It was fitting that recognition of environment’s links to conflict and security came out of Norway last week when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Wangari Maathai of Kenya for her decades-long work through her Green Belt Movement. We often count on the Norwegians, and the Nordics in general, to get it right early and for the rest of us to catch up.
In fact it was nearly twenty years ago when Gro Harlem Brundtland, then Prime Minister of Norway, chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development, a group of international bigwigs that authored the influential volume Our Common Future. We remember that 1987 book that set the agenda for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio for its widely accepted definition of sustainable development (meeting the needs of current generations without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their own). But often forgotten is the chapter where the Brundtland Commission explicitly traced the destructive links between environment, conflict, and security.
So it was doubly disappointing to read in The New York Times the disparaging quotes from officials of both right and left-leaning parties in Norway in the wake of the announcement.The objections seemed to be twofold. With war in Iraq so in need of condemnation, goes the argument, shouldn’t the award be given to someone like the U.N. or IAEA inspectors who pointed out all along that no weapons of mass destruction could be found? Use the award for Europeans once again to tweak George Bush’s beak on waging preemptive war. My reaction to this line of argument is: Do we really need the Nobel Committee to tell us what we can easily find every single night in every possible media outlet? Let’s be a bit more imaginative.
But imagination is the problem, according to the second type of objection. The Nobel Committee has watered down the award by straying too far from the macho stuff of war between nations, it says. It was wrong to adopt an expansive view of war and peace to include local livelihood conflicts borne of the mix of natural resource exploitation, corruption, constrained public participation, maldevelopment, and inequity. Stick to the real wars and don’t muddy the waters with something as fuzzy as the environment, goes the argument. This refrain is familiar to anyone who has suggested that the military-focused definition of state security should be redefined to encompass environmental, economic, or any other non-geopolitical consideration.
Yet livelihood conflicts, for lack of a more precise term, are universal challenges that warrant the spotlight the Nobel Peace Prize will bring. Wangari Maathai has been heroic in her fight and is fully deserving. But I am left with a sense that the Nobel Committee also intended to honor legions of unknown or lesser-known local peace advocates fighting against corruption and unsustainable use of natural resources.
There are deserving Wangari Maathais in every corner of the globe who should feel honored and validated by the Kenyan activist receiving this award. Their efforts, although local, can add up to make a difference on national and international levels. At the end of the day, they deserve to share the spotlight with the peacemaking heroes who dampen the hot wars among states. And the Nobel spotlight is bright enough to illuminate Dr. Maathai and the many local advocates who stand behind her as well.