Globalizing Insecurity: The Convergence of Interdependent Ecological, Energy, and Economic Crises


From Volume 5, Issue 2 - Spring/Summer 2010: Spotlight on Security

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Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, and has taught international relations and globalization at Brunel University’s Politics & History Unit and the University of Sussex School of Global Studies. His latest book is A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization (2010).


Increases in United States-led Western military expenditures ostensibly vindicate the fear of international terrorism as an escalating imminent threat to U.S. and Western national security.  However, the most urgent dangers to security come not from terrorism per se, but from the converging impacts of global systemic crises, including climate change, hydrocarbon energy depletion, economic and financial breakdown, and plummeting food production.  Conventional security approaches, viewing these non-traditional insecurities as separate processes, evade their inherent interdependence rooted in the structure of the global political economy.  Holistic, integrated and systemic responses transcending military solutions are required, based on fundamentally re-conceptualizing security.

‘Clash’ or Crisis?

World military expenditure in 2008 was estimated to have reached $1.464 trillion, a 45 percent increase since 1999. The United States now accounts for just under half of this, at 41.5 percent of the world total.[i] The vast bulk of this military expenditure over the last decade has gone to support the military invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently, counterinsurgency operations in Pakistan. Yet over the last decade, robust statistical analyses of worldwide terrorist incidents indicate that international terrorism has consistently been on the decline – even as military spending under the rubric of the ‘War on Terror’ has escalated. Ironically, the majority of rising fatalities conventionally identified as due to terrorism belong overwhelmingly to the same conflict-zones subject to long-term U.S. and Western military intervention – Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Comparing terrorist fatalities from 2001 to 2006, a study by researchers at Simon Fraser University found that there had been a 40 percent decline, if civilian fatalities in Iraq were excluded. The study noted that the State Department’s calculation of a nine percent rise in terrorism fatalities in that period was largely attributable to conflict in Iraq – in fact, two-thirds of all tallied fatalities were actually due to ‘war crimes’ in that country.[ii] More recently, the State Department’s 2008 annual assessment of global terrorism found that the number of terrorist attacks worldwide had fallen by eighteen percent from 2007 to 2008. Yet the report also noted that terrorist incidents in Pakistan, linked to the support of insurgents in Afghanistan, had doubled in the same period.[iii]

Notably, then, the rise of fatalities according to both studies has occurred not prior to, but in the aftermath of U.S.-led regional military operations.[iv] The militarization of foreign policy in the name of ‘security’ may well, then, be its own nemesis, serving to contribute to the very grievances and antagonisms that fuel terrorist recruitment strategies.  In other words, rather than constituting an objective condition of international relations, Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy, underscoring the extent to which dynamics internal to the structure of civilization itself are undermining security.

Indeed, there is now overwhelming evidence that the greatest danger to civilization is not from competing external civilizations – but from the very social organization of modern industrial civilization itself in its current conjuncture.

Climate Catastrophe – Ecological Insecurity

Perhaps the most notorious indicator is anthropogenic global warming. The landmark 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – which warned that at then-current rates of increase of fossil fuel emissions, the earth’s global average temperature would likely rise by 6°C by the end of the 21st century creating a largely uninhabitable planet – was a wake-up call to the international community.[v] Despite the pretensions of ‘climate sceptics,’ the peer-reviewed scientific literature has continued to produce evidence that the IPCC’s original scenarios were wrong – not because they were too alarmist, but on the contrary, because they were far too conservative.

According to a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, current CO2 emissions are worse than all six scenarios contemplated by the IPCC. This implies that the IPCC’s worst-case six-degree scenario severely underestimates the most probable climate trajectory under current rates of emissions.[vi]

It is often presumed that a 2°C rise in global average temperatures under an atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gasses at 400 parts per million (ppm) constitutes a safe upper limit – beyond which further global warming could trigger rapid and abrupt climate changes that, in turn, could tip the whole earth climate system into a process of irreversible, runaway warming.[vii] Unfortunately, we are already well past this limit, with the level of greenhouse gasses as of mid-2005 constituting 445 ppm.[viii] Worse still, cutting-edge scientific data suggests that the safe upper limit is in fact far lower. James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, argues that the absolute upper limit for CO2 emissions is 350 ppm: “If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.”[ix]

