Security and Sustainability as a Journalism “Beat”

by Michael Sales, February 16, 2021


We initiated this project of surveying the organizations working on security and sustainability matters in 2014 feeling a bit like the discoverers and explorers of a new continent. We knew that there was something important in our investigation because we didn’t think that the domain had been thought of as a system. There was no map to it; let alone a guide that would help people wanting to see the system as a totality or “visit” various locales with in it to orient and familiarize themselves with the territory. Of course, many organizations focused on sustainability and organizations focused on security were well aware of each other, and there were some (but relatively few) organizations that had the interrelationships between these two arenas as a central feature of their attention. Further, there were strong networks of collaboration and competition within both of these fields that had great awareness of one another, but the scope of potential degree of interconnectivity seemed to be larger than the existing individual organizations or their networks were mindful of.

Although it was only a beginning hypothesis, our “gut” told us that these security and sustainability organizations each constituted a system and that they were, in turn, part of an even larger interacting system that, in the main, they weren’t seeing, i.e., one that encompasses security and sustainability. It was sort of like looking at a busy city at lunch time. Lots of actors with specific agendas and ambitions all moving around at the same time without a great deal of conscious awareness of one another yet, when seen from a bird’s eye view, clearly constituting a dynamic system characterized by both static and unpredictable elements. And, as far as we could tell, a systemic look at what was happening in Security and Sustainability Mid Town hadn’t been done.

We believe that a description of what that system is and what it’s up to constitutes a contribution to its effectiveness. Furthermore, we have no doubt that it is critical to the rational management of our planet that the Security and Sustainability system achieve the kind of political power that science and foresight demand that it ought to. Humanity needs to get its affairs in order. Time is running out. Sustainability matters are becoming more dire. Security issues are becoming more dangerous. These related trends are producing many cycles, both virtuous and vicious. They are also rich in positive opportunities.

We define “security” and “sustainability” broadly. Organizations concerned with some or all aspects of “security” include those addressing arms control, terrorism, conflict, peacekeeping, cyber-terrorism, and human security. Sustainability include climate change, sustainable development, biodiversity, low- or no-carbon economies, green business and economics, wealth and income tensions, and emerging human-centered paradigms. While most of the organizations we’ve identified to date are public and non-governmental, we recognize that there is an enormous amount of private sector activity that is also highly relevant to our inquiry.

A commitment in some explicit way to the public interest is a common feature of the organizations included in the Guide. This might be at the center of an organization’s purpose or implicit in this activities. There must be a way in which the organization makes it clear that it seeks to address or improve one of the security or sustainability domains that has made itself apparent to us and to others.

We also filter by the scope of an organizations agenda. Large organizations whose focus is clearly international are of great interest to us. The American Society of Civil Engineers with 150,000 members worldwide is an example. Organizations with a national focus but engaged with international networks is another likely entrance to the guide. The Japanese National Institute for Defense Studies is representative. Organizations with a local focus that seem to be a model for activities that could be scaled to a national or international scope are the third category. The Massachusetts Climate Action Network is one of many such efforts.

When we began, we thought we might find 500 organizations that would meet our criteria. We quickly revised that number to upwards of 3,000. Given the phenomenal growth of these organization since 2000 and our daily experience of finding more and more and more organizations around the world that deserve to be included in the Guide, we now know that is really no upper limit to the number of what will be a changing roster of participants in this huge system.

We are a small organization ourselves with limited resources, and, of course, seeing the task that we’ve laid out for ourselves is quite daunting. We want to assemble the field that we are studying so that we can begin to write and present useful commentary on it, but it’s like herding cats. In fact, it’s like herding a stampede of cats! However, there is something that is also quite thrilling about the plethora of organizations that ought to have a place on our map. It is deeply encouraging to discover the thousands of people, the incredible range of ideas, the billions of dollars that are being invested in the creation of a better, saner future. It is a source of hope and inspiration to us.

Furthermore, we are at that point in the research process where the new information we’re discovering is confirming trends within the system we are analyzing that we have already identified. Our data collection effort will likely never end, but themes are emerging. For example, the linkage between security and sustainability is becoming clearer and more important to decision-makers globally. For example, both military organizations, the United Nations, and many other bodies, are well-aware of sustainability issues as a driver of resource conflicts and as a threat multiplier on a host of fronts, including the survivability of their own operational readiness and relevance.

Our extensive subject index provides insight into the contours of the systems we’re mapping. There will many other additions to the specific domains listed in this index and new subject headings will emerge. But this list gives us a way of thinking what organizations and what categories to follow to understand the evolution of the security and sustainability systems.  The Guide’s Major Categories Index provides  further direction on how to focus our understanding — and that of our users — of the systems’ nature.

The understanding of the system map enables us to track it in a journalistic fashion. Security and Sustainability is like a reporter’s “beat”, and we have started to act on that framing. Specifically, we’re beginning to digest and post important, new reports by experts in a broad range of security and sustainability organizations and associations. We believe that these reports aren’t adequately publicized. Of course, they are circulated within the staff and the communities that support these organizations in some way, and a few of them are picked up by news sites and other organizations in their networks. But many do not receive the attention they deserve. The New Reports section  of the Guide is dedicated to identifying and disseminating valid and useful information generated by experts in many disciplines, all of which constitute security and sustainability field of action.

We curate this information to help serious people of all bents access what evidence-based thought leaders are doing to provide sober analyses of where we are, how we got here and what to do about it. The perspectives and data sets developed by these experts will not always agree with one another, but, even when they don’t concur, we will require that their views and their data be transparently presented and accessible to the users of our site.

Mike Marien’s in-depth report on COVID-19 reports is a demonstration of the Guide’s ambitions. Marien has taken one particular area of great planetary concern and explored the ramifications of the pandemic from a gamut of concerns. We believe that this dense, yet readable, distillation of over 60 reports will assist anyone seeking to develop foresight in response to the COVID crisis to do so. Many of the complicated issues related to the pandemic are approached through the lens of an organization’s particular orientation, and that is understandable. However, by looking at this complex topic through many microscopes and telescopes simultaneously, those who want to explore the future with the panoramic view afforded an broad system analysis is assisted by the tools of foresight. The sort of effort Marien has made on the COVID crisis is what the Guide seeks to do across a broad range of topics.

We have many other ideas about what the Security and Sustainability Guide can do to foster the advancement of flexible, systemic approaches to the sweeping and almost overwhelming sphere of activity of great interest to us. Please subscribe to our newsletter to stay in touch with our efforts and contact us if you’d like to contribute to this ambitious undertaking in some way.