While the nation's attention has been focused on ending one war (Afghanistan) and avoiding another (Iran), a different idea about national defense has been circulating lately among some of America's thought leaders.
The idea is this: National defense isn't only about containing foreign threats; it's also about strengthening the fabric of society. In other words, sustainable development is a critical component of national security.
This isn't a new thought, but new people are thinking it, including some whose job is to figure out how to prevent the foreign conflicts that end up costing U.S. lives and treasure.
A half-century ago, President Eisenhower, Congress and U.S. automakers defined "strong" as an interstate highway system. Thirty years ago, Amory and Hunter Lovins defined "strong" as moving away from "brittle power" -- our dependence on fragile energy systems.
Last spring, two influential military officers went public with the idea that sustainable development must be central to America's global strategy. Marine Corps Col. Mark Mykleby and Navy Capt. Wayne Porter wrote that to thrive in this century's "strategic ecology", the United States must move from a global posture of containment designed to preserve the status quo to a posture of sustainability designed to build our strength at home and our credible influence abroad. They wrote the paper while serving as senior strategic advisors to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Today, Mykleby, now retired from the military, is collaborating with Patrick Doherty of the nonpartisan New America Foundation and David Orr of Oberlin College on an idea called "The Grand Strategy for Sustainability". It's an initiative to reshape economic policies so that market forces produce a more sustainable and secure United States while America leads by example to help build a more sustainable world.
As grand as the Grand Strategy is, it is rooted in the work of nation's traditional policy laboratories: sub-national regions, states and communities. In this regard, there was good news last week from the Pacific Northwest. Three governors and the Premier of British Columbia announced that they will collaborate on an action plan to make the region's homes more energy efficient, its vehicles less dependent on oil, and its communities less vulnerable to the threat of global climate change.
In making the announcement, California Gov. Jerry Brown, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Washington State Gov. Christine Gregiore and B.C. Premier Christy Clark could have talked about the contribution they will make to North American security. Instead, they pointed to another set of important benefits -- economic activity and jobs.
According to the Center for Climate Strategies -- a group that helps states develop and estimate the impacts of climate and energy action plans -- the growth of the green economy in the Pacific Region could create more than 1 million net new jobs and up to $95 billion in net new economic growth between 2010 and 2020.
In a report commissioned by the Pacific Coast Collaborative and developed in partnership with GLOBE Advisors, the Center noted that the transition to a green economy already is underway along the West Coast with nearly 510,000 full-time-equivalent jobs in 2010 related to clean energy, energy efficiency, low-carbon mobility and environmental protection.
What is especially interesting about the new action plan is the potential power of multi-state collaboration in building clean economies. For starters, California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia will focus on energy efficiency retrofits and "on bill" consumer financing for buildings, infrastructure to support electric vehicles, and community-based programs to reduce climate risks.
In practice, this could mean harmonizing their energy efficiency and environmental standards to create greater certainty for investors; combining their purchases of low-carbon vehicles; developing high-speed rail; creating regional emergency response plans to manage climate impacts; developing a robust market for recycling; and leveraging private sector support for innovative ways to finance green development.
The collaboration is not inconsequential. Taken together, the four jurisdictions constitute the world's' sixth largest economy with a population of more than 50 million people and a domestic product of more than $2.5 trillion. According to the Center, their joint focus on green economic development is likely to make the Pacific Northwest a global hub for the services and products that will help the rest of the world build cleaner economies.
Score one for a clean economy. Score one for green jobs. And score one for national security. It's time for us all to recognize we need plowshares as well as swords to make the world more secure. That reality, never more apparent than it is today, should be reflected in our foreign policy, the federal defense budget, our national effort to build a clean economy, and in the work of every locality.
Bill Becker is Executive Director of the National Sustainable Communities Coalition in Washington, D.C., and a senior associate at Natural Capitalism Solutions in Colorado. He serves occasionally as a paid advisor to the Center for Climate Strategies. Contact the Center for background on the methodology it used in calculating the economic benefits of the Pacific Coast Action Plan. For more thoughts about the role of sustainable development in national security, see the recent special issue of the journal Solutions.