Environmentalism: A Military Approach

By taking a look at what he calls “environmentality,” Marzec shows how a military look at environmentalism has turned into the ill-conceived idea that human adaptation should trump the effort for sustainable living.

By Robert P. Marzec


September 2016

Soldier saluting

"Adaptation provides perfect camouflage for military institutions bent on governing environmental anxieties from the standpoint of national security."

Photo by Fotolia/Photocreo Bednarek

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The primary concern of Robert P. Marzec’s book, Militarizing the Environment (University of Minnesota, 2015), is how the military and the national security state are moving into the realm of environmentalism. Rather than finding sustainable ways to protect the environment, “militarizing” the issue turns the focus toward our ability to adapt to the declining natural world. It is especially worrying in when it comes to events like climate change, which are being viewed as inevitable rather than preventable. With this mindset, the effort to stop the decline all but disappears. While his book brings this issue to light, calls for a focus on sustainable living internationally, and even offers alternative solutions, Marzec proves that humankind, even in a dying world, will manipulate nature’s most complex issues into studies on our own survival.

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Climate Change War Games

“Nature is a powerful security system.”
— Rafe Sagarin, Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease

“Climate change will provide the conditions that will extend the war on terror.”
— Admiral T. Joseph Lopez, former commander-in- chief, U.S. Naval Forces

On July 27, 2008, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), with the help of the United States military, members and institutes of the scientific community, private corporations, public policy institutes, national funding agencies, and ABC News, engaged in a two-day, new type of military exercise: the Climate Change War Game. The goal of the game was clear: “to explore the national security consequences of climate change.”1 The CNAS is perhaps the first in what will no doubt be a growing number of post–Cold War, post–homeland security institutions. A public policy think tank created in 2007, the CNAS’s mission is to explore future threats to national security that come in the form of “irregular warfare.” The original concept for the center arose out of the idea that security issues in the twenty-first century will need to be revolutionized (referred to in Pentagon circles as “the revolution in military affairs”) to address twenty-first- century problems such as diminishing natural planetary resources. Its existence is indicative, as we will see throughout the course of this book, of a general trend to decentralize and expand the security society by replacing the nation-state collective fantasy of national security with the new planetary ecological-state collective fantasy of natural security. Its co-opting of environmental care and its reduction of complex ecological relations within the military parameters of a war game exemplify the primary concern of this book: the extension of the military and the national security state into the arena of environmentalism.

Various potentials for developing new forms of sustainability were floated throughout the early stages of the game, but as it progressed, players found such approaches to be a worrisome distraction from the central issue of security: “A focus on cutting greenhouse gas emissions runs the risk of crowding out full consideration of adaptation challenges.” Climate change was seen to be unavoidable and adaptation to the threat a more reasonable response than the exploration of new forms of sustainability. “Adaptation” — where ecosystems meet the war machine — became the command imperative to be disseminated down all lines of communication. As the inevitable end point of the war game’s linear narrative, the idea navigated game players in the direction of transforming climate change into a “threat multiplier,” one that trumped alternative ecological relations and possibilities. The concept of adaptation is a critical and necessary component of scientific efforts to address climate change, and it is important to recognize that salient fact. Due to considerable anthropocentric influence, climate change has already become inevitable, and adjusting to this change will be an essential historical task of humanity in the coming century. However, it is of equal importance to recognize that the concept is now functioning at a moment when humans have taken on the idea of security as a fundamental mandate of political existence. As part of a new ecosecurity imaginary, “adaptation” acquires a very different ontological character — commandeering consciousness to adopt a “clear” intelligibility that supplants the hard work of thinking alternative futures to a neoliberal paradigm. Arising out of a post–Cold War, end-of- history rationality, it tacitly obviates such diverse traditions as the wilderness sublime of Wordsworth and Thoreau, the ecstatic environmentalism of John Muir, the romantic primitivism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the land ethic of Aldo Leopold, the embittered inhumanism of Robinson Jeffers, and the scientific environmentalism of Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner — to name only a few.

Sanctioned as a pragmatic solution to the inevitability of planetary climate change, adaptation provides perfect camouflage for military institutions bent on governing environmental anxieties from the standpoint of national security. In the age of climate change, the environment is both a source of concern (found in various struggles to implement new forms of environmental care and sustainability) and, understandably, an object of growing fear (in terms of diminishing resources, rising sea levels, growing food and water scarcity, etc.). These concerns, bound up with post-9/ 11 fears of terrorism, are in the process of being recast according to the parameters of risk and security — generating an environmental politics that extends the restrictive measures of homeland security into the domain of ecological security.

