To what extent is it beneficial to frame environmental degradation as a security issue?

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game,
but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.
– Audre Lorde (1984).
The sentiment expressed by Lorde (made in the context of fighting different forms of oppression) is a sentiment that is shared by the argument developed in this essay. Whilst it is acknowledged that there is a lot of debate within security studies, as to its conceptualisation of events, it is argued here that the whole paradigm of securitization is fundamentally misconceived. This argument is made in relation to securitization debates and practices concerning environmental degradation.
Contrary to the (Realist) Critical Security Studies Schools (hereafter ‘CSS’), this essay contends that it is not enough to reduce the extent to which environmental degradation is framed as a security issue. Instead, there is a need for a paradigm shift which presents securitisation as a form of control, and thus it is desirable for securitisation to be placed in a dialectical relationship with emancipation, for a successful turn towards desecuritisation. Following the Paris School of Security Studies, this essay takes a normative stance on securitisation in general, and the securitisation of environmental degradation in particular. It will be shown that regardless of the object framed as a security issue, the outcome it the same: the furthering of securitising professionals’ field of control. Subsequently, the emphasis of the essay leans more towards developing an in-depth analysis of securitisation; it will discuss the historical development of the concept and practice of security, exemplifying their use through an analysis of the UN’s Our Common Future Report. Following this, the three main Security Studies Schools will be explored. First, it will be seen that although CSS (the Copenhagen School and the Welsh School) have developed insightful analytic tools to understand security, their approach is contingent upon the reification of their object of study. Second, the Paris School have been successful in overcoming these limitations by focusing on the far reaching social and political implications of security. In doing so, they avoid ‘talking’ or ‘writing’ security; in other words, they do not further legitimise securitisation, but rather criticise it from outside of its logic. The issues raised by the debates between the schools will be explored via a case study concerning the creation of a ‘border industrial complex’ in the US through the suspension of environmental laws. From this it will be argued that the Paris School offers a stronger perspective to understand environmental degradation, and a more progressive solution to oppose securitisation, based on a move towards a more open democracy, through emancipation. However, it will be proposed that for a more successful conceptualisation of ecological crisis and praxis of desecuritisation, it is necessary to adopt the Bookchian organic thinking.

