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Security, insecurity and the Anthropocene

Layers of a landfill. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/FMichaud76
Layers of a landfill. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/FMichaud76


In this essay, the volume editors present the key themes of their new book Anthropocene (In)securities: Reflections on Collective Survival 50 Years After the Stockholm Conference, published this week by SIPRI and Oxford University Press.


Earlier this month, the United Nations General Assembly announced the agenda for the forthcoming international meeting Stockholm+50: A Healthy Planet and Prosperity for All—Our Responsibility, Our Opportunity, to be held in Stockholm in June 2022. Stockholm+50 will mark the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE), which took place in Stockholm in June 1972. The UNCHE, also known as the Stockholm Conference, was a landmark event in the history of global environmental governance. It also paved the way for a growing recognition of links between security and the state of the environment, and later on climate change, as a critical research and policy field.

Yet despite the five decades of international environmental collaboration, institution building and governance in the interim, we are today witnessing the ‘massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment’ that the Stockholm Declaration—issued on the conference’s last day—sought to prevent. The term ‘Anthropocene’ was coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer 20 years ago to describe these profound environmental transformations. The Anthropocene concept speaks of a new and dangerous era in planetary history when the social and economic activities of humankind are undermining and fundamentally altering the planetary life-support systems on which we all depend.

While the assumptions and implications of the Anthropocene are far from universally agreed, the concept has prompted new ways of thinking about humanity’s relationship to nature, ourselves and our collective existence. By tying the fate of humanity to the fate of the planet, the Anthropocene has invited intense conversations in fields as varied as earth system science, history, philosophy and geology. It has also entered the study of international relations and sparked lively debate about the very meaning of security.

In a new edited volume, published this week by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) with Oxford University Press, we tap into this unfolding debate and ask what security means in a time of environmental instability, inequality and danger. What is the role of traditional security concepts, agents and institutions in a warming world threatened by destabilized ice masses, thawing permafrost, rising sea levels, declining freshwater resources and deforested lands? How can our global governance systems respond to the systematic production of environmental risks and the skewed distribution of costs across places, species and generations?

In Anthropocene (In)securities: Reflections on Collective Survival 50 Years After the Stockholm Conference, we invited an interdisciplinary team of scholars and policy experts to bring their unique perspectives to bear on these questions. In this essay we present some of the key themes raised in the book. They include a set of proposed actions to safely navigate the global landscape of Anthropocene insecurities.

Foundation stone: The Stockholm Conference

The 1972 Stockholm Conference provides a backdrop to our interrogation of Anthropocene (in)securities. It was the first high-level international summit to focus on the environment and brought together 114 UN member states and specialized agencies. It reflected mounting concerns with the transboundary environmental problems caused by modern industrial society.

Although the Stockholm Conference was informed by visions of globality and world unity that gained ground in the decades following World War II, it was also marked by geopolitical rivalry and North–South divisions. Many of the tensions that came to the fore during the conference are still at the centre of global environmental debates: environmental protection versus the right to development, the pollution of the affluent versus the degradation of poverty, the need to tackle cross-border and global harms versus territorial sovereignty.

The Stockholm Conference has nonetheless left a pervasive legacy: in environmental law; in mainstream thinking about our responsibilities towards the natural environment; and in the institutions set up to exercise them, particularly the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Stockholm Declaration was a statement of intent to minimize the impacts, on present and future human generations, of anthropogenic environmental hazards and resource exploitation. Its 26 principles laid the foundations for a global environmental agenda that would guide international action for decades to come. By linking the state of the biosphere to questions of human safety and well-being, the Declaration also opened up a novel field of research and policy: ‘environmental security’.

Enter the Anthropocene

The context in which global environmental debates play out today are markedly different from those of 1972. Economic development and material security have been pursued at the expense of a healthy biosphere. While the resource-intensive ways of social and economic life have allowed exchange of wealth and ideas across societies, they have also done critical damage to the earth’s ecological systems and fuelled mounting social inequalities. In the words of the 2020 Human Development Report, ‘the carbon and material footprint of the people who have more is choking the opportunities of the people who have less.’

