International security and the climate crisis

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Environmental Anarchy? Security in the 21st Century
By Mark Beeson,
Bristol University Press, 2021.

Mark Beeson's Environmental Anarchy? Security in the 21st Century opens with a very 2021 question: “What does it mean to be secure?”

The book then hurls the reader into a forensic study of the sociopolitical, cultural and scientific factors that influence the black-ops diplomacy of foreign policy.

Environmental Anarchy? is first and foremost an academic study of the increasingly fraught discipline of international relations in the Anthropocene.

From quantum physics and the finite mathematics of reality, to the sociology and psychology of imperialist colonial rule, Beeson explains the science behind our post-Trump, Got-Brexit-Done world.

Marxism, liberalism and realism are rendered transparent under Beeson’s unwavering gaze, dissecting the pathological policy failings of the United States and Britain.

Beeson's analysis of the security implications of climate change is a stark warning for countries that continue to hyper-militarise as insurance against the humanitarian fallout from climate change and globalised capitalism.

He argues that to base security policy on military-style strategy while ignoring the psychological health of populations faced with food and water shortages due to environmental mismanagement is a recipe for disaster.

The book pulls no punches about the likely outcomes that are driven primarily by entrenched economic inequality and the climate crisis — phenomena entirely of the policy elite’s own making. Beeson demonstrates how inequality drives global instability and highlights the damage done by global financial crisis-style consumer market economics. He argues that inequality in all its forms also  causes tension between political rhetoric and reality.

Environmental Anarchy? is a heart-stopping analysis of the looming collision between capitalism’s fantasy of infinite growth, and its very real environmental and social limits.

At its core is the argument that “capitalism is predicated on a hierarchical division of labour and exploitation and presupposes infinite growth that is in reality impossible".

With colourful strokes, Beeson paints a picture of a militarised and hierarchical world with jealously guarded resources and strictly enforced nationalised borders — an outdated strategy, he says, in the age of globalised capitalism and winner-takes-all economics.

Militarism and capitalism are not only on a collision course with each other, but having ignored climate science, they are also on a collision course with large-scale ecological disaster. Despite humanity's many technological advancements, we find ourselves facing the spectre of a new Cold War with China as well as the existential threat of climate change. 

Environmental Anarchy? is a revealing and frightening look at what domestic and international security really means today.

“If policy cannot produce a degree of psychological security,” Beeson states, “there is a good case for saying it’s failed”.

Beeson persuasively argues that psychological, climate, food, national and international security benchmarks are those against which many governments in the so-called “developed world” have spectacularly failed. Unsurprisingly, the biggest security threat of all is climate change.

The first two chapters look at the major theoretical influences on the academic study of international relations. Liberalism, realism, Marxism and constructivism are outlined in the context of modern day consumer capitalism and the increasingly fragile ecology of our planet.

According to statistics discussed in the third chapter, the percentage of people who feel “safe” has plummeted, dropping from more than 90% to less than 50% in ten years. People are now more concerned about pandemics and water shortages than they are about China and other foreign powers. The COVID-19 pandemic has left climate-laggard Western governments with nowhere to hide.

Beeson examines why international cooperation is so difficult to achieve and looks at the myriad of international organisations set up to address it. He warns that no state — whatever its social-political or resource profile — will be able to insulate itself from the effects of climate change.

Floods, fires and pandemics undoubtedly impact the way people think about their governments (and themselves) as they are forced to confront a world characterised by new kinds of insecurity. This theme is taken up in Chapter 4 with a discussion of political decision making and voting during times of crisis.

“It is striking,” Beeson says “how much of the support for populist leaders such as [Donald] Trump and Boris Johnson has come from people whose sense of identity and security has been threatened by unwelcome and seemingly unmanageable social change.”

Chapter 5 focuses on the hegemonic power of the US and its principal challenger, the People's Republic of China. COVID-19 should have demonstrated to security analysts and policymakers that some of the most immediate threats to human security do not in fact emanate from other states, and cannot be defeated by sophisticated weapons systems, the manufacture of which are contributing to the problem.

The rise of geoeconomics — the use of economic methods for geopolitical advantage — is obvious in the policies of recent administrations in the US. But "peace, democracy and a functioning economy — are not likely to be realized at the point of a gun,” Beeson warns.

The final chapter argues that capitalism in its current form is unsustainable for the fortunate few, let alone the millions who may soon become environmental refugees. Beeson says we need to redesign markets in more equitable and sustainable ways to achieve local and global economic justice.

Environmental Anarchy? is recommended reading for students of international relations and for anyone genuinely seeking to understand the drivers of the inequalities that have brought us to the brink of extinction.