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Human Security, Environmental Sustainability and Globalization

Saturday 9 May 2009, by Vinod Raina


Like a rampaging tsunami, global capital harnesses the bubble energy of the money markets, corporate-military might of the powerful nations and manufactured aspirations for a ‘better life’ of billions of people around the world to bring to knees weak governments in order to commodify, monopolise and trade even those aspects of life that are considered sacred and belonging to the public domain, like water, air, forests and knowledge. The upheavals in the economic, social, cultural and spiritual lives of people, shaken as if by a massive earthquake (which is the very cause for a tsunami) is wrecking local production systems, social institutions, and cultural and belief systems with a devastation that is difficult to describe. With the dazzling but dubious promise to provide economic security to larger populations through higher growth rates, global economy requires natural resources for sustained production at rates unprecedented in human history; which is the primary cause for the accompanying environmental insecurity and unsustainability worldwide. Only that when the bubble bursts, as it has since the sub-prime crisis became a global financial crisis, the ‘bailouts’ can only ensure the recurrence of the bubble cycles, rather than any fundamental change in thinking, as the recent G20 farce vividly demonstrates.

If we were to look for an example and metaphor that would describe the transformation of the concept of security and sustainability over historical times, China would stand out. As a ‘socialist’ state that has embraced the capitalist path of neo-liberal economy in an intriguing and, to some, infuriating manner, it stands out as a country of maddening contrasts. The environmental price of its economic frenzy, filtering out in spite of controls on such information seems to be very heavy. It is evident not only from the known consequences of the uprooting of a million people and environmental damage from a single project, the Three Gorges Dam, but also from the cumulative effect of thousands of township level manufacturing units using cheap labour brought in through rural migration, living in virtual bondage and without much rights, in order to provide competitively cheaper goods for the world market, devastated by the present global economic meltdown. As if the existing devastation was not enough, the state leadership now talks with glee about four gigantic projects that will transform the productive capacity of the mostly barren western areas to that of the East and South. These include the transfer of gas from West to the East, a massive road to Tibet and so on, each project on the scale of the building of the Great Wall, but with enormous impacts on land, water and biomass systems. The Great Wall therefore provides a good historical example to examine how the notion of human security ought to be reviewed in present times.

Between the fifth and third centuries B. C., a series of walls were built in Northern China by several warring kingdoms. The goal was to establish and protect their separate sovereignties and to ensure their security against nomadic invaders. Despite these walls, in 221 B.C. the armies of Qin Shi Huang were able to conquer the other six kingdoms, making Qin the first emperor of a united China. To consolidate his power and assert imperial sovereignty, Qin ordered that those portions of the walls dividing the kingdoms be demolished, and those running along the northern frontier be connected and extended the new ‘Great Wall’, more than 6000 kilometres long. It is believed that more than 300,000 men were made to work for the ten-year project, (as mostly women are now working for export production at cheap rates), and forced to work under great hardship; many died in the process.

Qin’s ultimate purpose was immortality through a dynastic reign that would continue in perpetuity. But his new dynasty was short-lived; only fifteen years later, it was replaced by Han dynasty. Over the centuries, the wall fell into disrepair; a victim of the forces of nature. A number of rulers ordered it reconstructed or extended, but inevitably, nature reclaimed it. Today, although its remaining portions are maintained as a legacy of human achievement (it is one of the few human-made structures visible from the space), the Great Wall has no real significance other than as a symbol for the security and sovereignty of China. In fact it is a testimony to the long-term failure and folly of human quest for territorial security.

The wall is dwarfed by the mountain reaches on which it stands like a thin, nervous line. Life and power lie in the mountains, alive with a myriad of plant and animal species. Microorganisms turn stone to soil; insects, rodents and goats traverse the wall’s ruins, nibbling plants that grow through the cracks, oblivious to the grand design of the humans. Trees on the slopes provide wood and fuel for homes; their roots hold soil and water against erosion and drought. Rain and melting snow flow in rivulets down the slopes, then converge in gushing rivers on their course toward lowland rice paddies that feed over a billion people. China’s security, as also of its billion plus neighbour, India, and every other country, now and in the future, depends ultimately on the integral functioning of these dynamic and interactive Earth processes, their Ecological systems.

True, it also depends on the economic health. Thus each year the wall is overrun by thousands of foreign tourists, bringing foreign currency. Their presence is tolerated, even sought, because China’s leadership has set the country on a path of neo-liberal economy, with the assumption that it will be a stronger foundation for security in an era of global economic competition than sovereign walls. The Great Wall’s strategic benefit for China today is not that it keeps people out, but that it brings them in.

