• Copenhagen School;
  • environment;
  • security;
  • critical geopolitics


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Acknowledgements
  4. References

Threats to and from ‘the environment’ inform geographical depictions of danger with widespread reach in political and policy circles. These fears invoke an existential anxiety about collapsing conditions of life – from ‘dangerous climate change’, and species extinctions to fossil fuel depletion and global water shortages. The ‘securitisation’ of socio-environmental processes is at once both a consequence and driver of such concerns, prescribing urgent, even emergency, measures to prevent serious harm. Against this tendency, the papers in this themed section critically interrogate the application of securitising moves to a series of perceived environmental threats – moves which mark out spaces of safety in terms of ‘climate security’, ‘water security’, ‘food security’ and ‘energy security’. Theoretically, the papers serve as a productive foil to the dominant strand of securitisation theory associated with the so-called Copenhagen School. There has been relatively little interrogation by geographers of this approach, despite its strong spatial assumptions: the Copenhagen School posits state-bounded territoriality as the foremost arena of security dynamics, and advances explanatory claims about the conditions and scope for securitisation of the environment. Two featured papers argue that the Copenhagen School perspective on environmental security misses important spatialities of geopolitical power, while two more explore other modes of securitisation – disciplinary, biopolitical and geo-economic – neglected by this approach. For critical geographers the research challenge is, we argue, to capture the distinctive trajectories of securitisation attached to environmental danger, demonstrating that their effects more often than not foreclose rather than protect human freedom and dignity.

Threats to and from ‘the environment’ inform geographical depictions of danger with widespread reach in political and policy circles. While these fears are partly replaying past neo-Malthusian concerns about limits to growth, they are also associated with a distinct millennialist anxiety about the lethality made possible by collapsing conditions of life. ‘Dangerous climate change’ is at the forefront of these apocalyptic imaginaries, but existential threats are seen to issue also from biodiversity extinction, fossil fuel depletion and endemic water shortages (Dalby 2009; Swyngedouw 2010). The ‘securitisation’ of environmental processes is at once both a consequence and driver of such apocalyptic concerns, and this discursive framing is intuitively straightforward for those who argue that it justifies urgent, even emergency, measures to prevent or mitigate serious dangers. Security here denotes that which is evoked or invoked when acting to protect core institutions or freedoms in the face of serious ecological threats. This is the dominant notion of environmental security questioned by contributors to this themed section.

From a geographical perspective, environmental security straddles uneasily across a territorial/post-territorial axis, where tensions are immediately apparent between competing spatial performances of security. This expresses contrasting claims over the political subjectivity being secured. It is not surprising that state actors have invoked environmental security practices and discourses according to territorial doctrines of national security, whereby environmental risks supplement traditional threats to the state. Thus, ‘climate security’, ‘biosecurity’ and ‘energy security’ are employed to refer to the protection of state interests with regard to the projected and perceived consequences of environmental change, biotechnologies and fossil fuels scarcity. Numerous think-tank and academic publications have fed these state-centred imaginaries of environmental danger on the basis of disputed natural and social scientific scenarios (e.g. Klare 2008; Brown and Crawford 2009; Chellaney 2011). In apparent opposition to statist representations of security are non-territorial notions of ‘human security’, which profess a universal concern for the protection of individuals or groups from serious threats to wellbeing. Constructions of human security have identified environmental dangers as potential threats to human welfare; for example, ‘water security’ and ‘food security’ mark out areas of practical application for international development and humanitarian organisations (Matthew et al. 2010; Cook and Bakker 2012).

