The Reluctant Environmentalist


Environmental dangers grab headlines everyday. Climate change, endangered-species trade, and energy are hot-topic issues for citizens and politicians across the globe. Scientists have all but reached a consensus arguing that climate change is human-induced. We witness the effects such as superstorms, drought, and mass-extinction events daily. Economists and ecologists have identified billion-dollar markets exploiting endangered species for pets or medicines. Everyone agrees that our global ecosystems are fragile and require balance, but humans have disrupted that balance — often to catastrophic consequences. It is not an issue that can be solved by one municipality or even one country, but a problem that must be solved through a unified effort from all countries. 


In order to discover a solution to any problem, we must first identify what that problem is. There is no shortage of global environmental calamities happening today that affect our international relations and security. Climate change is among the most significant of these calamities. The Pentagon has acknowledged the risk it poses not just to our health, but to global security — even ordering officials to consider climate change in things like weapons testing and troop preparation. A report from 25 experts states, “The military has long had a tradition of parsing threats through a ‘Survive to Operate’ lens, meaning we cannot assume the best case scenario but must prepare to be able to effectively operate even under attack. Dealing with climate risks to operational effectiveness must, therefore, be a core priority.” The Department of Defense has also labeled climate change a “threat multiplier.” (Milman 206). 

While climate change is arguably the direst problem, another involves wildlife trafficking for pets, cultural, or medicinal purposes. The ivory trade is the most infamous with cartels killing elephants and rhinos to extract their tusks and horns respectively. Tigers are teetering on extinction because of people’s desire for their pelts. The pangolin is also hunted for their rumored medicinal benefit. Exotic birds are captured for pets. The illegal animal trade is devastating ecosystems, removing predators and prey that are necessary for a balanced and stable biome (Society 2014). Even one species can have incredible effects on the environment. You do not need to look much further than when Yellowstone National Park reintroduced wolves into the environment and shortly after the rivers changed. This contributed to the discovery of “trophic cascades” — the idea that a single species at the top of the food chain can affect every other level of the ecosystem (A Wolf’s Role n.d). 

The problems of climate change and animal trafficking along with a myriad of others like water, energy, and deforestation all play a role in the global economy. Acknowledging this, the UN, in 1992, held a conference on the environment and development. Here, Agenda 21 was signed which, among other things, recognized the “perpetuation of disparities between and within nations; a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill-health and illiteracy; and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being. …and this solution reflects a global consensus and political commitment at the highest level on development and environment cooperation.” (United Nations Conference 1992). In many ways, Agenda 21 can be seen as action by the world governments recognizing and fighting against The Tragedy of the Commons. It was one of the earliest major cooperative agreements among nations to combat environmental degradation. 

The Tragedy of the Commons contradicts Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Smith suggests that the individual will make decisions that advance that person’s best interests, which will also be in the best interest of society. Basically, the invisible hand of the market will guide it along a just path. However, as we have seen with respect to today’s environmental problems, this is not the case. Too often our interests are at odds with one another and with what is most beneficial to society. The Tragedy of the Commons proves that the good individual choice is not the good societal choice. Evidenced by a story of herdsmen and a common pasture, a group of herdsmen will benefit from a common resource – a pasture. However, rational, self-interested individuals will begin to increase their consumption of the common resource until it has been depleted. In this circumstance, capitalism, as Smith proposed, fails society. This problem extends well beyond food for cattle. It is the balance that must be struck between all aspects of humanity. In its reverse, the Tragedy of the Commons explains pollution. Instead of removing a resource, like grass for cattle, we are adding something into the environment — i.e. litter, radiation, or greenhouse gases.  Because proper disposal methods can be pricey, the rational person acting in his or her economic interest, will not follow proper disposal. More and more rational men will continue to do this, thus “fouling our own nest” (Hardin 1968).


