From national security to decolonial ecological security: the contradictions of the US military approach to climate security and its intersections with alternative security discourses.

by Ceara Webster

*note from the Editor: this piece was written months prior to the current situation in Afghanistan. Commentary on climate emissions, forward operating bases (FOBs), and counterinsurgency were in the context of the Afghanistan War (2001-2021).


The United States’ (US) military is, in itself, a threat to national security. Climate change, in dominant discourses on climate security, is considered either a threat or a threat multiplier. It has a human cause and significant adverse impacts on the environment and social stability of our world. Considering the US military is the single largest institutional consumer of hydrocarbons, petroleum in particular, globally (Belcher et al., 2019: 2; Nuttall et al., 2017: 3), they directly contribute to generating this ‘threat’ of climate change. This essay outlines the national security approach that remains prevalent in the US and geopolitics today. Then, because a key securitising actor in national security discourse is the military, the paper explores how the US military simultaneously secures and exacerbates climate change. The essay then provides some alternative imaginings of climate security, including: i) ecological and decolonial security from literature on ecological security and the Beirut School of Critical Security Studies, or ii) desecuritising climate change entirely. Further research would be needed to fully scope out the referent objects, actors, threats, and resulting policies that may emerge from these latter approaches. This essay makes a start at this work, but due to practical limitations can only offer these as provocations. The main thesis of this paper therefore is that current dominant security approaches to climate change are insufficient to tackle the root cause of climate change. Specifically, the involvement of the US military in securing the nation-state against climate change is counter-intuitive, given their “carbon boot-print” (Belcher et al., 2019).

Security discourses: national security and securitisation

To explore different security discourses it is important to clarify key terminology, including: security, broadening and deepening, referent object, and securitising actors (or key ‘agents’ of security). Security is a contested concept, with “changes in the practices of security over time” changing the meaning of security (Stritzel, 2014: 18). This is a discursive change (Hajer, 1995) done by broadening and deepening the security discourse. Broadened definitions of security incorporate novel challenges like climate change as security issues (as climate security) (Stritzel, 2014). Deepening the security agenda includes new ‘referent objects’. The referent object refers to “whose security is at stake” (McDonald, 2014: 43). In traditional security studies, the referent object was the state. Deepened security agendas include referent objects, like humans (in human security), populations or circulations (in biopolitics), and international order (in international security).

Agents of security – like states, the military, NGOs, and citizens – are responsible for responding to a particular threat (McDonald, 2014: 43). These agents enable climate change to undergo the process of securitisation. Securitisation occurs when a political issue is transferred from the realm of ‘normal’ politics to the realm of security. Security is where exceptional measures can be taken to ensure the survival of a given referent object (Buzan et al., 1998: 24-29 in Stritzel, 2014: 15). This paper elucidates how the military as a security agent (in)effectively secures the referent object of the state against the threat of climate change; so the paper examines a broadened national security discourse.

National security discourse is one of the most poignant contemporary discourses about climate security (McDonald, 2013). In the US, the Department of Defence (DOD) defined climate change as a threat that “impair[s] [the] DOD’s ability to prepare for or carry out the National Security Strategy or create[s] instabilities that can threaten US National Security” (Floyd, 2010: 89). Alternatively, climate change has been framed as a threat multiplier (The CNA Corporation, 2007: 5) which facilitates existing unrest that “could directly challenge US national security” (McDonald, 2013: 45). Responses to potential climate threats can be mitigation strategies or adaptation strategies. By and large, national security discourse largely focuses on how states can adapt (McDonald, 2013).

Adaptation strategies “do not address the causes of climate change and even position those affected most by it as threatening” (McDonald, 2013: 45-46). For example, a 2003 report commissioned by the Pentagon argued that self-sufficient states may need to “develop more effective border control strategies” to prevent displaced populations, due to climate change, from crossing the national border (Schwarts & Randall, 2013 in McDonald, 2013: 46). This framing could encourage a military response which is incongruous to delivering effective solutions to problems of environmental change and maintaining the status quo of security in global politics (Deudney, 1990 in McDonald, 2013: 43-44). In the next section we examine this incongruity.

Failed climate securitisation: the case of the US military

A 2015 report the DOD provided to Congress stated that “climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security” (Klare, 2020: paragraph 11). Six years later, the DOD announced they had an action team dedicated to helping the DOD to adapt to climate change (Vergun, 2021). While on the surface this may appear to be positive, it focuses on adapting – techniques that deal with the effects of climate change – as opposed to mitigating – reducing anthropogenic climate change at the source, through decreasing carbon emissions, for example.

Without mitigation efforts, global temperatures are estimated to “increase by 1.8-4℃” by the close of the twenty-first century (McDonald, 2013: 43). Such temperature changes will result in sea level rise which threatens low-lying lands and increases the frequency and intensity of severe weather events (McDonald, 2013). These changes typically are felt most intensely in the “developing” world (McDonald, 2013: 43), but are also felt in the US in places where low-lying land is at risk of flooding and the increased risk of more devastating hurricanes. Economically, “if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change…could rise to 20% of GDP or more” (Stern, 2007: xv). There are, therefore, ecological and financial incentives for the US to take action against the threats of climate change and securitise their nation. One agent responsible for this is the military (from here onwards ‘the military’ or ‘military force’ refers to the military of the United States).

The military has been integrated into security strategy because national security discourse sees climate change as “at least as serious as the prospect of nuclear proliferation” which needs to be approached with a “major military risk analysis” (Mabey, 2011 in Dalby, 2014: 1; Mabey, 2011). Attempting to push climate change into the realm of security aims to lend legitimacy to the use of exceptional measures that may be invoked by security actors – in this case, the state – which calls forth the involvement of military force.

The US military has begun to plan “contingency operations to deal with disasters and related political instabilities as well as protecting their facilities from” climate change (Dalby, 2014: 1). Military leaders remain concerned about climate change, convinced it “seriously threatens US national security” (Klare, 2020: paragraph 4). This is motivated in part by the fact that in Alaska “many facilities are at risk of collapse or damage as the permafrost on which they sit begins to thaw” and in “California, wildfires burn on or near key bases” (Klare, 2020: paragraph 10).