A wealth of scientific studies has attempted to explore the role of positive-feedback mechanisms between different climate sub-systems, the operation of which could intensify the warming process. Emissions beyond 350 ppm over decades are likely to lead to the total loss of Arctic sea-ice in the summer triggering magnified absorption of sun radiation, accelerating warming; the melting of Arctic permafrost triggering massive methane injections into the atmosphere, accelerating warming; the loss of half the Amazon rainforest triggering the momentous release of billions of tonnes of stored carbon, accelerating warming; and increased microbial activity in the earth’s soil leading to further huge releases of stored carbon, accelerating warming; to name just a few.  Each of these feedback sub-systems alone is sufficient by itself to lead to irreversible, catastrophic effects that could tip the whole earth climate system over the edge.[x]

Recent studies now estimate that the continuation of business-as-usual would lead to global warming of three to four degrees Celsius before 2060 with multiple irreversible, catastrophic impacts; and six, even as high as eight, degrees by the end of the century – a situation endangering the survival of all life on earth.[xi]

Global Resource Scarcity – Energy Insecurity

At the heart of the problem is that anthropogenic global warming is being driven ultimately by our continued exploitation of fossil fuels, namely, oil, gas and coal. Modern industrial civilization is thus over-dependent on hydrocarbon energy to the extent that this is a dependency that is deeply dysfunctional and structurally entrenched. Dysfunctional, to the degree that it is clearly on the path to destroying the conditions of civilizational continuity; entrenched, for the simple reason that the entire organization of the global political economy is concurrently premised on the availability of cheap hydrocarbon energy sources, and the geopolitical stability of the regions in which these can be found.

Yet on its own terms, civilization’s over-dependence on hydrocarbon energies, especially cheap conventional oil, is not simply implicated in the danger of climate catastrophe – it is central to the danger of accelerating rates of energy depletion culminating in a scenario of global energy scarcity.

The basic rules for the discovery, estimation and production of petroleum reserves were laid down by the world renowned geophysicist, M. King Hubbert, who pointed out that, as petroleum is of course a finite resource, its production must inevitably begin at zero, increase until it peaks (at or around the point when 50 per cent of total petroleum reserves are depleted), then subsequently decline at an increasing rate, until finally the resource is depleted.  The U.S., of course, peaked in the early 1970s, as did the United Kingdom’s North Sea reserves in the late 1990s, both thus becoming net importers of oil.

There is now increasing evidence that world oil production has either already peaked, or is very close to peaking.  In the last half-decade, geologists and oil industry experts extending Hubbert’s model have forecasted that world oil production would peak between 2005 and 2013.[xii] Until 2004, world oil production had risen continuously but thereafter underwent a plateau all the way through to 2008. Then from July to August 2008, world oil production fell by almost one million barrels per day.[xiii] At that time, former Bush administration energy adviser Matthew Simmons, chair of the world’s largest energy investment bank Simmons & Company International, reported in the New Scientist:

Based on the best information we have on global oil supply, there is growing evidence that global production of crude oil actually peaked in 2005, and for the past three years has struggled to remain at an undulating plateau of some 73 to 74 million barrels a day.  Since the world’s total petroleum consumption is about 88 million barrels per day, we currently bridge this gap through the intensive use of liquefied natural gas, refining processing gains and tapping into the world's oil inventory.[xiv]

Corroborating this assessment, energy stock analyst Tony Eriksen analyses the latest production data from U.S. Energy Information Administration, showing that:

World crude oil, condensate and oil sands production peaked in 2008 at an average of 73.78 million barrels per day (mbd) which just exceeded the previous peak of 73.74 mbd in 2005...  Production is expected to decline further as non OPEC oil production peaked in 2004 and is forecast to decline at a faster rate in 2009 and beyond due mainly to big declines from Russia, Norway, the UK and Mexico. Saudi Arabia’s crude oil production peaked in 2005. By 2011, OPEC will not have the ability to offset cumulative non OPEC declines and world oil production is forecast to stay below its 2008 peak...  Additional reserves and the related production from prospective areas such as the Arctic, Iraq, and Brazil’s Santos basin are highly unlikely to produce another peak but should decrease the production decline rate after 2012.[xv]

In effect, having peaked in around 2005, world oil production is currently on an undulating plateau and is unlikely to be able to rise above 2008 levels for the foreseeable future. This explains why oil prices shot up in 2007-08, then lowered again as economic recession slumped demand, thus lowering pressure on oil supply capacity.  Other studies project that the continuing decline of world oil production will generate a global oil-supply crunch between 2013 and 2015, after which oil prices may rise inexorably as supplies drop.[xvi]

