Security and Environmental Change

We should heed this warning against militarising environmental hazards, writes Tim Dunne

October 8, 2009

Every age seems to invent a master narrative about its own demise. At the turn of the 20th century, the fear was of a violent struggle between races and civilisations. In the post-1945 world, the nightmare was of a nuclear holocaust. The narrative of demise that haunts us today is the threat that environmental harm holds for the planet and its ability to support human and other life forms.

What does it mean to speak of environmental change as a "threat"? As Simon Dalby argues in this outstanding and original book, threats in the 21st century have less to do with governments' mobilisation of military force in pursuit of certain goals and more to do with a broader range of security issues. These new threats include climate change, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, global diseases, unchecked population growth and environmental hazards.

There is an important debate in the international relations literature on the environment about whether it is helpful to attach the word "security" to these issues. In an excellent second chapter entitled "Securing precisely what?", Dalby warns against the danger of militarising the environment. At the same time, and following in the footsteps of several critical international relations theorists, he recognises that environmental impacts are inextricably co-mingled with the idea of danger and catastrophe. In light of this juxtaposition, it is not surprising that policymakers in national defence establishments have bought into the idea that environmental harms must be securitised; that is to say, they should be accorded an exceptional status on the political agenda. The medium through which this happens is by the performance of a speech-act about extreme danger. He cites a recent UK security strategy document that accords climate change "the greatest challenge to global stability and security". Such a view would have been unintelligible in a security strategy document published before the 21st century.

Whether such human security awareness prevails over national security is, the reader is told, "a crucial matter of geopolitics in the coming decades". The status of the prefix "geo" before "politics" gives a clue that the book has been written by a geographer, albeit one who has published in other fields. Such interdisciplinary breadth is evident in his impressive knowledge and understanding of ecology, climate science and globalisation. Dalby's message about sustainable security needs to be read widely in universities, and by activists and practitioners. If we decide to ignore this message, it will be hard to explain to future generations why we continued to think about security in ways that undermined sustainability.

Security and Environmental Change

By Simon Dalby

Polity, 200pp, £50.00 and £15.99

ISBN 9780745642918 and 42925

Published 12 June 2009

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