The securitisation of environmental degradation

The framing of environmental degradation as a security issue started with the Bruntland Report in 1987, followed by national, international and private bodies. For instance, in 1995 the US Secretary of Defense, William Perry, declared that his department has ‘an aggressive environmental program because it is critical to the defense mission’ (cited by Pace, O’Connell and Lachman 1997:18). As a response to the rapidly changing discourse on the international arena, academics later to be known as ‘the Copenhagen School’ set up the task of analysing the change of international approaches and strategies with regards to securitisation, including the securitisation of environmental degradation. However, what is securitisation?
Securitisation is a concept which has been historically formulated within the utilitarian framework, claiming to measure and preserve individual happiness, but ignoring the power-relations within society which make security and happiness often contradictory (Manunta 2000). The power of the state as protector of security and rights, within utilitarianism, is given ontological pre-existence. Such ideas are shared by the Copenhagen and the Welsh Schools that present the events on the ground as facts; they see security as ‘always-already’ real, trying to ‘read the future as a “past future” already known’ (Bigo and Tsoukala 2009:2). Although the meaning of securitisation has received extensive attention, there has been much less unpacking of the nature and causes of ‘environmental degradation’ by security scholars or international organisations. In Dalby’s words:
simple degradation explanations frequently do not take history or ecological complexity into account, nor the specifics of particular environments, much less the micro-level contestations of property relations, gender and cultures that are crucial to explaining either crises or everyday practices
The change of meaning of ‘environmental degradation’ through its framing as a security issue has been highly contested in the past two decades. The causes of degradation have been identified as due to resource curse (or the ‘paradox of the plenty’) (Collier 2010); resource scarcity (Homer-Dixon 1999); wars, migration (Kaplan 1994); capitalism (Duffield 2011); state control (Clifton 2009); eco-imperialism (Shiva 2011); technocracy, and so on. However, distinguishing between types of securitisation is, for the purpose of this essay, counterproductive, as securitisation imposes the same negative limitations to its referent objects. Nonetheless, as neoliberal institutions fail to show the incompatibility of capitalism and environmentalism, they fetishise ‘sustainable development’ as the only solution for a possible future of life on Earth. Through the tactic of universalising environmental destruction, neoliberal countries make their control and destruction invisible, proposing behavioural changes (Bookchin 1974:73) which do not challenge structural oppression and the hierarchy in society, which ultimately impact the environment. Consequently, the resource scarcity approach has received the most attention by liberal actors, meaning that war, economy and nature ‘collapse into a single problematic of security’ (Duffield 2011:7), requiring more militarisation and control. The broad consensus within the academic literature is related to the securitising agents: ‘security is articulated only from a specific place, in an institutional voice, by elites’ (Wæver 1995:57).
The divergence in approaches arises in relation to the nature of the effects of securitisation: they are seen as either positive, negative, or contextually-based (Floyd 2007). The challenge for International Security scholars is to offer valuable conceptual tools and alternatives for praxis from outside of the securitisation logic. There is a need for interruption and opposition to the apparent urge (constructed by states and institutions) of focusing exclusively on ‘survival, urgency, and emergency’ (Trombetta 2008:588) which offer a mere description of the powerful agent’s ability to take exceptional measures. The UN World Commission on Environment and Development (hereafter ‘WCED’s) report provides an illustrative example in this context. The analysis of the report will allow us to later discuss the sociological and political implications of the institutionalised bureaucracy of emergency, and how the ‘iron cage’ of instrumental rationality can be dismantled through emancipation and (environmental) politics.

Our Common Future Report

Throughout the report, a false dichotomy between ‘sustainable development’ (economic growth) and degradation (conflict) is presented. At one end of the spectrum, there is the solution to environmental degradation: ‘sustainable development’ which can be achieved through securitisation measures and (economic) growth. It is descriptively stated that national sovereignty is changing its meaning and power, because of the ‘interdependence in the realm of economics, environment and security’ (WCED 1987). Hence, according to the UN, ‘the international economy must speed up world growth while respecting the environmental constraints’ (WCED 1987). It is easy to observe the underlying neo-liberal approach throughout the entire document, upholding the view that corporations can become ethical entities, even though their scope is private interest. The report does not point towards corporations for their damaging effects on the environment. On the contrary, it puts them on an equal footing with states, asserting that companies can ‘play an important role in sustainable development, especially as developing countries come to rely more on foreign equity capital’ to pursue ‘profit-seeking objectives’ (WCED 1987).
At the other end of the spectrum, the risk of environmental degradation is exposed: conflicts, according to the UN arise ‘not only because of political and military threats to national sovereignty; they may derive also from environmental degradation’ (ibid.). This leads to the call to ‘securitise’ the environment (pre-emptively, if deemed necessary) by using the same methods as for counteracting political and military threats: militarisation. Extensive research has been published on the damaging environmental effects of militarisation, and the exploitation of the environment by states and corporations for economic development (Heede 2013), but the UN does not go far enough to stop them. In sum, the UN report offers a false dichotomy between growth and conflict. Within this paradigm, any approach taken by states (to either solve degradation issues or to ignore them) leads to the same result: militarisation and the pursuit of well-being for a few (in other words, eco-imperialism) and the destruction of nature (eco-genocide) in the name of economic growth and neo-liberalism. As Duffield aptly puts it, ‘liberalism has historically been unable to pursue peace without automatically developing ever more destructive, expansive and environmentally terroristic ways of killing’ (2011:7).