The problem is that unconventional oil, coal, and natural gas may well be unable to compensate for this shortfall. ExxonMobil’s own world oil production forecast shows no contribution from ‘oil shale’ even by 2030.[xvii] The Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group at Uppsala University in Sweden investigated the viability of a crash programme for the Canadian tar sands industry within the time frame 2006–2018 and 2006–2050. It concluded that even adopting “a very optimistic scenario Canada’s oil sands will not prevent Peak Oil.”[xviii]

Much touted discoveries of new deepwater reserves – essentially conventional oil buried deeper than 400 metres that thus requires unconventional extraction techniques – may ameliorate decline trends, but are unlikely to do so significantly.  The world’s deepwater reserves are concentrated in the U.S., the Gulf of Mexico, Brazil, West Africa and the Asia Pacific.  As of 2007, these were estimated to amount to a total of around 44 billion barrels of proven estimated reserves, and up to 80 billion barrels of unproven estimated reserves. The data points to a “sharply slowing and then flattening deepwater growth profile” by 2011 – as a proven resource base of 44 billion barrels can support production no higher than 8-10 million barrels per day (or 2.9-3.6 billion barrels per year), implying a 6.6-8.3 percent annual depletion rate.  This could only be forestalled by consistent substantial new discoveries, but there has been a “falling deepwater discovery trend.”[xix]

It is unclear whether recent deepwater findings can put-off the peak. The biggest recent find in years is Tupi, in Brazilian waters, estimated to hold five-to-eight billion barrels of oil – substantive, but only enough to meet world demand for 60 to 90 days.[xx] Eriksen’s March 2009 analysis noted that “deepwater production entered a seven mbd peak plateau in 2008 due partly to decline rates as high as 20 percent per year from mature deepwater oil fields.”[xxi] The International Energy Agency concurs, noting that its “longer-term forecasts assume that the pace of deepwater decline accelerates.”[xxii] Thus, the flurry of new discoveries from Brazil to Sierra Leone “may not be enough to ward off a supply crunch as the world economy recovers,” according to London’s Financial Times.  This is as much to do with supply issues as it is to do with mobilizing productive capacity, which can be severely debilitated if oil price spikes induce economic contraction resulting in strained credit markets – this could counteract the potential profitability of deepwater (and other unconventional) projects due to higher conventional oil prices.  On the “slew of new discoveries,” Bob MacKnight, analyst at the Washington-based PFC Energy, points out that “much more oil would need to be found to delay the plateau that global oil production will eventually hit as the world’s biggest fields decline and large oil-rich areas remain untapped because of political hurdles.”[xxiii] He adds: “We are really approaching a peak production in deep water. It looks as though with these discoveries we will be able to hold on for longer. We need them.” The discoveries, therefore, might “shallow the decline rather than move the peak.”[xxiv] Thus, it is unclear the extent to which the current world oil production plateau could be prolonged as new supply sources come online and become more profitable with higher oil prices. Indeed, a new study by Sir David King, the U.K. government’s former chief scientific adviser, official estimates of world conventional (including deepwater) oil reserves should be downgraded from 1,150-1,350bn barrels to between 850-900bn barrels – and reiterates the above-noted forecast that demand may outstrip supply as early as 2014.[xxv]

As for coal supplies, an extensive study by the Energy Watch Group warns that global coal production is likely to peak around 2025, at 30 percent above 2007 levels of production. U.S. coal production in terms of energy will only be able to maintain current levels for another ten to fifteen years.[xxvi]

The situation looks similar for the future of natural gas production. According to former Total geologist Jean Laherrere, who has conducted one of the most comprehensive surveys of the available gas reserve and production data, global natural gas production will also peak at almost the same time as coal, sometime around 2025.[xxvii] Perhaps he is too pessimistic; in the U.S., technological breakthroughs may permit deeper drilling of unconventional gas reserves – nevertheless, projections are uncertain.[xxviii]

In any case, the global systemic crises of anthropogenic global warming and hydrocarbon energy depletion indicate that the 21st century is the end of the hydrocarbon age. Moreover, the complex interdependence of their converging impacts in the context of the concurrent form of the global political economy can be discerned in relation to conjoined crises in two other sectors, food and finance.