Sustainability and Security

Today, one may say, there is no walling out the rest of the world. In an age of global economic and ecological interdependencies, great walls are faulty metaphors for conceptualising, as well as faulty strategies for security. We have, therefore, to re-examine the very notion of security, since it is intrinsically linked with sustainability.

Security is commonly defined as ‘freedom from danger; safety.’ Within the framework of the prevailing state-centric system, national security is thought of in military terms, as the capacity of one state to thwart armed invasion by another. With the coming in of the WTO, we also have a new notion of security now; it has come to mean the capacity to compete economically in the global marketplace for access to markets and scarce resources, and for a favourable balance of trade and payments. Ecological security has seldom been included, much less been a priority, in a matrix of national security based on global markets and military pacts. Which is quite irrational since what is naturally global is ecology, where as the economic globalisation and military methods are clearly examples of human design and construction. Since air, land and water form a continuum, the global biosphere, global cooperation to preserve it would seem to be logical necessity to thwart the danger to future life; and should be the cornerstone for sustainability.

The real ‘present danger’ has little to do with superpower polarities on an East/West axis, may be with rich/poor polarities on a North/South axis. However it seems to have more to do with polarities between human activities and the life-sustaining capacities of the Earth – polarities that threaten the ecological security of East, West, North, and South alike, and in many ways incorporate the rich/poor polarity. We are at a point in human history and in the planet’s development when it has become critical to reconsider security priorities in light of new threats to life emanating from human assaults on the Earth, in particular from the life-threatening asymmetry between the globalised economic systems and the desperately needed global approaches to restore and sustain ecology and environment. The relentless onslaught of the global economic system to create and nurture human greeds, as opposed to needs, in order to expand and sustain a global market for unsatiable consumption is shaping environmental approaches that must subjugate themselves to the overarching economic concerns, rather than challenge them. Thus, the Earth Summit agenda of Rio must not question trade, the GATT/WTO mechanism does not recognise MEA’s (multilateral environmental agreements) and so on. Consistent in its stand against global environmental security, the US is translating the ‘tough’ and arrogant statement of its then President George Bush that the ‘US is not going to trade the lifestyle of its citizens’ made before the Rio summit, by refusing to accept the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gases during the son’s regime, even though it consumes the highest per capita energy in the world. What will happen if every Indian and Chinese citizen reaches a lifestyle that requires as much per capita energy? The result would be an increasing number of principal threats to the very survival of the Earth.

For early human societies, these threats constituted of powerful forces of nature; volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, floods. Over time, humans learned to protect, those who could afford, from many of these, through precautions or modifications in habits and habitats, and new inventions. Today a new class of risks is emerging. Although they have to do with nature, this time the danger arises not from what nature can do to the human, but the human activities on nature – and the consequent effects on the human. The problem has also arisen due to the inequality in the ‘solutions’ to old problems. In order to protect the advantaged populations more and more from these old threats, the larger disadvantaged populations continue to be endangered by these old problems along with the new ones. They are therefore doubly disadvantaged.

Human assaults on the planet today are of a new kind and scale. Global symptoms are familiar by now – depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, global warming due to the build up energy emissions that could be the cause of major climate changes, acid rain, increasing levels of chemical, radioactive and other toxic pollutants in water, air and soils, contributing to the increase in cancers and other environmentally-induced diseases, health problems and genetic damage; the loss of topsoil and desertification, contributing to hunger and starvation of millions; chemical and biological, as well as nuclear weapons; massive depletion of rainforests, with the loss of vital watersheds and the depletion of Earth’s oxygen supply, further compounding the carbon-dioxide threat. The life of the Earth is also threatened by the loss of millions of plant and animal species due to over-industrialisation, deforestation, pollution, selective breeding, monocropping and genetic engineering leading to a variety of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms).

Unlike threats in the social sphere, these cannot be defined in conventional ideological terms, but are related to a new and growing ideology called the ‘global market’, which is nothing but a more virulent form of human greed, for profit and power. Once threats to Earth’s ecosystems accelerate beyond a certain point, they may take a life of their own, accelerating beyond human control toward an uncertain conclusion, possibly including major changes in the Earth’s life sustaining capacities. Where as the Earth may adapt itself and take care of itself in some fashion, humans may not be able to withstand or adapt fast enough to these changes. In this event the cause of human death will not be the forces of nature, but a failure of human vision. Ultimately therefore, the world is a total, living system, and human security a function of, and inseparable from, the life of the Earth.

