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Turning Environmental Threats into Profits

How does one turn environmental problems into a threat for the United States and then into a profit opportunity?

January 26, 2013

Credit: Spirit of America/

Ever since 9/11, the national security state has taken Washington, D.C. with full force. Managing the “threat” has become a most profitable business opportunity that has built many a villa and made the metro area the nation’s wealthiest in terms of average income.

As regards the global environmental agenda, this lead led to some quite perverse effects. Perhaps the most curious of them is that one of the very few dimensions on which the U.S. government is taking a firm leadership stance is the international verification of carbon emissions.

For that purpose, to help track the effects of climate change, the CIA is now providing scientists with previously restricted access to intelligence assets — such as spy satellites and other classified sensors. Elsewhere, this is rightly seen not so much as a useful contribution to global progress as a transparent move to harvest some low-hanging fruit.

The sport of keeping score on others also fits in very well with one of the most popular, bipartisan political games being played in the United States: the belief that, first and foremost, it is other nations who are cheating – and that it is the role and responsibility of the United States to guard against that.

There is only one little problem with making that a long-term U.S. strategic plank. As the costs for global IT-based monitoring become ever lower, there is less of a need to depend on governments with their vast resources to fulfill this monitoring function. A global network of NGOs can indeed be useful for executing this critical task.

In addition, it is strange for the very country that is otherwise so keen on exempting itself from international courts and many other international agreements to be accepted as a global judge on environmental malfeasance.

It is a shame to see how unambitious and small U.S. appetites have become in a field that certainly needs all of the positive attributes of Americans’ increasingly missing can-do spirit.

But there is method to the underlying madness. The national security establishment, forever vigilant in assuring its own centrality in all of America’s policy futures, has found a magic way to “sell” environmental challenges to the U.S. population.

The basic proposition offered up is this: As other nations become water-starved, as desertification grows, as deforestation becomes more rampant and as food and commodity prices shoot up, the United States faces more of a security problem.

Its power, its dominance, even its territory may be challenged by climate refugees, people becoming destitute in their own lands.

It cannot be said that such fears are merely manufactured. Yet it is important to recognize two facts. The first, and perhaps most important, is that the connection to similar phenomena happening at home — such as the Mississippi River drying up and a prolonged drought covering vast areas of the United States — is not being made. That would upset the domestic apple cart too much.

The second fact is that the Washington establishment has become a master in converting fears, preferably about enemies from afar, into lucrative business opportunities for itself, even if it does nothing to transform the region in question or the underlying issue.

That was made amply clear in the two war “theaters” of Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the trillions of dollars that the United States spent, one cannot say that they achieved a draw on the ground.

But who cares? Isn’t the purpose of American government to provide wealth to those who know how to play the game? Dealing with foreign threats — even trumped up or invented ones — are nothing more than the means to enter the for-profit game, but never the end point of the game.

Resolution of the issue is not the point, self-enrichment is. And so it is that a vast cabal of former government employees, academics, consultants and other dubious hangers-on is turning the fears that Americans feel into lucrative contracts for themselves.

In short, it is far from just the usual suspects — oil companies and defense contractors — that have been keen to play the game.

Just as with Afghanistan and Iraq, the environment and climate change are opportunities not to do good and transform society or the global economy, but to make money.

That money is made through a never-ending series of reports and studies, either examining the long obvious, artfully denying the absolutely indisputable and/or throwing smokescreens over the indefensible.

It is truly sad to see how the once transformative powers of the U.S. government apparatus have been hijacked by businesses large and small, both reputable and downright shady. The world deserves a much better, more constructive use of Americans’ intellect and energies. And so do the American people.

The United States as an Anti-Modernity Force is a five-part series by Stephan Richter on the United States’ inability to play a leading role in the global debate on climate change:

1. Climate Change and the Claim to Global Leadership
2. Optimism as a Force for Good — And Doing Nothing
3. The U.S. Refusal to See China as a Positive Challenge
4. Yearning for Systemic Uncertainty
5. Turning Environmental Threats into Profits


The country otherwise so keen on exempting itself from any kind of international courts and agreements wants to be the global judge on environmental malfeasance.

The national security establishment is looking for a magic way to "sell" environmental challenges to the U.S. population.

It is far from just the usual suspects — oil companies and defense contractors — that have been keen to play the game.

Resolution of the real issue is not the point of Washington, self-enrichment is.

A vast cabal of former government employees, academics, consultants and other dubious hangers-on perverts what was "public service" into a rich business opportunity.