Impacts of Crisis Convergence – Food Insecurity

In 2007-08, massive price hikes for rice, wheat and grain precipitated food riots in thirty-seven less developed countries. The food price hikes coincided with rocketing oil prices, by which they were partly driven. Currently, industrial food production is over-dependent on fossil fuels, consuming ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy produced.[xxix] As early as 2003, structural geologist Dave Allen Pfeiffer warned presciently that the portended peak of world oil production “will very likely precipitate agricultural crisis much sooner than expected. The end of this decade could see spiralling food prices... And the coming decade could see massive starvation on a global level such as never experienced before by the human race.”[xxx]

The situation is compounded by climate change. From 1981 to 2002, anthropogenic global warming reduced the combined production of wheat, corn, and barley-cereal grains by 40 million metric tonnes per year, leading to annual losses of $5 billion.[xxxi] An analysis by scientists at Washington and Stanford universities published in Science found that the areas hit hardest by global warming will be the tropics and subtropics, encompassing about half the world’s population, including Africa, the southern United States, and much of India, China and South America. Higher temperatures will first cause crops like corn, wheat and rice to grow faster, but over the longer term, will reduce plant fertility and grain production. World crop yields could eventually fall 20 to 40 percent by mid-century.[xxxii]

It is no surprise then that the last decade has seen growth rates for food grains “slowed sharply in every developing country, including India and China, and in many countries, there has been an absolute decline in grain output.” For instance, the 1980-85 per capita world cereal output of 335 kg per year, declined to 310 kg by 2000-05.[xxxiii] Similarly, agricultural land productivity dropped by almost half from 2.1 percent a year for the period 1950-90 to 1.2 percent a year for the period 1990-2007. Thus, during seven of eight years prior to 2008, world grain consumption exceeded production.[xxxiv]

The problem goes beyond climate change and peak oil. Maps released in December 2005 by scientists at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison show that the earth is “rapidly running out of fertile land” and that “food production will soon be unable to keep up with global population growth.”[xxxv]

But this is not just about demographics – it is also about the unsustainable environmental impacts of modern industrial agriculture. In the United States alone, it takes 500 years to replace one inch of topsoil lost to industrial methods, and erosion is reducing productivity by up to 65 percent each year. Former prairie lands, which constitute the breadbasket of the U.S., have lost one half of their topsoil after about 100 years of farming. Overall, the soil is eroding 30 times faster than the natural rate of reproduction. In other words, the system of global agribusiness is systematically degrading its own conditions of production.[xxxvi]

Furthermore, the global food production crisis must be understood in the context of the international division of labour in agriculture under the neoliberal paradigm, under which agriculture in the Global South is devoted largely to production for export crops to Western markets, while Western food production is exported to the South. This purported ‘free-market’ model is designed to ‘open’ markets in the developing world through deregulation and liberalization, while Northern markets remain protected behind tariff barriers and subsidies. As Indian economist Utsa Patnaik points out:

...tropical lands are increasingly required to produce the relatively exotic requirements of advanced country populations, keeping the supermarket shelves in the North well-stocked with everything from winter strawberries to edible oils and flowers. The resulting food grain deficits of developing countries, as they divert more land to export crops and specialized crops for internal consumption by the wealthy, are supposed to be met by accessing the global market for grains, which is dominated by the United States, Canada, and the European Union with Argentina and Australia as smaller players.[xxxvii]

Unfortunately poorer populations of the South are often unable to purchase more expensive food imports from the North. While the immediate impact of the global food crisis has been increased hunger in the South, on our current course it is only a matter of time before Northern food security becomes significantly undermined.

Impacts of Crisis Convergence – Economic Insecurity

The link between the 2005 oil production peak, its plateau between 2006-2010, and the global economic recession should not be underestimated.  Nor should it be over-emphasised.  On the one hand, the escalating spate of mortgage defaults through the years 2006-08 occurred in the context of the rising inflationary pressures on food prices, costs of production, and costs of living, which were driven by rocketing energy prices due to peak conditions. This is not surprising given the historic link between oil price shocks and global economic disruption.[xxxviii]

On the other hand, the spate of defaults that became the subprime mortgage crisis was itself only a trigger for the unravelling of an entire bubble of bad debt. Banks increasingly granted mortgages on less stringent conditions to consumers who could not prove their ability to make repayments. This was no idle mistake purely due to insufficient regulation (although that was a factor).

Excessive international competition between manufacturing industries, a slow-down in productivity, a decline in growth rate of real wages, rising costs of production, and seemingly insufficient outlets for new productive investment, among other factors, have contributed to a long-term fall in the rates of profits since the 1970s in the U.S. and West – which has been countered (seemingly successfully until 2008) with the ‘post-industrial’ financialization of their economies.[xxxix]

