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complex in nature Arrow vol 2 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 2 Number 1, 2003



Complex in Nature: Reading Environmental Security Debates

Simon Dalby, Environmental Security (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

Katrina Lee Koo
Australian National University

1. The primary theme of Simon Dalby’s excellent contribution to the issues and debates on environmental security is an appeal to the need to render the simple complex. Canvassing a variety of perspectives on the relationships between international relations and the environment, Dalby reveals the extent to which much of the policy and prognosis of environmental security is a well veiled and manufactured discourse that constructs both danger and endangered subjects. Moreover, it is a discourse which obscures the "construction of security in terms of technological and modernist managerial assertions of control within a geopolitical imaginary of states and territorial entities." (p 146) Much of the debate surrounding environmental security therefore, Dalby argues, is not a natural or neutral reflection of ‘reality’ or ‘society’ and as such requires a complex engagement with the wider socio-political contexts that constructed the discourse.

2. Consequently, what Dalby offers, firstly, is a questioning of the questions asked about environmental security and secondly, a revealing of the problems of trying to isolate the flows and interconnectedness of the biosphere into strict, cartesian, liberal models of what it is and means to be political. By problematising notions of the political subject(s) and their presentation, in association with exposing the superficial demarcations between geopolitics, indigenous perspectives, environmental history, ecology, economics and colonisation, Dalby offers a counter-narrative of what environmental security has become and could be. Opening up space and opportunity for a critical rethinking of human relationships to the environment by offering alternative imaginings of supposedly fixed concepts in international relations, this book offers a timely warning of the extent to which we neglect environmental and ecological matters at our own peril.

3. In the early chapters of Environmental Security Dalby demonstrates how the claiming of the term ‘environmental security’ by the dominant security discourse is a graphic recognition of the extent to which, in this ‘post Cold War world’, the concept of security is liberal modernity’s project. Its response to security’s fundamental questions of ‘Who is insecure?’, ‘What does it mean to be secure?’, ‘Where is the geopolitical source of this insecurity?’ and ‘How should it be secured?’ is a clear reflection of the dominance of urban liberal theorising for whom the environment is an amorphous ‘threat without a face’. The result has been the construction of an environmental security discourse legitimated through dominant international relations discourses and is replete with the latter’s own theoretical traditions. Moreover, through its preponderance of power politics and forms of knowledge and science, the monopoly this discourse holds over claims to voice, identity and legitimacy within the security debate marginalises alternative approaches to environmental security. This is borne out, for example, in the pervasiveness of the so-called ‘environmental conflict thesis’ (linking environmental degradation with violent conflict) as the foremost environmental security project.

4. In this sense, the environmental security project is part of wider, more entrenched disciplinary conceits of identity and purpose in international relations. Dalby points out that environmental discourses are embedded within "larger discursive economies where some identities have more value than others, and crucially where the dominant development and security narratives are premised on geopolitical specifications that obscure histories of ecology and resource appropriation." (xxxi-i) Environmental security is, therefore, engaged within the wider hegemonic understanding of who ‘we’ are (and aren’t) and what that, in the liberal tradition, entitles us to. Moreover, it is an identity politics about who we are and intend to remain rather than, Dalby argues, who we intend to become. (p 163) Michael Shapiro tells us that "historically developed, socially embedded interpretations of identity and space give rise to…both policy discourse and the disciplinary conceits of international relations and foreign policy analysis." (Shapiro 1997: ix) Considered in these terms, popular discourses of environmentalism is no different. The United States' condemnation of deforestation in Brazil and neglect of US levels of carbon monoxide emissions, for example, are rarely considered paradoxical by the dominant discourse in terms of problematising which identities are entitled to what practices.

Human/Nature; Man Against Nature

5. Within this discourse there also remains a quest to separate liberal man from nature and establish him as master of his domain. This is a recurrent theme for Dalby through Chapters 4-7. In collaboration with the modernisation project, Dalby argues, these processes have successfully institutionalised, within ‘Western’ imagination, the dominance of man (subject) over nature (object). Along with this triumph over nature, scripted by tales of 'man against the elements' came a hegemonic-styled depiction of the environment as either threat or subordinate and feminised Other. As such, dominant knowledge about, and identity of, the environment has been manufactured to suit the prevailing discourse. Concurrent with the European imperialist project, dominant understanding of the environment lost any sense it may have once had of being grounded in indigenous history, culture, community or, even, religion. Similarly neglected was the connection and respect which revealed the investment and inter-connectedness that exist(ed) between human beings and the environment. Effectively, the environment became object, a tool of modernity, static and silent in a process which has been described as the 'de-souling' of nature. (Doran 1995: 202) As such, western scientific rationalism is implicated in "the construction of a nature myth sanctioned by a European scientific discourse that has represented nature as an unproblematic object, knowable via classification and experiment, and above all infinitely manipulable in the service of human purpose." (p 194)