Framing the security question 

There are various approaches to the study of environmental degradation security, but for the purpose of this essay, the emphasis will fall on three schools, namely the Copenhagen School, the Welsh School, and the Paris School. This section will focus on the first two, recognising that despite significant differences between CS and WS, there is an underlying similarity with regards to the meaning of emancipation in relation to security and politics.
The Copenhagen School’s arguments are formulated within a neo-Realist framework. This is presented as different from traditional ontological Realism, because CS employ a constructivist epistemology. Their aim is to change the traditional ‘problem-solving’ view according to which security refers only to ‘war and force, and […] other issues are relevant only if they relate to that’ (Buzan 1997:13). Instead they focus on the conditions, processes, effects and dynamics created by securitisation. They see security as speech acts, with intersubjective and rhetorical meanings, having its own rules and practices; however, these speech acts do not depict security ‘as a site of negotiation’ (McDonald 2008:572). As such, one of the most cited definitions of security is that it is ‘the staging of existential issues in politics to lift them above politics’ (Buzan, Wæver and de Wilde 1998:26). Although they attach negative attributes to securitisation, as they see it as the failure to solve a problem within normal politics (read: democratic politics), CS still formulate their criticism by using the concepts adopted by international and state bodies, uncritically assuming the urgency of broadening the meaning of security. Wæver attempts to counteract securitisation by advocating for de-securitisation as a more ‘preferable’ and ‘effective’ tool for policies (1995:57), but his preference is still instrumental, affecting democracy by replacing politics with ‘management’ (Aradau 2004:394). The end result is a further legitimation of technocrats to create new discourses of insecurity posed by ‘environmental degradation’ to justify their acts of securitisation; this hierarchy of status and knowledge becomes a structural impediment for other voices on the matter.
By using Critical Theory as inspiration for their approach to security, the Welsh School argue for ‘emancipation’ as a concept to complement securitisation: ‘security and emancipation are two sides of the same coin’ (Booth 1991:319). By portraying security as emancipation, the latter concept becomes analytically unmeaningful, securitisation being presented in normative terms: ‘emancipation, not power order, produces true security’ (ibid. 319). This entails that security professionals emancipate the securitised, and so, more securitisation is desirable – argument which can hardly be sustained, as we shall see later. Moreover, Booth fails to recognise the revolutionary potential of emancipation as opposed to security and instead further formulates insecurities which legitimise political and private bodies to act according to their interests (Aradau 2004:389).
Attempts have been made to merge the foci of the two Security Schools; for example, Rita Floyd argues for a (utilitarian) consequentialist ethics in discussing security, stating that security should not be seen either as a positive (as the Welsh School) or a negative (as the Copenhagen School) concept, but rather as neutral, depending on the context and issue (Floyd 2007:338). This criticism, however, ‘remains at the mercy of dominant discourses‘ (Charrett 2009:23). Furthermore, she advocates for an anthropocentric view of securitisation, arguing that only environmental security framed as human security ‘directly benefits human beings’ (Floyd 2010:184). Accordingly, she conceptualises humans as oppositional and superior to nature. On the contrary, through human securitisation, security ‘has expanded to embrace life in its totality’ (Duffield 2011:3); humans live within ecosystems, and therefore cannot be ‘detached’ from the environment (Bookchin 1974:75).
Although the two schools present themselves as critical of security, they use security language, conferring it a fallacious essential attribute. They remain within the dilemma of security, fetishising it and failing to go beyond the already-established paradigms of securitisation, falling into a ‘security trap’. As asserted by Huysmans, ‘speaking and writing about security is never innocent’ (2002:43) because it reinforces the hegemonic approaches which should be critiqued (McDonald 2008:33). The security analyst cannot negate the political value of their work, or distance themselves from their writing, and therefore it would be misleading to claim that one can write in a non-normative manner about securitisation (Bigo 2002:84). It is doubtful that one should even refer to the Critical Security Studies Schools as ‘critical’ at all; they do not even attempt to counteract the authority of security actors, but rather they legitimise it with their academic and ‘scientific’ blessing. Thus, the two schools withhold the role of ‘whispering into the ear of the Prince: the goal of policy advocacy’ (Hynek and Chandler 2013:49). In short, CSS is an ideological umbrella of theories which depoliticise the object of securitisation by presenting their research as factual and objective.

