The usefulness of Environmental Security

Posted in Other | 24-Jun-07 | Author: Manuel Amarilla-Mena

For environmentalists to dress their programmes in the blood-soaked garments of the war system betrays their core values and creates confusion about the real tasks at hand.

Daniel Deudney1

The only way to secure societies from environmental threats is to change them.

Barry Buzan2

Secular ideas like socialism or environmentalism tend to be integrative, embracing all those who support the idea, even though, as recent experience has demonstrated, the universalistic character of such ideas can serve as a justification for totalitarian and authoritarian practices.

Mary Kaldor3

There are many questions brought up by our topic that produce a sense of doubt. This shows that environmental issues invoke very important concerns, not only just in terms of political, scientific or academic agendas. For our normal conscience as citizens of a constantly growing and increasingly society of knowledge, these doubts generate insecurity. It seems that our well-being is at least, contested. Accidents, catastrophes, disasters, chemical procedures, viruses and diseases show the vulnerabilities of our society. We have learned through information systems that they may be caused by human activity. This “Risk Society”4 that we belong to might not be called so because of the threats we have to live with, but because of those which have been created by our development of the planet’s surface. The reality is that we, the human beings, have reached a point of creation and destruction, able to set up life and able to destroy it5.

This article addresses this debate with the goal of seeing whether it is indeed worthy to speak about security when dealing with fears coming from the capability to change the whole complex of factors that determine the form and survival of an organism or ecological community.

Is it worthy to speak about environmental security?

When dealing with environmental problems, one of the first things to point out is that this kind of topic can guide us to problematic arenas of perception, as noted by Gwyn Prins6: we are facing “threats without enemies”. But at the same time, trying to simplify positions could be a problematic issue too, as pointed out by Owen Green7:

Theories and simplifying assumptions developed through other areas of study, such as security or international political economy should not be assumed to apply equally to the environmental arena.

Following the argument presented by Wyn Jones8, in relation to the threats coming from today’s risk society, their main characteristic has seen a shift from the “Industrial Society” to the “Risk Society”. The risks in industrial society were contained by the emergence of a system9 of rules for dealing with industrially produced risks and insecurities. This system or security pact was based on a “calculus of risk” which provided the politico-economic order with legitimacy for their subjects. But as a series of technological challenges to the ecology occurred, such as those caused by nuclear power and chemical and biotechnology industries, they have created the potential to wreak destruction on an unimaginable scale that will alter the risk calculus. Therefore, there will be no security pact or system able to deal with the worst-case scenario. The potential for upheaval will be tremendous, undermining the legitimacy of the prevailing order. These new threats will not respect the traditional state and class order.

After such a realisation, it could be asserted that the importance of the environmental issue will be at least useful to note that our society has arrived at the point of capacity where it is able to alter the order, the balance, the present and the future. The shift might also lead us to conceive of the matter in terms of security. Therefore, in the political, scientific and academic agenda10 a new debate will take place. There will be politicians, scientists and scholars who will support the classical definition of security in the realm of political and military sectors, and those who will suggest an extension to other fields, such as the societal, economical and lastly, for the matter of the present essay, to the environmental sector.

It is not the intention of this work to enter into the political domain, or even into the scientific, but into the arena of deep intellectual analysis in order to address the environment as a useful concern for security studies. The importance of this academic exercise might be pointed out by the studies of authors such as Buzan, Gartner, Wyn Jones, Sheehan, Hough, Booth, Terriff, Krause-Williams, Dalby, Walker, Ayood, Walt, Deudney or Levy. But due to the constraints of the current study it will be necessary to summarize their positions into those who defend the broader agenda of security to include environmental issues, those who support the classical agendaagainst such kind of inclusion, and lastly those maintain a position between the two, let us called it “intermediate agenda”. Having in mind this concern, the selected representatives of these three positions are authors such as Barry Buzan, paladin of the broader agenda, Daniel Deudney as the counterpart and Hyde-Price and Simon Dalby as representatives of a central approach. Lastly, I would like to mention Johan Galtung and his approach to ecological violence.