Yet the continued structural fragility of the global financial system has been obvious since the dot-com boom and bust in the late 1990s. If the financial sector failed to find a new outlet for investment to continue growing the economy, the economy would contract. This new outlet consisted of ‘low-income’ people and even the struggling middle classes, namely, the majority of the population. After the Bank for International Settlements brokered worldwide the New Capital Accord in 2000, effectively allowing banks to obtain virtually unlimited leverage, financial institutions had a field day accelerating lending without limits, inadvertently subjugating large numbers of people to an enlarging and un-repayable debt that was the basis of self-multiplying profits for a few. By late 2008, total derivatives trades exceeded one quadrillion (1,000 trillion) dollars – a quantity with no relation to the real economy: the total GDP of all the countries in the world is only about 60 trillion dollars.[xl]

In sum, the imperative for unlimited growth led banks and corporations to avoid falling profits, contraction and failure by pursing increasingly corrupt lending practices, which combined with long-term structural energy and monetary constraints, creating a bubble of virtual growth that was bound to implode at some point. The U.S. government knew partially what was happening, but bypassed opportunities to stop it. According to former Governor of New York, Elliot Spitzer, when states realized the vast extent of corrupt lending practices by banks and tried to intervene to regulate them around 2003, the U.S. Treasury Department unilaterally blocked their efforts.[xli]

Veteran derivatives trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, distinguished professor of risk-engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute, confirms that banks routinely certified risk-riddled transactions as safe and risk-free using quantitative models which, in reality, simply concealed the actual scope for risk and its potential consequences. This allowed them to create extremely insecure financial instruments, slap a certification of safety over them, and sell them on for stupendous profits. In turn, these products were fraudulently insured by other financial companies, which used the opportunity to charge exorbitant fees.  But these ‘insurance’ firms lacked the real assets to cover losses in the event of a default.[xlii]

Consumers increased their spending on the basis of the security of their houses, while financial institutions accelerated their lending on the basis of rapidly proliferating mortgages, together contributing to rising prices and a mounting inflationary property and consumer bubble. The frenzy of spending and lending had little to do with increases in productivity, but rather derived from a flawed monetary system based on the ability to continually borrow (and effectively create out of nothing) cash that in real terms did not yet exist, except as the expectation of repayments on loans. Worldwide sales of these insecure financial instruments distributed risks across multiple financial markets.

Yet we have not learned our lesson. Although the economic paradigm that cultivated these conditions of financial instability is clearly discredited, the transnational derivates conglomerate of “eight bubbles” has actually grown, from 1.1 quadrillion dollars in 2008 to now 1.4 quadrillion, a rise of 22 percent.[xliii]

The generic viability of neoliberal policy prescriptions for assisting development and growth is also increasingly in question. A 2006 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) report on the impact of IMF-World Bank reforms in the South for the period 1980-2005 found that:

The past quarter-century has seen a sharp decline in the rate of growth for the vast majority of low and middle-income countries. Accompanying this decline has been reduced progress for almost all the social indicators that are available to measure health and educational outcomes... [A]t least some of the policy changes that have been widely implemented over the last 25 years have contributed to this long-term growth and development failure.[xliv]

The report points out that the isolated growth-gains in India and China are more likely to be linked less to neoliberal reforms, than to specific government interventions such as high levels of protection, currency controls, and so on.[xlv]

Re-conceptualizing Risk, Softening Security

The logic of ‘growth’ – as currently defined – is driving the depletion of hydrocarbon and other natural resources at unprecedented, and unsustainable, rates, and thereby accelerating human-interference with the earth’s climate. Both climate change and energy crises are detrimentally impacting our ability to sustain global food production. Water shortages and hotter weather are destroying the viability of agriculture, while predicted fuel shortages are set to undermine agribusiness which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. The increasing inability to meet consumer demand for food is also linked to the industrial over-exploitation of the soil, as well as a fundamentally flawed international system of food distribution. Finally, the world economy remains in bad health, generating widening North-South inequalities, and fuelling unsustainable ‘virtual’ growth trajectories in the North. The ‘Washington Consensus’ has proven to be intimately bound up with the destruction of the environment, the exhaustion of the soil, the unsustainable depletion of resources and raw materials, and the unrestrained de-balancing of the Earth’s complexly interdependent ecosystems. If anything, this signifies that we are in era of civilizational transition to a new post-carbon era. Yet what social form we transition to, remains our collective choice.

