3 Why Human Security Needs Our Attention

Donald Spady and Alexander Lautensach

Learning Outcomes & Big Ideas

  • Outline the evolution of the human world-view and describe some of the consequences arising from that world view.
  • Outline what constitutes a healthy environment, an ecosystem, the concept of ecosystem services and the essential requirement for ecological integrity as a prerequisite for the health of all life and for human security in general.
  • Briefly discuss the role of energy in technological progress and cultural development, particularly the role of fossil fuels as the principal factor in recent human progress and in the genesis of today’s environmental crisis.
  • Discuss how human security will be affected by the environmental crisis and the crisis arising from declining energy stores.
  • Explain the connection between human security and sustainable development in the Anthropocene.
  • Analyse the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and explain which ones are designed to strengthen ecological integrity and which ones place additional demands on ecosystem services.


The central questions for this chapter are: ‘What role does the natural environment play in maintaining human security? What evidence exists that the natural environment is being damaged to such a degree that globally, human security is threatened?’ The authors present their perspective on human security as it relates to those questions. The roots of security threats, and of protective adaptations, are identified in the evolutionary history of the human species and in the transformations that we experienced along the way. Some of our former strengths are being turned into liabilities because of the ecological constraints imposed at this time by the biosphere. As a cardinal example of such a shift, we explore the beneficial role that fossil fuels have played in the recent rapid development of human society and also the existential problems to human society that their use has spawned. As a second example, we discuss how different human security aspirations, manifesting as the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, have begun to conflict with each other. Much of the information presented in this chapter is explored more fully elsewhere in the text, especially in Chapter 9, Chapter 10 and Chapter 11.

Chapter Overview

3.1 Introduction

3.2 What Do We Mean by ‘Human Security’?

3.3 How We Got to Where We Are Today

3.4 In What Ways Are Humans the Most Dangerous Species

3.5 So, How Did We Get into This Mess?

3.5.1 Fossil Fuels – A Faustian Bargain Fossil Fuels – The Good Fossil Fuels – The Bad Global Warming Air Pollution Chemical Pollution

3.6 Addressing the Challenges

3.7 Concluding Comment

Resources and References

Key Points

Extension Activities & Further Research

List of Terms

Suggested Reading


3.1 Introduction

Why should we gravitate towards a human security model rather than adhere to more traditional views of security? The answer lies in the comprehensive interactivity expressed in the four pillar model, as we will briefly review below. Environmental security plays a vital role in affecting numerous aspects of security at the levels of individuals, families, communities, regions, countries and the planet. To make that argument, this chapter provides some context for several issues discussed more completely in later chapters. A concept stressed in this chapter is that both healthy human existence and equitable and sustainable human security requires a healthy environment that can maintain ecological integrity and effective ecosystem functioning; consequently, any serious threat to non-human life ultimately poses a threat to humans. The non-biophysical factors such as economics, cultural beliefs and practices, lifestyles, philosophy, and religion, all of which play important roles in creating and maintaining human security, are addressed elsewhere in this book.

3.2 What Do We Mean by ‘Human Security’?

The security discussed in this chapter is characterized by living an everyday life within a stable society functioning within a stable environment. The security furnished by a healthy environment provides the primal backdrop to our lives and enables stable society. It is knowing that the air is clean, the water safe, that the sun will shine, the rain will fall, and the seasons cycle predictably. It is the reasonable expectation that if you plant a crop, or cast a net into the water, you will return a harvest. Most of this type of security depends upon the healthy functioning of the supporting components of our environment. When these environmental components are in jeopardy, so are we.

Obviously, other aspects of security also constitute part of our everyday lives. These include reasonable expectations of being able to sleep safely, be warm, grow food, live, be educated and employed, worship, vote and make decisions, dream and be resilient in the face of illness and tragedy. As well, it is the ability and freedom to visit, enjoy life, love, marry, and have children in the knowledge that they will grow and develop, play and learn, and anticipate their own future without undue anxiety. This chapter does not directly address these aspects of security, although it will become obvious that environmental circumstances can profoundly affect them.

A third aspect of security includes military and judicial security. It is the security that commonly comes to mind when we talk about security. We visualize it when we think of ‘Wars on Terror,’ of ‘Homeland Security,’ of multiple check-stops, surveillance cameras—on street posts and in our televisions and computers, of body scanners and of police on every corner and in the sky, of monitoring the internet and sustaining judicial systems geared to overpopulating jails. It is the security provided by standing armies with bloated budgets and also the security presumed by carrying personal firearms or living in gated communities. These types of security are often based on fear and their lack is often connected with greed, self-interest, demagoguery, intolerance and indifference.

These diverse aspects of security can be traced to the seminal work of Abraham Maslow (1943) who classified human needs and aspirations into physiological needs (directly required for survival), safety (health and well-being), love and belonging, social esteem and self-actualization. While some features of Maslow’s hierarchical model have been superseded, his basic idea of the diversity of needs remains uncontested. Humanity’s efforts to satisfy all those needs, and our hope that they will be fulfilled in the future, are fundamental to the ideal of security—as evident in former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s (2005, pp. 1-3) paraphrasing human security as “freedom from want and fear.” Our basic survival and safety depend most directly on the healthy functioning of our natural environment, while the needs for love, belonging, esteem and success depend on the functioning of societies. Although we cannot ignore these latter types of security, this chapter does not address them. Nevertheless, with humans being what they are, all of these types of ‘security’ determine our lives. As our populations increase, the societal priorities of these various forms of security change, and in modern society, the emphasis rarely is placed on the environment. One thing is becoming increasingly obvious: human security faces existential peril because the environment is failing, and the driver of this is human action. To understand why, we need some context regarding security and some history as to how we got here.