In general and before addressing the mentioned agendas, as Krause and Williams suggest, most of studies share the assumption that the security framework is being challenged by new issues, which induces a redefinition of the term. Also most of them are sceptical of a “simple expansionist agenda” that celebrates the end of the Cold War as an opportunity to remove military and security issues from the centre stage and replace them with diverse challenges to individual and collective well-being or human survival11.

Broader agenda:

Studies, such as Barry Buzan’s, in his book People, States and Fear, explain that identifiable environmental problems, such as the spewers of acids, green house gasses and ozone-eating chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) can constitute a security issue in the form of threats to national security12. This is because they can damage the physical base of the state, its ideas and institutions. He is not concerned with random natural threats; he is concerned instead with those provoked by the expansion of knowledge about the planetary ecosystem. This has converted environmental problems more and more into human and therefore political concerns. For him, it is quite important to address environmental problems as security concerns, broadening the security framework to five sectors including the environmental one, which do not operate in isolation (societal, economical, political, military and environmental).13In his book, Security: a new framework for analysis, he summarizes this idea by defining environmental security in terms of sustaining ecosystems to achieve certain levels of civilization. When ecosystems are not secure, there will be conflicts over threats to these levels of civilization14.

The advantages of seeing environmental issues as a security concern could be summarized in three points: firstly, governments can use emergency measures to deal with environment problems so that normal constraints on action are overcome. Secondly, the individuals’ environmental concerns can be addressed directly, rather than the state behaving as an agent. Thirdly, including the environment as a security issue can take the matter further than state or population interest frameworks15

Classical agenda:

On the other hand, there are those who criticize any adoption of a broader security agenda extended to include environmental issues. Studies such as Deudney’s16 can be seen as representative of this position. This author is quoted by Hough17 as the foremost challenger to the inclusion of environmental issues within the remit of security politics. Deudney acknowledges that due to human dependency upon the physical environment, there has been a constant jeopardization of the environmental conditions and also intensive violent inter-group competition for environmental resources. The reasons can be traced to explosive progress and the emergence of societies of unprecedented wealth. For him, environmental issues are likely to become an increasingly important dimension of political life at all levels. But he puts in doubt the need to introduce environmental issues into the national security context, arguing against the tendency to link environmental degradation and national security. This is due to three reasons: first, that the traditional understanding of national security has little in common with either environmental problems or solutions. Second, the effort to harness the emotive power of nationalism to help mobilise environmental awareness and action may prove counterproductive by undermining globalist political sensibility. Third, environmental degradation is not very likely to cause interstate war.

For him, it is not useful to speak about environmental security. Securitizing the environment undermines rather than enhances the likelihood of finding appropriate political solutions to environmental problems. He emphasises that there is a danger in seeing such threats as national security concerns, and that it may increase international tensions and make international accords more difficult to achieve, while diverting attention from internal clean-up. This can lead to new types of interventions, a new imperialism of the strong against the weak. Deudney asks environmentalists (vogue among progressive intellectuals, particularly in English-speaking and Nordic countries) to call into question the national grouping and its privileged status in world politics. He also perceives that many people want to use environmental problems to stimulate interstate conflict and even promote violence.

His last argument is related to the capacity of environmental policies to cause conflict and war. This reason is tied to the sacrifices these policies would require from society in terms of living standards. This decline would be faced with resistance from groups at all levels, producing class war and revolutionary upheavals. If this were to happen then liberal democracy and free-market systems would increasingly be replaced by authoritarian systems to maintain a minimum order. He resumes his study with the following:

Sentiment for a “war on pollution” is a dangerous and probably self-defeating enterprise, fortunately are not as great as often conjured by environmentalists…adopting environmental security agendas are a symbol of failure of imagination and political awareness.