In response, the DOD “is investing in renewable energy, including solar power and biofuels. By the end of 2020, the armed forces expect to generate 18% of on-base electricity from renewables” (Klare, 2020: paragraph 13). Even with these actions, discourses advanced by this agent of security rely on the assertion that people “might be persuaded to take action when they hear from respected generals and admirals that the nation’s security is at stake” (Klare, 2020: paragraph 16). This narrative is easy to demonstrate as, for example, the Air Force is still paying US$5 billion to rebuild Tyndall (an air force base in Florida) and another base and move F-22 operations elsewhere due to a hurricane (Roblin, 2020). Fully successful securitisation, however, is impossible given the inherent contradictions in US military climate security strategy.

Belcher et al.,’s (2019) important work highlights how the Defense Logistics Agency –
Energy (DLA-E), a sub-agency in the US DOD, is the “primary purchase-point for hydrocarbon‐based fuels for the US military, both domestically and internationally” (Belcher et al., 2019: 66). The DLA-E’s bureaucratic and infrastructural capacity was utilised to fulfil carbon-intensive requirements of US military operations and facilitate “carbon-intensive American imperialism” (Belcher et al., 2019: 66) because, while the US military has invested in renewable fuel sources, like solar power and biofuels, the institution “consumes more liquid fuels and emits more CO2e (carbon‐dioxide equivalent) than many medium‐sized countries” (Belcher et al., 2019: 72). In 2017 alone, “the US military purchased about 269,230 barrels of oil a day and emitted 25,375.8 kt‐CO2e by burning those fuels” (Belcher et al., 2019: 72). For the period of 2010-2018, US military GHG emissions “amount to 593 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent…an annual average similar to the annual GHG emission output of 14 million passenger cars” (Belcher et al., 2020: 989) and they are the 47th largest emitter of GHGs in the world when accounting for emissions from fuel usage alone (Belcher et al., 2019; Neimark et al., 2019).

The most common fuels the DLA-E supply are jet fuel and terrestrial and marine diesel (Belcher et al., 2019). Pollutants emitted from the burning of military jet fuel are more potent than its terrestrial counterparts because burning at high altitudes can result in “warming 2-4 times greater than on the ground” (IPCC, 2014 in Belcher et al., 2019: 73). The Air Force emits the most GHGs, 13,202.4 kt‐CO2e, followed by the Navy at 7,847.8 kt‐CO2e; they are also, unsurprisingly, the largest purchasers of fuel, with the Air Force purchasing “US$4.9 billion worth of fuel and the Navy US$2.8 billion, followed by the Army at US$947 million and Marines at US$36 million” in 2017 (DLA, 2017 in Belcher et al., 2019: 73). These visible costs fundamentally undermine the efforts of attempting to switch to alternative fuels.

However, what about hidden carbon costs? These can be unearthed when looking at path dependencies. Fuels supplied by the DLA-E “power everything from routine base operations in the USA to forward operating bases [FOBs] in Afghanistan” (Belcher et al., 2019: 71). Path dependencies are “built-in to major strategic commitments such as weapons systems…and the bureaucratic requirements that facilitate the operations of those commitments. Every step is dependent on a hydrocarbon fuel commitment” (Belcher et al., 2019: 75). During the Afghanistan War, there were over 100 FOBs throughout the country and one typical FOB required a “minimum of 300 gallons of diesel a day to operate” (Deloitte, 2009 in Belcher et al., 2019: 75; original emphasis in Belcher et al.). A single typical combat brigade requires in excess of 500,000 gallons of fuel per day (Deloitte, 2009: 15). At the beginning of 2010, approximately 30-40% of bases were being supplied by air due to the Taliban having control over a lot of Highway 1 (Gregory, 2012: paragraph 6). When recalling that burning fuel to transport the fuel would cause warming 2-4 times more than on the ground, it becomes clear that commitment to military doctrines like counterinsurgency run contrary to the ability to secure the nation-state against climate change.

The expansionist act of generating and maintaining extensive international path dependencies and supplying them with DLA-E budgets and infrastructure is endangering the lives of every being on the planet. The military actively increases the risk of exposure to the effects of climate change to those living in developing regions who may be framed later as an alleged security threat due to having to flee the effects of climate change. The military is, in effect, breeding human and ecological national security threats.

To bring this case study back to the larger problem at hand – how the military undermines national security – framing climate change as the threat misses the essence of the problem. It ignores the ‘cause’ which is not climate change itself – though its effects do still present a threat to human and more-than-human life. It is rather that “global atmospheric concentrations of CO2 , methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750” (IPCC, 2007: 5). Broadly, but not exclusively, humans and institutions in the global North are the driving forces behind global anthropogenic climate change. The US military has locked itself in a carbon future through their contractual obligations (Belcher et al., 2019), accelerating anthropogenic climate change. Therefore, the US military comprises one of the root causes of insecurity for the nation-state, threatening its own bases, broader ecologies, and humans in ‘developing’ nations. The solution demands radical system change, though this seems unlikely as North American security actors “are interested in both denying for as long as possible the significance of climate change and emphasizing the utility of force in dealing with political difficulties in peripheral places” (Dalby, 2014: 8).

Alternative security discourses

So, if securitising climate change under the discourse of national security is inadequate, what are some alternatives? The two alternatives briefly outlined here are: i) transition from national security to ecological and decolonial security discourses, and ii) desecuritise climate change altogether.

In ecological security the biosphere itself is the referent object. Ecological security discourse is mainly advanced by NGOs and critical academics (Pirages, 2005 in McDonald, 2013) and therefore is not prevalent on the security stage like national security discourse is. It calls for “systematic structural change in our relationship to the natural environment” (McDonald, 2013: 48). A subsequent focus on the effects of climate change, the causes of accelerated climate change, and species and habitats beyond the human, is key to establishing security. Proponents of the ecological security discourse are “reluctant to wholly endorse a discourse of (climate) security” and instead focus on the agency of people to alter their “ecological consciousness” (McDonald, 2013: 48).