Currently, conventional ‘securitization’ of these global crises results in their conceptualization as “threat-multipliers” of traditional security issues such as “political instability around the world, the collapse of governments and the creation of terrorist safe havens.” By implication, climate change will serve to amplify the threat of international terrorism, particularly in regions with large populations and scarce resources.[xlvi]

For instance, a U.S. Department of Defence and Department of the Army report, 2008 Army Modernization Strategy, forecasts the future of international conflict up to 2050: “We have entered an era of persistent conflict... a security environment much more ambiguous and unpredictable than that faced during the Cold War... We face a potential return to traditional security threats posed by emerging near-peers as we compete globally for depleting natural resources and overseas markets.” The report then highlights the danger of “resource competition induced by growing populations and expanding economies,” particularly due to a projected “youth bulge” in the South, which “will consume ever increasing amounts of food, water and energy.”  Climate change will “compound” the destabilization of the South through humanitarian crises, population migrations and other complex emergencies.[xlvii] ‘Securitizing’ global crises, then, leads to strategies of militarization designed to boost an individual state’s resilience to crisis through intensification of control mechanisms.

On the other hand, we have strategies of international cooperation to establish new global governance regimes by which states can develop treaties and agreements to encourage mitigating action. Unfortunately, as has become painfully clear in Kyoto and more recently in Copenhagen, while the first set of ‘securitization’ strategies proceeds apace, the second set of cooperative strategies continues to result in dismal failure, with states unable to agree on the scale of the crises concerned, let alone the policies required to address them.  In some ways, each of these strategies can be broadly associated with the two predominant approaches to International Relations theory, namely neorealism and neoliberalism.

Neorealism understands interstate competition, rivalry and warfare as inevitable functions of states’ uncertainty about their own survival, arising from the anarchic structure of the international system. Gains for one state are losses for another, and each state’s attempt to maximize its power relative to all other states is simply a reflection of its rational pursuit of its own security. The upshot, of course, is the normalization of political violence in the international system, including practices such as over-exploitation of energy and the environment, as a ‘rational’ strategy – even though this ultimately amplifies global systemic insecurity. Inability to cooperate internationally and for mutual benefit is thus seen as an inevitable outcome of the simple, axiomatic existence of multiple states. The problem is that neorealism cannot explain in the first place the complex interdependence or worsening of global crises. Unable to situate these crises in the context of an international system that is not simply a set of states, but a transnational global structure based on a specific exploitative relationship with the natural world, neorealism can only theorize global crises as ‘new issue areas’ appended to existing security agendas.[xlviii]

Yet, by the very act of ‘securitizing’ global crises, neorealism renders itself impotent to prevent or mitigate them by addressing their root structural causes. In effect, despite its emphasis on the reasons why states seek security, neorealism’s approach to issues like climate change actually guarantees greater insecurity by promoting policies which frame these issues purely as amplifiers of threats. Neorealism thus entirely negates its own theoretical and normative value.  For if ‘security’ is the fundamental driver of state foreign policies, then why are states chronically incapable of effectively ameliorating the global systemic amplifiers of ‘insecurity’?

Although neoliberalism shares neorealism’s assumptions about the centrality of the state as a rational actor in the international system, it differs fundamentally in the notion that gains for one state do not automatically imply losses for another. As such, states are able to form cooperative, interdependent relationships conducive to mutual power gains, which do not necessarily generate tensions or conflict. While neoliberalism therefore encourages international negotiations and global governance mechanisms for the resolution of global crises, it implicitly accepts the contemporary social, political and economic organization of the international system as an unquestionable ‘given’ that cannot be subject to debate or reform. The focus, then, is on developing the most optimal ways of exploiting the natural world to the maximal extent, and neglected is the very role of global political economic structures (such as ridiculously deregulated markets) in both generating global crises and inhibiting effective means for their amelioration. Arguably, neoliberalism has difficulty viewing the natural world in anything other than a rationalist, instrumentalist fashion, legitimizing the over-exploitation of natural resources without limits, and inadvertently subordinating ecological, energy, food and human security to the competitive pressures of private sector profit-maximization.[xlix]

Both theoretical approaches focus on trying to understand different aspects of inter-state behaviour – conflictual and cooperative respectively – but each lacks the capacity to address the relationship of the inter-state system itself to the natural world as a key analytical category for understanding the acceleration of global crises. In doing so, they are unable to acknowledge the profound irrationality of collective state behaviour, which systematically erodes this relationship, globalizing insecurity on a massive scale – in the very process of seeking security. Indeed, by reducing this destructive state behaviour to a function of instrumental reason, both approaches rationalize the deeply irrational collective human actions that are destroying the very conditions of our existence.

For our civilization to begin tackling these crises effectively, we need to fundamentally re-orient our understanding of the conditions and subjects of security, based on a new perspective which re-integrates human life as interdependent with, and inextricably embedded in, its natural environment.[l] This requires a holistic vision of human and ecological security, which recognizes that significant global structural policy reforms are the only means to protect human life, national survival, and civilizational continuity into the 21st century. That is not to belittle the urgent task of adaptation, but to recognize that we will save more lives and treasure if we act preventively by re-thinking the efficacy of our current way of life.

