OPINION

The battle of our civilization

Civilizations develop when they make the best possible use of natural resources and human talent; they collapse when they are unable to maintain the works left by their ancestors, when natural conditions change or when markets and trade routes move elsewhere. Our civilization is facing great challenges on all these fronts. The efforts to find solutions and tackle the problems are at an early phase. And this global battle for our civilization’s survival is one that, for the first time, brings together all the Earth’s residents – as individuals and as a whole. Today in Bangkok, the representatives of 190 countries will begin formal negotiations, under United Nations auspices, for a new agreement aimed at curbing climate change. The aim is to agree by the end of 2009 on a pact that will succeed the Kyoto agreement when that ends in 2012. Also, in Bucharest on Friday, the NATO summit will examine the need for the Alliance to get involved in energy security. As reported by the British newspaper The Guardian on March 10, a committee of retired senior military officers from NATO countries has drawn up a 150-page report which warns that global warming and the breakup of Arctic ice will lead to a new race to exploit natural resources – such as gas, oil and fish – between Russia and Norway. The United States, Canada and Denmark are also likely to get drawn into this, the report notes. Another report, on «Climate Change and International Security,» by the European Union’s foreign policy supremo Javier Solana and the European Commission, which was presented to EU leaders on March 14, issues a similar warning. «Unmitigated climate change beyond 2 degrees Celsius will lead to unprecedented security scenarios as it is likely to trigger a number of tipping points that would lead to further accelerated, irreversible and largely unpredictable climate changes,» the report said. But war over the most valuable natural resource of all – water – is never far away. We do not need to make wild or educated guesses about the future to see this danger – indeed, we don’t even need to consider the effects of global warming. As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a message commemorating World Water Day on March 22, half of the planet’s people live in countries where there is danger of conflict over water. «As with oil, problems that grow from the scarcity of a vital resource tend to spill over borders,» Ban wrote. «International Alert has identified 46 countries, home to 2.7 billion people, where climate change and water-related crises create a high risk of violent conflict. A further 56 countries, representing another 1.2 billion people, are at high risk of political instability. That’s more than half the world.» In the age of globalization, at a time of great unrest in the world’s financial systems, no economy and no country can feel that it is safe. Everything can change within a few days. Climate change creates a greater sense of insecurity – not only because of extreme weather conditions but also because we feel unsettled in the world we thought we knew – and the danger of conflict between countries keeps growing. This is the great challenge our era must face. History is full of instances where the application of human genius to natural resources made the desert – and civilization – bloom. The waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates played a central role in the development of the world’s first civilization some 8,000 years ago in what is now southern Iraq. The kings of the nations that succeeded one another in the area were always responsible for maintaining the canals, dykes and dams that were vital for the best use of the land. When these works were abandoned following foreign invasions, the region was reclaimed by the desert dust. And these great civilizations lay buried and forgotten until their discovery in the 19th century by the civilization which must now, in turn, fight for survival.