Commonly, the Westphalian System, arising from the signing of the Peace of Westphalia in Germany in 1648, can be seen as the “progenitor of modern nation-state sovereignty” (Farr, 2005: 156), which “became the primary governing system among European states” and underpins modern IR (Farr, 2005: 156). Protection of the nation-state and its sovereignty then, is rooted in the protection of a European imagining of what it means to have a strong nation-state. The technocratic weaponisation of a ‘War on Nature’, in the name of defending the nation-state, continues into the treatment of nature and those in states most affected by climate change as threatening ‘Others’ to not just the nation-state, but the very idea of what makes a strong nation.

The Beirut School of Critical Security Studies “suggest alternative ways of studying security against the grain of European research agendas or ‘schools’” (Abboud et al., 2018: 275). These ‘alternative ways’ aim to advance the idea that “decolonial encounters are meant to shed light on and experiment with disrupting the ways in which some language systems are recognised and measured against others” (Abboud et al., 2018: 278). In this sense, it draws attention to the fact that it matters who speaks security – i.e., which actors are able to securitise.

The issue with both of these approaches though is that they do not provide specific ways to secure their referent object(s), nor explicitly say who can securitise. This is probably because suggestions arising from these approaches would be radical challenges to a status quo which continues to privilege expansion and profit over genuine decolonial security of the environment. Currently, dominant national security discourse actively pushes those most under threat from the effects of climate change into the same ‘threat’ group as nature, effectively rendering both as threatening ‘others’ that need not be secured from those who threaten them (polluting institutions), but are something to be secured against. That said, the ecological and Beirut general premises can guide ideas about the impacts on policies made – for instance, a focus on more mitigation and more collaborative and pluriversal engagements in security exchanges in international fora.

The other option is to desecuritise climate change and move it into the realm of ‘normal’ politics which would allow it to be collectively debated as opposed to acted upon by specific security actors only. Securitising climate change raises the profile of climate change to the top of the policymaking agenda, but simultaneously adversely impacts “the natural environment and…the most disadvantaged members of international society” (Floyd, 2008: 63). Current national security discourse that emphasises reducing economic losses due to climate change motivates solutions that “are often far from environmentally friendly, and some, such as biofuels, even counterbalance reductions in GHG production” as forests may be cleared to create space for biofuel plantations (Floyd, 2008: 62). This is further evidence to suggest even the mitigating shift to biofuels in the military is simply performative.

Closing provocations

The effects of climate change can threaten human and more-than-human life, but choices of particular institutions, corporations, and powerful states and state agents are what is accelerating climate change. One of these institutions includes the US military. Framing climate change away from this reality and towards an externalisable nature – of which humans conveniently seem to not be a part, further entrenching dualisms of Human/nature – that needs to be controlled is not effectively securitising climate change. It does, however, strengthen imperial logics that continue to frame not only nature as a threatening other, but also those who may seek protection from the effects of climate change. Climate change illuminates an inherent ontological insecurity: that every state has vulnerabilities beyond their control.

Different approaches to this reality include securitising the biosphere using ecological and decolonial ways of thinking. This orients discourse away from a status quo which upholds expansionist tactics justified by national security discourse. Alternatively, climate change could be moved from the realm of security to the sphere of ‘normal’ politics allowing for democratic debate which may allow for a broader range of actors to engage with climate change mitigation. These are, admittedly, partial and imperfect alternatives. Further research extending the specific dynamics would allow more complex security discourses to acknowledge our positionality as part of the very nature we must cease threatening.


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An historical examination of South Africa’s biodiversity conservation and it’s link with persistent development inequality.

by Hannah Williams

South Africa (SA) is an infamous country for two very contrasting attributes: one of the most unequal countries in the world, and the third most biodiverse (Posel and Rogan, 2019; Wynberg, 2002). Over half of SA’s population live in poverty, 70% of whom live in rural areas entrenched in colonial and apartheid legacy (Aliber, 2003). Alongside economic, spatial and social inequality, SA hosts between 250,000 to 1,000,000 endemic species (Wynberg, 2002). The diversity of ecosystems and habitats, in addition to extreme inequality, promotes an ongoing challenge for the South African government, trying to balance iodiversity conservation with the nation’s social, political and economic development agenda. Despite the African National Congress (ANC), in the post-apartheid era, declaring their commitment to both issues within the ‘1996 Constitution of the Republic of SA’ (section 24 and 27), the possibility of achieving these in harmony remains practically questionable, especially alongside a governance regime where neoliberal development and economic growth has become hegemony (Hart, 2014; Kepe, 2009).

By following the political progression of the nation from colonial independence in 1934, through the National Party’s (NP) apartheid regime, to the current ANC neoliberal development project, the essay explores the complex nature of racial inequality. This demonstrates how inequality is entrenched in historical, political, spatial and economic forces. Focussing on the establishment of South African National Parks (SANPs) as the main practice of biodiversity conservation, the essay will draw upon the Kruger National Park (KNP), one of the oldest and largest reserves, to provide contextual and empirical evidence. Consequently, the dynamic links between biodiversity conservation and racial inequality will be exposed (Büscher, 2016; Kepe et al., 2004; McCarthy and Prudham, 2004).

First, analysing the influence of colonial rule and apartheid policies on racial land segregation, the rise of ‘fortress conservation’ will be examined. Following this, the post-apartheid neoliberal project of the ANC will be critiqued, analysing the implications of a neoliberal ideology on nature and society. Finally, examining SANPs as part of the ANC development project will expose biodiversity conservation’s continuation of historical racial segregation. This will conclude that neoliberalising nature, as part of a development growth-centric policy, continues and exacerbates racial inequalities founded from colonial rule.

‘Fortress Conservation’ in the apartheid regime:

SA’s independence from Britain in 1934 was followed by promotion of Afrikaner nationalism, white supremacy and Afrikaner ideologies. This resulted in the governance of the NP from 1948 to 1994, instating racial segregation policies and marking the start of the apartheid regime. Through a variety of structural policies against non-whites: Group Areas Act 1950, Population Registration Act 1950, Bantu Authorities Act 1951, Reservation of Separate Amenities Act 1953 and Bantu Self Government Act 1959, SA became a nation that was institutionally and systematically racist with structural, economic, spatial and social segregation dependent on race and class (Clark and Worger, 2013). The range of spatial policies forced rural black South Africans from their lands into peripheral Banustans, to transform ancestral land into national parks as part of the SANP project (Cock and Fig, 2000). As a result, black South Africans, 70% of the population, owned only 13% of land, resulting in forced overcrowding, increased degradation and erosion of the Banustan’s land (Cock and Fig, 2000). In contrast the whites, 30% of the population, had control of 80% of agricultural land, exacerbating poverty, social dislocation and driving environmental racism (ibid.). This history of racism, land and resource dispossession formed a country of hierarchies, boundaries, borders and power structures, overcoming all realms of society (Hart, 2014).

