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Too Much Natural Security?

On January 13th, Admiral Jim Stavrides will be speaking at a Natural Security Forum at the Army-Navy Club in Washington, DC. I’m not involved in this particular event, but I would encourage folks to go, nonetheless.

The event, hosted by the Stimson Center, is defining “natural security” somewhat differently than I do (they’re relating it to environmental crime), so I thought it might be a good idea to write about how I came up with the concept and what it means to me.

When I first established the Natural Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) back in 2008, we researched the term to make sure we weren’t inadvertently borrowing it from someone else. We found that scientist and energy policy thinker Hal Harvey had once used the term in an article, back in 1988. I later met Hal, and he didn’t really remember the article, but was delighted we were using the moniker. Around the time we established our program, Marine Ecologist Rafe Sagarin also wrote a book called Natural Security. In his use of the term, Sagarin was referring to defenses in the natural world (think a squid’s ink or a skunk’s spray), and specifically those that might inform technology development for humans. It was a great body of work, which he continued at the University of Arizona until his tragic and untimely death in 2015. Rafe and I discussed our program back in 2008, and he had no problem with our using the term, as long as we didn’t try to copyright it. In fact, even though we were using the term in different ways, we had discussed the possibility of collaboration. I’m sorry we never had the chance.

In 2009, CNAS released “Natural Security,” my report laying out the parameters of our program. In that report, I defined natural security as the confluence of natural resources and national security – how resources shape security and geopolitics, and vice versa. We were looking at the consumption of resources – energy, water, minerals, and land – and the consequences of changing consumption patterns, such as climate change and biodiversity loss. The goal was a policy, not scholarly, research program, one that might inform legislation and decisions at the Pentagon, State Department, Executive Office of the President, and other relevant national security agencies. My intent was to raise the profile of these issues and ensure they were being incorporated into national security decisions. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to grow that program as I intended, given that I entered the Obama Administration soon after as an Assistant Secretary of Defense. Others (Christine Parthemore and Will Rogers) continued the work at CNAS for some time, but eventually the program was retired. Today, Elizabeth Rosenberg does a great job of running a kindred but unique program at CNAS called “Energy, Economics, and Security.”

When I left government in 2014 and came to New America, I had originally intended to focus on energy security research of my own, with the goal of publishing a book on “the energy of war”. That research continues, albeit more slowly than I had hoped, but I’ve also started to build programming for New America on natural resource security. This includes this occasional blog, which I am calling Natural Security, with the blessing of CNAS. I still see “natural security” as a question of the link between national security and natural resources, and how access to and consumption of resources affects stability, prosperity, and conflict. We’re focusing right now on disaster readiness in the United States, climate security around the world, and critical minerals, while exploring possible topics on energy, food, water, and trade patterns. Again, the goal is to identify policy-relevant challenges and opportunities, and New America’s focus is not just the Federal government and foreign relations, but state and local governments across the country, as well.

We don’t look at environmental crime, but it’s certainly an important topic, and I’m glad Stimson is taking it on. As the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – or perhaps Rafe Sagarin would have pointed out that imitation can be a great force mulitplier.  In that light, you can’t have too much natural security!