6. Similarly, the international relations tradition uses the nature metaphor as the scene from which the fundamentals of its theory emerged. Dalby notes that "[s]ome of the more powerful metaphors drawn on by strategic studies and international relations in general use terms that relate directly to the natural world." (p 125) From the 'poor, nasty, brutish, and short' existence of Hobbes' 'state of nature' to Rousseau's stag hunt, later rehabilitated by Waltz, to the representation of 'Mother Nature' as feminine(/ weak/ powerless), there has been a deliberate and concerted construction of nature as 'Other' and an encouragement to separate 'mankind' from it, in adversarial style, through layers of technology. This process, Dalby argues, loosely coincides with European imperialism, not just of land and peoples but also of knowledge and eco-relationships. Consequently, present pursuit of environmental security has evolved into a type of neo-imperialism between urbane civilisation and primitive wilderness, (p 146) in a re-evaluation (or continuation) of the struggle of 'man against nature.'

7. Viewing nature as such is problematic for a number of reasons as Dalby reveals. First, recognising the ‘nature of nature’ as 'objective truth' marginalises other ways of knowing the environment and other relationships stylised in different power dynamics. For instance many of those dispossessed of land during the last century, as well as those in non-industrial rural communities, have a different understanding and relationship to the environment than that espoused by the ‘urban politics’ worldview. (pp 136-39) This knowledge can be found at times, not in the methods of scientific rationalism, but rather, in the realms of the spiritual, cultural and historical placing of human beings within the greater biosphere and, in doing so, often revealing a power relationship again quite dissimilar to dominant environmental security practices. Effectively, as Tariq Banuri and Frederique Apffel Marglin write "[t]he modern system of knowledge, along with its associated set of values, has been elevated to the highest status, while alternatives are at best viewed as inferior forms of knowledge and, at worst, as non knowledge." (p 201) "The central problem", Doran reveals, "is the imperialistic pretension of universality made on behalf of Western episteme and the total inability of its adherents to regard competing systems with anything but contempt - indeed, an inability even to contemplate their existence." (p 201) Again, here, we see the persuasive power of legitimised knowledge.

8. In this sense, Dalby’s earlier chapters provide the foundation for revealing the pervasiveness of the environmental security project’s elitism in collaboration with its aggressively manipulated conceptualisation of security’s ‘Who, What, When and Where’ questions. In Chapter 5 (‘Imperial Legacies, Indigenous Lives’), Dalby uncovers the superficiality and self-interest of much of the environmental security project when he investigates the presentation of indigenous lives within the environmental security and wider security projects. He notes that modernity has registered indigenous people’s lives and cultures as primitive (or ‘traditional’ where there are eco-tourism benefits) and therefore undeveloped and not worth taking seriously. (pp 94-5) Consequently, indigenous peoples are relocated outside of the security project for, it is believed, it is not what they need. According to the dominant voices in international politics, indigenous peoples are, alternatively, "in need of modernization, education, and all the panoply of modern modes of being." (pp 94-5) In response to such a mindset, however, indigenous activism has actively challenged much of the foundation upon which the environmental security project is founded. Moreover, as Dalby demonstrates they "powerfully challenge the assumptions of environment as a politically innocent category." (p 96) Against a backdrop of colonisation, post-colonisation and even re-colonisation (through the powerful forces of the global political economy), the neglect of narratives of indigenous lives is not just selective viewing of history but also a selective contextualisation "of historical cleavages and power structures in particular places" (and times). (p 94) As such, far from being holistic, contextualisations of the environment have been politically and economically pragmatic.

9. The machinations of this economic/political pragmatism is perhaps best demonstrated in the so-called environmental conflict thesis. Commentary like Robert D Kaplan's 'The Coming Anarchy', for example, geo-specifically locates in Africa (as South) environmental threats that he argues will lead to violence and have political ramifications in the West (as North). (Kaplan 1998) Thus, Kaplan adopts a geopolitical approach which promotes the demarcation of environmental space and encourages the realist predisposition to link threat with militarised danger and violence. Yet, what Dalby suggests, once more, is that the concerns of environmental degradation, violence, conflict, resource scarcity and overpopulation which have been investigated by Malthaus, MacKinder and more recently Kaplan are "obviously much more complicated than conventional cartographic imaginaries can adequately accommodate." (pp 95) As Dalby demonstrates Kaplan makes no attempt to trace the causality of the environmental degradation (or the political unrest more generally) which, suspiciously, may lead him back, at least in part, to the economic and political policies of the North. This type of geo-politically specific labelling is far from helpful in any honest commitment to understanding the cause (and effect) of environmental degradation. As Dalby argues in Chapter 4 and elsewhere,

geo-political reasoning may be a powerful mode of raising political concern about security issues, but as a mode of thinking intelligently about contemporary social and environmental processes it leaves much to be desired, precisely because it so frequently perpetuates the patterns of development thinking and the geo-political assumptions of separate competing polities that are the cause of so much difficulty in the first place. (p 100)