The Anthropocene is proposed as a new geological epoch. In contrast to the Holocene—the past 12 000 years of relative climatic stability—the Anthropocene has been described as a dangerous and unpredictable era, when human activities are changing the dynamics and functioning of the earth itself. Science warns us of approaching environmental tipping points beyond which conditions in the biosphere could fundamentally and irreversibly change. While these environmental transformations are beyond human control, the course of the Anthropocene nevertheless depends on us; specifically, on how fast we can halt the activities that drive environmental degradation. In the Anthropocene, the violence humans inflict on nature is violence we inflict on ourselves.

However, the ramifications of the Anthropocene extend far beyond geology and ecology. In the Anthropocene, boundaries between human and environment, between domestic and international concerns, and between different policy fields become increasingly illusory. The term ‘entanglement’ appears numerous times in Anthropocene (In)securities. It refers to a much more fragile and interconnected universe that now binds human and non-human worlds together in complex and unpredictable ways.  

The Anthropocene calls for new ways of thinking about safety, protection and collective survival. For many, the dawn of the Anthropocene marks an existential moment for modern civilization that unsettles the nature/culture divide that underpins much of Western philosophy, science and politics. Faced with the devastating effects of melting glaciers, loss of critical habitats and mass species extinction, the idea that we can secure humanity against external threats is precisely the problem that needs to be overcome.  

Although the transformed and risky world described by the Anthropocene has produced discomfort and a looming sense of fatality, it has also inspired a wealth of new security concepts. By gathering a diverse set of scholars and experts on global environmental politics and security, Anthropocene (In)Securities explores how this debate can reconfigure global security thinking and policy practice in the years to come. Rather than searching for agreement or long-term solutions, the volume seeks to facilitate conversation across multiple scholarly and policy fields and hereby pluralize the stories told about collective survival.

Anthropocene securities

The Anthropocene concept raises some difficult theoretical and practical questions for security policy, such as: Who, or what, should security policy seek to protect? What qualifies as a security risk? Several of the authors in Anthropocene (In)securities offer their own takes on these questions.

Simon Dalby draws attention to the disconnect between conventional modes of economic security and mounting insecurities in a climate-disrupted world. He argues that the fossil-fuelled systems of economic development that have spread material comfort and well-being over the past 50 years are now eroding the ecological basis for continued life on earth. Rather than focusing on pollution control and conventional conservation strategies, major investments must now be directed to a rapid decarbonization of the global economy and a peaceful transition to a world without fossil fuels. 

Anthony Burke and Stefanie Fishel critique the human security concept that emerged in the 1990s: ‘security in the daily lives of the people’, in the words of the 1994 Human Development Report. While human security radically broadened the scope of security to include all that underwrites human lives ‘free from fear, want and indignity’, Burke and Fishel criticize it for its anthropocentrism and argue that, especially given the current threats of mass extinction and habitat loss, the concept must now give way to a ‘post-human’, ecological perspective on security. This perspective acknowledges the intrinsic rights of non-human nature to flourish and exist, regardless of its usefulness to humans. By focusing on international law and legislation, they argue that our legal and institutional frameworks must be expanded to include other species.

Beatriz Rodrigues Bessa Mattos and Sebastián Granda Henao use a case study of the Marshall Islands to make the case for an ontological approach to security that extends beyond territorial protection and is oriented towards the preservation of identities, stable environments of action, and relations to ourselves, to nature and to other living beings. It is a powerful case demonstrating how colonial history, ‘hard security’ interests and the impact of climate change intersect and threaten the lands and traditional sites inextricably linked with Marshallese identity. ‘Ontological security’ offers a useful way to capture questions of personal identity and meaning.

Governing security in the Anthropocene

Mounting environmental insecurities and inequalities threaten to undo the human development gains made during the past half century. While Anthropocene (In)securities celebrates the significant diplomatic and institutional achievements made over the past 50 years, several chapters seek to understand why our governance systems have failed to stop this happening. Björn-Ola Linnér and Henrik Selin, for example, discuss the geopolitics around the Stockholm Conference. They detail how the conference helped to reduce prevailing tensions between the Eastern and Western blocs during the cold war, at the same time exposing mounting economic and political asymmetries between the global North and South that persist today.