Apart from Deudney’s arguments, other scholars such as Gleick and Levy address another set of criticisms. They are concerned with issues of treating environmental in isolatation, as a contextualizing term. Therefore, environment is subsumed into other sectors, including the military and societal sectors, where security thinking embraces problems of population growth, transnational pollution, widespread poverty, and inequitable social systems. At the same time, they criticise the idea of environmental security as too amorphous, where ‘environment’ can refer to anything in which something takes place or which affects what people do; in other words, almost anything at all. From this stand point, ‘environment’ should be reserved as a term for those issues that involve ecological feedback and equilibrium, or are critical to the sustenance of human life.18

Finally there are several arguments to support the idea that the linking of environment and security has a further disadvantage. This is that the environmental issues might request a new state effort in term of readiness to lose autonomy and sovereignty, which causes a deceleration process when tackling such issues. Therefore, securitizing the environment would be counterproductive when trying to reach a common effort to deal with environmental problems, because they would be seen as part of the national interest, instead of common compromises or further cooperation. Lack of publicity, increasing secretism or manipulation efforts would be the first consequences19.

Intermediate agenda:

There is a middle line of arguments which can be found in the debate related to boundaries of security studies. They question whether environmental or ecological degradation is a security problem rather than an issue of acute political and economic concern. Authors like Adrian Hyde-Price20 in his article “Beware the Jabberwock”, surmise that after the Cold War, many security risks and challenges lack the physicality and directness of a normal conflict. Instead the new security agenda is less tangible, with diffuse risks and challenges.

He asserts that many of the criticisms of treating environmental issues as a security concern are due to the broad definition of security. If this concept is broadly defined, embracing all aspects of human existence, it ends up being about everything and nothing. This conceptualization risk would affect the analytical utility of security, an idea supported also by Deudney21. This means that security will be framed in terms of social sciences and humanities, or in terms of international relations. Related to this criticism, he mentions for instance, Walt’s analysis22, suggesting that if the loss of rainforest or pollution or disease were to be viewed as a security issue, then “defining the field in this way would destroy its intellectual coherence”. Also, this enlargement of the security agenda to the field of environmental risks loses the focus and generates an agenda that would be “off-puttingly vague”.

For Hyde-Price, to consider the environment as a security concern would clearly require a constant redefinition of the term to address the challenges of a changing security environment. This approach is what he calls the Third Way for Security Studies.23 This should be done within the boundaries of the different agendas which are the spheres of the security framework (agendas Clausewitz, Metternich and Kant)24. This position is also supported by Simon Dalby, who argues that either ‘security’ or ‘the environment’ has to be rethought to allow for an easy conflation of the terms. Security, understood as the perpetuation of the modern order, seems “antithetical” to the preservation of the environment. Preserving the environment in turn seems antithetical to the preservation of the modern political economy. For him, there are three dilemmas: the sense of rush that the military took to adopt the environment into their strategies after the Cold War; the contradiction between protecting the American way of life and protecting environments; and the link between the environment and security might enlarge western commercial interests.25

A parallel context, violence and religious debates

Regarding the nature of needs to be secured, and due to his important contributions to the literature, it would be necessary to address the ideas expressed by Johan Galtung. For him, there are different kinds of violence committed against nature. There is a direct violence such as slashing or burning. There is also a structural violence form, not intended to destroy the nature but nevertheless doing so, for example the pollution and depletion associated with modern industry, leading to dying forests, ozone holes, global warming. At the same time, there is cultural violence against nature, when the industrial activity combined with world-encompassing commercialization makes the consequences of their actions non-visible to the perpetrators. What he points out is that sustainable economic growth may prove to be yet another form of cultural violence.

According to this idea, it is worthy to extend the study of violence committed against the environment because as human beings, we need the ecological balance for basic maintenance. This equilibrium is called “eco-balance”, that means a sine qua non for human existence. This is the result of an equation of survival, well-being, freedom, and identity which can be summed up as our needs. In other words, it seems that we need to be secured against the impact of this violence triangle (formed by the direct, structural and cultural violence). Therefore, there is usefulness at least in the term Peace Studies, avoiding the use of security through the terms peace, construction of peace, prevention and management of conflicts26.