10. Thus, the type of threat assessment promoted by the environmental conflict thesis, which examines possible potentialities from static and specific observations, helps legitimise an analytical framework whose primacy is to identify current threats to predominantly Western interests and, conveniently, "the image of chaos in the Third World appear rich with menacing possibility." (Matthew 1995: 18) Yet, the critical investigation into the environmental conflict thesis undertaken by Dalby in Chapter 3 reveals the extent to which it is influenced by statism, even nationalism, in an often racialised demarcation of the first and third worlds. Moreover, he reveals how environmental science can be (mis)used by political scientists and public policy makers in the construction and reification of their identity and purpose.

11. There are, consequently, a number of concerns with the environment conflict thesis, based not just on its theoretical assumptions but also on its empirical evidence which is addressed by Dalby in Chapters 2 and 3. Most significantly is the theory's appeal to Darwinian and neo-Malthusian constructs of human nature and its relationship to the natural environment, its deterministic acceptance of violence and conflict as the 'obvious' means of settling disputes in favour of co-operation and finally, this thesis' preponderance to concentrate its attentions not only on the developing world, but also on those areas which, historically, have experienced conflict unrelated to environmental issues. In allowing these to be the terms of analysis, the appeal to a neo-realist security discourse is undeniable. Barnett argues that the environmental conflict thesis "recasts ecological problems in mainstream international relations terms; it scripts the South as primeval Other, and as a consequence suggests the imposition of the North to maintain order." (Barnett 2001: 65) It is traditional North-American security business-as-usual with an added environmental context. Using a positivist logic based upon strategic modelling moreover, it views environmental degradation, not within the context of the well-being of the environment, or even humans, but in the context of the well-being of the state and the economy.

12. Essentially therefore, the dominant approach to environmental security is one of co-option, which carefully crafts and adapts through the use of discourse and interaction with existing institutions and structures, an agenda which suits its own interests. Thus, there is nothing new, theoretically or conceptually, about the environmental security debate. Alternatively, what is being offered, to borrow the term from Cara Stewart, is "old wine in recycled bottles." (Stewart 1997) Consequently, the agenda is dominated by the environmental conflict thesis on the one hand, and the appropriate responses of state and the military institutions on the other, often invoking "simple and violent solutions to complex situations." (Dalby 1998: 294) This approach to environmental security, infiltrated by power politics and the pressures of the global political economy is too preoccupied for environmental rescue. This is because, as Dalby's eloquent reading of Michael Dillon suggests, "security does things." Moreover, it does things to politics; complicating simplifying, dictating, limiting and endangering the political lives we lead and the space in which we lead them, expecting from us an unconditional acceptance of security as a static political concept and a specific political discourse. After all, realist security is about the control of specific geopolitical spaces, therefore it is not unexpected that as realist environmental security suggests "the environment must be controlled and that security agencies are the appropriate locus for this political effort." (pp 293-4)

13. In order to suggest a space beyond this conceptualisation of security, Dalby explores, in Chapter 7, ‘ecological metaphors of security’. While contested, ecology, in a simplistic articulation, argues that all forms of life including human are interrelated, so much so that no life can be abstracted or considered as apart from the whole planetary environment. (Barnett 2001: 108) Furthermore, ecological security promotes "the security of our entire interactive and interdependent planetary environment" using ecological process, eco-systems and indeed the biosphere, as referent objects. (Matthew 1999: 13-14) In this sense, ecological politics threatens the foundations of realist international theory by revealing as manufactured the very knowledge, processes and structures that realism represents as objective truth and reality, from the ‘nature of nature’ to the primacy and abstracted position of the state. As a subversive challenge to the foundations of international security, Dalby argues that "recent research in ecology leads away from reductionist and mechanistic thinking in ways that can link directly to a global conception of ecopolitics." (p 124) Moreover, it emphasises the complex interconnectedness of the planet.

14. An eco-centric approach, therefore, fundamentally changes approaches to security as a concept and, consequently, as a policy discourse. Under an ecological security approach there is no Other, no hierarchy, no utility for reductionism and little motivation for subjective valuing of danger, time, history and geographic space. Far from equating the Other with threat, ecological approaches to security promote otherness as diversity of experience and style, indicative of resilience, and accepting of complexity – thereby providing the basis for a social balance, not hierarchy, between humans and their habitat. (Barnett 2001: 112) Similarly, by appreciating, even celebrating, environmental complexity, there is not the appeal to analytical coherence and the subsequent simplicity, marginalisation and reductionism that dominates debates within the Security Studies tradition.