Going beyond securitisation: the criticism of CSS by the Paris School

Whereas the Copenhagen School is right to emphasise the importance of speech acts, it is necessary to go beyond this purely linguistic method of analysis and explore the power-knowledge relations and the socially-embedded practices which enable certain entities to securitise. The Paris School adds a sociological enquiry (inspired by Foucault and Bourdieu) to securitisation by problematising the Realist conception of security. They attempt to address the conceptual limitations of CSS and bring into the security discussion the question of the kind of politics we want, and what can be done to replace securitisation altogether. Security, according to the Paris School is inherently negative, and can be defined as a ‘technique of government’ with routinised practices, articulations and performances (McDonald 2008:570). They oppose biopolitics, which is nothing else than a ‘dispositif de sécurité’, developed as an extension of geopolitical security (Dillon and Lobo-Guerrero 2008:265). Through biopolitical technologies of surveillance, the human as such (e.g. the immigrant; the dissenter) can be reached. For instance, the micro-politics of everyday life can be affected and policed through the portrayal of environmental activists as ‘eco-terrorists’ (Ahmed 2013; Monibot 2008).
The task of the security analyst is to ‘expose the experts’ “regime of truth”’ (Bigo 2002:66). By exposing these regimes of truth we can analyse the way in which the framing of environmental degradation as a security issue represents a ‘state of exception’ (Arias 2013). This exception symbolises the overarching power of a state to suspend laws and exploit nature and democracy. For a beginning of a politics of emancipation, one has to (1) doubt the production of ‘truth’ as staged by powerful bodies; (2) acknowledge the equality of all to be engaged in the process of democracy; (3) reconsider the relationship between humans and nature. In the next section we will analyse a case study by using the Paris School approach.

