The Ecological Roots of Terrorism
By Paul Shrivastava and Ian I. Mitroff
Four years after terrorists attacked New York and Washington, $315 billion in war costs, toppled Afghanistan and Iraq governments, and claims of death or capture of 80 percent of al Qaeda's leadership, one would think we were close to wining the war on terror.
But the London transit system attacks point to one thing: the war on terror is far from over. The fact is we're fighting the wrong war and the real war hasn't even begun.
Most analysts focus on the economic, social, and political aspects, but not terrorism's ecological roots. Eliminating terrorists worsens the conditions that spawned them. The more we win the current war, the more we loose the real struggle. We need to create ecologically sustainable societies.
The FBI defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
It is too narrow. It focuses on political motivation and violence, but fails to recognize the daily terror experienced through hunger and poverty, economic bondage, social and political lawlessness, and extreme uncertainty and risk. These terrors incite political violence and terrorists see themselves as terror victims. Dehumanized, they become terrorists.
The ecology of terrorism is the scarcity of natural resources and the unequal distribution and control of resources that cause poverty and living condition discontent. This discontent spills over into violence, which, in turn, causes the displacement of more people. The displaced population then becomes the source of demand for nationhood. Religious and ethnic affiliations shape the desire to seek shelter in ethnically defined communities.
The U.S. government has declared Cuba, Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, and the Sudan sponsors of international terrorist activities. These states don't lack ecological resources. But their resources are under centralized control and concentrated in the hands of a few.
The autocratic control of land, oil, minerals, and critical natural resources deprives people of livelihoods and fosters social and political unrest and, eventually, violence.
Vicious and long-lasting form of terrorism has occurred in failed nation states such as Somalia, Afghanistan, and Palestinian Territories. All exhibit a common pattern:
The movement of population into concentrated areas causes an extreme overload on ecological resources. Natural resources are depleted, overwhelming the ability of the land to support them, creating poverty, and giving rise to conditions for terrorism.
Natural resource depletion is accelerated by unsustainable practices in agriculture, forestry, and energy use. Violence becomes the dominant means of resource control, forcing natural resources out of the hands of legitimate government and supporting a terrorism infrastructure.
The prolonged lack of basic needs - food, clothing, and shelter - motivates people to violence.
Sustained terrorism requires long-term financing that comes from a dependable natural resource. Drugs, oil, diamonds, and mineral mining become a lucrative source of funds for fueling violence.
Dehumanized conditions are ameliorated by religion. Poverty, coupled with the promise of redemption, leads to the surrender of lives to radical causes. The number is growing. The wait list to become a suicide bomber in Iraq is said to be more than six months.
Understanding the ecological origins of terrorism provides a different perspective on the Bush administration's war on terror. Focused on military victory over terrorists, it is backed by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the open-ended threat to preemptively invade other terror-sponsoring regions.
The ecological cost of this kind of war is incalculable. The bombing and destruction of natural environments and habitats have worsened ecological conditions. The number of refugees in the Middle East has exploded. The scarcity of natural resources has increased. Oil prices alone have doubled since the Iraq invasion. Meantime, the ability to eke out a living in Afghanistan or Somalia continues to decline.
The resources dedicated to the war on terror and the consequent destruction of the natural environment are a huge burden on American taxpayers. Last month, a Washington think-tank estimated the final cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan war will exceed $700 billion. In comparison, U.S. aid to all developing countries last year was just $78.6 billion.
A more efficient way of controlling terrorism would be to build the ecological capacity of terror-prone regions. The current war serves as a band-aid to ameliorate immediate desperate conditions, but does nothing to build eco-sustainability and the risk is that even larger numbers of people will be swayed by terrorist ideology and activism.
A narrow military response to terrorism is doomed to failure. The war on terror needs to be broadened to include economic and ecological policies that lead to sustainable development. The root cause of terror lay not in the manifest acts of terror, but in the conditions that give rise to them.
As long as the war on terror is being waged as a war on nations, the networks of people, places, and ecologies bound by terror ecosystems remain intact.
And despite nearly four years of punishing military war, the London bombings remind us that they survive.
(Shrivastava is a professor of management at Bucknell University.Mitroff is a professor of business policy and journalism atUniversity of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.)