Finally, let us point out another debate, unable to be addressed within the confines of this study, but nonetheless very important. It is important not to forget that in most societies, our natural surroundings were and sometimes still are seen as a religious matter27, a hidden mechanism for non-perfect creatures, in which our hands were tied and our will subject to the mysterious reactions of the divine nature. However, nowadays we can read the surface of our planet, we can check any website and forecast the weather in real time, we can clone, read genetic maps, extend life expectancy and understand the nature of illness. We can even send stratospheric devices to reach extra solar systems. Before, to be able to reach heaven was a matter for God, based upon the strength of our prayers28.

Montesquieu saw human beings as fundamentally insecure. They have neither the certainty of instinct without any capacity for choice, as have other animals, nor the certainty of perfect knowledge, as has God. For him, individuals must accept the influence of the environment but, as societies develop, although more choices can be made, human beings must always use their limited reason with care.29 Our insecurity is a human characteristic because of our condition as imperfect “creatures of God”. But our grade of imperfection, in terms of knowledge has reached a stage in which we can interfere in the work of the supreme creator. Our evolution in Darwinian survival fight terms seems not only to be framed in the battle field of men versus men, but also perhaps in men’s work against God’s.

Therefore, it seems that our insecurity is a question of the secularization of the planet. The earth is no more the centre of creation, but is part of a universe in where astrophysics theories are winning in the daily battle against the divinity of our existence. But at the same time we have reached the knowledge of the biblical Armageddon: we can kill to an extent never seen before, just because of our will or just because of our indirect inter-reaction with nature. Examples like Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Rwanda’s Massacres through Bhopal, Chernobyl or Prestige give us an idea of the extent of our interference in the work of God.


We saw several different academic positions which give various levels of support to the usefulness of the idea of environmental security. Arguments as to whether the environment should be seen as a security issue range from those who believe that the securitization of the environment is the most important step to securing the survival of humanity, to those who believe that its advocates are simply environmentalists cynically attempting to grab part of the governmental attention and to spend the resources that are traditionally attached to security issues.30 Also, it is reasonable to suggest that our environment is not anymore secure under the “Creator” umbrella protection and that maybe it is time to take His responsibility. We cannot be secured by believing that His help can put an end in our negative interaction with this planet. Religion can no longer give us the security of life in harmony with the planet; beliefs cannot guarantee our survival.

In my opinion, environmental security is linked to other issues and framed within them. I would argue that the environment is not an isolatable sector, such as politics, economics, or society. I would argue that we should not secure the planet. What we need to secure is our relationship with the environment, changing politics, economic structures and societal classifications. In other words, the environment should be considered as a consequence of our inter-reaction with the nature and not as a factor. Otherwise we can only create a support line by maintaining environmental reserves as prisons where nature can be kept in an unnatural state. However, this only allows a privileged class to enjoy it and restricts the majority of the human race to watch it in documentaries. In conclusion, if we have been modifying the environment for millenniums more than the environment has modified us, maybe the fever for securitization of environmental issues is addressing the problem from the wrong perspective. Instead we might address mankind. Perhaps, as Buzan suggests, we need a deep change in our society and not in the environment. Let us consider also the following: we are not arguing that the environment should be securitized; we merely observe that at least some actors are attempting to do so.31


Barry Buzan & Ole Waever, Regions and Power: The structure of International Security, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde, Security, a new framework for analysis (London: Lynner Rienner Publishers, 1998)

Barry Buzan, People States and Fear, (Essex: Longman, 1991).

Daniel Deudney, Environment and National Security, The case against linking environmental degradation and national security. Millenium, Vol. 19, No 3, Winter 1999

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Heinz Gartner, Adrian Hyde-Price and Erich Reiter, Europe’s new security challenges, (London: Rienner, 2001)

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Johan Galtung. Peace by Peaceful Means (Oslo: International Peace Research Institute, 2003)

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Jessica Tuchman Mathews, Redefining Security, Foreign Affairs, Spring 1989

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Michael Sheehan. International Security, an analytical survey, (London: Lynne Rienner, 2005)

Peter Hough, Understanding Global Security (New York: Routledge 2004)

Risto E.J. Penttila, The Role of the G8 in International Peace and Security, International Institute for Strategic Studies, (New York, Oxford University Press 2003), Adelphi Paper 355

Richard Wyn Jones, Security, Strategy and Critical Theory, (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999)

Electronic Sources:


Central Intelligence Agency


Danish Institute for International Studies

El Pais

European Union

Foreign Affairs

Global Policy Forum

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International Crisis Group

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1 Daniel Deudney, Environment and National Security, The case against linking environmental degradation and national security. Millenium, Vol. 19, No 3, Winter 1999. p 475

2 Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde. Security. A new framework for analysis, (London, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998), p 76

3 Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars, (Polity Press, 2001), p 78.

