secure dispossessed

Climate change is driven by the demand for profits, but the ruling class is recasting it as a security issue, finds William Alderson


The Secure and the Dispossessed: How the Military and Corporations Are Shaping a Climate-Changed World, eds. Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes (Pluto Press 2015), xix, 268pp.

It is a measure of the importance of this book that there is hardly a page without a point which a reviewer would want to quote. For anyone interested in the issue of climate change, it is essential reading because it not only documents how those currently in power are responding to it, but also records how alternative approaches ‘provide not only a more just response to climate change impacts but are also solutions that can help prevent further climate change’ (p.5).

The central issue charted by The Secure and the Dispossessed is that, as it becomes less and less tenable to deny that climate change is happening, a major shift in the framing of the issue has emerged. Instead of working harder to reduce fossil fuel use, both international businesses and governments are acting on the basis that fossil fuel use will not or cannot be changed, and are concentrating on how best to cope with the economic and political fallout of that use. Specifically, they are looking at how to defend territory, profitability and political power against populations suffering the consequences of global warming. In short, this book documents the development of a narrative intended ‘to recast climate change as a security issue’ (p.2).

To say that the facts are depressing is an understatement, and the editors were well aware that a book which simply detailed the problems could do nothing to help us change what is happening. Instead they asked contributors:

‘First, to make these trends and power-plays visible by carefully analysing the political and economic forces that make a militarised and corporatised future possible. Second, to inspire resistance by exposing the cracks in the system, giving voice to progressive alternatives and experiences and recounting the stories of hope and self-determination that are so often overlooked by media commentators’ (p.5).

As a result, the tracts of darkness are alleviated by moments of light which give one the strength to believe that a positive outcome is possible.

Structurally, the book is divided into three parts. The first part outlines the origins and growth of this security narrative, and the involvement of trans-national corporations (TNCs), governments and the military in this process. It also looks at who is benefiting from climate change, including the security industry and others which are speculating on how profits can be made from global warming. The second part addresses the way the narrative is being sold to the world through changes in language, the ‘green-washing’ of polluters, and the pushing of ‘technical fixes’. The third part looks specifically at the use of ‘food security’, ‘water security’ and ‘energy security’ as excuses for military action and economic exploitation. In addition to the printed text, there are online chapters.

To examine so detailed a book in detail is an absurdity, and so I will focus on just a few particular issues. The first of these is the key element in this strategy of securitisation: the need to persuade the majority of people that the security risk is one facing us all, rather than simply those in power. The heaviest instrument in this armoury is the declaration of a state of emergency, but ‘states worldwide have similarly ramped up their “states of emergency” preparations to address vulnerabilities exposed by globalisation and the threat of climate change and new “complex emergencies”’ (p.88). Significantly, this gives the illusion of organised action in defence of democracy whilst actually removing democratic and human rights. Thus the state of emergency declared by the French government in response to the November 2015 attacks in Paris has been used to threaten French workers and halt an aid convoy to refugees in Calais, neither of which have any connection to the terrorism which triggered the declaration in the first place.

A more continuous instrument is crisis management, ‘shorthand for the way in which states deal with major events that cause or threaten to cause significant harm to the public’ (p.93). Again this is associated with taking appropriate precautions, but ‘the powers adopted in the name of emergency preparedness and management have become more coercive, with a much greater role envisaged for the military and private-security actors’ (p.93). To put this into context;

‘a study of the impact of major civil security crises in the UK for [the] period 2000-12 showed that during the 13-year period there were only 787 documented deaths – equivalent to 60 per year. The vast majority of these deaths (84 per cent) were the result of the heatwave in 2003 (301 deaths) and the ‘Swine Flu’ pandemic in 2009 (362). By way of comparison, there were some 36,606 road accident fatalities’ (p.96).

More insidious is the perversion of the concept of resilience, a feature of the Transition Town movement. ‘The basic premise of resilience is to better prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters’ (p.52), but there has been a change as ‘the focus is stealthily transferred from the production of crises by capital towards the management of crises by capitalism – from sustainable development to sustainable capitalism, as it were’ (p.53 – original emphasis). Thus resilience is used to co-opt the public in support of an agenda of managing crises rather than avoiding them, and ‘the question that we must keep asking […] is who or what gets to be resilient, and who or what gets left behind? Is the goal to keep the lights on or to keep profits flowing?’ (p.53).

This shift of emphasis towards managing crises of capitalism can also be seen in another aspect of the securitisation of climate change, as the security industry looks for other threats in order to maintain and justify growth. ‘Terrorism laws have also been used against environmental change activists, and “eco-terrorism” has entered the threat lexicon (to describe activists, not environmental destruction)’ (p.51). ‘Indeed, the two things most likely to get you an intelligence record in democratic countries is being deemed an “Islamist” or participating in environmental direct action’ (p.51). We should not forget that the powers being used to defend the fossil fuel industry against those opposed to climate change are the same powers which will defend the system against broader movements for change.

The governmental and industrial resistance to reducing fossil fuel use is also leading slowly to the legitimisation of an even bigger threat to the environment. The first high-level recognition of climate change was a report by the US President’s Science Advisory Committee in 1965. It warned about global warming, but ‘went on to recommend ­– instead of emissions reductions – a suite of geoengineering options’ (p.136). After fifty years of inaction over emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included in its September 2013 report reference to ‘proposals that “aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change.” The IPCC’s inclusion of geoengineering was a watershed moment’ (p.133). That these hypothetical and untested ‘techno-fixes’ are starting to be acknowledged is extremely worrying, because ‘geoengineering offers are specious at best; at worst, they are geopiracy and a threat to us all’ (p.143 – original emphasis).

On the positive side, the book presents many cases of grass-roots activity succeeding in setting an example of how things could be done better. From post-hurricane involvement by individuals in New Orleans and Occupy in New York to the community-based initiatives in renewables in Denmark, ordinary people have shown that they can do better than governments and big business. Perhaps the most powerful example is from Nepal, where the government was advocating Arun III, a new dam for generating hydroelectric power. With the resumption of multi-party democracy in 1990, people successfully organised opposition to the plan, leading to:

‘the energy sector being opened up to small producers, resulting in numerous villages introducing their own mini-hydro schemes, some run collectively, some privately. The outcome was to produce almost one third more electricity at close to half the cost and [in] half the time of the proposed Arun III project’ (p.224).

This comparison is even more telling, when one takes into account the usual process of escalating costs and delays in such large-scale projects.

In the end this book has only one weakness, exemplified when Susan George states in her Forward that ‘I won’t go so far as to say that unless we get rid of capitalism we can’t win on global warming under 2˙C’ (p.xviii). Nowhere is it explicitly stated that ending capitalism is key to solving the crisis of climate change, but this fact is implicit in every aspect of the book. The power of people coming together and operating on collectivist principles at local level creates local successes against climate change, but this is not enough to solve the global problem.

To do that people need to come together on a much larger scale. Climate change is being driven by wealth and the demand for profits embodied in capitalism. As such, climate change is an issue of the security of capitalism. Any force capable of stopping climate change must be able to over-ride the dynamic of capitalism, but then it will need to replace that system in order to preserve the gains achieved. Fighting climate change and fighting capitalism are not separate options, the needs of one are the needs of the other, and they both need a revolution in our organisation of society.