Are the green police real enough?

The Green Police are coming. Or they may already be here. I want to spend the next few days discussing environmentalism, politics, the future, and science fiction.

Green Police - A new generation in law enforcement emerges.Source: Lincolnshire County Council

I had never heard of them before, but the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has an Environmental Police department that looks after wildlife and natural resources. Their Website says “today’s Environmental Police Officer, also known as a Game Warden, Conservation Officer or Natural Resource Officer continues the tradition of one of the oldest law enforcement missions and responsibilities in our nation.”

In fact, environmental policing probably goes back at least to the European Middle Ages, when various royal forests were protected by wardens. Perhaps there are examples in the Classical World of special preserves and the officers designated to protect them, but I cannot think of any.

Environmental issues have come to the forefront of our news and political discussions in recent years because of concerns over global warming, but there are really few international efforts to actually enforce environmental laws and protect the environment. Interpol has an Environmental Crimes Programme but it seems to act more as an advisory body.

The problem I see is that the international landscape is virtually unpoliced, thus leaving the protection of our environment largely in the hands of environmental vigilantes who have no authority but who nonetheless have popular support for their activities.

The current state of environmental confusion provides a ripening harvest of situations and ideas for environmental science fiction. What if, for example, the environmental movement takes on the strength and focus of an international militant organization? That is, suppose the next generation of environmental activists bring environmental terrorism to the mainstream of their agendae?

Environmental terrorists have been around for years but they have been fringe performers on the world stage of environmental confrontations. What would it take for them to build an organization that moves personnel and materials around the globe, striking out at industrial resources they deem threatening to the environment?

Think of Al Qaeda on environmental steroids. What have our governments done to prevent that kind of insanity?

Environmental policing needs to evolve into a truly international effort on a scale never before imagined. Let me use the current U.S. budget deficit as an example. In the mid-1980s the U.S. Congress passed a law commonly known as the Gramm-Rudman Act. It was supposed to force Congress to balance the budget. The law was subsequently deemed to be unconstitutional and a follow-up law only served to delay the inevitable.

The problem with balanced-budget laws is that they hold no one accountable for failing to abide by the law. That is, no one goes to jail if spending exceeds the “legal” limit. This is the same problem with international treaties on the environment. No one goes to jail if a treaty obligation is not upheld.

Most international political analysts would argue that dealings between nations cannot be dealt with on that level, but that isn’t entirely true. We have, in fact, gone to war in order to enforce a single nation’s legal prerogatives. I speak of the Panama invasion in which General Manuel Noriega was taken prisoner and held accountable for his activities in the drug trade.

The legal precedent of holding a head of state responsible for violating laws and treaties has thus been established. To a lesser extent it could be argued that Saddam Hussein’s overthrow has reinforced the Noriega precedent.

Now, I’m not saying that the United States and other nations should go around arresting heads of state who fail to meet their countries’ treaty obligations — but it’s a weak defense of slow international cooperation on the environment to say that no one can be held accountable on an individual level under international law. We have been holding people accountable for their crimes at least since the day when Napoleon Bonaparte was sent into exile for the first time.

An environmental frontier is forming on the fringes of our society. People are pushing the edges of our social norms to express their outrage at the excesses of industrial waste and production. They don’t necessarily have to resort to terrorism but they may develop unique and effective methods of disrupting the industrial process in such a way that society itself is harmed.

The self-justification that activists offer for their methods rarely meet legal thresholds of acceptability to society, but society usually waits until it has been harmed before taking collective action against people who argue they would not have taken it upon themselves had society done something in the first place.

Think of Charlton Heston yelling out, “It’s people! It’s people!” in the movie “Soylent Green”. Did anyone listen to him? The audience was left to figure that out for itself — that is, society was left with the choice of listening to one possible future or of ignoring what it had to say to us.

Environmental issues are speaking to us today. We need to develop better systems for addressing those issues so that people (society) don’t allow their fears and concerns to overwhelm their obligations to society. I don’t pass judgement on anyone today. I am talking about the future.

The day may come when the War on Terror becomes a War on Environmentalism, because environmental terrorists can use the same methods to recruit soldiers and supporters that today’s terrorists use. Maybe we don’t yet need an international environmental police force, but there is a growing movement to create what we could call Social Green Police — people who volunteer their time and service and dedication to help ward the environment against irresponsible waste and destruction.

These new green police are not terrorists or militant activists. They are concerned citizens who want to spread the message that we’re pissing in our own soup and we have to eat it. They are asking us to decide whether this is what we want.

If a formal organization develops out of the Green Police movement, it might just be another NGO that is largely ignored by society. But what if the activists succeed in transforming us into a green society after all? What would that look like? Would we then have a green police force that puts the environment ahead of everything else?