The inclusiveness of the concept is evident in the descriptive models of human security. The four pillar model (Lautensach, 2006) distinguishes four traditional areas of security (or sources of insecurity). These are: (a) the military – strategic security of the state; (b) economic security, particularly its conceptualization through unorthodox models of sustainable economies; (c) the health of populations as described by epidemiology and the complex determinants of population health, community health, and health care priorities; and (d) environmental security that is primarily determined by the complex interactions between human populations and the source, sink, and maintenance functions of their host ecosystems. This chapter addresses primarily the fourth pillar. These four pillars include diverse sources of threats and cover the same ground as the ‘seven dimensions’ of the 1994 Human Development Report (UNDP, 1994): economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security. An important strength of this approach is its comprehensive exploration of the interdependence of the different sources of insecurity. These sources were traditionally considered under the purview of different academic specialties and were (and still are) usually studied in isolation from each other. The strength of the comprehensive approach lies in its versatility and its capacity to detect and characterize synergistic effects and multifactorial causation.

3.3 How We Got to Where We Are Today

Consider a very simple model of human development from the life of pre-humans, highly interactive with and dependent on the natural environment, to life today, in which people barely acknowledge the existence of the natural world, let alone consider it a requirement for their existence. It consists of six steps. The model presented here describes this shift. The steps are not discrete, they reflect stepping stones in human history, and may overlap or run in parallel.

Step 1. Earth: ~ 4.5 Billion years ago: An environment was formed that was capable of supporting simple life and letting it evolve. This began about 0.5-1 billion years after the formation of the Earth and continues to the present (Betts et al., 2018). During this time biogeochemical cycles developed that are essential to all life. These cycles ensure that the necessary chemicals and elements are available at the right time and place and amount for lifeforms to use, and that when they are no longer needed they are recycled, stored temporarily, or safely sequestered somewhere on Earth. They evolved for virtually every element used in life.

These cycles form part of what we call ecosystem services – the benefits people obtain from ecosystems. These include provisioning (food, water, timber), regulating (climate, floods, wastes, water quality), supporting (soil formation, photosynthesis, nutrient cycles) and cultural (recreation, spiritual, aesthetic) services (MEAB, 2005). This definition reflects an anthropocentric perspective, because the first three (regulating, supporting, and provisioning) services are required for all life, and, in a reciprocal manner, the rest of life also acts to maintain these services. On the other hand, cultural services relate only to humans.

Summarized simply, ecosystem services give us a stable climate, food and shelter. It is difficult to overemphasize the complexity and interdependence of the ecosystem processes, but, simply put, they keep the air safe to breathe, the water safe to drink, the soil capable of growing nutritious crops and the climate conducive to organized society. They maintain the stable chemical and physical composition of Earth and provide us with the resources we use for every material thing we create; nothing is unnecessary and nothing is wasted. All of these services, processes, and cycles interact with each other and respond in an integrated manner to environmental demands. Through the actions of these ecosystem services, Earth’s environment evolved from a primitive and toxic (to most life) environment to one sustaining life today.

Step 2. ~ 200,000 years ago: Pre-historic Homo sapiens emerges, living a life closely integrated with and generally subservient to the natural world.

Step 3. ~11,000 years ago: Human society begins to use basic technology, especially weapons and agricultural technology, and lives within local cultures. It slowly develops a perception of being superior to nature (White, 1967). This step gradually transitioned to Step 4.

Step 4. ~11,000 years ago to now. Earth’s climate stabilizes at a temperature enabling the development of agriculture and ultimately more advanced human societies. Civilizations are formed and humans live in increasingly complex cultures, with increasingly sophisticated philosophies, religious beliefs, political and economic systems, schools, sciences and technologies. Humans spread into all parts of the world, including under the oceans, to the poles and the mountaintops, and even into space and to the moon.

Step 5. The last 100-200 years of Step 4, but with changes so radical as to constitute its own period. It is characterized by the globalized human living in an environment characterized by high technology, aggressive and unsustainable global exploitation of resources, unrestrained consumption combined with indifferent disposition of waste, rapid global transport, and virtually instantaneous global communication. The underlying philosophy is based on human superiority and on economic theory ground on the unrestrained use of natural resources to promote economic growth, human ‘progress’ and excessive material consumption.

Step 6. Post-WW II to … ? This is a time of living with the consequences of . It is today and tomorrow and the foreseeable future. Life is happening in a rapidly changing, overpopulated, resource constrained, polluted, warming, and politically, economically, and environmentally unstable world. This time (from about the late 20th century on to today) is called the Anthropocene (Steffen et al., 2011), a geologic epoch characterized by the dominance of humankind as a global force in its own right. It is so named in recognition that human actions are affecting the fundamental life systems of the planet and a reflection of our awareness that humans can change and have changed the biological and physical properties of the Earth.

A striking feature of these steps is that the rate of change accelerates as the steps increase in number. Thus, to get to Step 1 took about one billion years; from Step 1 to the evolution of Homo sapiens (Step 2), almost another 3.8 billion years. To get from Step 2 to Step 3 took maybe 200,000 years, and from Step 3 to Step 4 less than 10,000 years. The transition from Step 4 to Step 5 lasted perhaps 250 years, i.e. lightning fast in comparison. We do not know how long Step 6 will last, but the progression from Step 1 to Step 6 depended on a favourable environment, and today that environment is changing. The general environmental balance that humankind has depended on for over 11,000 years is becoming more and more unstable. How long Step 6 lasts, and what Step 7 will look like, depends on how rapidly and effectively humans can act to stabilize our environment to a state compatible with maintaining human society.