“In the African version of wildlife conservation history, the experience has been that game reserves are white inventions which elevate wildlife above humanity and which have served as instruments of dispossession and subjugation” (Carruthers 1995: 101).

Racialised land and resource dispossession marginalised non-white communities from land of significant ‘importance’ or value, for biodiversity or agricultural potential (Kepe et al., 2005). This had significant economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts creating a ‘fortress conservation’ regime, excluding local communities despite their indigenous knowledge and non-exploitative behaviour. This was justified by the Afrikaner rationale that local people degrade and exploit natural resources and consequently cause biodiversity loss and land degradation (Domínguez and Luoma, 2020). The dependence of the local communities on the natural resources was not considered, exacerbating poverty, economic and social inequality with devastating impacts on livelihoods and culture (ibid.). The ignorance of ancestral land rights, with colonial ideology of dominance and possession rendered black rural livelihoods as mere objects within the reserves. As a result, local people were forced to adopt colonial agricultural methods by white Afrikaners, seen as a way of civilising them, reducing the multiplicity of local livelihoods and appropriating indigenous knowledges and skills. The dominance of the nonlocal, colonial epistemology centred conservation efforts on the survival of certain species, rather than posing questions around quality of life and rural livelihoods (Harvey, 1996).

Fortress conservation, the construction of barriers and patrols authorised by the SANP, was largely driven by the white elite and external NGOs, maintaining conservation as a practice which supported and benefited colonial states and white landowners through tourism, scientific research and trophy hunting. KNP, otherwise known as ‘Fortress Kruger’ is one of the most mediated parks globally, critiqued for its impermeable separation of race and class, with the internal space a romanticised white fortress containing unspoiled nature and wildlife, acting as a “modernist form of symbolically enclaved space” (Carruthers, 1995: 67). Access to KNP by black South Africans was minimal, with poverty and lack of access to motor vehicles making it highly inaccessible. Additionally, visitors to KNP were forced to stay in an external facility in Balule, resulting in only black labourers allowed ‘inside’. The further marginalisation and forced loss of livelihoods and their disrespect towards ‘unproductive’ conservation, resulted in green militarisation and a new guerrilla warfare between poaching and hunting driven by black rural poverty and negative attitudes towards conservation (Büscher, 2016; Fabricius and de Wet, 2002).

“The colonial notion of pristine wilderness and human exclusion was sectional and exacerbated national divisions along racial lines. Rather than being a means of nation-building, the parks worked against national unity to reflect and maintain the privileges of the white minority.” (Cock and Fig, 2000: 23)

Ongoing colonial acts, and the racist class-based segregation of the NP’s apartheid regime resulted in increasing resistance and ongoing, exacerbated inequalities through conservation practices. As a result, there was increasing resistance with responding police and military brutality (Hart, 2014). Additionally, political oppressive forces on a nation scale resulted in a deep economic crisis, with extreme labour shortages, high black unemployment, and economic failure, framing the nation’s “state of emergency” (Williams and Taylor, 2000: 21). This highlights how oppressive historical policies rendered biodiversity conservation a colonial, racist and unequal practice in the form of ‘fortress conservation’.

Neoliberalising nature and the South African transition:

In response to the ‘state of emergency’, the changing governance from the NP to the ANC in 1994 saw dramatic political, structural and ideological shifts, resulting in the birth of the ‘rainbow nation’ and post-apartheid SA (Hart, 2014). This ideological shift involved an enthusiastic commitment to neoliberal ideology, inspired by the success of other country’s development across the globe and the work of the World Bank. The neoliberal development project was driven by Mandela and Mbeki’s conservative macroeconomic policies up until 2008, this resulted in the “institutional separation of society into an economic and political sphere”, believing in the constructive role of privatisation, capitalism, liberalisation, state building and regulation reform for driving development activity (Hart, 2014; Williams and Taylor, 2000: 22). Their macro-economic policies included Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), and Reconstruction and Development programmes articulated in the Government of National Unity’s (GNU) White Paper (Williams and Taylor, 2000). This national restructuring was part of the negotiation to end apartheid, a call to achieve political equality whilst driving the economy’s growth.

As neoliberalisation is the “fashioning of socio-cultural and political dynamics in commodification, commercialisation and marketisation”, market-based reform homogenised nature governance, in line with international and global ideologies of conservation regulation (Castree, 2008a: 155). This ignored local, regional and national specificity creating tension between local communities and colonial conservation agendas (Benjaminsen et al., 2008). For example, under the rhetoric of GEAR policies, nature was neoliberalised as an economic development opportunity, through strategies such as eco-tourism, trade and hunting (Castree, 2008a). Additionally, land reform in relation to conservation was framed as a positive desegregating practice, with expanding conservation areas, new models, new opportunities and improved relations between stakeholders (Fabricius and de Wet, 2002). However, the idealistic promises of GEAR to have equitable land return to local communities held significant challenges with high tensions around contrasting agendas and framings of nature’s value (Kepe et al., 2005). For example, the restructuring of the land and economy remained racialised with white capital remaining untouched with no redistribution of wealth on the GNU constitution (Ashman et al., 2011). Furthermore, historically relocated communities often refused to accept the land restitution opportunity, given stigma, lack of financial opportunity beyond ecotourism, and inappropriate unsustainable livelihood options within the parks (Garland, 2008).

