26 April 2023

Environmental Intelligence and the Need to Collect it

Current studies by biologists attest that Earth’s overall biodiversity is “crashing”. The most recent IPCC findings are no less dire. Multilateral deals aimed at preserving the environment are coming and going without having anything close to adequate results on the ground. States worldwide are currently missing not just a quickly receding opportunity to change things for the better, but also the rapidly growing and truly unprecedented threat which broad-scale anthropogenic ecological decline represents. Despite sporadic efforts to craft marginally improved policies officially designated as “environmental” directives or regulations, governments worldwide continue to fail to meaningfully change course in the vast bulk of their pursuits (all of which are, de facto, environmental in their impact), continuing to license and encourage enormous enterprises of disruption, contamination, and consumption of the natural world and its web of life. States misconstrue air, water, land, and the web of life as valuable economic and strategic resources instead of recognizing them as priceless and “other” – unable to be replicated or replaced, the true inordinate complexity of their interactions and how these are required to support human life still little understood. Climate change is treated not as a warning to truly rethink state behaviors before worse follows, but as an anomaly in light of which “environmental security” must quickly be re-established by re-dominating nature with new and different technologies.

The state and its supporting societies in the global North became what they are through being thusly nature-blind and hubristic. There is no version of the modern nation-state as we know it today which could, overnight, internalize the absolute centrality of the physical web of non-human life and natural landscapes to human survival – and their stark and undeniable contemporary vulnerability to devouring and permanent destabilization by a population headed toward 10 billion humans – to the extent arguably both objectively warranted and actually needed to create a fulcrum massive enough within governments and their publics to enable them to turn their states sharply and decisively off the disastrous avenue toward self- and Earth-destruction we are on. There is a hyper-rationality and empathy-less soullessness to the modern state which tends toward giving it a structural inability to truly care for nature or for the future, as Vaclav Havel pointed out in the 1980s. These blind spots or voids are made even larger when corporate and/or illicit capture of state institutions comes into play wherein entities profiting enormously off the status quo give large crumbs to those in power to keep things the same. The scientific community’s oft-expressed outrage at governments’ inaction on the pure facts they have provided them on the environmental crisis is thus, in a way, politically and historically naive. But we are pragmatically and ethically obliged not to give up on the prospect of renovating and revitalizing the state so that it might become, over time, a more beneficial and truly survival-interested form of itself. The ancient democratic ideal of some kind of just and even semi-enlightened state, governing in order to protect all its people from harm and risk, is too valuable a baby to throw out with its very dirty modern bathwater.

A role for national intelligence on the environment

One part of the inner power structure of almost all countries globally which recommends itself for a new role in this context is the national intelligence agency. State-collected intelligence is something like a national security-relevant attestation blending fact and opinion (and often including facts about who holds which opinions), possessed by one party to the exclusion of one or more others to the possessing party’s advantage. Intelligence has its fierce critics, and sometimes, to be fair, intelligence falls far short of its potential. But there is a long history and institutional reservoir to intelligence praxis which is relevant to revitalizing the state’s appreciation of environmental survival concerns in our current epoch, a particular way intelligence has honed over time of collecting and analyzing unwelcome but relevant facts and, most importantly, communicating them directly to those in power. Intelligence reporting uses a human, dialogue-like construction and framing; it has an ability to straddle the 1) subjective self-interests or aims of the state and 2) objective external facts, without conflating these two or removing their distinction. The gatherer or analyzer of intelligence looks to observe events close at hand but also, in a sense, through the dispassionate “eyes of a stranger,” the stranger who is at the same time always bearing in mind the state that has dispatched him or her. Over time the collector, analyst, or briefer builds an intuition regarding what is and is not of interest to the state from among a profligate range of possible lines of reportage. The intelligence agency as a whole also develops with the center of power a larger-scale steady back-and-forth flow of information and questions, a conversation-like dynamic.

Intelligence is a human art, and not a science. It is impossible to predict exactly how an intelligence agency, or any individual collector or analyst, would go about it, given the overall tasking of looking through its “stranger’s eyes” at the environmental predicament at the national scale. This would have to vary by the country, by the collector, and even from day to day, report to report. But there are some overarching questions which suggest themselves as potential guideposts for the collection effort. The largest overarching one would be, “Is our state (or is foreign state X) secure within the web of life?” Achieving security within the web of biotic life is different from achieving traditional geopolitical or domestic security; we might call it achieving “deep” or “organic” national security, a form of security which encompasses both biophysical and immaterial aspects of state interests and behaviors. Intelligence agencies could report on conditions, threats, dynamics, major players, etc., shaping (at least) three main aspects of organic national security: the state’s 1) hard biophysical capacity, 2) actual expressed and believed-in desire, and/or 3) pragmatically outlined true intention, to survive and perdure into the indefinite future. Reports could weave consideration of various anthropogenic impacts on air, water, land, and/or other species into analyses of the current and prospective status of these three facets of organic national security. Far more of this kind of reporting could be publicly released, at least in distilled form, and shared with neighboring states, than is the norm in traditional intelligence. Its output would matter because leaders (and their publics) need to better and more closely track organic security predicaments and paradoxes unfolding in other countries and their own, if they are to shape meaningfully new trajectories of decision-making on our wholesale treatment of the web of life and thus seek to ensure our physical [and moral] survival.

Strategic versus tactical environmental intelligence

Strategic environmental intelligence collection would differ from what might be called the tactical environmental intelligence which law enforcement agencies of various types around the world already sometimes collect in the course of their intelligence-led policing of environmental crimes. Tactical environmental intelligence is usually either highly localized and perishable, e.g., information on the location of a fast-moving group of poachers in a wildlife protected area, and/or meant to serve as evidence and be integrated into an effort to build a prosecutorial case against those engaging in already outlawed activities: e.g., again, illicit wild flora and fauna poaching and trafficking; or illegal or unreported fishing, industrial pollution or e-waste dumping, “green” certification fraud, etc.