Julie McCarthy served as the lead editor of this article.


[i] Sam Perlo-Freeman, et. al, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Yearbook 2010 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) Chapter 5 <>

[ii] Andrew Mack, et. al, Human Security Brief 2007 (British Columbia: Simon Fraser University, 2007) <>

[iii] U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2008 (Washington D.C.: Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, April 2009) <>

[iv] Ivan Sascha Sheehan, When Terrorism and Counterterrorism Clash: The War on Terror and the Transformation of Terrorist Activity (New York: Cambria Press, 2007)

[v] IPCC Report, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis – Summary for Policymakers, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Geneva: United Nations Environment Programme, February 2007) <>

[vi] Michael R. Raupach, Gregg Marland, Philippe Ciais, et al, “Global and regional drivers of accelerating CO2 emissions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (12 June 2007, Vol. 104, No. 24, pp. 10288-10293) <>

[vii] OST Report, “Rapid Climate Change” 245 (London: Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, July 2005) <>

[viii] Reuters, ‘Greenhouse gas emissions hit danger mark – scientist’ (9 October 2007); IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Synthesis Report (November 2007) <>

[ix] See James Hanson, et. al, “Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?” (7 April 2008, revised 18 June 2008) <>

[x] R. Kwok, G. F. Cunningham, M. Wensnahan et al. “Thinning and volume loss of the Arctic Ocean sea ice cover: 2003–2008”, Journal of Geophysical Research (July 2009, Vol. 114); K. M. Walter, S. A. Zimov et al. ‘Methane bubbling from Siberian thaw lakes as a positive feedback to climate warming’, Nature (No. 443, 7 September 2006) <>; Daniel C. Nepstad, Claudia M. Stickler et al., “Interactions among Amazon land use, forests and climate: prospects for a near-term forest tipping point” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (Vol. 363, 2008) 1737–1746; Guy J. D. Kirk, Pat H. Bellamy, Peter J. Bradley et al, “Carbon losses from all soils across England and Wales 1978–2003”, Nature (Vol. 437, No. 7056, 8 September 2005) 245–248 <>

[xi] A.P. Sokolov et al., “Probabilistic Forecast for Twenty-First Century Climate Based on Uncertainties in Emissions (Without Policy) and Climate Parameters”, Journal of Climate (October 2009, Vol. 22, No. 19) 5175–5204; Margaret Torn and John Harte, “Missing feedbacks, asymmetric uncertainties, and the underestimation of future warming”, Geophysical Research Letters (Vol., 33, May 2006) <>

[xii] Kenneth F. Deffeyes, Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)

[xiii] Oilwatch Monthly (Amsterdam: Association for the Study of Peak Oil, December 2008) <>

[xiv] Matthew R. Simmons, “Kicking the oil habit”, New Scientist (25 June 2008)

[xv] Tony Eriksen, “World Oil Production Forecast – Update May 2009”, The Oil Drum (19 May 2009) <>

[xvi] Simon Roberts (ed.) The Oil Crunch: A wake-up call for the UK economy (London: UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil & Energy Security, February 2010) <>

[xvii] Alfred J. Cavello, “Oil: the caveat”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (May-June 2005, Vol. 61, No. 3) 16-18 <>

[xviii] Bengt Söderbergh, Fredrik Robelius and Kjell Aleklett, “A Crash Program Scenario for the Canadian Oil Sands Industry” (Uppsala University, 8 June 2006) <>

[xix] Rikard B. Ekstrand, “Deepwater Oil Production – the Key to the Supply Equation Puzzle” FPA Semi-Annual Report (Los Angeles, CA: First Pacific Advisors, 30 September 2007) pp. 6-7 <,%202007.pdf>

[xx] Richard Heinberg, “It’s time to deal with peak oil”, National Post (19 March 2010)

[xxi] Eriksen

[xxii] IEA, Oil Market Report (Paris: International Energy Agency, 11 March 2008) P. 24 <>

[xxiii] Carola Hoyos, “Oil strikes not enough to quench demand”, Financial Times (17 September 2009) <,dwp_uuid=f2b40164-cfea-11dc-9309-0000779fd2ac.html>

[xxiv] Ibid.>

[xxv] Nick A. Owen, Oliver R. Inderwildi, and David A. King, “The status of conventional world oil reserves – Hype or cause for concern?” Energy Policy (12 March 2010) See Rowena Mason, “Oil reserves ‘exaggerated by one third’”, Telegraph (22 March 2010) <>

