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How Security Discourses Shape Responses to Environmental Insecurity

How Security Discourses Shape Responses to Environmental Insecurity

Photo credit: pxfuel 

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Liebenguth, J. (2020). Conceptions of security in global environmental discourses: Exploring the water-energy-food security nexus. Critical Studies on Security, 8(3), 189-202.

Talking Points

  • Whether and how issues—including environmental issues—are “securitized” (framed and understood as security concerns) matters for how these are subsequently addressed, especially since naming something as a security concern tends to demand urgent action.
  • Security discourses can affect who has what kind of power in relations between “those who are defining the threat, those who are at risk, and those who are providing security.”
  • The water-energy-food (WEF) security nexus is distinct “from other environment-security discourses in that productivity is the main referent object rather than states, individuals, or the environment” and private sector actors are identified as the primary agents of security through their efforts to “mitigate the threat scarcity poses to productive processes.”
  • The water-energy-food (WEF) security nexus discourse normalizes economic growth and reinforces global capitalism, obscures North/South inequalities, and provides a new source of potential legitimacy for private sector actors in their search for global markets.

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • The work of demilitarizing security entails not only broadening attention to security concerns beyond military threats but also developing responses to these—through attentiveness to the implications of security discourses—that are more effective, more inclusive, and more sustainable than yet more violence will ever be.


The traditional understanding of “security” as the defense of the state in the face of external military threats is inadequate in the face of everyday threats to people’s physical safety like wildfires, pandemics, gun violence, or lack of clean water, shelter, or sufficient food. As such, there has been a move over the past few decades in the academic field of security studies to both broaden and deepen the concept of security: to consider threats in addition to military ones and to consider security referents (those whose security is being threatened) other than the state, like individuals or groups. Whether and how issues—including environmental issues—are “securitized” (framed and understood as security concerns) matters for how these are subsequently addressed, especially since naming something as a security concern tends to demand urgent action. With this in mind, Julianne Liebenguth examines how resource scarcity is securitized in the water-energy-food (WEF) security nexus and what the implications are for global environmental governance.

WEF security nexus: “an integrative approach to sustainable development” and natural resource management that aims to “optimize efficiency gains by locating synergies and trade-offs across interdependent [water, energy, and food] sectors.” In line with the green economy framework, the WEF security nexus is oriented around “maintaining economic growth despite widespread resources scarcities” and has informed global governance through its adoption by numerous international organizations.

Discourse: “an ensemble of ideas, concepts, and categories through which meaning is given to social and physical phenomena, which is produced and reproduced through an identifiable set of practices.”

Hajer, M. A. (2006). Doing discourse analysis: coalitions, practices, meaning. In M. Van Den Brink, & T. Metze (Eds.), Words matter in policy and planning: Discourse theory and method in the social sciences (pp. 65-74). Graduate School of Urban and Regional Research.

Securitization theory: “seeks to understand the implications of referring to non-military problems as ‘security’ issues and argues that securitising agents can frame anything as a security issue by describing it as an existential threat, thus asserting the need for extraordinary measures to contain or manage the issue.”

Author paraphrasing Buzan, B., Waever, O., & De Wilde, J. (1998). Security: A new framework for analysis. Lynne Rienner.

The three main discourses previously identified in the research literature that draw a link between environment and security vary according to which security referent(s) and threat(s) to security each emphasizes. The environmental conflict discourse, which focuses on the potential of resource scarcity to exacerbate conflict, is the closest to traditional security discourses insofar as the state remains the security referent and armed conflict remains the primary threat. The environmental security discourse moves further away from traditional security discourses with its focus on individuals as the referents of security and broader environmental degradation as the threat to their security. Finally, the ecological security discourse questions the bedrock assumptions made by the others about a distinction between humans and the environment and instead sees these as “inextricably linked,” centering ecosystems as the primary security referents and human activity as the primary threat to their security. Since framing something as a matter of security can influence how it is addressed and who has power over whom—according to securitization theory, by authorizing certain actors to take urgent action that escapes the normal deliberation of democratic politics due to the existential nature of the threat—it is important to examine the sorts of actors and actions a particular security discourse does or does not authorize in any given context.

