Ecological Issues Definition

Ecological SecurityThis article is part of a series on various approaches to Posthuman Security.

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).

Second, and of particular relevance for those interested in the benefits or dangers of linking environmental issues and security issues, the effects of linking security with the environment in practice are not simply about whether environmental issues are defined as a security threat. This view – that what matters is whether environmental issues are approached as threats – is evident among both advocates and sceptics of an environment-security relationship. For advocates, promoting environmental issues as security issues means approaching these issues as ‘high politics’, ensuring political prioritization and funding traditionally associated with traditional security threats (see Hartmann 2008). For sceptics, this linkage may be problematic in that security has a powerful and sedimented association with defence and the state (eg Deudney 1990), and/or potentially enables the suspension of ‘normal politics’ and the pursuit of frequently illiberal emergency measures: a key concern of so-called Copenhagen School theorists of securitization (eg Buzan et al 1998; Wæver 1995).

Yet ultimately, what matters in terms of whether environmental issues like climate change are viewed as security threats isn’t the label ‘threat’ or ‘security’. Rather, it is the way security itself is understood, with the composition of threats forming only part of this broader discourse of security. Specifically, different discourses of security – conceptions of whose security matters, from what threats, which agents are responsible for providing it and through what means – have radically different implications in terms of the practices they encourage. While a discourse orienting towards national security might encourage adaptation and even military preparedness for potential conflict associated with the effects of environmental change, a discourse orienting towards human security would encourage mitigation strategies and a focus on the threats facing vulnerable human populations (see McDonald 2012; 2013).

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Ecological Issues