In short, while humans evolved relatively late, they have rapidly progressed to become Earth’s most successful and perhaps most dangerous species.

3.4 In What Ways Are Humans the Most Dangerous Species

Reasons why humans have become so dangerous include human intelligence and adaptability, easy access to abundant fungible energy, an attitude of superiority over nature and hubris. These enabled humans to constantly develop increasingly complex technologies that empowered humans to do things much more easily and rapidly than they could do otherwise. More recently, access to abundant cheap energy enabled these technologies to progress and develop at a rate beyond our ability to recognize and acknowledge how human actions affect both humans and the non-human world. Our philosophy is more like ‘We can do it, so let’s do it.’ as opposed to ‘We can do it, but should we, and why’? As a result, humanity developed the perspective of being ‘above’ nature, more powerful than nature, a ‘belief’ that it was exempt from the limits of nature common to other life. This impression is epitomized in Genesis 1, p. 28 (NIV), “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ This perspective of moral exceptionalism and anthropocentrism was elaborated later by philosophers and scientists such as Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton (White, 1967).

Frankly, in some aspects we are different from the rest of nature and we do have exceptional gifts which we have used to great effect, but often with little consideration as to the consequences of our actions. Dilworth (2010, p. 2), exploring our current ecological problems, wrote, “Our species is special in being the only species to have constantly developed technology ….and … it is just this technological innovativeness that is responsible for our present ecological predicament. In sum, we have simply been too smart for our own good. However, in this ‘success,’ humanity seems to have forgotten its roots, and in terms of human development and progress, humans seem to have forgotten that what was created in Step 1 — a healthy Earth capable of supporting life indefinitely — will always be a fundamental requirement for all human life and progress, and must retain primacy. Instead, humanity seems to want to demonstrate its ingenuity by maintaining its material progress with little regard to what it is doing to the Earth. How ‘smart’ is that?

As individuals we likely consider the human species as the most intelligent species, but with respect to reproduction, our behaviour does not appear to be intelligent. For example, in 1800, the global human population was about one billion in 1800, 1.6 billion in 1900, 6.1 billion in 2000, 7.6 billion in 2018 and will be 10 billion in 2055. (For more information, see Worldometer.) Thus, while it took about 200 millennia to get to a population of one billion, it has taken only 220 years to multiply that eight times more. However, while the size of the Earth has not changed, many of its features and functions have been changed by humans so as to meet the needs of the growing population. Thus the forests, prairies and waters that covered much of Earth have been transformed for human needs, particularly in industry and food production (Hooke et al., 2012; Jackson, 2010). Humanity’s impact is profound.

In 1997, Vitousek and coworkers estimated that “between one-third and one-half of the land surface of the Earth has been transformed by human action and that more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by humanity than by all natural terrestrial resources combined, more than half of all accessible surface fresh water is put to use by humanity, and about one-quarter of the bird species on Earth have been driven to extinction” (Vitousek et al., 1997, p. 494). Other researchers agree (Erb et al., 2009; MEAB, 2005). Today, humans make up nearly 36% of the total biomass of all mammals. Domesticated mammals (cows, sheep, horses, etc) add another 60%; all the remaining mammals, the wild ones: the lions, elephants, bears, etc. form only 4% (Bar-On et al., 2018). Think about that! Of all the mammals, only four percent are not in the service of humans; all the rest are under human management, for our convenience, not necessarily our need.

Humans may dominate mammalian biomass but they are only 0.03% of the total biomass of the Earth (Bar-On et al., 2018). As of 2012, about 41% of Earth’s ice-free lands were being used for human infrastructure needs: e.g. farms, ranching, logging, industry, cities, suburbs (Barnosky et al., 2014) and there is virtually no part of the Earth that is free of human effects. Talk about the tail wagging the dog.

In 1972, Meadows and coworkers published The Limits to Growth, which explored the likely patterns of human population and resource consumption over the following 100 years or so. They concluded that if humanity did not soon constrain resource use, there would be a shortfall of resources sometime in this century. As well, the demands of a growing population would not be met, and pollution from resource extraction, industrial production, and material use would pose environmental problems. Although their predictions were harshly criticized, a 2004 update confirmed most of their conclusions while revising some of their timelines (Meadows et al., 2004). Since then, Turner (2008, 2014), Bardi (2011) and Jackson and Webster (2016) have also revisited the Meadows forecasts and found them generally, and unfortunately, ‘on target.’

To quantitate the human impact on Earth, William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel (1996) developed the Ecological Footprint, an estimate of how much of Earth’s biological capacity is required by a given human activity or population. Today, it is estimated that every year the world’s population uses the equivalent of 1.7 Earths to provide the services we need, the resources we use, and to absorb our waste. (For more information, see the Global Footprint Network.) That is living like the ‘average’ global citizen. But if you are reading this book, you are probably not the average citizen. You likely live in Canada, the USA or Australia, where the footprint is not 1.7 Earths, but five Earths. Perhaps you live in Brazil where you need only two Earths, or the UK, France or Switzerland (three Earths). Imagine that all your income comes from interest generated by a trust fund. Sometimes, you need a bit more, and so you borrow from the principal. But if you don’t pay it back the trust fund eventually runs out; then most often, you will have to go to work, or maybe go on welfare, but somehow your needs will be met. Earth is humanity’s trust fund and we have borrowed from it for millennia with apparent impunity. Where do we go when Earth can’t provide? Mars?

