We are frequently reminded that the 21st century is the first urban century. And more recently, we are told, also, that the urban age is the age of man in which, dam-by-dam, mine-by-mine, farm-by-farm, and city-by-city, human has remade nature at a scale similar to geological forces. And the compelling evidence of this is the reconfiguration of the planet's carbon cycle by anthropogenic releases of greenhouse gas emissions. In some ways, climate change has unraveled our inescapable interdependencies with nature and the fallacy of the modernist assumption about our ability to conquer nature and exploit it with little or no consequences. But I'd like to argue that this awareness and reflexivity is in danger of being undermined by apocalyptic accounts of futures.
I'm going to start by a brief overview of our understanding of human-nature relationship and how it has changed over time. I'm going to use the word nature to refer to non-human nature. I will then discuss some accounts of climate change and the way in which they portray nature as risk and frame our relationship with it in terms of security. And I will finish by talking about the ensuing politics of this securitization of nature.
As Daniel Botkin suggests, our perspective about nature influences, if not determines, how we treat it. On a broad level, a distinction can be made between two perspectives: The anthropocentric view of nature, and the biocentric view of nature. The anthropocentric view places humans at the center of the universe and then nature at their service. Nature, in this perspective, has instrumental value. It's a means to other ends. You can see the statement from Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, which epitomizes this kind of human-centered view of the world. By contrast, the biocentric perspective considers humans as members of an interconnected web of life, as an integral part of nature, rather than its master or its steward. Here, nature has intrinsic values. It is an end in itself. Although this sort of biocentrism predates anthropocentricism, it has remained subservient to it at least since the enlightenment project. Indeed, as the Anthropocene is the defining geological age of our time, so the anthropocentric view is defining environmental ethics. Within this perspective, at least three meanings of nature have been particularly prominent and influential. I'm going to say a few words about each of them because I believe, and I concur with Rifkin’s suggestion, that knowing the civilization's concept of nature is tantamount to knowing how it thinks and how it acts.
Nature as a clockwork sees the world as a machine governed by hidden mathematical laws. This mechanistic view of nature became dominant after the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th century and especially after the rise of Newtonian physics. It was believed that by uncovering the secrets of nature through the instrument of reason, humans could conquer it. In some ways, the enlightenment project was driven by a desire not only to explore nature but also to exploit it, a desire which was materialized on an industrial scale in the 19th century. By stripping nature from its divinity and symbolic values, science and technology gave human both the means and the right to exploit it.
The clockwork view of nature obviously didn't go unchallenged. It was opposed by, amongst other things, the romantic movement of the 19th century, which inspired, for example, the paintings of John Constable, British painter William Turner, as well as the poems of William Blake, for whom nature was where industry wasn't. It was the green and pleasant land that was threatened by the dark, satanic means. But Romanticism couldn't dislodge the growing functional, utilitarian approaches to nature, which became embedded, amongst other things, in the post-war planning system, at least in the UK. And it has continued to influence the ways in which the environment is perceived and imagined in our planning policies and practices.
A more wide-spread challenge to the idea that nature could be exploited with no consequences came from the rise of environmental consciousness in the 1960s. The impetus was mixed, ranging from material impacts of events such as Minamata disease, the symbolic impacts of seeing the earth from the space for the first time, and some influential writings like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring or the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth. This was the time when nature was reframed as a set of environmental problems for which specialized techno-scientific solutions had to be found. In a way, the emphasis was shifted from what we as humans could get out of nature to what we've done to nature and what could be done to ensure our survival. The survivalism discourse was very influential at the time but its salience was short-lived, and it soon became replaced with the sustainability discourse of the famous Brundtland Report and its promise of a win-win solution to environmental problems. In the discourse of sustainability, we imagine nature as a finite asset which should be safeguarded for future generations. It focused less on limits and more on capacities. Less on a future in which human survival is threatened and more on a promising future in which humans flourish alongside the sustainable ecosystem.