The US Border Industrial Complex

In 2012, the US used the concept of ‘environmental protection’ as a means to advocate for an anti-environmental and anti-immigrant policy which presents migrants as the impersonation of ‘insecurity’ which threatens the ‘homogeneity’ of the American nation. Even more, migrants have also been accused for degrading the environment themselves, which allegedly justifies (environmentally degrading) state intervention (Wilderness Society 2012). More concretely, the H.R. 1505 National Security and Federal Lands Protection Bill passed in 2012 suspends more than 30 environmental laws in order to give the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the power to establish an ‘Operational Control Zone’. The Bill prohibits the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to stop the securitising activities undertaken by DHS ‘within 100 miles of the international land borders of the United States’ (GOP 2012). DHS is allowed to construct roads, fences, and use surveillance equipment and aircraft without the need for permission, ultimately becoming the institutional reification of the link between security, migration and the environment.
The US Committee on Natural Resources used environmental security as the primary basis on which to advocate for the Bill to pass because, they argued, ‘criminal trafficking operations are drawn to areas where border enforcement is hampered’; not intervening would allegedly result in ‘increased environmental harm’ (THCNR website). However, they omit to mention the extent to which corporations create environmental damage in the US; instead, they decided to commodify the environment. For instance, the Department of the Interior (which opposed the Bill) received $9 million funding from the Border Patrols as mitigation. This shows that when political debate is controlled by an actor, the winning team uses money to fill the gap left within democratic deliberation; democracy itself becomes commodified. Thus, economic capital and military enforcements are given priority by the US to the detriment of the environment by ironically using ‘environmental degradation’ as a justification for surveillance against immigration. The environment is not given the same weight as ‘security’ in the concept of ‘environmental security’, but rather ‘security’ is the act which frames the environment as instrumental. In this case, ‘degradation’ is ‘ethnicised’ and instrumentally used to further a neoliberal, land-grabbing, anti-aboriginal (Wilderness Society 2012), anti-immigration and undemocratic agenda.
Even the two letters sent against the Bill by the administration (White House 2012) and by a coalition of organisations (NPCA 2012) did not question the draconian vilification and militarisation of immigration, and the threat to democracy posed by the Bill. By not tackling these issues, the two letters implicitly endorse the government’s assumption that immigration is a menace and thus borders need to be militarised, even with the risk of damaging the environment. According to CSS, securitisation is intersubjective, which means that anyone can create an alternative interpretation regarding security (Buzan, Wæver and de Wilde 1998:31-2). However, not everyone has the social and political authority to be given media or government attention, and thus other counteracting narratives have not been given public attention.
According to the Copenhagen School, this ‘securitisation move’ done by the US government could be labelled as ‘unsuccessful’. For them, successful securitisation requires the acceptance of the securitising act by the audience which is addressed by the speaker (Huysmans 2002:45), when the ‘securitising lead’ is followed (Buzan, Wæver and de Wilde 1998:39; my emphasis). Yet, their conceptual tools do not allow us to identify who is included in the audience; what makes one ‘legible’ to be considered part of an audience; what the difference between audiences is, and who is allowed to voice their views. It is then presumed that for successful securitisation, open dialogue to include all parties can occur – a Habermasian ‘ideal speech’ situation which once again ignores power inequality. Furthermore, even when a securitising act is considered ‘successful’ (that is, the audience agrees with the speaker, according to CS), the security analyst ought to question why this is the case. In other words, it is imperative for a democracy to remain always open to political interruptions and dissent. As it has been illustrated above, even the Bill’s most visible opponents did not argue in their letters against important limitations posed by the Bill, apart from the environmental issues.
Through policies, the securitising actor creates competing identities. To legitimise its actions, the state inscribes a part of its population with the status of ‘citizen’. The meaning of citizenship is constructed around the idea that a person has certain rights and duties in relation to the state (on a given territory), the latter being the legitimate body to care for the wellbeing and security of its members, in opposition to ‘threats’ (Agamben 2000:42). Through biopolitics as surveillance and security, the whole population of the state becomes passively complicit in the victimisation of migrants, as the citizen is constructed in contrast to the migrant (Agamben 2000:43-44). Sovereignty and security become blurred and interchangeable, assuming the entity of the state as ‘natural’ and factual. The hierarchy of knowledge held by technocrats, their power and resources make them ever more convincing to create the discourse and context in which they can impose their own exclusionary agenda. This shows how securitisation does not lead to emancipation, but to further control.
Securitisation symbolises a shift from normal to extraordinary or exceptional politics. The suspension of democracy represents a state of exception which becomes permanent once institutions hold the power to suspend and formulate laws without a real democratic input (Agamben 2000). Speed it granted primacy at the expense of the slowness of deliberative procedures (Huysmans 2004), ultimately denying the possibility of a politics of dissent (Aradau 2004). Defined as a form of governmentality and a technology of power, security influences people’s behaviour, discourses and practices. Through technological surveillance, spies enforce what Bigo calls the ban-opticon (2006:110); the ban is the profiling of migrants which enforces discipline. Thus, security exists because a sense of insecurity is created by structures and security professionals – in this essay’s case, the migrant represents a threat to the homogeneity and survival of some of the American population (the indigenous are not included). Meanwhile, by joining forces and resources for a wider network of policing throughout the country, the state creates a more efficient security apparatus, blurring the historically established lines between freedom and security. According to Foucault, ‘freedom is nothing else but the correlative of the deployment of apparatuses of security’ (2009:48). In other words, the freedom of ‘citizens’ and ‘migrants’ is contingent upon securitisation. From this argument we can conclude that for a critical and progressive analysis of securitisation, one needs to first undo the reification of security to expose its ideological underpinnings and illegitimate power structures. Secondly, this practice of deconstruction enables the critic to envisage a dialectical relationship between securitisation and desecuritisation (which takes the form of emancipation).