Lucile Maertens and Judith Nora Hardt explore the rise of climate security discourse in two UN bodies: UNEP and the Security Council. They trace how the securitization of climate change within the two bodies since the 2000s has been coupled with a gradual ‘climatization’ of UN security practice. That is, by defining climate change as a matter of security, the UN has invited climate change experts, activists and victims to its security discussions and thus paved the way for a new set of responses based on science, preventive risk management and institutional adaptation. Maertens and Hardt conclude by asking whether these parallel securitization and climatization processes have the political potential to confront and respond to the structural causes of Anthropocene instability and endangerment.

Other chapters, are more forward-looking, exploring how security governance might adapt to the Anthropocene. SIPRI Director Dan Smith proposes two ideas to help understand the task facing security analysts and practitioners. The first is to recognize that there is now a single security space, where different risks from within and beyond traditional hard security interlock. A narrow focus on any single aspect of security risks missing important dynamics, as well as opportunities. The second is to define the appropriate operating sphere for security policy. While the single security space is shaped by a wide range of phenomena and processes, security policy cannot be the primary means of addressing them all. Smith argues that the objective of a security policy for the Anthropocene is to support the continuation of human progress as spelled out in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), not least by protecting people’s right and ability to contribute to their achievement. The foundation of this security is cooperation.

Marcus D. King, Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia argue that the combination of unprecedented risks in the Anthropocene with the unparalleled foresight capabilities concerning climate change risk necessitates an international civic responsibility to prepare and prevent. For this responsibility to be discharged, three gaps in current governance models must be filled: Decision-makers must be provided with climate data at the optimal temporal scale and level of detail. Clear responsibility for climate policy must be assigned within the bureaucracy. Finally, the models should synchronize the timeline of changes in climate with those of key peace and security events.

Moving forward

Our volume ends with a joint statement penned by the entire author team. It presents a list of proposed actions required to safely navigate the global landscape of Anthropocene insecurities, summarized below.

Confront the limits of current global institutions. Despite the proliferation of international law and global governance regimes, ecological destruction and human suffering are accelerating around the world. As long as global institutions treat nature only as a resource, and not as a home to diverse species, communities and generations, environmental degradation will continue. A major shift in law and governance regimes is needed.

Bring those most at risk to the forefront of global governance. The international community has a responsibility to prepare for, and to protect all living beings from, the dangers of a rapidly warming world. This will require global governance mechanisms that channel scientific knowledge on climate risks and vulnerability, but also listen to and learn from those most at risk.

Rapidly decarbonize economies and lifestyles. As climate change and species extinctions cannot be reversed, ‘cleaning up’ later is not an option. The rapid decarbonization of the global economy is key to Anthropocene security. This will entail accelerating investments in renewable energy technologies and abandoning fossil fuel subsidies.

Pluralize and politicize knowledge on environmental insecurity. The complex social, economic and political drivers of environmental destruction require us to go beyond singular problem-framings and solutions. We must pay attention to multiple ways of knowing, acting and being in the world.

Promote a lived and plural sense of security. Governments must be open to new ideas, polices and institutions. In a tightly interlinked world, security requires cooperation and a commitment to peaceful coexistence. In our view, this calls for a holistic, lived and plural sense of security, oriented towards solidarity and kinship across species, cultures, generations and worlds.


Anthropocene (In)securities: Reflections on Collective Survival 50 Years After the Stockholm Conference, SIPRI Research Report 26, edited by Eva Lövbrand and Malin Mobjörk, with a foreword by Ambassador Jan Eliasson, is available from Oxford University Press.

This book is produced within the research programme Mistra Geopolitics, funded by Mistra, the Swedish foundation for strategic environmental research. Read more on


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Dr Malin Mobjörk was a Senior Researcher and Director of SIPRI’s Climate Change and Risk Programme from 2016 to 2021.
Eva Lövbrand is Associate Professor in Environmental Change at the Department of Thematic Studies, Linköping University, Sweden, and Associate Senior Researcher with SIPRI.