But the reflexive environmentalism machine view of the sustainability agenda began to be subsumed under the imperatives of climate change and kind of a limited survivalism. The headlines driving debates about climate change began to shift the discourse of nature as assets to the discourse of nature as risk. In some ways, it harkens back to that pre-modern conception of human-nature relations, which was centered on what nature does to us rather that we do to nature. Ulrich Beck makes an intriguing distinction between risk and hazard, arguing that risks are made whilst hazards naturally occur, and it is this understanding of risk which is at the heart of this idea of risk society. For him, reflexive modernity is an era where modernity is dealing with problems literally of its own making, but in the nature as risk discourse, nature seems to be framed in terms of risk. It is figured as a risk in and of itself. As reflected in this quote right at the top, nature is framed as an independent force which is out there waiting to strike back. This externalized and instrumentalized nature is then blamed for the social and ecological problems that are caused indeed by social and ecological processes. The discursive shift reprioritizes the actions away from safeguarding nature as a resource for the future, safeguarding the future against the threatening nature. And although this perspective challenges the modernists’ sense of certainty and highly overrated confidence in human technologies, it doesn’t abandon the modernist quest for control. On the contrary, the risk-laden language elevates the demand for control and security. In fact, the key characteristic of risk is this perceived calculability and controllability for technical experts.
The discourse of climate change, which is produced to a large extent by the scientific community and then exaggerated to some extent by popular media, evokes understanding a Pascalian, if you like, understanding of risk as probabilities. An uncertain future is rendered knowable and actionable as long as better forms of calculation are employed. Risk is therefore articulated not only as technical knowledge practices but also as political rationalities. To use a Foucauldian analogy, this means that by measuring and modifying our exposures to contingency, risk rules.
Paradoxical as it may sound, this risk-laden narrative of climate change simultaneously evokes pessimism about the catastrophic apocalyptic future and optimism about our ability to securitize it to technologies of risk calculation whereby numbers are turned into policies and indeed profits. Seeing nature as risk ushers in a deep concern to security. The more nature is framed as a threat to humankind, the more our relation to it is construed in terms of security. In these ecologies of fear, the risk society that Ulrich Beck talks about becomes intertwined with the security society. Like risk, security is socially produced, but, whereas risk threatens, security promises. Risk and security, therefore, feed one another in the sense that keeping up the demand for security requires maintaining a heightened sense of risk.
Such circularity has led to a large number of our social and environmental problems being increasingly recast as security problems. In dealing with environmental issues in planning practices, the axis of debate is swinging from development threatens the environment to security should take precedence. The debate over, for example, energy crops is turned into a competition between food and energy security. In many ways, this is an anathema to the alien environment agendas because increasingly food security trumps biodiversity. Energy security outplays renewable energy, and current security trumps sustainability. The securitization of nature reflects and reinforces the wider and dominating global discourse of securitization.
There are often two rhetoric objects with prominent positions in climate-security discourse: One is nation, and the other is city. In terms of national security, climate change is seen as a threat multiplier. You can see an example from a report which was published by an American think tank. It suggests that climate change is a national security that ought to be addressed by the US military. The report was in fact produced by a military advisory board. One of the members of that board suggested, and I quote, “that climate change acts as a threat multiplier, and will provide the conditions that will extend the war on terror.” Two years later, another report, this time by the United Nation General Assembly, also confirms the framing of climate change as a threat multiplier. And then it’s followed by other reports, and by a special meeting of the UN Security Council that fought to join the General Assembly in recognizing climate change as a threat to international peace and security, a threat as great as nuclear proliferation or global terrorism.
This growing securitization discourse has the potential to turn the conflict or the distributive implications of climate change into a new geopolitics, in which nation states may withdraw into the safe haven of territoriality, and even consider military strategies as statutory responses to the conflicts over who is exposed to what climate risk and who has access to what climate security. A lot of these revolve around the perceived threat of the so-called climate refugees to national security and conflicts in those communities. Although these narratives might have been formulated with good intentions to generate commitment to climate change, they can also do the opposite. They can lead to denial, to paralysis, and to apathy for climate advocacy.
The second rhetoric object involved in security discourse is city, and here, the idea of security as an end in itself becomes even more prominent, as you can see from this statement by a security company. They say that they sell the concept of security as a design or product in and of its own right, so the pursuit of security is as much about security providers seeking raisons d’etre for their own operation as it is about risk prevention. Cities, therefore, are factoring as a commodity into their strategic decisions, as I have mentioned, the idea of security. They package this to position themselves on the global lead tables of “safe city.” London, for example, boasts to be a safe place for business, and its former mayor is reassuring the corporate world of business that London will be weather-proof and has less vulnerability to climate change than some of its world-city competitors such as New York and Tokyo.
