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Cameron Harrington and Clifford Shearing, Security in the Anthropocene Reflections on Safety and Care, (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2017), 220 pp.

Reviewed by: Simon Dalby (Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University)

The Anthropocene refers to the now widespread designation of contemporary times as a new geological epoch in planetary history. Given the huge scale and the dramatic transformation of the planet by human actions, historically mostly by the European empires and developed states and more recently by a growing global economy using huge quantities of fossil fuels, the rich and powerful parts of humanity have changed the human context substantially.

All this means that some of the most taken for granted assumptions underlying discussions of security no longer work. The causes of insecurity, only most obviously as a result of storms, droughts, and other disruptions being aggravated by climate change, are no longer understood only in terms of direct human actions causing harm. In the new context of the Anthropocene more complex causalities need to be worked into how security is conceptualised.

Hurricane Irma 2017. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / MODIS image captured by NASA’s Aqua satellite.

International relations, the traditional disciplinary home for security studies needs to be complemented by considerations drawing from ecology and earth systems science in particular, but also from other social sciences. This volume does both, investigating how the new understandings of nature and the earth system generate harms to humanity, and in these new circumstances showing how international relations now needs to be complemented by such fields as criminology, which has also long had an interest in violence and human harm. In this volume, an international relations specialist teams up with a criminologist to extend the security discussion, and to explain how, given the new circumstances of the Anthropocene, security might be reconsidered.

The focus on insecurity and harm also implies that we need to think about what ethical frameworks might be required now that the traditional assumptions about states as the providers of security can no longer be taken for granted. Here the book expends the discussion to engage with ethics of care as a new way to think about the complex increasingly artificial circumstances within which people find themselves. It does so because the traditional discussions of security, conceptualized as objective distant efforts to control things, is inappropriate for thinking about a world in which human actions are remaking many things, and doing so rapidly.

Ecological thinking requires a focus on interconnections and linkages, rather than a top down state control vision of insecurity contexts. Drawing on these ideas, as well as the literature on securitization that has become widespread in security studies, has produced a book that forces any reader schooled in the traditional security literature to rethink many things. The implications of the Anthropocene require nothing less. More specifically, drawing from both criminology and discussions of ethical matters of care, this volume extends the intellectual resources brought to bear on matters of security and rethinks how responsibilities for the provision of security have to be reinterpreted in the new circumstances of the present.

In the Anthropocene, security has to be rethought in terms of the numerous actions that remake the context from the inside as it were, not external interventions in a supposedly separate world. We are collectively making the future. Thinking in these terms requires conscious deliberation about the consequences of our actions, understanding that consumption in one place has influences on resource extractions in distant places. It requires an understanding that emitting greenhouse gasses in one part of the planet may have repercussions on human wellbeing in other continents. In short, some notions of connections and responsibilities have to be at the heart of our attempt to rethink security.

Wildfire in Santa Clarita, California in October 2007. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Jeff Turner.

Doing all this requires us to engage with the wider concerns addressed by the United Nations, such as peace building, and to think ahead in order to anticipate where climate in particular, and environmental changes in general, may stress societies. We should also consider where adaptations to new circumstances need to be built into development planning. Clearly such practical things as investments in energy infrastructure have to stop focusing on carbon fuels and focus on the twenty-first century approach, where building renewable energy systems, smart grids, and energy storage systems, while dramatically improving efficiencies, has to become the normal way of doing things. The twentieth century assumptions that business can go on as before are simply not tenable in the new circumstances of rapid change that the Anthropocene heralds.

Neither are newly required forms of security effectively addressed by thinking about issues in terms of the traditional focus on threats or emergencies to which states respond once they occur. As Harrington and Shearing put it: “[d]eclaring the exceptionalism as justification to circumvent or dismiss legal, societal, and political norms is a dangerous maneuver and one that is unlikely to effectively guide us as we learn to live in the Anthropocene” (p 115). This requires rethinking of how we understand ourselves in the world. We must recognize that the modern assumptions of a humanity in many ways separate from the rest of the world, of nature separate from culture, no longer makes sense. We are making an increasingly artificial world.

What is not clear is what set of categories are now most appropriate to address this Anthropocene security situation faced by all members of the United Nations. There is much work to do on the part of academics interested in imaginative thinking about the future, and in how to rework security in these new circumstances. The authors of Security in the Anthropocene do not pull their punches in the conclusion. “The Anthropocene is a monumental security problem, yet we lack the conceptual resources to effectively deal with it. We cannot see it. We cannot think it. Even if we could, the conditions of the new human age are of such a magnitude that our interventions will never be able to fully meet its challenges” (p. 141).

General Assembly Discusses Climate Change, Sustainable Development Agenda. photo credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas.

But while the scale of the security in the Anthropocene problem may seem intimidating, the necessity to revisit twentieth century assumptions is not something that can be postponed. The increasing instabilities in the climate system, which are showing up as more extreme events with catastrophic consequences, such as the need to evacuate the whole island of Barbuda after it was devastated by hurricanes in 2017, or to deal with wildfires in Los Angeles later in the year, makes thinking anew about what causes human insecurity, and the role of international institutions in making a safer world in coming decades, all the more pressing for scholars and practitioners.

This passionate and extremely well written volume should be read by all of us interested in such questions. It cannot provide a clearly formulated set of policy solutions, but it very effectively begins the necessary and urgent task of focusing our collective attention on how to rethink security in the Anthropocene.