As the project of neoliberalising nature by their instrumental, economic value, is a process conducted by the political and economic elite, the rural poor are further marginalised, with economic valuations not sharing the same epistemology and ontology as the local communities (Büscher, 2008). The creation of 17 national parks in the post-apartheid regime, encloses and captures resources, excluding and appropriating rural livelihoods associated with nature. These parks, in a neoliberal framing, aim to represent the complexity of SA’s biodiversity, a process through which “invaluable and complex ecosystems are reduced to commodities through pricing” (Heynen and Robbins, 2005:2 in Castee 2008b: 140). This results in nature
being fully controlled by the state and the free market, rendering nature and biodiversity vulnerable to the logics of capital (Castree, 2008b). Neoliberalising nature, thus, rationalises biodiversity, questioning the trade-off between nature and development, and the subsequent tension between development and
conservation ideology. Whilst neoliberalism makes conservation compatible with development ideology, it is at the sacrifice of relational and intrinsic value of nature and the local subsistence communities living alongside.

The failing of neoliberalism and the South African crises:

Neoliberalising nature reproduces environmental injustices, critiquing the ANC’s neoliberal hegemonic project to be a “façade” which masks inequalities (Büscher and Dressler, 2012: 369). With the growth of an elite bourgeois society, and the ongoing dispossession of the blacks and middle-lower class, economic and social dispossession of marginalised community’s continues (Ashman et al., 2011). As neoliberalism in this period was strongly idealised as a constructive project there is a notable lack of critique, specifically around how the project fitted with local and national specificity (Holmes and Cavanagh, 2016). Whilst land reclaim and land reform acts aim to reverse spatial segregation in protected fenced reserves, they remain unclear, exacerbating conflict between local communities and conservation with political forces ignorant to the unequal socio-economic and spatio-historical processes ongoing in SA. Additionally, the tension between the two objectives of the actors is worsened by land reform and legal protection remaining biased to western colonial ideology and objectives of external interventions, maintaining the characteristics of colonial fortress conservation from the apartheid era (Kepe et al., 2005).

Poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation are high up on the post-apartheid constitution, yet discussions of access and participation to conservation reserves remain infrequent in conservation and poverty discourse (Crane, 2005; Kepe, 2009). There are two dominant discourses present in current conservation; the hegemonic discourse of specific species survival from internal/external NGOs, government departments and scientific research (influenced by wider global conservation agendas), or the alternative discourse around people-nature relationships expressed by social scientists, human rights and poverty alleviation stakeholders (Büscher and Dietz, 2005). As the former remains dominant, social inclusion and participation remains a lower priority to biodiversity and development foci (Crane, 2006). For example, in 2005 only 12% of black South Africans had visited the KNP (Kepe, 2009: 875). This demonstrates how protected areas are still largely regarded as white only, or a tourist domain, probing the assumption that ecotourism is the leading solution for de-racialising conservation (Crane, 2006). In development discourse, ecotourism aims to include black local communities in protected area schemes, however in practicality the communities lack the capacity to receive maximal benefits, faced with considerable challenges in mobilising investors and attracting tourists, restricted by incompatible worldviews. Furthermore, encouraging black communities to participate in agendas such as ecotourism within these reserves can have unintended consequences on the livelihoods of the local people (Benjaminsen et al., 2008). The power dynamic between white and black communities in ecotourism and conservation areas is critiqued as a form of welfare hand out (Kepe, 2009). This power exchange between white and black communities is a colonial exchange which should be regarded as uncomfortable in future and ongoing conservation development (Büscher and Dietz, 2005).

In order to address the ongoing challenges of biodiversity conservation, a “fundamental transformation” is required to overhaul the limits to achieving sustainable, holistic growth alongside the ANC’s hegemonic project (Cock and Fig, 2000: 32). As discussed previously, systemic and institutional restructuring are occurring, with a focus on partnership with communities and co-management becoming a fundamental part of SANPs future (Garland, 2008). In the KNP, an agreement between the local indigenous Makuleke community with conservationists was struck after two years of negotiations, in the attempt of harmonising the needs of rural people with conservation agendas (Cock and Fig, 2000). This also coincided with a wider attempt to deracialise the distribution of jobs in the reserve, increasing the representation of black South Africans in higher skilled managerial roles, with 50% of directorates now black South Africans (ibid.). The agreement resulted in the reclamation of 22 thousand hectares to the Makuleke community. Whilst it is a significant achievement that locals have been able to reclaim their ancestral land, there remains a reluctance of black middle and lower class to engage in conservation. Power relations will need monitoring, to ease tensions between conservation, human rights and development stakeholders. Making biodiversity conservation more socially, economically and politically justifiable remains a principal challenge which will require institutional capacity, political will, and community cohesion (Cock and Fig, 2000; Kepe, 2009).

“The transformation of the South African National Parks from an institution of colonial to community-based conservation is part of the wider project of transforming South Africa into a just, democratic and non-racial society” (Cock and Fig, 2000: 34)

The dominant discourse of the powerful elite, in combination with the ANC’s hegemonic neoliberal project, masks the underlying oppressive forces behind biodiversity conservation, acting as one of the greatest threats to indigenous communities today (Domínguez and Luoma, 2020). Historical segregation, and the dominance of neoliberal ideologies have considerable implications on individual epistemologies and ontologies, re-determining the “common sense way many of us interpret, live in and understand the world”, becoming ingrained into local subjectivities (Harvey, 2005: 3; Holmes and Cavanagh, 2016). As a result, conservation practices value nature as an economic asset which is prioritised over the lives of the local people, exacerbating the inequalities present between the lower, middle and upper classes and white and black segregation. Attention to race in conservation discourse remains centred in the past, with little concern and awareness of the ongoing entrenched oppressive forces, now silencing a problem that was previously salient in political debate. Neoliberalism in the South African context, is arguably a failed development ideology, contributing to the South African crises (Castree, 2008a; Castree, 2008b.)

In conclusion:

Biodiversity conservation has been exposed as a significant factor for the reproduction and continuation of racial inequality, with dynamic links made evident following the progression of conservation practice alongside political transformation from the apartheid regime to present day. Fortress conservation, curated and policed by the white elite, was born during the apartheid era of spatial and racial policies, forcibly excluding rural black communities from areas of high biodiversity value to be turned into fenced national parks. This resulted in a binary between white, elite, conservationists/landowners and black marginalised livelihoods which became entrenched in individual subjectivities and framings of biodiversity conservation. As a result, values and motivations associated with biodiversity, the practice of conservation and the possible livelihoods associated were disparate between the black and white communities, leading to a highly conflicting, militarised, hierarchical power relation.