Although climate change is a relatively new addition to the growing list of urban risks, the more the nature as assets discourse is subverted by nature as risk, the greater the greater the inclusion of climate into the urban security packages. But this relentless pursuit of safe utopia is leading, or can be leading, to an ever expanding landscape of securitization, which can have profound distributive environmental and democratic implications. Many cities are indeed creating safe havens of segregating infrastructural security. One of the key strategies for securitization is resilience, which is advocated uncritically as a taken-for-granted public good. In a relatively short period of time, the concept of resilience has colonized multiple aspects of public policy and has become the top priority for a wide range of organizations. Like security companies, the growing number of resilience-peddling firms and consultancies are now busy selling the concept of resilience.
We seem to be witnessing a new form of resilient urbanism, which is rooted in a narrow engineering understanding of resilience that puts the emphasis on bouncing back to normality without questioning the desirability of the normal or seeking a new normal. It advocates self-reliance, it reinforces individualization of responsibility, it seeks to maintain the status quo, and it considers radical transformation as a system failure rather than a potentially desirable outcome. It frames chronic events as sudden and abnormal acts of nature that are challenging the global order of which there are exceptions rather than outcomes. Flooding in Bangladesh becomes a local and natural emergency that is observed across the globe while disconnected from the global and socio-ecological processes. Those affected by it are portrayed as unfortunate victims of a natural disaster with no historical or contextual link to the social and ecological relations that originate vulnerability. They are told then to be resilient. Finally, this form of resilient urbanism privileges short-term, reactionary responses in the form of emergency planning, which although is important, it overlooks long-term adaptive capacity building.
The shift from nature as asset discourse to nature as risk is accompanied with a change in environmental politics. While sustainability was underpinned with an environmental politics of cooperation, climate change is being increasingly underpinned by a politics of securitization. Although both can be described in Chantal Mouffe’s terms as post-politics, the rhetoric is different. For sustainability, the main rhetoric was the promise of the bright windmill future. For climate change it is the threat of an apocalyptic future. The former instills hope; the latter induces fear. This post-politics of fear centers on a regime of knowledge-power relations that capitalizes on crafting, separating, and techno-managing risk. In urban planning policies and practices, it foregrounds calculative practices, technical rational risk assessments, and managerial approaches. While provoking the need for urgent action, the language of risk and security can legitimatize extraordinary exercise of power. It can renounce or displace social conflicts, it can foreclose proper political framing, it can override the demand for inclusivity, it can ostracize the arenas in which questions about justice and fairness can be raised. The emphasis on urgent action legitimizes in fact the evacuation of the political, and it causes suspension of democratic safeguards in the name of emergency risk and security.
Let me finish by going back to where I started, because it seems to me that a corrective to apocalyptic discourses on climate change is emerging from accounts of Anthropocene, which is a new thing, and I'm only offering some thoughts. In these accounts, descriptions of eminent catastrophes are held within the normative tales of transformation but ones in which humans are again placed at the center as the steward of nature. You can see that this is very clearly reflected in the statement by Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who actually coined the term in 2000. He suggested that the adoption of the term Anthropocene as a descriptor of the current geological epoch would stress the enormity of humans’ responsibility as stewards of the earth. It's no longer us against nature; instead it is we who decide what nature is and what it will be. Nature is us.
The rhetoric of Paul is that what remains in the framework of human domination of nature and faith in human technology will sort things out. The idea that nature is us doesn't mean that we're part of nature. In fact, it means that we are in charge of nature. It's very much in keeping with earlier modernist narratives, because Anthropocene also urges us to take enlightened planetary leadership. But it seems to me that at the same time it evokes a similar universalist language of grace, suggesting that we’re all in the Anthropocene, we're all in the same boat. The techno-optimism of Anthropocene—and Anthropocene accounts, I should say—is noble in intent, but it is at best naive and at worst depoliticizing. It has used a universal apolitical and undifferentiated human agency. It suggests that, faced with catastrophes, we put our conflicting interests aside to respond to some kind of universal threat.
What are the alternative ways of imagining futures that are not predestined annihilation or universal redemption? I'm not claiming that I know the answer to that, but I do believe that in order to find out the answer to that, we need to engage in an environmental politics that recognizes difference, that recognizes a plurality of pasts and futures, and I also believe that we need to advocate an environmental ethic that is premised on interdependencies, contingencies, and complexities of our relationships with non-human nature.