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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
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.

In the last couple of years, a number of compelling, yet divergent, arguments have emerged about how we should understand and respond to the big issues of environmental change.

Managing these issues is daunting and will require dramatic changes to how we organize society. In a report series that the Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP), an ISN Partner, published last month they called for “systemic changes” to the structure of raw materials markets. This was because fluctuations in raw materials prices play a major role in escalating resource conflicts between states. Systemic changes — in this case how we organize international finance — are needed to avoid this kind of conflict.

The message here is classical “ecological” thinking. In other words: thinking about the whole rather than the parts and, as Robert Kaplan once argued, about shifting the geographic focus from sharply delimited political spaces to a milieu of “ill-defined locales in the broader setting of the earth.”

Indeed, the capacity for environmental change to transcend and reshape much conventional political thinking has led to consensus among many scholars that approaches to policy must become more holistic. Few agree, however, on whether narratives of “security” are fit for this purpose.

In their reports the ECSP gave further support to a well-established line of thought: namely, that resource scarcities lead to conflict and that environmental degradation must be recognized as a threat to national security to be tackled effectively. As the work of Thomas Homer-Dixon shows, environmental scarcities undeniably contribute to violent conflicts, civil strife and insurgency in many parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East.

Water scarcity Middle East


If these scholars had their way, we would “securitize” the environment–  i.e., socially and discursively construct the environment as a security matter.  This securitization process would put the broader environmental problem into the limelight of high politics. If, for example,  we were to securitize water, we could abate the risk of conflict derived from water scarcity, simply by treating this problem as a serious security issue– or so the argument goes.

But, equally, some scholars skeptical of the need to securitize the environment underscore the many cases where environmental stress instead promotes cooperation among states.

Mekong River Basin Conflict


Cases  like the Mekong River Commission lead people like Daniel Deudney to argue that securitizing the environment is destructive, because when we “dress up the environment in the war system” we expose it to the zero-sum dynamics that makes cooperation so hard in other areas of international politics. Securitization is, moreover, superfluous, as the consequences of environmental change are in most cases already counted as critical problems in themselves; ozone depletion is, for example, already understood as a central concern because of its impact on human health.

Rather than trying to co-opt traditional security thinking we should rely on environmentalism’s “powerful set of values and symbols—ranging from human health and property values to beauty and concern for future generations.” As such, it is our common appreciation of environmental change that is a stepping stone for cooperation and an impetus to action.

Where does this leave us? The fact that environmental change is just as likely to lead to cooperation as to conflict implies that interpretations of the environmental degradation-security nexus are informed by competing understandings of how the world works. One can distinguish a system-theoretic, positivist reasoning on the one hand, and a structurationist, sociological position on the other.

The idea that we deal with two different “analytical lenses” is under-expressed but necessary to bear in mind when one reads reports on the environment and security, especially since these have a tendency to be passed off as semi-scientific. Yet proposals on how best to manage environmental change from a security perspective are, as all things political, hostage to people’s world views.

To be sure, much of what we know about environmental degradation is scientifically tested, proven and accepted. But this should not fool us into thinking that we can answer, in the manner of the natural scientists, how to respond to the various challenges of environmental change.

Politics is still, and maybe always will be, a long way from science; just as political science is still a long way from finding ‘scientific’ solutions to our problems.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.