A plea for emancipation and social ecology

As seen above, securitisation has its own internal rationality which privileges specialist knowledges and speech acts. In this section we shall focus on critiquing security from outside of this logic, by proposing a paradigm shift. To start with, securitisation is not compatible with democracy, as it is inherently exclusionary (Aradau 2004:388). Hence, Aradau argues for politicising that which is called ‘securitisation’, and contesting it with a new rationale, that of ‘emancipation’, as understood by Jacques Rancière and Étienne Balibar. According to Rancière, emancipation ‘is not secession, but self-affirmation as a joint-sharer in a common world’ (1995:49). The term, taken from both philosophers’ writings, ‘is informed by the principles of universality and recognition’ (Aradau 2004:390). In an open democracy, environment-related policies should be open to contestation, and not be taken by global institutions on behalf of a constructed ‘mass population’.
We shall now discuss about how emancipation is analytically different from securitisation, and why they should be thought of in dialectical terms. As mentioned earlier, a progressive desecuritisation approach needs to start by undoing securitisation. Emancipation is precisely that: the unmasking of securitisation and the de-subjectification of humans as constructed by security apparatuses. One of its main tools is equality (in a material sense), as a tool for verification. Put simply, one needs to presuppose equality between humans in order to verify its existence, disrupting the ‘orderly, hierarchical inequality’ (Hallward 2006). When environmental degradation is framed as a security issue (which is usually based on a presupposition of scarcity and risk) by security professionals, democracy and the relationship humans-nature are impeded. Slow processes of debating, as opposed to speedy decisions increase the possibility of reaching a consensus through dissensus, leaving always open the possibility for newcomers to make contributions. The exclusionary logic of securitisation can this way be successfully rejected, inasmuch as emancipation provides us with a plurality of voices which can at any time make visible the limitations of previous policies and practices.
Although the Paris School’s project is indeed radical, it does not put enough emphasis on including nature within its political process of emancipation. To solve this gap, I propose that what Bookchin calls non-lineal organic thinking (1993) can offer valuable contributions to the transformative project of desecuritisation. By problematizing the established forms of hierarchy and exploitation within human societies, Bookchin advocates for a radical democracy of a ‘post-scarcity’ society, which entails a metabolism between humans and nature. Hence, the Rancièrian praxis of equality would take the form of ‘direct action’ (Bookchin 1986:22). All these actions have the liberating potential of dismantling hierarchy and the domination of nature by humans. This can be done by taking into consideration both ecology, emancipation and the social and political dynamics within and between societies. Indeed, ‘the way human beings deal with each other as social beings is crucial to addressing the ecological crisis’ (Bookchin 1993).
To reiterate, rather than portraying environmental degradation as a security issue (as non-political, exceptional), the security apparatus needs to be revealed by a critical approach. By advocating against the securitisation of environmental degradation, exclusionary practices would be avoided. There is a need to focus on equality, ecology and emancipation in order to preserve the possibility of open politics and democracy. In other words, emancipation should not be seen through the lens of securitisation, but securitisation should be seen through the lens of emancipation. This approach would allow us to understand and critique the undemocratic politics linked to securitisation, and envisage new forms of dissent to maintain the openness of democracy. To end on a normative point, I would like to draw a correlation between Jean-Luc Nancy’s conceptualisation of jurisdiction as ‘justisfiction’  (Leung 2013) and this essay’s overall argument that security is a form of dangerous fiction which has been reified by scholars and institutions for too long. There is a need for a radical opposition of a securisfiction which bases its success on the extraction of power and exploitation of the subjects that it pretends to ‘protect’, namely human and non-human animals, and nature.


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