With so many environmental problems occurring in the world and their global impacts, how can we begin to solve them? In 2013, Erik Swynedouw argued, “…our theoretical gaze and political passions have to shift from a concern with the environment per se to a concern and passion for the construction of a different politics.” (Dalby 2013). This “different politic” was strengthened in 2016 with the Paris Agreement. President Obama and his staff acknowledged the danger of environmental degradation and, jointly with almost every other nation on earth, began to take steps to slow climate change. It was a groundbreaking agreement and a great capstone to Obama’s presidency.  

However, in June of 2017, President Trump removed the US from the Paris Agreement. This decision not only caused the US to leave the climate negotiating table but also severely damaged our reputation with other countries and our credibility as a world power. Shortly after, Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "You are familiar with the American position. You know that, unfortunately -- and I deplore this -- the United States of America left the climate agreement” (Carissimo 2017). She went onto threaten to hold negotiations at the G20 Summit with, “The Paris agreement is irreversible and non-negotiable and I am determined to carry out the negotiations at the G20 Summit so that they can serve 

 Paris climate agreement” (Huggler 2017). Choosing to ignore the importance of globalization, Trump decided to retreat back into isolationist rhetoric with, “I was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” This dangerous viewpoint is in direct conflict with the Earth Charter and Agenda 21, and international agreements highlighting the importance of international cooperation for global environmental regulation.

    This tragic action by the current administration demonstrates that the solution to these problems will not be industry. Industry is a major factor to the problem, but as Hardin proposes, there cannot be a technical solution to this problem — as capitalists would assert — but a moral solution. In his words, “… it requires a fundamental extension in morality.”


With all the dangers identified and a realization of the necessity of a new politic and a moral solution, what should America’s role be in this? America should follow the vision of Richard Haass and be the “reluctant sheriff,” taking the duty of global regulator. It may not be ideal, but it is our duty as the greatest power in the world to lead the way.

Despite some arguments asserting America’s position in the world is diminishing, we still maintain a position of authority. As such, we must also change our morals towards green living in order to set an example for other nations. Coal and oil once propelled our economy and allowed us to innovate and create amazing feats of engineering, scientific discoveries, and art. However, we no longer need coal to power our homes and our dependency on oil for our cars is diminishing. Additionally, in recent years, large strides in advancement in solar, wind, and other renewable powers have occurred making them more efficient and cost-effective. Our economy is uniquely positioned to provide the necessary funds to continue that research and improve the technology. Changing our transportation habits by using public transit more often will cut down on greenhouse-gas emissions. And, quite possibly the hardest, changing our consumption habits will be critical in setting an example for the world. Going beyond reduce, reuse, recycle, we must also make dietary changes and more ethical purchasing decisions. 

The above moral solutions are not easy, but they will send a message to the world that we, as Americans, still care about the planet, which we all share. Those, however, are actions that average consumers can take, the biggest and most important action is only one our government can take. The Trump Administration must take the mantle of moral leadership when it comes to environmental impact. If they wish to maintain their leadership in economic and security theaters, they must also actively lead the world toward stronger, more effective environmental protections. The easiest way to become the moral leader of the world again is by re-signing the Paris Agreement. This will reaffirm to every country on earth that we believe the only solution is one based on international cooperation.


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Carissimo, J. (2017, July 08). Angela Merkel at G-20: "I deplore" U.S. leaving Paris climate accord. Retrieved July 24, 2017, from

Dalby, S. (2013). The Geopolitics of Climate Change. Retrieved July 24, 2017, from

Haass, R. N. (2002). The reluctant sheriff: the United States after the Cold War. New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Hardin, G. (1968, December 13). The Tragedy of the Commons. Retrieved July 24, 2017, from

Huggler, J. (2017, June 29). Angela Merkel challenges Donald Trump on climate change and trade ahead of G20. Retrieved July 24, 2017, from

Milman, O. (2016, September 14). Military experts say climate change poses 'significant risk' to security. Retrieved July 24, 2017, from

Society, W. C. (2014, October 21). Wildlife Trafficking: Beyond Elephants and Ivory. Retrieved July 24, 2017, from

United Nations Conference on Environment & Development [PDF]. (1992, June 14). Rio de Janerio, Brazil: United Nations.