The neoliberal development project of the ANC from 1994 provided initial promise for racial segregation within SA, at a time of high salience and political will to reverse the oppressive forces of the previous government ruling. Through a range of land reform and restitution policies, in combination with a surge in community-based conservation strategies such as eco-tourism, accessibility and participation of black communities in national parks and conservation practice improved. However, the restructuring of the ANC soon became hegemony, with neoliberalisation of nature having severe consequences on previously marginalised, impoverished communities. The growth centric ideology favoured the economic value of biodiversity above the livelihoods of the local people, framing nature as a means for economic development. Whilst neoliberalising nature makes it compatible with the nation’s development agenda, it is done so at the sacrifice of relational and intrinsic value of nature and local subsistence communities. This exacerbates environmental injustice, with established efforts at reversing land and racial segregation acting as fruitless solutions incompatible with the ontologies of rural livelihoods.

Following the history of SA alongside the progression of biodiversity conservation in practice and ideology has demonstrated the role of oppressive politics in shaping and driving racial inequality. Given the severe unequal history of fortress conservation, the institutional, cultural, social and economic damage is significant. The neoliberal hegemonic project, following this regime, hid the continuation of racial segregation and impoverishment behind agendas framed as ‘accessible’ and ‘inclusive’ yet in actuality, inequality remained due to ontological tension between the powerful elite and the rural poor. In order to overcome the unequal nature of biodiversity conservation, now entrenched in actor’s subjectivities, a radical transformation is required beyond small scale restructuring policies. Until this is achieved, conservation will remain an elitist racialised project which exacerbates racial inequalities.


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“Only when we accept that our wants are limited and can be satisfied will we finally enjoy an abundant world” (Kallis 2019). To what extent do you agree with this statement, and why?

by Adam Smith


As technoscience and rationality have emerged as the dominant languages of environmental policy and management, there has been a consistent effort to define the limits of contemporary societies in these terms (Lovbrand et al. 2015; Dryzek 2013). One such example is Rockstrom et al.’s (2009) demarcation of planetary boundaries – a balance of 9 variables necessary for ‘safe operating’ amongst volatile biophysical systems. Essentially, these approaches identify abstract and quantifiable limits, framing climate change as a material-economic/scientific problem of restraining or offsetting certain outputs (pollutants), so that the flawed element is seemingly nature’s faltering abundance (Kallis 2019). This fails to account for the ethical, political and cultural dimensions of the problem – where the systems of production and consumption which threaten this ‘natural harmony’ are not inherent, but situated within a particular historical and political context (Castree et al. 2014). Scientific notions of limits therefore enact a nature-culture dualism, obscuring the subjective lens with which human politics views externalised environmental problems (Latour 2004). Through this separation, the limitless pursuit of growth endemic to capitalist politics can be ideologically preserved despite its contradiction to the natural order, because by definition, human society has transcended nature.

Kallis’s statement is therefore a declaration for “decolonizing the imaginary from growth” (Kallis and March 2010, p360-1) – to utilise the radical potential of wants to re-embed human society within ecological balance. For degrowthers, the self-limitation of wants is a free choice in line with a higher principle, ‘frugal abundance’, dissolving the notion of scarcity by socially restraining human desires for perpetual growth towards (or beyond) a limit (ibid.; Latouche 2012). This essay will argue that wants are an important aspect of political change – but desire is emergent amongst material-economic, cultural and institutional relations, which means that creating abundance through wants depends on their ability to create new institutional arrangements. I will firstly situate wants within a Deleuzian politics of desire, to refine how capitalist politics engenders wants through intertwined material-economic and political relations of production and subjectification. Secondly, limits will be discussed in their relation to the de-politicisation of environmental matters through ‘post-politics’ (Swyngedouw 2011), the emergence of a consensual sphere of techno-managerial governance which excludes certain perspectives from making valid contributions to policy. I will then discuss the potentiality of new wants as “think[ing] the possibility of real alternatives” (Harvey 2000, p156), focusing on how grassroots movements articulate new worldviews within politics.


“Desire belongs to the infrastructure, not to ideology” – Deleuze and Guattari 1988, p348

Although multi-scalar analyses have emerged as a key epistemology of geographical research, there is still a tendency to speak of the different ‘levels’ of life; from the all-encompassing planetary imaginary to localities and individualised social/political subjects (Katz 2004). In such a hierarchal framing, while there may be some dialecticism between say, individual wants and macropolitical governance, ultimately, problems are compartmentalised within certain spheres which are ‘better equipped’ for particular subjects (Castree et al. 2014). Different aspects of environmental management are bounded within various disciplines that see little mutualism in their strivings, where scientists feel hindered by the imposition of political-ethical concerns from the humanities, and inversely, social researchers feel like their work is overlooked in favour of natural-scientific knowledge (Bulkeley 2019). Scholars have highlighted the potential of multidisciplinary approaches, particularly in addressing the ‘knowledge-action gap’ (Hulme 2020) whereby there is a surplus of information on how human activities damage the environment, but making change is difficult because any particular scientific fact can cast multiple plans of action – as seen in the diverse stances of ecomodernism, ecosocialism, degrowth, and so on (ibid.). To enrich action, we need critical understanding of limits and our relationship with them – where and how should limits be posed, on who and why? Compartmentalising where valid knowledge can be created is harmful it gives uneven authority in negotiations, meaning we are not fully considering our options and thus, we are not synthesising actable principles (Beck and Mahony 2018).