To characterize the manifestations of human impact, Johan Rockström and coworkers in 2009 identified nine ‘planetary boundaries’ or primary aspects of key Earth system processes that “define the safe operating space for humanity” (Rockström et al., 2009, p. 472). Three of these boundaries — climate change, global phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, and rate of biodiversity loss—have already been transgressed. Several others—ocean acidification (Feely et al., 2009), stratospheric ozone, freshwater use, and land use change—are close to breaching their limits. The two remaining — atmospheric aerosol loading and chemical pollution—have not yet been satisfactorily quantified because we lack reliable indices with which to measure their effects, but both are major causes of ill health and death in human and non-human life (Piqueras & Vizenor, 2016; Landrigan et al., 2017).

It is obvious that we are using more than Earth can sustainably provide or renew, and Earth’s life support systems are starting to fail. This is termed overshoot and reflects the time when the population’s demand on an ecosystem exceeds the ability of the ecosystem to respond. Wherever we look, we see threats to human security arising from overshoot. Step 6 is already characterized by serious global ecosystem instability (Romm, 2010). Something has to give.

The above paragraphs summarize a world whose life-supporting systems are deteriorating. Physical and biological limits ultimately govern human life and society and the current situation of breaching these limits and increasing the stresses on Earth’s physical and biological systems cannot last. Breaking the limits breaks the planet.

Human existence depends on an acknowledgement of its dependence on nature. Humans, now more than ever in human history, must live their lives with the active and aggressive acceptance of this dependence in all their actions, plans, aspirations, teachings and beliefs.

3.5 So, How Did We Get into This Mess?

To address that question, let us review the steps in our model. The primal step in creating human security was Step 1: creating an environment conducive to human existence. The key human step was learning to harness energy, particularly energy for food and warmth and later to develop and use various technologies, and to progress. Today’s globalized society is based on a philosophy of competition, economic growth, technological progress, credit, and consumption. It is complex, characterized by high levels of material consumption (or aspirations to such an economy), institutions such as governments, universities, banks, churches, militaries, effective health care, generally secure food supplies, rapid communication and transport. Much of today’s living is enabled by advanced technologies combined with abundant amounts of cheap, fungible, transportable, energy. In today’s globalized society with its complex institutions and scaled-up industries, energy remains our most critical resource, but we are particularly addicted to one form of it: fossil fuels. What is their story?

3.5.1 Fossil Fuels – A Faustian Bargain Fossil Fuels – The Good

For primitive humans, energy was what came from the sun. In this state, food was opportune, temporary, and unlikely to be stored, and humans lived a hunter-gatherer existence. Later on, fire was tamed and wood and biomass became early sources of energy. Over time, the development of agriculture enabled some semblance of food security. Fixed communities became more common and, while most people were hunters or farmers, merchants and priests and other forms of human occupation evolved. As technologies were developed and improved, and new lands found and exploited, humanity developed well organized societies and civilizations. Initially, their footprint was small and the Earth could easily meet their needs.

Civilizations, like the Roman, Greek, Mayan, Indian and Chinese civilizations, evolved, grew, and ultimately faded away. In all instances, available energy was a central factor in sustaining these civilizations. Some civilizations failed when resources became scarce, or there was local climate change such as drought, or a major catastrophe and a subsequent failure to adapt (Diamond, 2005; Tainter, 1990). For the civilization involved, this was a major disaster, but the effects were mainly local. This contrasts with today’s global environmental crisis where the whole Earth is affected by human action and everyone is, or soon will be, affected, by the consequences, no matter where they live or how they live. The difference has been caused by the global use of the fossil fuels (FF) coal, oil and natural gas, which are the non-renewable, decayed, and sequestered products of forests that grew millions of years ago.

Over the last 200 years human society has been increasingly defined by the use of these fossil fuels. The qualities of fossil fuels enabled the rapid expansion of the industrial revolution and most of the improvements in living standards that followed (Cottrell, 1955). Today, fossil fuels energize virtually all forms of transport; they drive our industries, fuel our power plants, drive our economy, and are used to make the tens of thousands of chemicals and products in daily use. Global food production, and population growth, has increased dramatically largely because of fossil fuels that enabled the creation of the fertilizers and pesticides needed to grow crops and the fuel to run farm machinery and deliver crops to market. These fuels enabled the development of a society encouraged to consume more and more, and to throw away, not repair. They have facilitated globalization and the outsourcing of manufacture to lands with cheap labor and marginal environmental protection. We are addicted to them. Fossil Fuels – The Bad

However, all is not good. The benefits of fossil fuels come with at least three nasty blowbacks: global warming, air pollution, and environmental pollution in general from (mainly) fossil fuel derived synthetic chemicals. Each poses serious threats to ecosystem health and integrity, to human health, and to human security. Global Warming

