This is a neat and biologically rich part of the world…I like the way that Black looks at the world.
When people ask me to recommend a good book on the environment, I tend to shuffle my feet and mumble “I’m too busy to do much reading,” or “Does Moby-Dick count?” The truth is that most of the review copies that turn up in my inbox are destined for the office giveaway pile. I weary of the relentless tsunami of 57 Things You Can Do to Save the Planet, which make me feel vaguely guilty that I’m only doing 16 of them. And while I’m sure that titles like My Year of Living Off the Grid in the Yurt at the Bottom of the Garden are worthy and admirable, they tend to bring out my inner Dick Cheney; they feel more like a sign of personal virtue, as the former vice president famously said about conservation, than a serious contribution to the pressing debates of our time.
However, I’m now prepared to recommend not one book but two (although you’ll have to wait for my next column for the second one). Both have the great virtue of challenging some of our basic preconceptions about what it means to think like an environmentalist in the 21st century. And the first of them isn’t directly about the environment at all.
The Edge: George Black on Climate, Energy, and Culture
Let me explain. The book in question is Monsoon, by Robert Kaplan, a hard-headed foreign policy expert who writes for the Atlantic. His subject is the Indian Ocean — broadly defined as the waters that stretch from the Red Sea to Indonesia. His thesis is that this region will be to the 21st century what Europe was to the 20th: the principal theater of conflict among the world’s great and ascendant powers — namely the United States, China, and India.
What does all this have to do with the environment? The answer is that the contest for supremacy is all about the control of fossil fuels, minerals, and other natural resources, and the infrastructure to import and export them — which means things like oil and gas pipelines, deepwater ports, and big navies to protect critical shipping lanes. You can say much the same thing about many of the conflicts of the past, of course, and extractive industries have always wreaked havoc on the environment. But the 21st century is different, because the stakes are so much higher, not only as a consequence of climate change but because of the unprecedented demand for energy from China and India.
One of the startling things about Monsoon is the list of countries that Kaplan sees as the likely flashpoints of this conflict. Looking at a map of the Greater Indian Ocean, most of us would probably think first of Iran, Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia. But Kaplan is worried about more obscure places like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Baluchistan, and the Isthmus of Kra (can you put that one on a map? I couldn’t). To the degree he’s concerned about Afghanistan, it’s less because of Islamic fundamentalism than because of that country’s estimated $3 trillion in mineral reserves (which U.S. companies are slavering over) and its value as a pipeline route to transport natural gas from Central Asia (which India covets).
Elsewhere, Kaplan says, the United States and India are running to play catch-up with China. The Chinese think more strategically than the United States (all those five-year plans, much mocked in this age of unfettered markets, turn out to have their uses). So, for example, China is building deepwater ports at vast expense in Gwadar in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan and another — this one combined with a liquefied gas facility — at Hambantota in Sri Lanka. (Two more places I’d never heard of.) And it’s eyeing more megaports in Myanmar and Bangladesh to handle Myanmar’s largely untapped reserves of oil, uranium, coal, zinc, copper, and timber.
In addition to long-range planning, China’s other great advantage is that its rulers don’t much care who they do business with. (The same can be said of the United States, of course, which has never been shy about jumping into bed with nasty governments where critical resources are at stake. Think Saudi Arabia.) But the array of countries targeted by China — and increasingly by India — is a good illustration of the point. Bangladesh is a shambolic quasi-democracy with a largely moderate Muslim population. Pakistan has the façade of civilian rule with an all-powerful military and roiling currents of Islamist extremism. Myanmar is one of the world’s most repellent military dictatorships. It’s not that the Chinese necessarily favors dictatorships over democracies as a matter of principle, any more than the United States does; you have the sense that they would be equally happy to sign contracts for pipelines, mines, and forest clearcuts with the democratic icon of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, if she were suddenly swept to power. It’s just that morality plays little or no part in their cold-eyed investment decisions — and for the United States, at least now and then, it does.
China represents the ultimate in pragmatism: money, growth, and the assertion of its standing as a world power determine everything. The same philosophy that has made it the world leader in solar power has also made it the world leader in the deforestation of Asia. And India, riven with anxiety about falling behind China in the race for natural resources, is headed down a similar path.
All that takes us to the most provocative implication of Kaplan’s argument: that morality in foreign policy may not only place the United States at a strategic disadvantage; it may actually be detrimental to the environment. In 2007, Kaplan notes, the U.S. suspended military aid to Sri Lanka because of the government’s atrocities against Tamil rebels. So in came the Chinese, laden with fighter aircraft, radar systems, and armored personnel carriers, and unencumbered by moral qualms, and in return they gained expansive rights to drill for natural gas and build coal-fired power plants. Similarly, Washington’s ostracism of Myanmar’s ruling military council, the ominously named SLORC, left the field wide-open for China to exploit the country’s natural resources with few if any environmental restrictions.
Aren’t the protection of the environment and the promotion of human rights part of an inseparable package of moral imperatives? Or can one set of our most cherished values conflict directly with another? I don’t know the answer, but I do urge you to read Monsoon, because we live in a time when facing up to intellectual challenges of this kind is necessary — and probably inescapable.