In addition to its pragmatic rationale, this extension of security receives endorsement at the scientific level — in enterprises such as the CIA-sponsored academic field of “natural security,” a stratagem that sits ecologists, biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists down at the same table with “security analysts,” “biowarfare experts,” and “former spies” to develop the potential of instinctive forms of security deemed instrumental to national defense. The brainchild of biologist Rafe Sagarin and security specialist Terence Taylor (former chief weapons of mass destruction [WMDs] inspector in Iraq under the Bush administration and the man who promoted the idea of “mobile” WMDs when none could be found), natural security seeks to “exploit . . . the greatest ongoing experiment in security of all time — the millions of successful defensive and offensive security strategies that abound in nature.” First introduced by Sagarin in the Foreign Affairs essay “Adapt or Die: What Charles Darwin Can Teach Tom Ridge about Homeland Security” (2003), the idea that nature holds the keys to national security has since been promoted at workshops, think tanks, and conferences in the United States, expanding internationally with the 2010 joint U.S.–U.K. military conference “Operational Adaptation: The Science and Practice of Defeating Constantly Changing Threats.” There, an international community of scientists and security experts were urged to adopt adaptation as “the most important characteristic of today’s international security environment.”

The original, ecological concept of adaptation — historically important to disciplines such as evolutionary biology (Darwin and Lamarck) and natural theology (William Paley and Leibniz) — has acquired “shock and awe” overtones in its adoption by security specialists. Coupled with its increasing appearance in ecological organizations such as the National Council for Science and the Environment (NSCE) and in journals such as Nature and Science, the concept has begun to harden into an organizational idea designed to influence political policy. According to Gary Hart, a former U.S. senator who served as chair of the American Security Project and co-chair of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, the adaptive techniques of natural security reveal a form of “organic thinking” through which security specialists can discover the biological and ecological principles of defense that will enable them to tap into the militarized basis of all planetary life. Argues Hart, “It is worth contemplating the implications of an ‘organic’ military, one that senses in its very being, especially at the combat level, how the threat shifts and changes; what new, often crude adjustments the opponent makes; ... how the combat ‘fish’ navigate the waters of their society.” In its new manifestation as the centerpiece of the security society’s search for an organic form of defense, the environment as an inherently adaptive but equally untrustworthy being emerges as a modern codex for solving the problems of national and planetary security: How do organisms develop a defensive awareness and adapt to threats in their environment? How do dolphins protect themselves against the threat of terrorist shark attacks? How do populations of insects unify their efforts to map and secure their territories? Or, to use Hart’s words again, how would “Nature behave if she were in charge of the Pentagon and our national security?”

These “adaptive” maneuvers are not confined to a single security war game, nor are they an anomaly of a recent academic invention. Militarizing the environment, as we will see, is an issue that extends to all branches of the security society, appearing in multiple Pentagon documents that equally invoke adaptation as a “necessary” course of action in the “exceptional” war on global warming. The ecosystem, in other words, has now entered the national and global security imaginary (reentered, actually, as we’ll see in subsequent chapters), and its protection and development — its governance — has become a central military concern. Natural security and the rallying cry of adaptation are symptoms of a generalized Phenomenon — what I refer to in this book as environmentality. Environmentality is, in part, the name for a militarized mentality, one that commandeers a consciousness to wholly rethink and replace a rich, complex, multinarrative environmental history with a single ecosecurity imaginary for the post–Cold War, post-9/ 11 occasion. It is a pattern of thought that seeks to justify increases in national and civilian security by generating increased amounts of insecurity. As I will argue in detail in the following pages, environmentality is essentially environmentalism turned into a policing action. It names a hyperbolic mode of intelligibility, one that can be characterized as the point at which security and insecurity collapse into one another and become indistinguishable. This determining and perverse architecture is not immediately noticeable, for the self-explanatory attractiveness of adaptation and similar realistic solutions to present-day urgencies do not directly lend themselves to thoughtful historical critique, especially when it comes to addressing the immensity and complexity of global warming — an event that has its origins in more than just the Industrial Revolution.


Excerpt reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press from Militarizing the Environment: Climate Change and the Security State by Robert P. Marzec. Copyright 2015 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.