The Events of 9-11: A View from the Margin

The Declaration, Volume 5, Number 1: December 2001  [Feature]

By David W. Orr

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, over ninety percent of the U. S. public favored some kind of military action against the alleged perpetrators. The President calls the events “an act of war.” Some in Congress were ready to suspend a sizeable part of U.S. civil liberties in order to combat the threat of terrorism. There can be no question that those guilty of committing atrocities should be apprehended and punished. That much is clear, but little else is. This is a good time to reassess the underlying structure of political discontent that leads to terrorism, the vulnerability of modern societies, global poverty, and the relationship between these things and a deteriorating global environment. Why do so many of the poor around the world hate Americans? Why is the U.S. so vulnerable? Most important, what can be done to break the cycle of violence and lay the foundation for global security in the largest sense? That answer, whatever it may be, requires that we place the events of 9-11 into a meaningful context.

First, it is clear that the acts of 9-11 were remarkably cost-effective. For perhaps no more than a few hundred thousand dollars, the perpetrators used our equipment and facilities to cause hundreds of billions of dollars of damage and seize control of western media for months. They have imposed a tax of billions more to pay for remedial actions and subsequent economic losses. We know that more devastating options throughout the U.S., Europe, and Japan are available to determined terrorists and to the merely deranged. The next round of terrorism could involve suitcase nuclear weapons, chemical or biological materials, or just the sabotage of basic services, communications networks, roads, and industrial infrastructure. In such cases high-technology weapons are worse than useless. They create a false sense of security at a huge expense while preempting smarter options that promote real security.

From conflicts in northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East, and dozens of other places we know that there are points of no return where memory becomes myth, martyrs are deified, enemies demonized, positions harden into bitterness and disputes become perpetual. Inevitably, the political discussion narrows in ways that prevent long-term solutions to the underlying problems that created the conflict in the first place. Human affairs have their own laws of action and reaction that displace logic, reason, and justice, which is to say that it is probable that a response in kind will trigger further violence. In such situations there is no possible victory for either side . . . ever.

Second, any effective response to the events of 9-11 requires that we comprehend, too, the larger context beginning with the fact that the global economy has become highly stratified with a small number of very wealthy at the top and several billions, including some future terrorists, living in the desperation of extreme poverty. We know that the U.S. is the world’s largest vendor of weapons and that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein once received U.S. military support and training. For fifty years the US. has engaged in political manipulation, trained and financed death squads, and funded repressive dictatorships. It has, thereby, contributed to a global pattern of violence and hostility which is not improved by the fact that the present U.S. administration has chosen to ignore, violate, or abrogate international agreements about climatic change, arms control, and chemical/biological weapons, but now it demands international cooperation. The U.S. cannot have it both ways. Either it is part of a global community or must act alone. If the latter, it will lose and lose tragically even if it can “win” a war with a particular terrorist.

Third, global corporations with help from compliant governments have created a tightly coupled world in which ecological, economic, political, and technological effects of actions anywhere sooner or later touch everyone. It is a world vulnerable to disruption from a thousand sources. It cannot be sustained politically or ecologically. For all of the hype about freedom, the emerging world system is neither very free nor very democratic. It is, rather, governed by a plutocracy of distant and unaccountable corporations, global agencies like the World Trade Organization, and willing governments. But in the end it is a world ruled by ironies of the sort that what goes around, comes around. The U.S. aimed to be rich and powerful, but has succeeded in making itself a very large bull’s eye, more vulnerable and despised than most care to admit.

The events of 9-11, in short, dramatically underscore the clash between two kinds of fanaticism. On one side are those wishing to stop all change and freeze societies into extreme male dominated and violence-prone theocracies ruled by the likes of the Taliban. On the other, are the free market fundamentalists who intend to change everything for everyone, everywhere, all the time. The one is a rear-guard protest against the modern world and westernization in particular. The other is a global juggernaut driven by financial markets, technological dynamism, and global capitalism. It is easy to see the insanity in the former. But in more reflective times the latter, perhaps, will be seen as the more sweeping kind of derangement. In the no-man’s-land between the acolytes of two fundamentalisms, good possibilities can be lost and the possibility of building a just world society that can be sustained ecologically could recede into the background making for a future ruled by fear, vengeance, and reprisal. If we are not to acquiesce in that dark future, it is time to re-examine old myths about globalization, economic growth, and national security.

What do those of us in the conservation community have to offer to such an effort? What powerful and unifying ideas do we have that might clarify the situation and help forge better policy? Failing to announce better possibilities we risk becoming irrelevant—a quirk of history—in an increasingly militarized world divided into garrison states, fundamentalist sects, terrorist cells, drug lords with their armies and addicts, and global corporations with theirs.

