The Issues of Population Growth and Environmental Security

As early as 1798, Thomas Malthus warned the world that an Earth with finite resources could not sustain an infinitely large population. It’s time to revisit Malthus through the lens of environmental security precisely because resource scarcity, population growth, and climate change make his ideas exponentially more applicable today.

In the global south, climate change poses a significant threat to regime and regional stability. It is precisely those countries that lack moveable financial capital which will be the hardest hit. Without international purchasing power, the disappearance of arable land means the destabilization or the total disappearance of the agricultural sector.

For sustenance farmers, climate change means the end of their way of life. Aside from the cultural damage — the disappearance of regional agricultural practices — the impossibility of impoverished states' relocating capital to secure their citizens' health translates into two geopolitical consequences: state failure and widespread emigration.

The scenarios paint a catastrophic picture for the security of the international system. Although designed to predict a worst-case scenario, a 2003 report by the Global Business Network suggests that the United States and China will be at war with one another by 2030 over viable long-term energy sources.

The U.S. Army War College released a report suggesting that the issue of environmental security “could be reduced to one of national survival, as one’s own infrastructure collapses.”

These scenarios theorize the worst possible outcome of environmental insecurity. However, I believe they represent a world not entirely removed from reality, a world in which the environment continues to be excluded from security discourse.

It’s hard to think of the environment as a threat to human prosperity, let alone the security of the nation-state system. Moreover, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact effects of climate change. Desertification and changing climate patterns are gradual, meaning that once we can concretely observe the impacts, it may be too late to reverse them. Additionally, environmental degradation transcends our scale for understanding security: the nation-state.

Unfortunately, the environment does not care about borders as both the causes and effects of degradation are transnational. In a world accustomed to thinking about the security of the nation (or even, “the homeland”), thinking about environmental security requires a new framework that emphasizes international collaboration. 

Thus we need “green security” as a new paradigm; we need to promote greener security, as well as secure what is already green, to prevent the catastrophic consequences of global climate change. At the state level, this means examining the effects of the military on the environment and reducing its "carbon boot print." It also means enacting green legislation not only for the intrinsic value of the environment, but also for the possible future consequences of its neglect.

Like Marx, I too believe that there is a specter haunting the world, but I believe that specter is the ghost of Malthus warning us of the impending doom of our own collective inaction. I just hope we can change before then.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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Joshua Smeltzer

Joshua Smeltzer is interested in the intersection of violence, politics and geography. He is a senior at Colgate University, where he is majoring in Peace in Conflict Studies. In 2010, Joshua was a researcher for Colgate's Institute of Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and spent the summer interviewing veterans throughout the United States for a project on military culture. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Joshua enjoys trail running and spending time outdoors.

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