True Axis of Evil Is Poverty, Pollution, Study Says

John Roach
for National Geographic News
January 13, 2005
Acts of terrorism like the September 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. are a worst-case symptom of global insecurity brought about by the festering interplay among poverty, infectious disease, and environmental degradation—the true "axis of evil," according to the Worldwatch Institute in its State of the World 2005 report.

The Washington, D.C.-based research group released its annual report Wednesday. It concludes that until these conditions—and compounding factors such as the spread of small arms—are fiercely fought, political instability, warfare, and extremism will continue to thrive.

"Unless these threats are recognized and responded to, the world runs the risk of being blindsided by new forces of instability, just as the United States was surprised by the terrorist attacks of September 11," Christopher Flavin, the institute's president, said in a statement to the media.

Michael Renner, a project director for the report, added in an interview that it's wrong to suggest that violence will break out anywhere that's been subjected to poverty, infectious disease, or environmental problems. "There's a whole set of aggravating circumstances that need to be in place for the worst-case scenario to come into play," he said.

But the circumstances are in place. Among those highlighted by the report include: more than two billion people suffer from hunger and chronic nutrient deficiencies; nearly half a million people face water scarcity; infectious diseases like AIDS are spreading with a vengeance; and 21 to 26 percent of people aged 15 to 29 are unemployed in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

The report says that each of these conditions weakens the fabric of society and force conflict to arise. Mixed together, they can be lethal. "They can translate into political dynamics that lead to rising polarization and radicalization. Worst-case outcomes are more likely where grievances are left to fester," Renner writes in the "Security Redefined" chapter of the report.

But the conditions do not need to fester, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Civilian institutions and international treaties are in place to combat the root causes of instability. They just need proper attention and funding.

Sustainable Development

Former Soviet president and current chairman of Green Cross International Mikhail Gorbachev wrote the forward to the State of the World 2005. He begins: "Five years ago, all 191 United Nations member states pledged to meet eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015."

The Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting of gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, ensuring environmental sustainability, and developing a global partnership for development.

The MDGs were originally adopted to address global inequalities. But in the post-9/11 world, Gorbachev and the Worldwatch Institute say achieving the MDGs—and a matching set of environment-oriented targets outlined at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, South Africa—would help break the cycle of poverty, infectious disease, and environmental degradation that threatens global security.

Renner said he and his colleagues highlighted these goals because at least on paper they represent specific and tangible goals that most of the world's governments have agreed to achieve.

"This is not completely pie-in-the-sky," Renner said. "It is somewhat closer in time to where we are now, yet it is something governments and the UN itself signed onto. This is achievable if we make the right commitments in terms of funding and so on."

The problem, Renner said, is that governments find it much easier to sign a piece of paper than to make the actual commitments required to achieve the goals. A 2004 analysis on progress toward meeting the MDGs performed by the Geneva, Switzerland-based World Economic Forum found that the world has only put forth a third of the effort required.

Instead of tackling the social and environmental issues embraced by the MDGs and the WSSD targets, governments' global funding priority in recent years has been the world's militaries, which receive the equivalent of nearly a trillion U.S. dollars annually, according to the Worldwatch report.

By contrast, the MDGs could be achieved with additional funding of 50 billion dollars each year—money currently available in "outdated, ineffective, or otherwise wasteful" military programs, according to the report.

"Do we understand that by doing things like reducing poverty, improving water sufficiency, making sure arable land is not so totally exhausted that food security becomes a huge issue, we also address the stability and security of the world's nations?" Renner said. "In Washington [D.C.], that's a very hard sell."

Feet to the Fire

The State of the World 2005 is heavy on facts of doom and gloom—23 of the 36 countries that experienced new outbreaks of armed conflict during the 1990s displayed a combination of either a high proportion of young people, high rates of urban growth, or shortages of per capita availability of cropland or fresh water, for example.

But the report also finds hope in addressing the issues of doom and gloom through programs like the MDGs and the growing power and ability of individuals and civil organizations to hold their governments' "feet to the fire," Renner said.

According to Renner, civil action is the essence of the democratic system, even more so than regularly scheduled, properly run, and fair elections. "Once in power, let's monitor what they do, make sure they carry out a policy that improves the situation—not just for us, whatever the country may be, but for us as a global human race," he said.

Specifically, the report outlines three areas where action should be encouraged: strengthening and broadening international cooperation through bodies such as the United Nations; fully funding and supporting the MDGs and WSSD targets; and bolstering environmental peacemaking initiatives such peace parks, shared river-basin management plans, regional seas agreements, and joint environmental monitoring programs.

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