmann: Protecting Nature Is Critical to Maintain Global Security

April 3, 2013

Conservation International (CI) and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) recently held a symposium entitled “Global Resources, the U.S. Economy, and National Security” at the CFR offices in Washington, D.C. Today, I contemplate the issue discussed.

Several years ago, in a moment of reflection on my career, I made some calculations and discovered that since I co-founded CI in 1987, the organization had — in collaboration with many partners — protected enough territory to cover a narrow belt of land that could encircle the Earth. I thought that sounded pretty impressive… until I looked at a globe. I found that this amount of land was no more visible than the line representing the equator.

Then I thought about all the changes in the world since 1987. Species extinction rates had accelerated, fisheries were collapsing, and weather patterns were even weirder than when we started. I realized that despite all the positive steps that CI and our peer organizations had made in conservation, we were actually losing ground. The state of the planet was threatening humanity’s ability to survive.

It was then that I realized we had to do things differently. In order to expand our impact, we couldn’t just keep working on the same scale, with the same partners — instead, we had to bring the conversation to a wider audience. We needed corporations, governments, international institutions and development organizations to understand and embrace that it was in their enlightened self-interest to talk about the conservation of nature as an essential part of their DNA. Nations and businesses cannot last if the resources that they depend upon are unpredictable.

Our recent symposium at CFR brought together some of the greatest minds from the conservation and development worlds to examine the direct connection between global resource scarcities and economic and security interests. What I heard showed me how far the world has come in just a few short years.

Some of the panelists were economists; others were business leaders, defense experts, policymakers and scientists. The conversations that ensued between the panelists and a highly engaged audience of their peers covered a range of topics, from shifting business models in the private sector to overfishing and the emergence of piracy in Somalia. These diverse perspectives contributed useful knowledge and experience to the discussion of how the world can meet the needs of current and future generations without depleting the natural resource base that sustains life on Earth.

The participation of such a diverse group of people in this event reveals exactly what’s at stake. We are seeing a growing number of government and business leaders with the vision to recognize that achieving economic growth objectives — and thereby meeting the expectations of their constituents, customers and shareholders — hinges upon enduring protection of the world’s healthy ecosystems.

But much more needs to be done. What were once known as “100-year storms” are now happening every few years, causing more people to lose their lives, their homes and their livelihoods. The world’s growing population — expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 — is predicted to double demands on our planet’s dwindling supply of food, fresh water, energy and other resources we can’t live without.

What we predicted 30 years ago has happened, and now we must deal with the consequences.

One of the most interesting ideas of the day came from my friend Richard Haass, the president of CFR and a CI board member. During the symposium’s closing session, Richard admitted that several decades ago, when he was examining the dangerous mix of security threats, he did not see the environment as a top security concern. Since then, he has come to recognize that environmental issues present an enormous challenge to global stability.

Richard suggested that while the last century’s history was dominated by wars between the world’s strongest states, “When I look at the 21st century… I actually think history is much more likely to be driven not by strong states, but by weak states… states that can’t provide for their own population, or can’t provide the security that their population needs.”

We’ve already seen this happening in areas of the Middle East, as shrinking water supplies have helped to fuel conflict. It remains to be seen which nations may disintegrate as new battles are fought — not over land itself, but over the resources it holds.

What’s more, any society that depletes its renewable natural resources is vulnerable to these security issues. A society that has bad air is in danger, as illustrated by the extreme urban pollution levels recently recorded in China. Any society that has poisoned water, infertile soil or declining pollinators is in danger. These are not luxuries — they’re necessities. If your country depends upon the natural services of other countries, you’re vulnerable.

So how can we prevent an escalation into conflict over these resources? One critical measure we must take is to incorporate the protection of Earth’s natural capital — the benefits and services provided to people by biodiversity and ecosystems — into global sustainable development efforts.

That’s why we recently founded the Center for Environment and Peace, which will be housed within CI. This center works with global institutions and overseas development agencies to further the understanding of the value of natural capital and to embrace policies, good governance and development investments that recognize nature’s essential role in healthy, sustainable — and peaceful — societies.

It’s clear that more and more people are starting to realize that protecting nature’s assets is of strategic importance to our economy, our security and our well-being. Let’s keep the momentum going, and conserve these gifts while we still can.

Peter Seligmann is the co-founder, chairman and CEO of Conservation International. This blog was originally published on CI’s blog, Human Nature.

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