Strategic environmental intelligence collected by a national intelligence agency would be different, and have a twofold purpose or character. First, it must be non-evidentiary and indeed be as free as possible from thinking in terms of current norms of legal versus illegal treatment of nature. Along the same lines, it must avoid falling into the currently en vogue “environmental security” mindset which replicates old patterns of trying to securitize and economize the web of life, imagining we can ultimately control through force (and precise modeling) what nature as a whole “does,” and whom its decline most affects, from the safe and sealed cockpit of a fully intact and functioning state looking down on the crisis outside it. Strategic environmental intelligence must hew to foundational, uncomfortable questions about internal and external organic security, questions which remain hidden or taken for granted within much contemporary traditional security discourse including such “environmental security” approaches. As noted above, the specific forms these discomfiting questions take can and must differ by country and context, but they can be roughly imagined as always looking dispassionately at some aspect of the capacity, desire, and/or pragmatic true intention of a given state to perdure indefinitely, given the context of current environmental realities and judging by actual, on-the-ground state behaviors and policies.

Secondly, from an ethically normative standpoint, strategic environmental intelligence could be pursued with the goal of boosting, over time, what we might think of loosely as the environmental IQ of the state across all sectors of its decision-making, and along with this, boosting the state’s willingness to engage in a more advanced level of discourse on how to actually re-achieve and then preserve real organic national security. Discussions of this type of security as separate from, and as grounding or enframing of, traditional security, would often entail designating different state actions as self-interested compared with those which appear self-interested or beneficial according to traditional security calculations; effective strategic environmental intelligence would ideally form part of the basis upon which leaders would [finally] decide they nonetheless had to persevere in having serious and regular internal and external discussions on prioritizing organic security.

Legal mandates for environmental intelligence collection

Having considered the potential functional case for collecting strategic environmental intelligence, are there potential legal obstacles to existing national intelligence agencies beginning to carry out this type of collection? In the case of foreign-directed or external national intelligence agencies, such as Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), there tends to be enough language in extant law to cover collection on any topic deemed relevant to the foreign-facing national security interests of the home country. The BND, for its part, is mandated by law to “obtain information about foreign countries that is of foreign and security policy importance for the Federal Republic of Germany.” This would leave only the question of whether the government would have to carry out any specific steps, whether via a constitutional amendment or otherwise, to establish that the foundational environmental questions discussed above, as applied to other countries, could be characterized as being “of foreign and security policy importance” to Germany. Given the borderless quality of the environmental crisis and the interlinkages connecting many [if not all] states’ outcomes on organic security, this seems a straightforward case to make.

In the case of domestic intelligence agencies, such as Germany’s Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), it is possible that new divisions would need to be created to enable environmental intelligence to be well-defined as its own domestic collection objective. But fundamentally, since the risk of the collapse of the web of life does pose an existential threat to the state, the government, the rule of law, and the broader society, and since much of the human impact on the web of life (along with all of its surrounding socio-cultural power dynamics and the stated agendas of its main players) takes place in the open and would not have to be collected on covertly per se, there should be no major legal obstacles in a democratic state to undertaking such collection. In the case of the BfV, for example, of the four main criteria domestic threats must meet in order to qualify as legal collection targets, the erosion of the natural web of life through human impact arguably meets at least three: being directed against the federal government; spreading beyond a single province; and potentially affecting the foreign affairs of Germany. Being directed against the federal government need not be intentional to be a fact; the actions of organized crime, narco-cartels, or corruption, at grand enough scales, differ little from staging a soft coup over various parts of government, and can sometimes be directly involved with political outcomes, all while still intending to exist in parasitic tandem with the constitutional order. Sometimes the parasite overestimates and/or overwhelms the strength of the host and outcomes become chaotic. Human impacts on the environment are another contemporary “cost of doing business”-type undesirable side effect of modern states poised to eventually overwhelm the legitimate government’s continued functioning, and as such are similarly valid targets for domestic intelligence reporting. Eco-harms at scale are simply [even] more legal and normalized, but just like the corruption and corporate capture of the state with which they are also intertwined, when they become a threat to the state’s prospects for survival, the domestic intelligence function should be triggered. Western-style democracies’ domestic intelligence agencies are a portion of the internal, trusted power structure, yet still independent enough to present assessments about threats from within even when they implicate those in power. What the scientists, and what common sense, are saying, is that a foundational and unprecedented threat from within has already arrived in the form of our destruction and overwhelming of the biotic web of life to the point of harming our prospects for group and state survival.

Whether strategic environmental intelligence collection is located within the domestic or foreign service, or, ideally, in a hybrid internal-external cadre of collectors, analysts, and briefers, collecting on organic national security interests is something tangible we can try now, using the imperfect states we currently have, rather than the ones we wish we had. It will strengthen a part of government which is not (usually) part of the corporatist and overly mindlessly rationalized elements of the modern state; a part which can on the contrary still (usually) “think” without these factors clouding it, while still also being directly tied in to state leadership. While some may consider it a dramatic departure from traditional intelligence collection, it is only a deepening and adjustment of an existing mandate, and can be carried out in parallel with, not to the exclusion of, traditional collection. Given the frequent calls by scientists and conservationists for a “transformative,” drastic overhaul of states and societies based only on what direct models and measures they can take of our fading biosphere – a biosphere whose true complexity must always elude us and which may therefore hold many more radically destabilizing surprises in store than any we can yet grasp or predict – it seems a very mild and moderate step indeed.