To grasp why global warming and fossil fuels are linked and pose such a significant problem, we need to know a bit about how the Earth keeps its temperature at a level suitable for humans. When burned, fossil fuels release carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. This is a greenhouse gas, as are methane, ozone, nitrous oxide, water vapour and some fluorocarbons. Normally, these gases trap enough heat from the sun to maintain average global temperature at a level suitable for human life and progress. Before the industrial revolution, when fossil fuels were not used, atmospheric COwas maintained at an average concentration of around 280 ppm. But after fossil fuels began to be used, the release of CO2 was faster and greater than Earth could recycle and its concentration rose in the atmosphere and the oceans. Atmospheric CO2 levels are already nearing 410 ppm and are rising at ~20 ppm per decade. This excess of CO2 has led to more heat being trapped on Earth and thus today’s mean global temperature is about +1.0°C above preindustrial levels, and it continues to rise at about 0.2°C per decade. This rate of temperature increase is 10 to 20 times faster than rates documented during post ice-age recovery warming and has never been experienced by humans. By about 2040, global mean temperature will be +1.5°C above preindustrial levels. If we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates, by 2100 global temperatures could be +4°C above preindustrial levels (Anderson & Bows, 2011; New et al., 2011; Bowerman et al., 2011; Betts et al., 2011). Human societies cannot tolerate four degrees and even today, when the temperature is only +1°C, the consequences of global climate change are obvious, far-reaching, uncertain, unprecedented, seemingly becoming more rapid, and for all intents and purposes, permanent; +1.5°C is yet to come (IPCC SR1.5, 2018). Chapter 9 focuses on climate change in greater detail.

What can be done to correct this situation? In the first edition of this book, this chapter discussed the issue of peak oil, a situation where fossil fuel production peaked and then rapidly declined to near zero. While still possible, the more urgent situation is that we must rapidly stop burning fossil fuels, even though supplies remain. But, since fossil fuels play such a huge role in human society, it seems sensible to ask the questions: (1) “Is global warming that big a problem?” and (2) “What will we do if we can’t use fossil fuels for energy?”

For question 1 the answer is yes. Anthropogenic global warming is an existential threat to human society and possibly the human species; it is the first such threat in human history. It also poses a threat to other forms of life and to the functioning, but not the existence, of Earth. Its effects include ocean acidification (AMAP, 2013) and warming, sea level rise (Jevrejeva et al., 2018), loss of insect life (Lister & Garcia, 2018), loss of sea life (WWF, 2016; McCauley et al., 2015), diminished mammal diversity (Davis et al., 2018), ocean dead zones (Breitburg et al., 2017), and water and food insecurity (Flörke et al., 2018; Ritchie et al., 2018; Turral et al., 2011; Betts et al., 2018).

Each of these consequences affect how humans live, how they grow food, work, and maintain their health, and how their economies and societies function. A steady diet of these effects leads to, amongst other things, mental distress, societal unrest, and political instability (Smith & Vivekananda, 2007; Natalini et al., 2015; Bellemare, 2014; Lagi et al., 2011; USGCRP, 2016). While many of these are principal consequences of global warming, some are also due in part to other biophysical and societal factors acting together to lead to general insecurity. These effects are explored and detailed more completely in intermittent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (e.g. IPCC, 2007; IPCC, 2012), the most recent being a report detailing the potential effects of a rise in mean global temperature of 1.5°C (IPCC SR1.5, 2018).

While the mechanisms of action are varied and complex, all of these effects are caused directly or indirectly by the use of fossil fuels. Five self-reinforcing human processes have been identified as causes of overshoot: economic growth, population growth, technological expansion, arms races, and growing income inequality (McMichael, 1993; Furkiss, 1974; Coates, 1991; Daly & Cobb Jr., 1994). These are explored more completely in later chapters of this book. However, it is clear that whatever causal mechanisms have been identified, we must stop burning fossil fuels. But this is hard to do.

Answering question 2—replacing fossil fuels—is much harder. In 2016 fossil fuels provided 86% of global energy consumption. The rest was provided by nuclear and hydropower (11.2%) and wind, solar and other renewables (2.8%) (World Energy Council, 2016.). Nuclear power is non-renewable energy and has significant waste management issues; the rest (hydroelectricity, solar [thermal and photovoltaic], wind, and tidal energy) are renewable; but their use leads to, likely eventually solvable, major problems of energy storage and integration into the electric grid system management. As well, most renewable energy sources are best used in static situations, such as power stations, and not in transportation. Unfortunately, these other energy sources are unlikely to replace fossil fuels quickly or completely (Heinberg & Mander, 2009; MacKay, 2009). Therefore, we must choose between continuing to use fossil fuels, (the Business As Usual or BAU approach), and thus likely face a 4°C world in about 80 years, or we must soon start a transition to a simpler, lower energy, less consumptive, lifestyle.

Yet for some reasons we dawdle, we continue with business as usual. Since the 1990’s, there have been conferences organized annually by the United Nation that specifically address issues relating to climate change. They are called the Conference of Parties (COP), the most recent one (COP24) was held in Katowice, Poland. Unfortunately, in the end, promises are made, targets set, but everything is aspirational and little happens. Numerous other climate conferences and commissions have suffered similar fates. There have also been scientific ‘warnings’ such as the Scientific Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century (Barnosky et al., 2014) and the World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice (Ripple et al., 2017; [first warning UCS, 1992]); all to little apparent effect. This chapter does not explore the reasons for this inaction, save to say that strong economic and political forces appear to be acting against any effective global action to reduce emissions. This occurs even in the face of obvious global warming and environmental catastrophes such as drought, extreme flooding, unprecedentedly destructive forest fires, sea level rise, food and political insecurity, examples of which all happened in 2018 and all of which had global warming as an important factor in their genesis (Herring et al., 2018). It is possible that there will be some attempt to significantly reduce fossil fuel use, but the time frame is governed more by politics than by science.

