Each year the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy publish a Failed States Index. Countries are ranked according “their vulnerability to violent internal conflict and societal deterioration”—i.e., their sustainability. Failing states are too common, which does not bode well for sustainability efforts that increasingly require strong state leadership and global collaboration. Recall Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, in which he argues that capable governments and stable trading partners are key conditions of sustainable societies. In the 2011 ranking, Somalia is rated most vulnerable and Finland least vulnerable to collapse. The USA is the 19th least vulnerable–158 out of 177– but is becoming more vulnerable as compared to previous years.
The index is based on indicators reflecting the social, economic and political conditions in each country, with each indicator having on average 14 components. For example, conditions promoting greater vulnerability and lower sustainability include:
- High population density relative to food and water supply.
- Vulnerability to natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, drought, etc.) and pressures stemming from epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS, bird flue, SARS, and other contagious diseases.
- Forced uprooting of large communities as a result of random or targeted violence and/or repression, causing food shortages, disease, lack of clean water, land competition, and turmoil that can spiral into larger humanitarian and security problems, both within and between countries.
- Institutionalized political exclusion and public scapegoating of groups believed to have acquired wealth, status or power as evidenced in the emergence of “hate” radio, pamphleteering, and stereotypical or nationalistic political rhetoric.
- A “brain drain” of professionals, intellectuals and political dissidents fearing persecution or repression and, as a consequence, the rise of exile communities mobilizing elsewhere.
- Uneven economic development and opportunity, including group-based inequality, or perceived inequality, in education and economic status, poverty levels, and infant mortality rates.
- Corruption or profiteering by ruling elites, resistance of ruling elites to transparency, and widespread loss of popular confidence in government institutions and processes.
- Deterioration of basic government functions, including failure to protect citizens from terrorism and violence and to provide essential services, such as health, education, sanitation, and public transportation.
- Suspension of the rule of law and widespread violation of human rights
- Emergence of state-sponsored or state supported “private militias” that terrorize political opponents, suspected “enemies,” or civilians seen to be sympathetic to the opposition.
- Fragmentation of ruling elites and state institutions along ethnic, class, clan, racial or religious lines.
- Economic intervention by outside powers, including multilateral organizations, through large-scale loans, development projects, or foreign aid, such as ongoing budget support, control of finances, or management of the state’s economic policy, creating economic dependency.
These criteria are fascinating in their implications for students of sustainability. They highlight the importance of social, political, and economic dimensions of sustainability. Natural sciences and engineering technologies are critical, in that they will extend and create supplies of food, energy, water, and other life support services that are challenged by demographic pressures highlighted in the first two bullets. But, the rest of the list makes it painfully obvious that engineering and science-generated solutions are but one small part of the larger task of sustainability.
Students of sustainability need to tackle the challenges of creating and maintaining respected and functioning state institutions, promoting political processes that are tolerant and deliberative, and designing economic development opportunities that are equitable. That is, sustainability studies must integrate economics, political science, religion, and, more generally, the social sciences and humanities. People create the problems; people solve the problems.
R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for Gale’s GREENR environmental and sustainability studies web portal.