Interest in the territorial/post-territorial duality of environmental security served as the initial impetus for convening a conference session – at the 2011 Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (RGS-IBG) Annual Conference – featuring early versions of three of the papers in this themed section. Co-sponsored by The Geographical Journal and the RGS-IBG Planning and Environment Research Group, the session was designed to highlight recent geographical research critically interrogating the justification and application of environmental security ideas in selected political-policy domains. As Philo (2012, 2) notes, placing ‘security’ under critical scrutiny means working to prevent it becoming ‘a tool wielded thoughtlessly or instrumentally by sectional or partisan interests of any description’. Efforts to problematise the concept include radical critiques of security as a technology of liberal governmentality (Neocleous 2008) and even as the ontological foundation for Western political philosophy (Dillon 1996). If the critical intent of the papers in this themed section falls short of such heights, it is at least in part because they all accord epistemological significance to how securitisation takes place in ‘real world’ political-policy contexts. Engaging respectively with ‘climate security’, ‘water security’, ‘food security’ and ‘energy security’, the papers collectively explore the authors and addressees of securitising claims, as well as the material and discursive conditions by which these claims gain (or fail to gain) political geographic currency.

At the same time, the papers serve as a productive foil to the dominant framing of securitisation theory associated with the Copenhagen School of critical security studies. Through its constructivist lens, securitisation is a discursive process by which communities treat an issue as an existential threat and are prepared to accept political measures which may violate normal legal and social rules (Buzan et al. 1998, 23–5). There has been relatively little interrogation by geographers of this approach, with recent securitisation work in the discipline finding more analytical value in biopolitical and imaginative/affective theory (e.g. Anderson 2010; Bialasiewicz et al. 2007; Fluri 2011). Undoubtedly the perceived state-centrism of the Copenhagen School has limited its attraction to those critical geographers deconstructing or displacing territorial constructions of security. As the contributions here from Mason (on climate) and Mirumachi (on transboundary waters) suggest, even for securitisation arenas in which state actors remain central, the Copenhagen School fails to grasp key dynamics of geopolitical power. Furthermore, the restrictive manner in which this approach treats environmental security – as a source of securitising potential dependent on epistemic authority and state recognition (Buzan et al. 1998, 71–5) – has already triggered critical responses within international security studies, arguing that ecologies of fear can both extend and transform security logics (e.g. Floyd 2010; Trombetta 2011). In this themed section the papers by Devaney on food safety and Bettini and Karaliotas on peak oil both uncover securitising moves with wider societal conditions and effects.

At least from the perspective of critical geopolitics, mainstream securitisation theory justifies geographical interest because of a shared methodological focus on both the discursive construction of threats and the legitimation of exceptional responses. Of course, critical geopolitics pays particular attention to the geographical imaginaries of securitisation, which have diverse scalar expression: ‘the geopolitical present is constituted by multiple temporalities and multiple spatialities that exceed the states and security apparatuses, even as they are shaped by them’ (Ingram and Dodds 2009, 3). To be sure, Copenhagen School theorists profess a sensitivity to different scalings of securitisation, accounting for geographical constellations of security interdependence in terms of proximate power relations and national identities (Buzan and Wæver 2003 2009). However, as argued in the paper by Mason, this approach problematically accords strong (state) territoriality to security dynamics which leads, amongst other consequences, to a simplistic distance-decay model of threat diffusion and the neglect of the precise spatialities of securitising moves. The article addresses the ostensible paradox of unsuccessful climate securitisation within an enduring regional conflict (Israel–Palestine), drawing on the vertical geopolitics literature to identify spatial trajectories of military-political control that enrol climate change to legitimise occupational practices.

Mirumachi's paper on water securitisation also accords context-dependent political conditions more explanatory weight than usual in securitisation theory. Following Trombetta's (2011) claims that environmental contexts generate distinctive security logics, she attributes causal significance to the materiality of the securitised object – the transboundary flows of the Mahakali River shared by Nepal and India. This involves more than noting how volatile river flows inform motives for securitising moves – here the move by India violating Nepalese territorial integrity by constructing a barrage to regulate the unruly Ganges tributary – for Mirumachi also reveals how a distinctive blend of Indian technical and political authority mobilising hydraulic engineering interests directed the securitising act. If the subsequent creation of an international agreement between India and Nepal seems to suggest a transformative security logic away from tension to cooperation, Mirumachi's argument is more compelling; that an in-depth understanding of the historical and geopolitical context registers the securitisation as entrenching not only Indian control of the flows, but also ‘hydrocracy’ in the region.