Deleuze and Guattari’s (1988) metaphysics denies separations, conceiving of categorisations and boundaries as socially emergent from the coding and de/re-coding of diverse entanglements (relations, processes) between things (subjects, objects, concepts). Essentially, a thing has content (e.g. objects occupy physical space, concepts occupy ideological domains) and a form (the coding of how a thing differs from other things). The substance of things is therefore constructed through the relation of content and form, not literally where the two elements can be neatly disentangled, but rather, in the manner of continual reiteration, whereby the inclusion or exclusion of content can require a new code for describing the form of the thing, or a new understanding of a thing’s form requires a shifting of its bounds (ibid.). Capitalism is a driver of this endless ‘de/re-territorialization’ because it perpetuates by appropriating new domains (discovering new resources, or more efficient methods of extraction), and heterogeneously reiterating relations through the (re-)coding/valuation of objects/subjects involved (Harvey 2018). Furthermore, a system of production is inextricably a system of subjectification – for each process of value-extraction engenders a particular subject for its purpose, with particular obligations, desires, social & political relationships, and worldviews (Read 2008). Subjectivities are therefore formed amongst this ever-changing terrain. These perpetually shifting notions permeate within, and distort, the thought of subjects, meaning wants are never a static nor individualistic matter. Rather, they are calibrated through the social, through discourses of truth and goodness – simultaneously conceiving of the present and the future, history and modernity, the individual and collective, the local and the global (Foucault 1978).

This dynamic can clearly be seen within the emergence of neoliberalised subjectivities. Neoliberalism refers to the broad field of ideologies – including privatisation, marketisation, individualisation of responsibility, de-regulation of systems, and market-based/led governance (Castree 2010); which affect both institutional arrangements and the way that subjects, individuated and responsible, engage with the world. Carbon footprints have become an everyday discourse which relates consumption and climate change. Specifically, this idea has several constitutive elements: 1) the interrelation of planetary and local scales; where everyday actions have global effects, ‘glocality’ (Pratt and Rosner 2006); 2) the discursive power of fungible carbon; in essence, making it seem that pollution in one area is part of a global challenge through abstracts of carbon equivalence – which denies the local specificity of pollutants and their effects (Swyngedouw 2013); 3) the individualisation of responsibility for pollution; where everyone has a carbon footprint (Malm and Hornborg 2014). Carbon footprints create an individuated subject responsible for their emissions, who should be driving systemic change through consumption, shopping knowledgeably and ethically (Pollan 2006). Through this, powerful actors are absolved from the disproportionate responsibility they deserve because all individuals are equally implicated in this glocal problem – problematising individual consumption rather than production. This subjectification therefore serves a particular mode of production – of mass-industry and monopolisation, which are unquestioned as part of this ‘environmentally-friendly’ notion; masking power dynamics which give institutional actors the ability to reshape production, distribution and consumption in a way that no individual consumer can (ibid.; Howard 2016). Instead, it is the consumer’s wants which are reshaped, where individuals are supposed to conceive of their own limits within a deregulated system.

Post-political limits

Consensus is the means through which the relationship between capital and environmental politics becomes neutral – where the underlying ontological and political pre-suppositions of institutions are so contingently agreed upon that they appear an objective fact (Kenis and Lievens 2014). This depoliticises the arrangement of power, making its function an uncontestable outcome of human and non-human nature (ibid.; Moore 2015). The resulting post-politics therefore enforces certain perspectives and ways of communicating as valid forms within the “technical, managerial and consensual administration (policing) of environmental, social, economic or other domains” (Swyngedouw 2011, p266), normatively or institutionally excluding dissent from decision-making. For example, in land disputes between indigenous peoples and globalised neoliberal megaprojects, science and rationality are already the default languages of discussion – so when an indigenous representative speaks of their ancestral and spiritual ties to the land, or emotional experiences of colonialism, these statements are not even admissible on the same level (Zhouri 2018). From the naturalised perspective of post-politics, these are subjective concerns in an objective matter – where ideas of connection to the land and the real presence of ‘earth-beings’, e.g. sacred, sentient mountains like Quilish, are not borne out of a different set of ontological and epistemological presuppositions about the world, but are just beliefs which distort objective reality (de la Cadena 2010). The result is the consolidation of institutional power, where certain parties are given more power to enact change, or more weight in discussion – whether it be due to their expertise giving them authority, or their position granting them privileged speech (Swyngedouw 2011).

Through the flattening of diverse environmental and political-economic relations into quantifiable notions, taking a fluid situation and bounding it, trying to consensually agree upon the exact moment the system slips into failure – limits emerge as a mechanism of subjectification (Latour 2014). Limits-thinking obscures the overflow of arbitrary categories, establishing divisions between biophysical domains, between natural scientific and social scientific enquiry, between ecological and societal impacts, ultimately missing the complexity and contingency of earth’s systems (Haraway 2016). This portrait of environmental politics diminishes potential to act because it frames the apocalyptic moment as objective and foreseeable, as if we are already doomed to fail because we are continually progressing to the boundary (Kallis 2019). Yet crisis presents governance with an opportunity to seize power, to regulate behaviour more closely so that new limits can be maintained (Moore 2015); a dialectic relation between the sovereign state and capitalism where they re-shift the terrain of what is available as a resource within a biopolitics of the environment (Smith 2011). While rationalistic assessments of the earth system may premise fixed limits, the systemic desire is to ignore, to surpass, to push boundaries – for “there is no profit in resources expended to prevent bad things from happening […] The profit is in expansion” (O’Connor 1998 p317). Because of the future-orientated perspective, the eroding of natural resource pools is taken as a non-problem because sustainability is not solely a question of realism (the rational-scientific truth) but also fictitious scientific advancements (e.g., potential techno-fixes), and human resilience and adaptability – presuppositions about human potential and its ability to surpass nature (Haraway 2016).

Environmental (post-)politics is already underwritten with anthropocentric stories of progress, where scientific rationalism has enabled humanity to transcend natural limits (Daggett 2020). When impulses of enclosure, privatisation and neoliberal growth have already colonised desires, change involves re-writing the story with consideration to what wants it engenders, and what limits it imposes (ibid.). No political arrangement can be free of an institutional influence; any climate change response seeks to create new subjectivities. Ecomodernists envision the maximisation of growth, while degrowthers value frugal abundance – both self-limiting in line with neoliberal capitalist notions and environmentalist notions respectively. Both see their cause as the true solution because their wants are articulated in reference to their own ontological-epistemological pre-suppositions (Foucault 1978); demonstrating that we cannot differentiate ‘coerced’ wants (i.e. desires shaped by power) from genuine self-interest because neither idea is more or less real so long as it is believed. Acknowledging that the valuation of wants is uncoupled from ‘reality’ but instead constructed amongst specific environmental, political and cultural arrangements demands pluralism and relativity within politics (Zylinska 2014). When there is no longer one universal truth or good which can be used to rationally qualify the efficacy of ideas, actions or institutions, it is impossible to objectively hierarchalise (Blaser 2013).

