Letter: The quest for knowledge about our planet and its place in the universe

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The Independent Online
Sir: Lord Gladwyn's letter rightly queries the wisdom of diverting resources to space activities at a time when we are destroying planet Earth. It also raises the question of why government agencies try to plan the long-term future of other planets while remaining so apparently unconcerned over the fate of their own (unless, of course, as in Ben Elton's novel Stark, the game plan is for the favoured few to abandon a dying Earth to live in the artifically breathable atmosphere they have created on the Moon or Mars).

Governments exist to promote the security and wellbeing of the people they represent. Comprehensive assessment and intelligent anticipation of likely external threats is, or should be, the life blood of our foreign and security policies. Yet, as a former British diplomat who has become an independent environmentalist, I am intrigued and appalled by the selective nature of the risk assessment machinery deployed by our own and other Western governments. In Britain, we spend hundreds of millions of pounds on our intelligence-gathering services. 'Security' is still seen almost exclusively in the old-fashioned sence of military threat.

By contrast, to the best of my knowledge (although I hope the Government will be able to deny this), there is not one single official in Whitehall working full time on analysing the long-term, non- military security threats we face. Nor is there machinery for assessing whether the current balance of expenditure in favour of military as opposed to non-military aspects of national security represents the most far-sighted use of national resources. By concentrating so heavily on short-term, traditional concepts of security, the Government is implicitly denying resources and priority to the far more dangerous threats facing our nation and the world as a whole.

As a fist step, it should consider and respond to the proposals put forward some time ago by the Global Environment Research Centre for a Cabinet Office-based national security assessment unit that would cover both military and non-military long-term threats, work closely with specialist outside bodies, and publish regular reports to help focus national debate on the range of external problems we shall be facing in the next century.

Yours sincerely,

JOHN GORDON

Deputy Director, Global

Environment Research Centre

Imperial College

London, SW7

6 December

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