15. Furthermore, with little concept of political boundaries or inside and outside, the role of the state within an ecological security approach becomes problematised. Environmentalists of all political persuasions have long argued that a statist response to a problem which does not recognise geo-political space can only be ineffectual. Alternatively what is needed is an approach which recognises mutual dependence, identifies common objectives and does not allow itself to be overwhelmed by other political interests or influenced by pre-existing statist/nationalist political values. Moreover, an ecological approach to security, both domestically and internationally, places in political perspective issues like the destruction of 'remote' eco-systems or the global traffic of both valuable resources (to the rich) and waste (to the poor).

16. Aspects of ecological security, therefore, offer to enrich debates on environmental security, a point not lost on some of its harsher critics. (Matthew 1997) Whether or not such an approach has 'policy feasibility' is less unanimous. Unlike environmental security, ecological approaches to security have not enjoyed widespread or mainstream debate or discussion, nor has it had a sustained active engagement with the dominant security terrain, which, Barnett argues, limits the discourse's value. (Barnett 2001: 120) Yet, certainly, elements of ecology theory are becoming increasingly evident. Toulmin notes, for example, that recent political trends in liberal democracies to carry out environmental impact studies on sites prior to development is an indication that we are adapting a more interdependent approach to the environment. (Toulmin 1990: 182) This may be an encouraging beginning, however, ecological security petitions nothing less than a complete de-construction of the political value given to existing geopolitical structures and a re-imagining of geographic space and humanity's role within it.

17. Thus, the key to rethinking security after the Cold War, according to Dalby, is to consider politics without "presupposing narratives of normalisation, spatial security, intervention, and imperial control." (p 155) In order to exploit the opportunities and spaces opened up by critical scholars, Dalby argues that there needs to be a more explicit engagement with questions about identity, history, geopolitical imaginations and the production and discourses of threat and danger within the "ecological conditions of the contemporary human experience." (p 184) He writes:

Ecopolitical considerations require that ecology and environmental history be taken seriously. While decisions about humanity’s future are clearly political questions, the contextualizations in which they are thought about, debated, and decided need much more careful attention than has so far been the case in most discussions of environmental security. (p 82)

18. Thus, what Dalby is offering in his reconsideration of the political is layers of complexity. In essence, what he is suggesting is that the interconnected relationships of international relations, the environment and international security studies are ‘complex in nature’. What Dalby proposes is a critical repoliticising of the 'nature of nature' in both space and time. Furthermore, he argues, we must recognise how liberal modernity’s imagination is responsible for generating and sustaining a particular ideology and knowledge which stabilises, sustains and secures itself and its identity while silencing and relocating voices of others. Careful investigation, therefore, needs to be undertaken to reveal and reorient the politics of legitimising power and naturalised knowledge evident in much of international relations’ understanding of the relationship between nature, geopolitics and ourselves. This provides the basis, then, for a contextualised discourse to develop which appreciates and problematises the embedded politics of history, geopolitical space, power, knowledge and economics while respecting the fundamental ‘state’ of a shared planetary experience.

Katrina Lee Koo is a lecturer in Political Science and International Relations in the Faculty of Arts at the Australian National University. Email:


Barnett, Jon (2001) The Meaning of Environmental Security: Ecological Politics and Policy In the New Security Era (London: Zed Books).

Dalby, Simon (1998) "Ecological Metaphors of Security: World Politics in the Biosphere", Alternatives, Vol 23(3), July-September 1998.

Doran, Peter (1995) "Earth, Power, Knowledge: Towards a Critical Global Environmental Politics" in John MacMillan and Andrew Linklater, eds, Boundaries in Question, New Directions in International Relations (London: Pinter).

Kaplan, Robert D (1998) "The Coming Anarchy" in Simon Dalby and Gearoid O'Tauthail, eds, The Geopolitics Reader (London: Routledge).

Matthew, Richard A (1995) "Environmental Security: Demystifying the Concept, Clarifying the Stakes", Environmental Change and Security Project, Issue 1, Spring.

________ (1999) "Introduction: Mapping Contested Grounds", in Daniel H Deudney and Richard A Matthew, Contested Grounds, Security and Conflict in the New Environmental Politics (Albany: State University of New York Press).

________ (1997) "Rethinking Environmental Security", in Nils Petter Gleditsch, Conflict and the Environment (Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers)

Shapiro, Michael (1997) Violent Cartographies: Mapping Cultures of War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), ix.

Stewart, Cara (1997) "Old Wine in Recycled Bottles," Paper presented at the BISA conference in Leeds, December.

Toulmin, Stephen (1990), Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, New York : Free Press.

© borderlands ejournal 2003


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