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International relations from an ecological perspective

IF there is a lesson to be learned from the Geneva summit, it is that the Russians are much the same as Americans: Both sides clearly want peace. The problem appears to be how to agree on strategy and overcome a long history of mutual distrust. Unfortunately, in an area as controversial as arms control, cooperation without trust is impossible. It would seem wise, therefore, to foster cooperation between the superpowers by addressing problems that are common, but nonconfrontational, to both sides. The world's most pressing problems are biological. They include exponential population growth, diminishing resources, declining genetic diversity (more and more of the world's crops coming from fewer and fewer strains of plants), and environmental destruction. These problems extend beyond political boundaries (overpopulation) or have no boundaries (atmospheric contamination). The time has come to join forces with the Soviets and apply a biological perspective to the problems of peace and international security.

It is no surprise to biologists that countries experiencing the greatest degree of political turmoil are also those that suffer most from overpopulation and environmental degradation. Environmental degradation, resulting from agricultural overuse and the loss of valuable topsoil, has serious demographic consequences. Rural populations, no longer able to support themselves, move to cities to form a large corps of urban refugees.

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According to E. O. Wilson of Harvard University, it is not by chance alone that Haiti and El Salvador are trouble spots; they also happen to be the most densely populated and environmentally degraded countries in the Western Hemisphere. Similar signs of overpopulation and habitat destruction are apparent in Africa and the Middle East. Consider war-torn Uganda, overpopulated and teetering on the edge of bare subsistence.

Or consider Iran. With a rapidly expanding population concentrated in Tehran, it is typical of the countries in that region: Fifty percent of its populace is under 18, and it is increasing rapidly (190 births per 1,000 females per year). It is no wonder, therefore, that the majority of Iranian soldiers are teen-agers or younger; they are a large and readily renewable resource in a country with a high birthrate.

Moreover, it is young people, full of energy and easily influenced by idealism, who can be rapidly mobilized to fight for an ideological cause. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the recent rash of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings originating in the Middle East. Grim as it may be, we can expect these trouble spots to multiply and political upheaval to increase as conditions of overpopulation and environmental abuse worsen. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States can possibly benefit from such destabilization.

It is also becoming increasingly apparent that environmental problems are no longer limited to our own backyards. Global perturbations include increased CO2 and decreased ozone in the atmosphere, loss of biological diversity in tropical rain forests, and oceanic pollution.

Tropical rain forests exemplify the high cost of habitat destruction. They are being cut down at a rate of 25,000 square miles per year, and disappearing with them are enormous numbers of species (at a rate 400 times as great as normal), with a concomitant drop in genetic diversity. The long-term consequences of this could be disastrous, ranging from heightened levels of CO2, to loss of valuable organisms, to destruction of arable land upon which millions of humans depend. Such biological destruction is of concern to all nations and can be reversed only through concerted international effort.

In the aftermath of the summit meeting in Geneva, it would be wise to consider the relationship between biology and foreign policy. Americans and Soviets have a common enemy, and it is not extraterrestrial. Overpopulation, rain forest destruction, and oceanic pollution are issues of pressing concern to both nations. Together we should establish an international think tank for these problems and form a consortium of scientists, engineers, and public policy experts. Our increased awareness of the planet's ecosystem may render nuclear confrontation less thinkable. With these beginnings we might discover that cooperation between the superpowers on issues of mutual concern is possible.

Laurie Burnham is a teaching fellow for science at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.