Global warming is the poster child for what happens when a planetary boundary is exceeded; in this instance, the ecosystem process of thermoregulation is impaired. Two other planetary boundaries that are also closely related to fossil fuel use are air pollution and chemical pollution, each of which — independently — pose major problems for human and environmental health and security but not at quite the same level of danger. The degree to which they are transgressing their boundaries is unknown because we cannot measure the levels of pollution globally, but they seriously harm both humans and the environment, and threaten environmentally based human security. This chapter does not explore these issues in the depth they require. We discuss them briefly to raise awareness of their role in influencing human security. A closer look at the connections between ecological integrity and human health will be taken in Chapter 17. Air Pollution

Air pollution is defined as an excessive amount of ambient particulate matter. Biomass, used mainly in developing countries for heating and cooking, and fossil fuels, used globally for nearly everything, account for about 85% of airborne particulate pollution (Landrigan et al., 2017). In 2015, air pollution (ambient PM2.5) was the fifth-highest ranking global mortality risk factor (Cohen et al., 2017). In adults, air pollution can cause ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, lung cancer, and stroke. In children it can cause asthma and can affect a child’s normal development. There are other forms of air pollution as well; e.g. acid rain, which have a strong environmental effect, especially on aquatic organisms.

Coal-burning power plants are a major source of air pollution but they are being phased out in many parts of the world, because of the need to reduce CO2 emissions. Using fossil fuels for transport is also a significant source of air pollution. Regulatory initiatives have played a major role in reducing the health burden of air pollution, particularly from transportation. In the US, a recent study showed that improvement in air quality between 1990 and 2010 resulted in up to 38% fewer deaths than if air quality had remained unchanged (Zhang et al., 2018). Chemical Pollution

Chemical pollution lacks any standard measure to assess its effects, and the effects on humans and the environment are considerably harder to assess (Diamond et al., 2015). In part, this is because of: 1. difficulties in measuring exposure, 2. difficulties in measuring effects, 3. our ignorance of what to look for, 4. their presence in the environment in the form of unknown, unmanageable, and unmeasurable mixtures of chemicals,and 5. their overwhelming importance in society. Regardless of this high level of ignorance we do know that chemicals are a significant source of human illness and death (Prüss-Ustün et al., 2011; Grandjean & Bellanger, 2017). The environment is also clearly affected. A good example is the association of systemic pesticide use and the collapse of insect populations (van Lexmond et al., 2015; Malaj et al., 2014).

Chemical pollution independently poses very serious problems for humanity and clearly threatens environmental stability. Currently, there are over 140,000 chemicals on the global market (UNEP, 2013). Many come directly or indirectly from petroleum and are generically called petrochemicals; they account for 90% of total feedstock demand in chemical production today (OECD/IEA, 2018).

Chemicals include plastics, food additives, pesticides and fertilizers, household chemicals, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, construction materials, electronic products, shoes, clothes, nanoparticles and many others.

We depend on chemicals to maintain our lives, to clothe and feed us, to make us more attractive, to treat our illnesses, build our homes and run our businesses. However, as good as they are, their production, use and disposal has resulted in chemical pollution throughout the globe. Chemical waste is found in the deepest parts of the oceans (Jamiesonet al., 2017), in freshwater ecosystems (Malaj et al., 2014), and in polar regions (Letcher et al., 2010). Pollution is not an inevitable consequence of chemical use; some chemicals contaminate the environment but do not apparently harm it. In some cases, contamination may shift to pollution if and when we learn what to look for, or how to measure it. We do know that many of the synthetic chemicals released into the environment cannot be metabolized into simpler compounds because no metabolic pathways exist to break them down to safer end-products. Thus, they stay in the environment and can pollute it. They get into animals and plants and may affect their metabolism, their health, their ability to reproduce, to forage, and to live.

For example, relatively common chemicals called endocrine disruptors can affect the normal endocrine metabolism of many forms of life, including humans (Bergman et al., 2013; Gore et al., 2015; Trasande, 2019). The effects of these can manifest at any age but are particularly dangerous at the earliest stages of development of the organism. At that time even very small exposures to a chemical can have major long term adverse effects. Health issues associated with endocrine disruptors include neurodevelopmental delay, autism, cancer, adult diabetes, thyroid function, infertility, and feminization. These health issues lead to considerable economic costs. A recent study done in Europe suggested that the health costs due to inadvertent exposure to endocrine disruptors was approximately €163 billion (1.28% of the EU GDP) (Trasande et al., 2016; Grandjean & Bellanger, 2017). A similar study done in the US found even greater costs.

The effects documented in these studies usually relate to humans; we lack the knowledge or resources to more systematically explore how the natural world is affected. We do know that chemical pollution has resulted in loss of biodiversity, lowered bird and insect populations, and affected the ability of many organisms to thrive (Halden et al., 2017; EEA, 2012).

Plastics are another chemical family having both major positive and negative qualities. First made in the early 1900’s, their production became widespread in the late 1940’s and now their production exceeds most other man-made products. In 1950, global plastic production was ~2 million metric tonnes (Mt); in 2015, it was ~ 380Mt. At that time, about 8300 Mt of virgin plastic had been produced in total and about 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, nine percent was recycled, 12% was incinerated (which often releases toxic materials) and 79% was in landfills. By 2050, it is estimated that about 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be accumulating (Geyer et al., 2017).