First, we need not and should not be silent. In fact, we have a great deal to offer beginning with a more coherent and accurate view of the world that could provide the foundation for more effective and humane governance and smarter solutions to seemingly intractable problems. In an ecological perspective, for example, there are few accidents or anomalies, only outcomes based on system structure and dynamics. Climate change and glittering malls, calcuttan poverty and sybaritic wealth, biotic impoverishment and economic growth, militarism and terrorism, global domination and utter vulnerability are not different things but manifestations of a single system. Effective action requires, in Wendell Berry’s felicitous words, “solving for [a] pattern” that is now global. There is no good way to separate policies for the economy, trade, energy, and security from those effecting land-use, climate, forests, and soils. But to unify these requires the willingness to see connections and the ability to comprehend how a complex global system works. Eventually all actions of governments, including those to promote economic development and national security, effect natural systems and biogeochemical cycles either compounding our problems or resolving them at a higher level.

The world community faces growing conflicts over access to freshwater, declining oceanic fisheries, climatic change, access to oil, and the mounting effects of the loss of natural capital. The challenges of global poverty, feeding another 1 to 3 billion people, arresting climatic change, preserving biotic diversity, and maintaining world peace will become more and more difficult especially given the spread of the means of violence. In the 21st century no nation on its own can be secure and no narrow definition of security will provide a foundation for safety. The idea of security must be broadened to include security against hunger, pollution, ecological degradation, poverty, ignorance, and direct physical assaults for everyone. Anything less will not work for long. Meeting human needs for food, shelter, sustainable livelihood, environmental preservation reduces the sources of conflict and the dissatisfaction that feeds terrorism. Real security will require a larger vision and the development of the capacity, international and local, necessary to solve problems that feed violence, hatred, and fear.

Second, an ecological perspective could help to dramatically decrease our vulnerability. The way we provision ourselves with food, energy, materials, and water increases or decreases our vulnerability to system failures, terrorists, acts of God, and ecological degradation. A society with many nuclear reactors is vulnerable in ways that one powered by decentralized solar technologies is not. Similarly, a society fed by a few megafarms is far more vulnerable to many kinds of disruption than one with many relatively smaller and widely dispersed farms. One that relies on long-distance transport of essential materials must guard every supply line, but the military capability to do so becomes yet another source of vulnerability and ecological cost. In short, no society that relies on distant sources of food, energy, and materials or heroic feats of technology can be secured indefinitely. An ecological view would suggest more resilient and cost-effective ways to provision ourselves that create fewer targets for terrorists while buffering us from other sources of disruption. An ecological view of security would lead us to rebuild family farms, local enterprises, community prosperity, regional economies, and invest in the regeneration of natural capital. And we know how to design and build energy efficient buildings, utilize current solar income, farm sustainably, rebuild greener cities, and manage resources for the long-term. The challenge is not know-how but one of political will and leadership.

Finally, I believe that we can help expose the lie in the assertion that “the American way of life is not negotiable.” No way of life based on inequity, waste, economic exploitation, military coercion, and a refusal to account costs fully is non-negotiable. Terrorists on 9-11-01 unilaterally negotiated the American way of life downward by several trillion dollars and they could continue to do so. The question before the U.S. is not whether we can maintain a way of life based on imported oil and resources, great environmental damage, and climatic change. We cannot. Rather the question is whether we can summon the intelligence to create a just, secure, and sustainable prosperity that no terrorist can threaten and that threatens no other nation. The ecological and security costs of military power are high and growing. But real security is more complicated. It has to do with connections between the health of democratic institutions, the fair distribution of wealth, military power, and the protection of soils, forests, and biological diversity. There would be no better first step to ensure our security and that of others than a resolute announcement by President Bush that we will end our dependence on foreign oil—and all fossil fuels—by tapping the technological ingenuity to increase our energy efficiency and to harness solar energy. Thereafter our engagement in the politics of an unstable region might be by choice not permanent necessity. In the meantime we would have lowered our balance of payments deficit, reduced air pollution, created many new jobs along with the technological basis for a solar-hydrogen economy, reduced the emission of greenhouse gases, and dramatically reduced our vulnerability.


Lovins, A., Lovins, H., 1982. Brittle Power. Andover, MA: Brick House.

A slightly different version of this article will appear in a spring 2002 issue Conservation Biology.

David Orr is Professor and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College. He is the author of Earth in Mind (1994), Ecological Literacy (1992) and a forthcoming book on ecological design.

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