books

Beyond Terror, by Chris Abbott et al

I picked up this little book the other day, Beyond Terror – the truth about the real threats to our world, from the think tank the Oxford Research Group. It has a simple premise: that the ‘war on terror’ is a distraction from much bigger things that threaten global security. The approach of “maintaining the status quo through military means and ‘keeping the lid on’ insecurity without addressing the root causes will not work in the long term” they warn, and may already be failing.

Terrorism scares us, but it is a perceived fear rather than an actual threat. That is, in fact, the whole point of terrorism and why we call it that. In 2001 and factoring in 9/11, around 2,680 US citizens were killed by terrorists. That same year there were 14,000 American deaths from HIV/AIDS, 20,000 murders, 30,000 suicides, 42,000 deaths in car accidents, and 700,000 deaths from heart disease. Considering that the usual death toll from terrorism is more like 30 people a year, it may be hard to justify the tens of billions that are spent on homeland security every year, especially if they’re not actually making the world safer.

Our money and time would be better spent getting to the root causes of the instability, and the book identifies four threats:

  • Climate change, because it aggravates existing tensions and drives people from their land. The authors cite New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as an example of the kind of social breakdown that climate change could cause.
  • Competition over resources, particularly oil. Iraq we know about, the war over Africa’s tantalum is one we’re less familiar with. As countries like the US and China import an increasingly large percentage of their resources, competition is set to get fierce.
  • The marginalisation of the majority world, meaning the poverty and inequality that breeds resentment against the rich. If we gave more away through poverty alleviation and canceling debts, we wouldn’t need to spend so much protecting what we have.
  • Global militarisation, weapons of mass destruction, and the threat of a new arms race. Much of the heat has gone out of this one with Bush out of the White House. Obama has held talks on nuclear decommissioning with Russia, the missile shield and plans for weaponising space look considerably less likely.

I think you could draw that list somewhat differently. Written in 2007, the authors didn’t include debt as one of the big threats, which is the one time bomb that’s actually gone off since the book was published. Or you could frame the question around growth economics, since it drives climate change, competition for resources, and inequality. The environmental crisis is bigger than climate change too, with pollution and loss of biodiversity joining forces alongside CO2.

Being so short, the book also strays into rather simplistic territory at times. Nuclear power is dismissed because new power stations could be a terrorist target, which seems a lot like the fear of terrorism that the book is out to debunk. Instead, we can have renewable energy in sufficient quantities to eliminate both nuclear and fossil fuels “without reducing living standards or industrial capacity.” Other people have done those sums and not come to those conclusions.

Still, there are some useful insights here, and the book is good at drawing the links between things and demanding action from every level, from government to the individual. They rightly conclude that a consumer culture makes us all responsible. “So many of the problems facing us are directly linked to our unrestrained consumption of the earth’s finite resources” they write. “At the personal level, anyone can make a difference because we can all consume less, and do more.”

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