by Ronald Bleier

Thanks in part to Alexander's Cockburn's attack in The Nation, I made a point of searching out Robert D. Kaplan's essay in the Feb 1994 Atlantic, "The Coming Anarchy: How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet."

Cockburn's denunciation appeared in his column entitled "The Horror", in the March 28, 1994 edition of The Nation; and in response to a reader comment, Cockburn followed up two weeks later in the April 11, 1994 edition with another attack on what he termed the "repulsive" Kaplan piece.

In his first article, Cockburn called Kaplan "a rabid Malthusian" who was influenced by "the reactionary geographer Thomas Fraser Homer-Dixon ..." Cockburn sneered at "environmentalists who love Kaplan's catastrophic impressionism" and accused Kaplan of "racist uniculturalism ..."

In the end I had to thank Alexander Cockburn for putting me on to a very powerful piece of reporting. As an "environ- mentalist," I applauded the Kaplan piece -- especially the first part -- because it looked plainly at the reality of our current situation and dared to suggest that the future would resemble the present.

In the following selections, I try to give some of the substance and flavor of Kaplan's article. I begin with Kaplan's description of what he saw in West Africa. (Emphasis in original.)

"The cities of West Africa at night are some of the unsafest places in the world. Streets are unlit; the police often lack gasoline for their vehicles; armed burglars, carjackers, and muggers proliferate. `The government in Sierra Leone has no writ after dark,' says a foreign resident, shrugging. When I was in the capital, Freetown, last September, eight men armed with AK-47s broke into the house of an American man. They tied him up and stole everything of value. Forget Miami: direct flights between the United States and the Murtala Muhammed Airport, in neighboring Nigeria's largest city, Lagos, have been suspended by order of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation because of ineffective security at the terminal and its environs. A State Department report cited the airport for 'extortion by law-enforcement and immigration officials.' This is one of the few times that the U.S. government has embargoed a foreign airport for reasons that are linked purely to crime. In Abidjan, effectively the capital of the Cote d'Ivoire, or Ivory Coast, restaurants have stick-and- gun-wielding guards who walk you the fifteen feet or so between your car and the entrance, giving you an eerie taste of what American cities might be like in the future. An Italian ambassador was killed by gunfire when robbers invaded an Abidjan restaurant. The family of the Nigerian ambassador was tied up and robbed at gunpoint in the ambassador's residence...."


"West Africa is becoming THE symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental, and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real `strategic' danger. Disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms, and international drug cartels are now most tellingly demonstrated through a West African prism. West Africa provides an appropriate introduction to the issues, often extremely unpleasant to discuss, that will soon confront our civilization. ..."

"As a consequence [of civil war and anarchy in Sierra Leone], roughly 400,000 Sierra Leonians are internally displaced, 280,000 more have fled to neighboring Guinea, and another 100,000 have fled to Liberia, even as 400,000 Liberians have fled to Sierra Leone. The third largest city in Sierra Leone, Gondama, is a displaced-persons camp. With an additional 600,000 Liberians in Guinea and 250,000 in the Ivory Coast, the borders dividing these four countries have become largely meaningless. Even in quiet zones none of the governments except the Ivory Coast's maintains the schools, bridges, roads, and police forces in a manner necessary for functional sovereignty...."

"In Sierra Leone, as in Guinea, as in the Ivory Coast, as in Ghana, most of the primary rain forest and the secondary bush is being destroyed at an alarming rate. I saw convoys of trucks bearing majestic hardwood trunks to coastal ports. When Sierra Leone achieved its independence, in 1961, as much as 60 percent of the country was primary rain forest. Now six percent is. In the Ivory Coast the proportion has fallen from 38 percent to eight percent. The deforestation has led to soil erosion, which has led to more flooding and more mosquitoes. Virtually everyone in the West African interior has some form of malaria.

"Sierra Leone is a microcosm of what is occurring, albeit in a more tempered and gradual manner, throughout West Africa and much of the undeveloped world: the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war....[I]t is Thomas Malthus, the philosopher of demographic doomsday, who is now the prophet of West Africa's future. And West Africa's future, eventually, will also be that of most of the rest of the world."

In a section entitled "The Environment As a Hostile Power" the author focuses on the growing connection between the earth's environment and the foreign policy of nations.

"It is time to understand `the environment' for what it is: THE national security issue of the early twenty-first century. The political and strategic impact of surging populations, spreading disease, deforestation and soil erosion, water depletion, air pollution, and, possibly, rising sea levels in critical, overcrowded regions like the Nile Delta and Bangladesh -- developments that will prompt mass migrations and in turn, incite group conflicts -- will be the core foreign-policy challenge from which most others will ultimately emanate, arousing the public and uniting assorted interests left over from the Cold War. In the twenty-first century water will be in dangerously short supply in such diverse locales as Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, and the southwestern United States. A war could erupt between Egypt and Ethiopia over Nile River water. Even in Europe tensions have arisen between Hungary and Slovakia over the damming of the Danube, a classic case of how environmental disputes fuse with ethnic and historical ones.

"The political scientist and erstwhile Clinton adviser Michael Mandelbaum has said, "We have a foreign policy today in the shape of a doughnut -- lots of peripheral interests but nothing at the center." The environment, I will argue is part of a terrifying array of problems that will define a new threat to our security, filling the hole in Mandelbaum's doughnut and allowing a post-Cold War foreign policy to emerge inexorably by need rather than by design."

As Cockburn points out, Kaplan bases his view and has high praise for Thomas F. Homer Dixon who, Kaplan says, ""

"In Homer-Dixon's view, future wars and civil violence will often arise from scarcities of resources such as water, cropland, forests, and fish. Just as there will be environmentally driven wars and refugee flows, there will be environmentally induced praetorian regimes -- or, as he puts it, `hard regimes.'"

"Homer-Dixon says that `for too long we've been prisoners of "social-social" theory, which assumes there are only social causes for social and political changes, rather than natural causes, too. This social-social mentality emerged with the Industrial Revolution, which separated us from nature. But nature is coming back with a vengeance, tied to population growth. It will have incredible security implications."

Kaplan continues.

"We are entering a bifurcated world. Part of the globe is inhabited by Hegel's and Fukuyama's Last Man, healthy, well fed, and pampered by technology. The other, larger, part is inhabited by Hobbes's First Man, condemned to a life that is `poor, nasty, brutish, and short.' Although both parts will be threatened by environmental stress, the Last Man will be able to master it; the First Man will not."



If we do not act now, we will surely end up where we are heading. -- Chinese Proverb