A key aspect of plastics is that while their human use may be as short as a few seconds, their environmental existence lasts centuries. Plastics do not degrade at all or only very poorly. Often, they just break down into smaller particles which eventually make their way to oceans where they can be ingested by ocean life (Gallo et al., 2018). In the ocean, they can then affect the health of animals mechanically, by strangling them or by blocking their intestines. Plastics can degrade into smaller and smaller particles, called microplastics, which can enter the cells of organisms and act as vectors for chemicals that have become attached to the plastic. Hence, they transfer their toxicity to an organism. The problem of plastic pollution is so massive that it is predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic bits in the ocean than there are fish. Recently, microparticles of plastic have been found in human faeces.

3.6 Addressing the Challenges

Throughout the first five steps outlined above, humanity’s struggle for security showed little evidence of any globally collective consciousness. The first major concerted efforts at the international level were made by the League of Nations, established in 1920 and succeeded by the United Nations from 1945. They focused on the socio-political pillar and only gradually included some economic and health-related aspects of human security. Environmental security was not addressed by any international initiative until the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which represented a token step in that direction (UNEP-MAB, 2005). In 2015 they were replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs; Figure 3.1) (UN, 2015) which placed environmental security on the conceptual map of the international community. Their achievement is planned for 2030.

UN Sustainable Development Goals. Long description available.
Figure 3.1 United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. [Long Description]

The 17 SDGs represent the most significant global collaborative initiative towards a sustainable future, and the first that takes into account some of the ecological context. They span diverse areas addressing the four pillars and focus on many significant sources of insecurity. However, they collide with the fundamental problem of ecological overshoot. This is illustrated in Table 3.1.

In the right column, the SDGs are classified as achievable, partly achievable, or unachievable: those SDGs that depend on natural resources are now unachievable; those that depend primarily on social justice are achievable; three SDGs depend on both and are therefore partly achievable. The respective numbers of the SDGs are specified.

The centre column lists the eight MDGs with their respective numbers where they correspond with the focus areas of the SDGs. They are again classified as achievable (aligned to the left side), unachievable (aligned right), or partly achievable (centered). Only one MDG, number 7 Ensure Environmental Sustainability, falls into the latter category. Some achievement on number seven was possible through the equitable allocation of social and economic capital; but its dependence on planetary resources prevented any substantial progress. By their target date of 2015 most of the MDGs’ targets had not been achieved.

Table 3.1a Contradictions within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Focus areas of the SDGs as related to the MDGs (2000–2015)
Focus Achievable Partly achievable Unachievable
Poverty Dignity (#1) Poverty (#1)
Food security Hunger (#1)
Health security Disease, malnutrition (#4, 5, 6)
Education Access (#2)
Gender equality Justice (#3)
Water Planetary resources (#7)
Energy Planetary resources (#7)
Economic growth, employment Planetary resources (#7)
Infrastructure, industry Planetary resources (#7)
Inequality Justice (#3)
Cities Planetary resources (#7)
Consumption, production Planetary resources (#7)
Climate change Planetary resources (#7)
Oceans Planetary resources (#7)
Terrestrial ecosystems Planetary resources (#7)
Societies Justice (#3)
Global partnerships Partnership (#8)
Table 3.1b Contradictions within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Focus areas of the SDGs (2015–2030)
Focus Achievable Partly achievable Unachievable
Poverty No poverty (#1)
Food security Zero hunger (#2)
Health security Good health (#3)
Education Quality education (#4)
Gender equality Gender equality (#5)
Water Clean water, sanitation (#6)
Energy Affordable, clean energy (#7)
Economic growth, employment Decent work, economic growth (#8)
Infrastructure, industry Industry, innovation, infrastructure (#9)
Inequality Reduced inequalities (#10)
Cities Sustainable cities, communities (#11)
Consumption, production Responsible consumption, production (#12)
Climate change Climate action (#13)
Oceans Life below water (#14)
Terrestrial ecosystems Life on land (#15)
Societies Peace, justice, strong institutions (#16)
Global partnerships Partnerships for the goals (#17)

The problem arises from the fact that seven SDGs (1, 2, 3, 8, 9, 11, 12) require primarily that additional ecosystem services and natural resources be mobilized. In contrast, three other SDGs (13, 14, 15) require that our demands on the biosphere be reduced. Regardless of which of those SDGs are prioritized, or whether we try to achieve them all equitably, some of them will slip even further from our grasp (von Weizsaecker & Wijkman, 2018, p. 39). Five other SDGs (4, 5, 10, 16, 17) depend primarily on social justice, ethical changes and legislative reform – resources that are not subject to physical limitations. They are exempt from the constraints imposed by our overshoot, which renders them more achievable. The remaining SDGs (6, 7, and partly 13 on climate change) depend on both kinds of resources. Comparing the entries for the MDGs and SDGs indicates that very limited improvement was achieved on the grantability issue.

Considering that the SDGs and the associated Agenda 2030 mission document were developed by some of the world’s most educated minds, and that the SDGs are much celebrated for their ‘progressiveness’, we are faced with what appears to be a huge blind spot in the minds of many educated people (O’Neill et al., 2018). The above-mentioned warnings by the scientific community (Ripple et al., 2017) were hardly taken into account. This has been interpreted as a fundamental failing in today’s systems of governance and education (Lautensach, 2018).