Knowledge and Production

The ability of the pre-historic nomadic tribes to gradually transform from hunting-gathering to settled living heralded the first major revolution on the Earth, that of agriculture; the ability of the humans to grow food at one place. Knowledge about the use of metals, iron and copper, brought humankind out of the Stone Age. Through a series of such discoveries and inventions, mostly related to transforming the resources of the Earth to productive ends, human civilisations evolved into more complex and creative forms. Empirically generated knowledge about nature, natural resources and processes of production has formed the core of the entire knowledge system of humanity for thousands of years, till the advent of modern science in the seventeenth century. In tandem with the growing empirical knowledge, human civilisations have also felt the need to devise explanatory systems that incorporate questions regarding values, destiny, duties, morals and ethics in a variety of belief systems, which vary from the still prevalent primitive animistic belief systems of the indigenous people to the sophisticated set of religions found all over the world. Very often, these belief systems rather than being disjoint and separate from the empirical knowledge about nature and production are intrinsically linked with them, providing a complex of holistic knowledge systems; which differs greatly from the modern form where knowledge based on reason and logic is systematically separate from that of beliefs.

Modern knowledge, leading to a variety of technologies to transform the resources of the Earth at mind boggling scales and efficiency for productive purposes has accelerated with incredible speed in the aftermath of the second world war, and at the turn of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in an era where the scales of production have to literally bulldoze in order to open up markets so that the frenzy of production and consumption can be sustained. The environmental, social and cultural impacts of such frenzy are obviously tremendous.

All of a sudden, farming and other similar communities whose engagement with the market has been minimal and who have subsisted through self-reliant and locally exchanged forms of transaction of essentials have become the targets of a double-headed onslaught. Since they occupy lands abundant with nature’s resources – water, forests, minerals – they must vacate these places so that these natural resources are easily available for the voracious needs of global production – dams, logging, mines, electricity, roads and so on. At the same time, their own methods of production must be altered to bring them in line with that of expanding markets, so much so that a farmer’s privileged right to save seeds for the next crop, regarding no market intervention, is being furiously challenged through technologies and related legislations that make the use of a seed that can not grow the next year and has to be bought again, mandatory.

The impact is not only on the community based self-reliant modes of production. Since these production systems are intrinsically linked to systems of empirical knowledge and beliefs, their dismantling also has a predatory impact on the related knowledge and belief systems. There is of course a residue of such empirical knowledge that is critically vital for the market based production systems too. The recent trade related legislative systems have now ensured that such knowledge, morally belonging to the communities that generated it and available historically in the public domain, can also be commodified through the system of monopoly patents; thereby ensuring that systems of knowledge and production are together either dismantled or simply legally stolen for generating profits.


The response to such changes worldwide has naturally been varied. There is a growing feeling that traditional sites of middle-class resistance, like Universities, have been weakened; not only through policy changes that are making them increasingly dependent on corporate rather than public funds, but also because the benefits of the neo liberal economy have trickled to the academia, through a host of projects and consultancies, that is overcoming the will to criticise or resist. The kind of resistance witnessed from such sites in the sixties and seventies has at best turned to passive cynicism,

A newer form of cross-border middle-class resistance has been visible, for example, against WTO at Seattle. It is centred around NGO’s, who are engaging with a variety of establishment policies and institutions, both through critical collaboration and confrontation, with a lot of visibility. Time will however tell about the impact of such actions.

The actual sites of resistance are however less visible. These are subsistence farmers, agricultural labour, local artisans, weavers, and other small-scale industries, communities of indigenous people, and women who have to ferry water, fuelwood and fodder. The loss of control on natural resources through relentless ‘development’ that does not benefit them but is crucial to their subsistence, and their forced displacement from their livelihood sites, which displaces them from their traditional skills, cultures and social relations too has pushed a majority of the population in the developing world to the brink. The dream of increased jobs in the high growth economy are also being shattered; in China for example, an incredible thirteen million people are reported to have been laid off from large factories in one year, last year.

The directly affected populations have been increasingly getting organised as people’s movements all over the world and waging a valiant battle for their rights and survival. The sites for these resistances are local, though they have a variety of support from middle-class persons. The worldwide phenomenon of anti-dam, indigenous persons, rural women’s, agricultural labour, fisherfolk, and artisan movements are evidence that unlike a majority of the middle-classes, people are not meekly accepting their victim status in the present dispensation, but vigorously resisting it. Such resistance is not only reactive, but through a variety of efforts, such as local production, local governance, community money, water harvesting, alternative education, involving large scale community mobilisation, people are also engaged proactively in seeking alternatives. It is more they than perhaps the dissenting scholars who are showing a way out of the TINA syndrome (There Is No Alternative to the neo-liberal economy syndrome).