Mu'adz D'Fahmi , Jakarta | Mon, 01/25/2010 10:54 AM | Opinion
Environmental degradation draws the attention of world politics because it is a threat to global security.
The UN secretary-general’s report on the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (2004), declared a slogan “toward a new security consensus”.
It contended there were bigger security threats that go far beyond the dreadfulness of vicious war among states, including environmental degeneration. This report reveals the international awareness of the imposing danger of environmental deterioration.
Experts have shown there are connections between environmental degradation and security issues. Lorraine Elliott (2007) suggests several propositions in which environmental degradation is a security concern, including the issue of scarcity and abundance of natural resources.
Problems of resource availability as an impact on environmental degradation and climate change could be the most classic way to link the issue with security concerns. Resource availability means there is scarcity of natural resources in one place and an abundance of resources in another. Yet, which one is the actual driving force for conflict: scarcity or abundance? There are two answers to this question.
Debates on the rate of resource availability generate two arguments. Some scholars assert that environmental scarcity often stimulates new social conflict or inflames existing hatred. Yet, others argue that instead of scarcity, abundance of ecological resources is the actual driver of conflict. The second opinion is more acceptable as people aim to get involved in conflict to get food, not because there is no food.
The first group of studies reveals scarcity as the source of insecurity. Resource scarcity will lead to civil turmoil and outright violence.
Based on the neo-Malthusian theory on human-resource relations, this argument assumes the impacts of social competition over limited resources are multiplied by the fast-growing population, consumption levels and the high rate of consumer technology development.
Supporters of this theory argue the conflicts that took place in Rwanda and Sudan were triggered and perpetuated by environmental degradation.
Environmental problems such as regional climate instability were the most fundamental causes of the food crisis leading to conflict in Darfur, and it is prone to be a catalyst for the forthcoming conflict all over central and eastern Sudan. The same situation also explains the humanitarian tragedy in Rwanda.
However, the argument that resource scarcity as a causative factor to conflict and insecurity has been criticized on its methodological, theoretical and political basis. De Soysa (2000) applies a statistical model to find that scarcity has no correlation with political instability. The relation between environmental degradation and security is also determined by its impact on human security. Arguing about the vulnerability of individuals and groups to environmental degradation, Jon Barnett and Neil Adger (2005) encapsulate that vulnerable livelihoods, poverty, weak states and migration are the four factors in which the impact of environmental degradation could cause violent conflict.
Environmental degradation impacts the availability of basic things that support livelihood such as water and food availability, coastal areas, crop growing, extreme weather and diseases. This condition increases people’s vulnerability by exposing them to risks.
Environmental degradation may directly boost absolute, chronic and temporary poverty by hampering access to natural capital. The consequences of environmental degradation may increase state expenses to provide public services, such as education and public infrastructures, including water resources, as well as decreasing national revenue.
And, laxity in food resources and dwelling-places due to environmental crises could increase migration.
However, environmental degradation will not pose human insecurity in isolation from other important social factors — it does not trigger violent conflict, but rather affects the parameters that are sometimes important in generating conflict.
The other key issue in the securitization of environmental degradation is its implications. There is an opinion the securitization of environmental degradation is disadvantageous. The purpose of environmental security is primarily to reveal the insufficiency of militarized practices of security and ultimately to trade-off the first for the latter.
Nevertheless, the result is not as expected. Environmental degradation has been militarized and the focus has been altered. Instead of being perceived as an issue of human insecurity, environmental deterioration is treated as a cause of violent conflict that needs a military solution. Accordingly, the securitization of environmental destruction poses the risk of making it militarized.
Yet, in spite of its negative implication, environmental security may have some benefits. By applying the concept of security, environmental degradation can be better understood. It explains danger much better than concepts like sustainability, vulnerability or adaptation, and it offers a framework in which danger can be recast as widespread risks to welfare and (in the case of small island states) sovereignty.
The other advantage is that security can also serve as an integrative concept that links local and global levels of political response for environmental degradation. The securitization of environmental degradation promotes understanding that environmental insecurity is a combination of local problems that require global cooperation.
The problem of illegal logging in Indonesia, for example, entails intricate relations among those who support and benefits from the activity, involving indigenous people, regional government officers and law enforcers, local brokers and foreign traders. This case demonstrates local as well as global problems.
From a local perspective, indigenous people often lack education, the breakdown of law enforcement, corrupt practices and the wicked mindset of local brokers are also factors. From a global perspective, foreign traders are less controlled in their trading activities and the importing states are not strict enough or even reluctant to formulate, apply and enforce rules on imported goods. Hence, there are local problems in the issue of deforestation in Indonesia, but the solution cannot merely be local.
Indonesia may deal with the local problems by itself.
Yet, it needs pressures from the international community to tackle problems such as corrupt practices.
It also needs help from neighboring countries to discipline their traders, because even though local problems can be tackled, the ongoing deforestation in Indonesia will never stop if other countries still accept illicitly logged trees from Indonesia.
In brief, environmental degradation as a security threat is a complicated problem. It draws serious awareness to world politics. There may be many proposed connections between environmental degradation and security, but the classic approach of the scarcity/abundance of resources is still suitable to describe the issue.
Environmental degradation is regarded as a security problem since it creates unequal availability where there are scarcity of natural resources in one place and abundance of resources in another, resulting in the social conflict to gain control over income-generating resources.
Finally, in spite of its risk of being militarized, the securitization of environmental degradation could pose benefits in international politics by promoting the problems from local concerns to higher global political concerns.
The writer is a graduate student at the School of International Affairs, Australian National University.