Reframing Visions of National Security

When it comes to addressing today’s violent threats, we’re given a choice: clean energy and the environment, or national defense – but do we have to choose?

Of all the worthwhile things I did in high school – memorizing the quadratic formula, dissecting a frog, binder checks, the S.A.T., etc. – my public school education peaked when I had to balance the United States’ federal budget. One tragically early morning, an A.P. American Government class full of visionary eighteen-year-olds – motivated by looming A.P. tests, empowered by the political ideologies of our parents – set forth to balance the budget.

I considered myself an “environmentalist” in high school. I’m not sure why – I thrived on plastic, sassed my vegan water polo coach on a daily basis, drove everywhere, accepted everything, questioned nothing – but while this self-proclaimed title didn’t reflect in my everyday actions, it certainly did in my attempt to balance the budget. 17-year-old me took billions of dollars from national defense, and donated everything to clean energy and the environment.

So then, I became an environmentalist that made no personal sacrifice but just really liked to surf, who theoretically replaced the U.S. military with an army of trees. The person sitting next to me told me I was “whack.”

My army of trees wouldn’t stand a chance against attackers, invaders, outsiders, “the enemy.” At that point, I was happy to turn off the computer, leave this ridiculous endeavor to politicians, and go back to singing songs about the quadratic formula.

Besides being totally absurd and unrealistic, my hypothetical disarmament of America’s military demonstrates a critical truth about the way we think about the environment, national defense, and the overarching question what of it means to be secure. I examined my choices – either the environment, or national security – and thought I had to choose. But why couldn’t I choose both?

In the political context of today, choosing both appears to be a serious non-option. My army of trees is the antithesis to the Trump brigade, in which environmental funding, programs, and protection have been slashed to accommodate a beefier, robust military. To President Donald Trump, “The world will be more peaceful and more prosperous with a stronger and more respected America,” and a severely degraded environment.

But before we deploy our multi-billion dollar arsenal against the ever-changing enemy that lingers outside, we must first ask ourselves what it means to be a “stronger America,” and a more “peaceful” and “prosperous” world. Underlying this noble quest for strength, safety, and prosperity is the fundamental question of what it means to be “secure.”

For political activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, who thrust a disenfranchised Kenyan citizenry out of forced silence and suffering through the 1970s Green Belt Movement, “national security” entails more than standard assumptions of a colossal military, robust manpower, and an unrivaled arsenal of cutting-edge weaponry – it means trees.

It is through the lens of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya – during which impoverished communities united in peaceful protest against their draconian government’s violent legacy of resource mismanagement, dispossession, and environmental assault- that unconventional definitions of what it means to be “secure” arise.

Prior to the Green Belt Movement’s proliferation, rural communities in Kenya suffered the pervasive violence of mass deforestation, as they struggled to subsist in a region that lost 98% of its forest cover since the late 19th century. The resulting ecological violence was devastating: Farmlands withered into desert. Drinking water disappeared. Life prospects diminished. Gender inequality deepened, as women – the primary gatherers – were forced to trek miles every day to provide for their families.

With the destruction of expansive, diverse, healthy forests, came the destruction of anchoring topsoil, agricultural prospects, and the livelihoods of thousands of people. In the eyes of Maathai, a nation whose people suffered such relentless, penetrating injustice, that deprived them of their most basic nutritional, physical, and physiological needs, did not meet the definition of “secure.” In her words, “Losing topsoil should be considered analogous to losing territory to an invading enemy.” Indeed, if such an enemy robbed our land of the basic necessities for life, we’d deploy an arsenal of extensive resources to defeat them.

Yet no resources are deployed when the formidable enemy is yourself – so Maathai unleashed an army of her own. Promoting reforestation as a force for national security, she and her followers planted 30 million trees across 12 states in sub-saharan Africa. The movement employed 100,000 women and established 6,000 local tree nurseries, empowering communities that had been historically iron-fisted into silence and submission by government investment in outside interests.

Similar battles for national security prevailed in the 1970s Chipko Andolan, or “treehugger,” movement, in India. Silent victims of the Indian Forest Department’s contracts with foreign logging companies, rural communities suffered violent deforestation and environmental assault. Clear-cut mountain slopes collapsed into landslides and soil erosion, blocking rivers until they burst in explosive massacres of catastrophic flooding – killing hundreds of people and animals, annihilating crops and agriculture, and demolishing infrastructure. While not as glorious, riveting, and sensational as some tremendous foreign evil, the violence of environmental neglect undermined the slimmest existence of “national security”, peace, and prosperity in India.

Mirroring Maathai’s army of tree growers, Indian communities united under an army of tree huggers, clinging to their life support system in desperate opposition to violent deforestation – and they were successful. Prosperity for the environment brought prosperity to the people.

While national security is most often conveyed as something that involves some inarguably present terror from outside, Maathai and the peaceful warriors of Chipko recognized and resisted a more mundane – albeit violent – terror from within. Robbed of their basic life support systems, displaced by corporate exploration, and deprived of a space in the global spotlight, these communities were not “prosperous.” They were not at peace. They were not “secure.”

Flash forward to the United States today, back to the question of what it means to be a better, stronger, safer, and more prosperous America, and the current reality appears incongruent with basic definitions of “national security.” In Northern California, wildfires have forced 100,000 people into mass exodus from their homes, claiming the lives of at least 42 people, while dozens more individuals remain missing. People return home to charred landscapes akin to an apocalyptic, ravaged battlefield, 6,000 homes and buildings reduced to withering piles of ash and smithereens. Throughout Puerto Rico and the Gulf Coast, violent hurricanes have brutalized scores of American citizens, destroying homes, taking lives, and robbing civilians of food, water, healthcare, and energy. Then, there are the less riveting, albeit violent, stories of rampant pollution, claiming the lives of 9 million people worldwide per year, at a cost of $4.6 trillion. Filthy air suffocates, unsafe water poisons, developing a violence of environmental assault akin to toxic chemical warfare.

If an identifiable enemy from the outside ever inflicted the violence that we inflict upon ourselves, we’d unite in mass resistance. We’d deploy all resources. We’d take drastic action, to ensure the safety of the American public.

Yet, in the face of menacing violence, we’ve done nothing. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its plans to dismantle the Clean Power Plan. In June 2017, President Trump declared withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. In the meantime, we are constructing prototypes of Trump’s $1.6 billion wall. I’m sure Puerto Rico, maybe sickened victims of toxically polluted environments, or perhaps the hundreds of thousands of newly-homeless throughout Northern California, would greatly appreciate such funds to ensure their own peace, prosperity, and security.

In the President’s fiscal budget, it states, “everyone believes in and supports safe food supplies and clean air and water” – followed by a big, fat, stagnating, “but” – because there are other more pressing issues, like provoking nuclear warfare or raging on twitter. Our current war on climate change and environmental degradation is akin to dissolving half of the American military during World War II and accepting inevitable doom. Except unlike any war fought in human history, this war isn’t divided by borders and nations, and if we lose, we’ll all lose together. Constructing sustainable peace, prosperity, and nationwide security won’t be achieved by filling the ravenous pockets of the defense industry. The answer may not be an army of forests – but it certainly isn’t any amount of naval ships, missiles, or travel bans either. Trump’s great wall won’t do much if it’s destroyed by a hurricane.


Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard Univ. Press, 2013.

Bhatt, Chandi Prasad. “The Chipko Andolan: Forest Conservation Based on People’s Power.” The Fight for Survival: People’s Action for Environment. 1990.

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