Ecological Security

The world in danger. Image: ralph/Pixabay

This article was originally published by E-International Relations.

In recent years, the idea that issues such as climate change might pose a threat to security has become prominent, and environmental issues more broadly have featured significantly in debates about redefining security since the 1980s (Mathews 1989; Myers 1989).

Traditionally, approaches to the relationship between security and environmental change have asked whether and how environmental issues constitute a security threat. This is a bad place to start, for two reasons. First, it suggests that we as analysts can establish criteria for defining security, ignoring the social construction of security: the fact that different political communities understand security in different ways, and that the same political communities change the way they understand security over time. A fixed and abstract definition of security is therefore inconsistent with the need to come to terms with how security is approached in practice (see McDonald 2012).

Contradicting Developments

On Monday 6 February the ISN examined three different ways of thinking about development. High up on the international agenda are both human development and sustainable development. That makes sense. After all, those of us who are lucky enough to lead healthy and fulfilling lives still make up a minority of the world’s population. Too many people are trapped in conflict zones, live in fear of oppression, or do not even get a basic education. At the same time, climate change, resource depletion and environmental pollution have become serious security issues, and many would agree that effective measures to counter a number of worrying ecological trends need be implemented sooner rather than later.

But just how sustainable is human development? Well, as the following chart illustrates, until now it has not been sustainable at all. The chart plots countries’ HDI scores against their ecological footprint. The HDI score measures human development. The ecological footprint, which was explained in more detail in yesterday’s blog, tells us how many planets would be required if every person in the world wanted to have the same lifestyle as the average citizen in a given country:

Development on its Head: the World Global Footprint

Economic development is generally measured by a country’s GDP. However, this hardly tells the whole story. While some countries might be very prosperous now, their future looks a lot different when the sustainability of their development path is taken into account. In the light of this week’s editorial plan topic Development: Describing and Prescribing Progress, this blog will introduce the ‘ecological footprint’ as a means to quantify the consequences of specific development paths.

Global Footprint Network, Creditor/Debtor Map 2007, from 2010 NFA,

The Ecological Footprint is an accounting metric which assesses humanity’s pressure on natural resources. It establishes how much land and water area a human population requires, to produce the resource it consumes and how much of the regenerative capacity of our planet we use to absorb emissions. Together with the measure of biocapacity, which tracks how much natural productive capacity is available to meet our demands, an ecological balance sheet for the world can be established. If the global ecological footprint is larger than global biocapacity, it means that humanity is using more than can be regenerated, and processed by the biosphere.


Environmental Security: “Caution(!) This Report May Contain Traces of Biased World Views”

Case studies show that water scarcity is just as likely to promote cooperation as to increase the risks of violent conflict. Photo: flickr/Jasper ter Schegget

What are we to believe about the relationship between environmental degradation and security?  Does environmental change open the door to conflict, or is it a force for cooperation? Is it best to manage environmental change by focusing on its role in security narratives; or, to the contrary, by keeping security out of it?

The relevance of these questions coincides with the “World Water Week 2011” conference in Stockholm, which the ISN has covered in its two previous Special Features. To round off our coverage, I will raise a caveat: questions like the ones posed above should always be kept in mind when discussing the political implications of environmental degradation.

Improve the Planet with the Click of a Mouse?


Do you know the impact of your ecological footprint?
Uncover your ecological footprint / photo: Vu Bui, flickr

Looking for another reason to pass on that second glass of wine with dinner?

Turns out indulging in more Merlot not only increases your caloric intake, but your global footprint as well.

I learned this from a website I stumbled across the other day – Consumer Consequences – that offers a new twist on measuring your global ecological footprint. It builds on the methodology behind the Ecological Footprint Quiz, which “estimates the amount of land and water area required to sustain your consumption patterns and absorb your wastes on an annual basis.” Consumer Consequences builds on this idea by helping a user answer the question, How many ‘Earths’ would be needed to sustain life if everyone lived like me?

The site maintained by American Public Media assesses the total number of ‘global acres’ (biologically productive space on earth) each part of your life consumes and projects how many planets would be needed if everyone consumed like you.

The quiz asks a series of questions to help evaluate consumption in six areas: home (how and where you live); energy use (electricity used in the home); trash disposal; transportation; food and drink; and shopping (use of goods and services).

Turns out even though I live in a small apartment, am a diligent recycler who buys organic and doesn’t own a car, it would still take the biologically productive space of three earths if everyone lived like me.

The site also offers tips on how to reduce your ecological footprint and influence environmental policy.

Now if only sustainable living were as simple as taking the quiz…