It’s poverty,

Jenny Clover
argues that globalization and inequality are increasing human, and thus environmental, insecurity.

Africa entered the 21st century facing a security and development crisis of immense proportions. Media representations of this crisis – with images of refugee camps and stories of human atrocity – threaten to trivialize it by focusing on the pornography of violence. Deeper analysis deals with the erosion or collapse of states, many of which had long ceased to provide security to their citizens; the proliferation of young armed groups espousing no internationally intelligible agenda; and the inability or unwillingness of the international community to secure, and later guarantee, peace agreements.

War and violent conflict have, it is true, resulted in massive displacement of people, wholesale disruption of societies and the diversion of resources from productive use, but this observation fails to move much beyond proximate cause and effect.

In Africa, we have to see how the continent and its constituent parts have fallen victim to the effects of growing poverty and inequality. The world has been reconfigured and the last 20 years have seen a radical reordering of the political and economic environment. Globalization has brought the concentration and centralization of unaccountable power and, with it, an increasing degree, and geographic spread, of insecurity. Indeed, globalization implies exclusion as much as inclusion. This lies at the heart of the world’s environmental crisis and, inseparable from it, the manifestations of increasing global inequality, growing poverty, and recourse to desperate and often violent remedies.

We have to adjust our thinking if we are to recognize and come to terms with the new challenges, to recognize that insecurity takes many forms. Approaches must be diverse, multi-dimensional and located at many levels, from local to international. This calls for a conscious interrogation of structures, institutions and processes where these are seen to threaten or undermine people’s security, as well as a more holistic view of what constitutes human security. Unfortunately, the current vogue for ‘homeland security’ has distracted attention from the urgent task of answering the questions: whose insecurity, security from what, security how?

As some researchers have moved away from narrowly defined understandings of threat, vulnerability and response mechanisms, ‘environmental security’ has become one of the critical areas on the security agenda, reflecting a common concern for the implications of environmental change. The term has, however, generated considerable confusion and contentious debate on how the environment and security are linked.

Early research emphasized securing the integrity of the environment, but by the 1970s the focus had moved from human degradation of nature to the effects wrought, more specifically, by violent conflict. Questions of whether environmental problems were really security problems were answered by research focusing principally on environmental scarcity. More recently research has begun to highlight the importance of conflict arising from contested control over non-renewable resources.

‘New wars’
The term ‘new wars’ was coined to capture the changing nature of war, the gradual shift in the causes of conflicts and in their duration, and the increasing incidence of regional ones. Ostensibly based on identity politics, statehood (control or secession), and the control of natural and other resources, these conflicts were seen as largely devoid of the geo-political or ideological goals that characterized earlier wars. The ‘greed or grievance’ debates argued that environmental factors can and should be integrated into traditional security affairs. This moved the focus beyond environmental degradation or scarcity per se, to the observation that the latter could pose a security concern because of its potential for causing violence or conflict.

Yet this version of the ‘environment-and-security’ debate offered only a partial broadening of the security agenda: what was to be secured remained predicated upon the survival of the state. Such an approach was consistent with conventional notions of national security, which do not necessarily guarantee the security of individuals and communities.

In contrast to the statist approach is the argument for a more interdisciplinary and integrative approach that sees environmental security as a crucial component of the broader concept of ‘human security': it identifies the individual and, by extension, the local and global community, as the object of security. The breadth of this new conceptualization does not lend itself to easy clarification. The important thing, however, is to avoid the risk of dichotomizing humans and nature.

Too often, the environment, or nature, is represented as the concern of just another special interest group, an ‘imagined thing’ requiring protection and for which technical fixes are promoted. This is often accompanied by the continued acceptance of the pre-eminence of human interests as if these were separate from the environment. If the environment is understood as including humans, then the definition of the problem changes and environmental security is reformulated in terms of human security, drawing on the insights of ecological security. Jane Lubchenco, the zoologist and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, appositely summed it up in an article in Science: ‘As the magnitude of human impacts on the ecological systems of the planet becomes apparent, there is increased realization of the intimate connections between these systems and human health, the economy, social justice and national security. The concept of what constitutes “the environment” is changing rapidly.’

Environmental security
The field of environmental security studies is still emerging. There are ambiguities, but these should not prevent more attention being paid to understanding environmental change and its relationship to human security. This is not an argument for simply redefining international or national security, but for a greater appreciation of the essence of certain threats and of a more comprehensive approach to the politics of security.

More particularly, we need to move away from arguments about whether conflict is an outcome of resource scarcity – itself often determined by socio-political power relations – to preventing such scarcity. We need to be more concerned with the inequitable distribution of power than with violent conflict as the principal source of insecurity. Human security prioritizes the urgency of achieving freedom from fear and freedom from want. It also implies moving beyond a needs-based focus, to a rights-based focus.

Environmental security may be unattainable in any absolute sense. But the deterioration of the total environment is so grave that halting or even slowing it is a matter of survival. It must be borne upon those in positions of power that a goal of ‘sustainable security’ integrating human, state and environmental security is vital to all.

The importance of environmental cooperation must also be recognized. The potential for trust, harmony and cooperation arising from the nexus of security and environmental issues must not be overlooked. Focusing only on threats overlooks environmentally related opportunities available to improve human security. Insights gained from this debate have important implications for practical action. Protection and responsible management of natural resources, for example, can play a role in preventing unequal patterns of resource distribution, exploring mechanisms of governance, building institutional capacity and empowering local populations

Jenny Clover is Senior Researcher at the African Security Analysis Programme, Institute for Security Studies, South Africa.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Waking up | Planting security | Natural peace | People | No procrastinating on climate | Attracting private investment | Reshaping the energy and security debate | At a glance: Environmental security | Star profile: Salman Ahmad | How many Earths? | Green helmets | Books and products | Initiative for change | Security in turbulence | Water and war | Beating the ‘resource curse’ | Green peace | It’s poverty, stupid