[xxvi] Werner Zittel and Jörg Schindler, Coal: Resources and Future Production (Berlin: Energy Watch Group, March 2007, EWG-Paper No. 1/07) 4–8. Also see David Strahan, ‘Lump sums: Oil production may soon peak, but what about coal?’, Guardian (5 March 2008) <>

[xxvii] Jean Laherrere, Oil and Gas: What future? Paper prepared for Groningen Annual Energy Convention (21 November 2006) <>. Also see review and summary of this paper in Luis de Sousa, ‘Natural gas: how big the problem?’, The Oil Drum (5 December 2006) <>

[xxviii] Green Car Congress, “Study: Unconventional Natural Gas Resources Boost US Reserves to 118 Years Worth at Current Production Levels” (11 August 2008) <>

[xxix] Richard Heinberg, “Threats of Peak to the Global Food Supply”, Museletter (July 2005, No. 159) <>

[xxx] Dale Allen Pfeiffer, “Eating Fossil Fuels”, From The Wilderness (3 October 2003) <> ; Henry H. Kindell and David Pimentel, “Constraints on the Global Food Supply,” Ambio: Journal of the Human Environment (Vol. 23, No. 3, May 1994)

[xxxi] Steve Connor, “World’s most important crops hit by global warming effects”, Independent (19 March 2007) <>

[xxxii] Sandi Doughton, “Food crisis is global warming’s biggest threat, say UW, Stanford scientists”, Seattle Times (8 January 2009) <>

[xxxiii] Patnaik “Origins of the Food Crisis in India and Developing Countries”, Monthly Review (July-August 2009) <>

[xxxiv] Lester R. Brown, “World facing huge new challenge on food front: Business-as-usual not a viable option”, Plan B Update 72 (Washington DC: Earth Policy Institute, 16 April 2008) <>

[xxxv] SAGE Press Release, “New Map Reveals True Extent of Human Footprint on Earth” (San Francisco: Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 5 December 2005) <>; Kate Ravilous, “Food crisis feared as fertile land runs out”, Guardian (6 December 2005) <,,1659112,00.html>

[xxxvi] Pfeiffer

[xxxvii] Patnaik

[xxxviii] Nourel Roubini and Brad Setser, “The effects of the recent oil price shock on the US and the global economy”, Working Paper, Stern School of Business (New York: New York University, August 2004) <>

[xxxix] Robert Brenner, Economics of Global Turbulence (London: Verso, 1998); Gerard Duminel, “Brenner on competition”, Capital & Class (Summer 2001); Immanuel Wallerstein, The Decline of American Power (New York: New Press, 2003); Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, Global Capitalism and American Empire (London: Merlin Press, 2004)

[xl] ATCA Briefing, “The Invisible One Quadrillion Dollar Equation: Asymmetric Leverage and Systemic Risk” (London: Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance, September 2008) <>

[xli] Eliot Spitzer, “Predatory Lender’s Partner in Crime”, Washington Post (14 February 2008) <>

[xlii] Nassim Nicholas Taleb interviewed on  ‘Newsnight’ (BBC, 10 October 2008)

[xliii] ATCA Briefing, “G20 Summit must focus on Derivates, Off-Balance-Sheet Vehicles” (London: Asymmetric Threats Contingency Alliance, March 2009) <>

[xliv] Mark Weisbrot, Dean Baker and David Rosnick, The Scorecard on Development: 25 Years of Diminished Progress (New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, September 2006) p. 17 <>

[xlv] Robert Wade, “Is Globalization Reducing Poverty and Inequality”, World Development (2004, Vol. 32, No. 4) 577-589. Available at <>

[xlvi] Statement for the Record of Thomas Fingar, Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis and Chairman of National Intelligence Council, National Intelligence Assessment on the National Security Implications of Global Climate Change to 2030 (Washington D.C.: House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, 25 June 2008).

[xlvii] U.S. Department of the Army, Army Modernization Strategy 2008 (Washington D.C.: Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, July 2008) <> 5–8.

[xlviii] Mark J. Lacy, Security and Climate Change: International Relations and the Limits of Realism (London: Routledge, 2005)

[xlix] Chukwumerije Okereke, Global Justice and Neoliberal Environmental Governance: Ethics, sustainable development and international co-operation (London: Routledge, 2008)

[l] Geoffrey D. Dabelko (ed.), Environmental Change and Security Project Report, 10 (Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2004) <>

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