4 Richard Wyn Jones, Security, Strategy, and Critical Theory, (1999, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999), p.80.

5 Jessica Tuchman Mathews, Redefining Security, Foreign Affairs, Spring 1989, pp162-177

6 Gwyn Prins is quoted by Michael Sheehan. International Security, an analytical survey, (London, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005), p. 102

7 Owen Green, Environmental issues, in John Baylis and Smith, the Globalization of World Politics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 457.

8 Wyn Jones presents the stand point of Ulrich Beck on Ecological Enlightenment ,Richard Wyn Jones, op cit, p80

9 The system is defined as an amalgam of public and private insurance schemes and agreements. Ibid, p. 81

10 Barry Buzan mentions two agendas regarding the environment: the scientific and the political, which are going to appoint the environmental agenda REWORD. This will include the disruption of ecosystems, energy problems, population, food and economic problems and civil strife. Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde. Security. A new framework for analysis, op cit., pp 71-75

11 Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams, Critical Security Studies, concepts and cases, (Oxon, Routledge, 1997), preface xix.

12 Barry Buzan mentions two agendas regarding the environment, the scientific and the political which are going to appoint the environmental agenda. This will include the disruption of ecosystems, energy problems, population, food and economic problems and civil strife. Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde. Security. A new framework for analysis, op cit., Pp 71-75

13 Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear, (London, Pearson Longman, 1991), p 131-134 and Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde. Security. A new framework for analysis, op cit, pp 71-93

14 Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde. Security. A new framework for analysis, op cit, pp 79-84

15 Michael Sheehan, op cit, p 56

16 Daniel Deudney, op cit.

17 Peter Hough, Understanding Global Security, (London, Routledge, 2004), p 148

18 Authors such as Michael Sheehan quotes Peter Gleick’s argument to link environment to other sectors, and Marc Levy’s for the usefulness of wider analytical conceptualization. Michael Sheehan, op cit, p 105

19 Ibid, p.108.

20 Heinz Gartner, Adrian Hyde-Price and Erich Reiter, Europe’s new security challenges, (Lyenne Rienner, 2001), p 35

21 Michael Sheehan quoted Deudney’s study to address that if everything that could cause death or a decline in human well-being were to be labelled a “security threat”, the term would lose any analytical usefulness it possesses. Michael Sheehan, op cit, p 105.

22 Ibid p 60 and Heinz Gartner, op. cit, p 35.

23 The third way must aim to go beyond the narrow approach of traditional realism while avoiding the dangers of a indiscriminate broadening of the concept of security. Heinz Gartner, op cit, p. 39

24 Ibid, p 49

25 Simon Dalby, Contesting an Essential Concept: Reading the dilemmas in Contemporary Security Discourse, in Krause and Williams, op cit, pp. 16-18.

26 Johan Galtung, Peace by Peaceful Means, (PRIO) pp. 196-208

27 The Guardian analyzes in an article called “For Bush, science is a dirty word”, how religion can influence policies, addressing controversies that are more proper of other times than XXI century’s issues and challenges. The Guardian.,,1443104,00.html

28 We needed his protection and looked for being secured of our sins, imperfections, illness, nature punishment or random luckiness. Meanwhile we believed that we were secured in the terrestrial world, or at least in the heaven kingdom.

29 Iain Mclean and Alistair McMillan, Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003) p 354

30 Michael Sheehan, op cit, p. 99

31 Barry Buzan, Security, a new framework for the Analysis, op cit, pp 76 and 71.