An ethics of limits

The question is therefore not one of liberating ‘true’ wants, but of how a plurality of wants are dealt within the institutional arrangement. What is our obligation to the wants of others? How do we mediate good action across multiple perspectives? A productive limitation of wants is not an authoritative one, but an ethical one – a recognition that our biological survival and cultural meaningfulness rely on mutually-constituted natural-cultural worlds, and therefore renders us responsible to our co-dwellers (Haraway 2016). For a subject to self-limit means that the political occupies all aspects of life, that any desire is assessed in reference to political and cultural codes – that there is a connection between individualised actions and the collective (Zizek 2000). Decolonising desire is not just the individual limiting their wants, it is to share their ethos with society, to universalise the recognition of their wants (ibid.). This therefore problematises the institutional and normative arrangements which restrain the potential of self-limitation. Seeing biophysical and cultural-political worlds as inextricably linked and fluidly bound requires a fluid politics (Latour 2004) – so that whether our misguided wants are in the form of scientific facts or political axioms, we are taught to question openly, to expect changing wants and changing circumstances. Such a politics is not “based on moral judgment and imperative, […] only on pleasure and self-respect” (Berandi 2011, p16), which means that statements and speakers cannot be rationally excluded from discussions, but instead, should be approached with empathy and solidarity. Institutions can only implement laws and rules which rigidly imitate moralistic determinations (Zylinska 2014) – they cannot experience fulfilment, obligation nor guilt, which makes them an awful basis for acting ethically. But institutions are assemblages of subjects, their power and their resources; the fundamental entwinement of production and subjectification means that shifting one perturbs the other (Deleuze and Guattari 1988) – opening space to want and consequently do otherwise.

For wants to make real changes to material-economic conditions, systems of subjectification that condition people to ‘freely’ accept environmental harm and cultural subordination must be undone. Subverting this order is not a matter of totality – for there is so much power and function coded into capitalist society that it is unrealistic to think that it can be shifted by ideology alone (Deleuze and Guattari 1988). Ideas cannot assure abundance and security; they can only set the basis for engagements with the world. For alternative ways of seeing and being in the world to take root, they must concretise resistance – rather than trying to prove themselves as equals to capitalism through discussions that are already biased, wants should crystallise alternative structures that demonstrate the real utilities of making things otherwise (Papadopoulos 2018). Grassroots action should experiment with knowledge, be open to critique and re-direction, and be based in ethical engagement (ibid.). This can be seen in practice in the contestation of industrialised food-systems, where marginalised actors are articulating demands in relation to the increasing incursion of globalised capitalism into their livelihoods (Finnis et al. 2013). New paradigms like agroecology mobilise indigenous and peasant understandings of farming to see agriculture as dependent on ecological assemblages – like mycorrhizal networks, a delicate symbiosis between fungi and plants to transport nutrients throughout soil (Sheldrake 2020) – to provide the basis of fertile land, and thus, see entwinement with natural processes as an inherent aspect of farming (Conway 2012). Practices like intercropping, the planting of multiple species on a single plot so that their different soil-uses and outputs sustainably enrich the yield, mean that farmers can decrease dependence on monocultures and artificial inputs, ensuring abundance for future generations by enriching the bases of soil fertility (ibid.; Sheldrake 2020). Furthermore, agroecology sees sustainable farming as embedded in both ecological and social networks; because peasant livelihoods are difficult when monopolised agriculture is increasingly enforcing the economic necessity of growing cash crop monocultures (Conway 2012; Finnis et al. 2013). Movements like la Via Campesina (2007) are already working to create solidarities, to resist the status quo, to normalise new farming paradigms, to articulate new wants which see synergy between natural and cultural worlds, to establish peasants and indigenous peoples as knowledgeable and competent actors within the political sphere.


Constructed amongst political, social and environmental relations, wants represent an ever-changing articulation of a subject’s bridging of the individual and the collective, presenting a radical base for political reformation. Limits are cast in relation to a particular framing of the world, to particular wants of its present and future. Ideas of externalised limits represent an underlying story of nature-culture dualism, whereby the environmental problem can be separated from the ongoings of human society. While limits-thinking may premise apocalyptic moments, the ability of humanity to transcend nature is taken as an axiom which means climate response can be future-oriented despite immediate pressure to act. Evidently, establishing limits does not equal ethical obligation to them. Kallis emphasises self-limitation of wants because it foregrounds ethical desire before action. Limits must compel us to stop certain behaviours, institutions or processes – to desire otherwise and perpetuate our wants into the collective. This means that neither wants nor limits can be depoliticised, i.e., left to the realm of rational economics and science, because wanting within or beyond limits is always a political and institutional matter.

Constructing a meaningful politics of desire requires unsettling institutional and normative exclusions of perspective – because wants are always embedded in an ever-changing social and ecological context which therefore requires a flexible political system. We must question how our contemporary systems limit discussions. For example, the UN deploys a notion of nationhood which does not include indigenous nations on the same level as ‘sovereign states’; endowing them the same representational authority as any non-governmental organisation (Liverman 2018). Furthermore, the peasants of diverse nations are represented by elite bureaucrats of their colonised nationalities, and only allowed to dissent through NGO representation. If the nation-state is historically a key driver of power centralisation and unsustainable intensification of industrial-capitalist systems (Daggett 2020), how can we hope to reform an environmental politics which privileges Westphalian sovereignty? We must find ways to assert new understandings of our worlds and futures. Grassroots action must demonstrate that competent and ethical management can exist outside of technocracy and bureaucracy, and that people can be experts outside of science and rational economics – so the radical contributions of excluded and marginalised speakers can erode entrenched hegemonies through action. Only when we generate actable principles through a politics of open and pluralistic discussions of wants, limits, subjectivities, and worldviews, will we all come to enjoy an abundant world.


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