The example of the SDGs illustrates, on the one hand, the global extent of shared concern and of corresponding efforts at this stage. On the other hand, their limited success to date (UN, 2018) indicates a persistent blindness to basic scientific understanding of what sustainability means; it shows an insufficient commitment to incur the necessary sacrifices that a globally effective Transition to sustainability would entail; and it takes no notice of crisis causation, ecological overshoot and the ongoing expansion of ecological footprints.

3.7 Concluding Comment

This chapter has shown us why we need a healthy environment, why we need a world that can meet human demand while still maintaining adequate resources and services for non-human life. The discussion of fossil fuels illustrates how one critical resource can pose fundamental problems for the health of all life, for the functioning of Earth’s life supporting systems, and ultimately for the maintenance of human security. It has also shown what happens when we place too much demand on Earth’s life supporting systems, and why we need to seriously consider what we are doing to our world. It is not just being nice to the plants and animals; it is saving our own skin, because humans need what non-human lives provide and do for us. As humans, we need ecological integrity, we need intact ecosystems, we cannot maintain our life supporting systems by ourselves.

This chapter has provided a rationale for why a healthy environment is required for human security, but, as mentioned early on, it is not the only factor determining security. There are other factors, discussed elsewhere in this book that now play their key roles at global scales. These include issues such as politics, theology, economics, culture, city planning, business considerations, social planning, and ethical considerations. However, at this stage they increasingly tend to get into each other’s way. Early in this chapter we wrote, The security discussed in this chapter is characterized by living an everyday life within a stable society functioning within a stable environment.” That security no longer exists because Earth can no longer provide a stable environment. As we see from the discussion surrounding Table 3.1, one consequence of overshoot is that the pursuit of one kind of security now tends to jeopardize the achievement of another. Only through a reduction of ecological overshoot (or degrowth) can we hope to solve that conundrum.

Human progress has created an unprecedented global environmental crisis that is leading to a multitude of unprecedented global social, political, and economic crises. While there may be pockets of ‘perceived security’, globally right now there is no genuine human security anywhere and no prospect of such security being a reality for a long time. What do we do? The moral philosopher Mary Midgley wrote, “Wisdom … comes into its own when things become dark and difficult rather than when they are clear and straightforward.” (Midgley, 2005, p. x) With that in mind, maybe a threat to our security is not all bad. Maybe these next decades will form the basis for the next significant step in our evolution, one that moves us from the current adolescence of the human species into a more mature, wiser species, fewer in numbers, considerate of, and well aware of its place on Earth and its limits in exploiting Earth’s gifts — one developing a better view of what humanity can really be.

Resources and References


Key Points

  • Human evolution has been marked by a series of momentous transformations, each allowing us to support greater numbers and greater levels of consumption.
  • Humans have a great proclivity to expand their habitat, to adapt hostile environments to their needs and to adapt their cultures to environmental contingencies and changes.
  • Some civilizations that proved unable to do so disappeared. Others who were able to meet challenges presented by their environments flourished.
  • The present situation represents an unprecedented challenge as for the first time the challenge is global, human numbers are staggeringly high and getting higher, and we continue living lives based on unsustainable practices. We cannot continue to live this way.
  • Human security on a global and equitable basis now seems farther away than at any time in human history. Our heavy use and reliance on fossil fuels for energy is a major reason but by no means the only one.
  • Our collective global ecological overshoot has led to a situation where some aspects of human security have become unachievable because they conflict with other areas.


Extension Activities & Further Research

  1. In what ways are humans the most dangerous species? Dangerous to whom?
  2. What do you think are your ‘fundamental requirements’?
  3. Ask yourself: How do I benefit from fossil fuels? What would happen to me if they were not available anymore?
  4. Describe Step 6. How do you see it evolving over your lifetime?
  5. If you were the Secretary General of UN, what recommendations would you give to the working groups in charge of the SDG programme?
  6. Explore how our current environmental crisis is likely to affect each of the four pillars of human security, first in your community, then in your country, then globally.
  7. Where do you see the greatest obstacles toward the adoption of effective policies to cope with the loss of fossil fuel energy and its consequences? Consider factual circumstances as well as popular beliefs, cultural traditions, ideologies, etc.
  8. What are your responsibilities to future generations?
  9. What are your responsibilities to the Earth?
  10. Watch the documentary Living in the Future’s Past. It streams on Amazon Prime; use the Living in the Future’s Past study guide [PDF].
  11. Suggest some changes that you could make to your personal life (that possibly aren’t already as well publicised as walking, biking and carpooling) to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Estimate the chances that these changes can be scaled to a community level or national level. The objective is to initiate some thinking about some innovative solutions.
  12. A well illustrated summary of the key features of the Anthropocene is found in Encyclopedia of Earth’s site Welcome to the Anthropocene. Identify which features manifest most prominently in your home community or region.

List of Terms

See Glossary for full list of terms and definitions.

  • biological capacity
  • degrowth
  • ecological integrity
  • ecosystem
  • ecosystem services
  • environment
  • overshoot
  • ppm

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Long Descriptions

Figure 3.1 long description: Graphic of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, numbered 1 to 17. In order, they are:

  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and well-being
  4. Quality education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on land
  16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals

[Return to Figure 3.1]

Media Attributions

  1. This is an excellent introduction to the basic aspects of ecological change. It is well written and is possibly more relevant today than when it was written in 1982. Strongly recommended.
  2. This spells out our current situation and underscores the need to stay below 1.5°C.
  3. An important description of how chemical pollution affects human health.
  4. A well-written, enjoyable, and excellent description of the energy options available to us today.
  5. A good summary of our current predicament with respect to consumption and the use of resources.


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