A major strand of recent geographical work on security, informed by Foucauldian ideas on biopower and research into hybrid geographies, breaks more fully from the geopolitical imaginary of securitisation theory. The core claim is that, beginning in Western societies, liberal regimes of power have forged new mechanisms of security to regulate populations as biological rather than socio-legal entities. Rapid advances in medicine and biotechnology, now enabling the transformation of life itself featuring unprecedented combinations of living (and non-living) things, are argued to have intensified the management of ‘species-being’ as a governance priority. In the midst of a contingent, risky world, biopolitical security is distinguished from geopolitical security in seeking to maintain a free circulation of valued life opportunities rather than protecting a sovereign (state) subject from external enemies or dangers (Dillon 2007; Grove 2010). Devaney's paper on the construction of food safety in Ireland employs geographical framings of biosecurity as ‘making life safe’ to uncover the evolution and scaling of food risk governance. Her analysis of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland pinpoints the unstable coexistence of two distinctive security logics – on the one hand, a neoliberal securitising move in which the circulation of safe food is trusted to industry self-regulation and, on the other, a public commitment to ‘biosecure’ food designed to reassure consumers. The interface between these two logics is evident in the ambivalent responses of ‘stakeholders’ to the activities of the food safety authority.

In their article on the securitising effects of the peak oil metaphor, Bettini and Karaliotas also identify a tension between the ‘good’ (economic) circulation of oil as an energy staple and the ‘bad’ (socio-ecological) circulation of externalities (such as greenhouse gas emissions) that it fuels. The securitisation of peak oil is enmeshed within major corporate interests: the push towards the financialisation of risky oil flows ensures their (re)production while creating further opportunities for commodification (Labban 2010). Reading alarmist imaginaries of peak oil as a paradigmatic case of energy securitisation, Bettini and Karaliotas observe that the metaphor embeds a naturalisation of oil scarcity and thereby a depoliticisation of the oil metabolism. Critical geographers attuned to wider political economics of securitisation have favoured geo-economics as an analytical lens for showing how the pre-emptive regulation of capitalist circulations underpins or co-produces the geopolitical strategies of dominant powers – what Morrissey (2011), for the US military, labels the ‘long war of securitisation’ (see also Sparke 2005, 270–83). Such a fusion of geo-economics and geopolitics suggests that biopolitical practices do not necessarily float free of state security imperatives. Indeed, Bettini and Karaliotas, linking examples of biophysical and geopolitical securitisations of oil, argue that the mobilisation of the peak oil metaphor amongst competing discourses risks reinforcing the dominant geo- and biopolitics of fossil fuel capitalism.

Thus, while the articles in this themed section serve as a reminder that securitisations of the environment often remain structured or inflected by geopolitical logics, they also admit the (co)presence of alternative security modes – disciplinary, biopolitical and geo-economic. For critical geographers the research challenge is, we argue, to capture their distinctive and bundled trajectories of securitisation, including relations to constructions of fear in non-environmental domains.

Of course, there is also a normative agenda informing critiques of environmental security expressed in geopolitical terms – a position which, in our view, rightly problematises and pluralises the notion, as well as rejecting its spatial confinement to flattened territorial modes of state power. Emerging scholarly interest in human security and environmental change is motivated by the desire to create analytical and political-policy space for addressing the core needs and rights of people vulnerable to serious socio-ecological threats. Not only does this highlight non-territorial threats to human security posed by local and global processes of environmental change (Matthew et al. 2010), it also, more ambitiously, moves to place human (in)security within a planetary context where dangers and vulnerabilities issue from differentiated locations in the volatile material and energy networks of a globalising political economy (Dalby 2009). Under this perspective, environmental security becomes a shared responsibility for producing safe socio-ecological conditions of existence, and not an excuse to send in the troops.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Acknowledgements
  4. References

Thanks to Klaus Dodds and two journal referees for valuable comments on previous drafts of this paper.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Acknowledgements
  4. References
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