The author conducts her own discourse analysis of the WEF security nexus—based on documents from a key 2011 international conference in Bonn, Germany, and the 2015 International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) WEF nexus report—and finds that it differs from the other three environment/security discourses in important ways. She structures her analysis by examining how the discourse represents 1) the nature of the threat, 2) whose security is at stake, 3) the suggested responses, and 4) the agents of security. First, she finds that resource scarcity is identified as the main threat in the WEF security nexus. Although other threats like climate change and poor governance are identified, they are considered important only insofar as they have an impact on resource scarcity. Second, the primary security referent identified is not individuals or states but economic productivity, which is threatened by resource scarcity. As such, the WEF security nexus takes the current global economic order as given, not fundamentally questioning either the feasibility or the desirability of economic growth in light of environmental degradation. Although attentive to the problem of poverty and other threats to individual security, the WEF security nexus appears concerned about these only insofar as healthy, secure people contribute to economic growth. Third, suggested responses include “technological innovation, sustainable development, increased policy coherence, and the commodification of natural resources” along with better data collection to facilitate an integrated approach to managing natural resources—all of which emphasize greater efficiency rather than transforming the “structural sources of environmental insecurity.” Finally, although the WEF security nexus argues for collaboration between multiple actors, it focuses on private sector/business actors as the primary agents of security, “capable of steering efficient, cross-sector innovations to mitigate the threat scarcity poses to production processes”—in part displacing the traditional location of authority in the state with activities that transcend state borders.

Three main implications follow from this discourse’s distinct security logic. First, by identifying productivity as the security referent—by using security language to talk about the need to maintain productivity—the WEF security nexus reinforces market-oriented solutions and the current global capitalist system, “normaliz[ing] the notion that economic growth is natural and desired.” Second, the focus on economic growth hides the unequal way in which environmental degradation is distributed between the Global North and Global South, as well as the way the burden to change falls mostly on the Global South (in calls for greater efficiency and innovation), while patterns of affluence in the Global North remain largely intact. Finally, through authorizing private sector actors as agents of security, the WEF security nexus potentially provides these actors with a new source of legitimacy as they endeavor to broaden their reach in global markets, possibly (and counterintuitively) enhancing their capacity for social and environmental exploitation.

Informing Practice  

Securitizing issues that are not normally thought of as security concerns can, on the one hand, be useful for illuminating—and spurring action to address—the actual forms of insecurity that people face in their everyday lives. For far too long, “national security,” traditionally understood as the defense of the state against external military threats, has taken priority over—and often itself justified the violation of—various forms of human security. Therefore, there is much to be said for putting forward alternative security discourses that frame climate change; access to housing, food, and healthcare; interpersonal gun violence; pandemics; domestic violence; hate crimes; and so on as the security concerns that they are. We need look no further than the hundreds of deaths attributed to the recent heat wave in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. and Canada to understand that these are urgent issues with life-or-death consequences for real human beings, and they deserve to be treated as such.

At the same time, this research reminds us—especially those of us engaged in activism or policy-making on any of these issues—to be attentive to the consequences that security discourses can have and to ask: Who does this security discourse authorize to do what? Even if part of the point may be to mobilize greater urgency around an issue, we must also be mindful of the dangers of overriding normal democratic deliberation. In particular, those of us keen to demilitarize security must be especially alert to and clear about the types of actions proposed as appropriate responses to the security threats identified—and especially whether they themselves create insecurity for others. In the U.S. especially but elsewhere as well, militarized responses to security threats are the default response unless they are clearly and firmly proclaimed to be wrong-headed and ineffective. But, as this research highlights, even seemingly benign non-military responses to security concerns can also potentially have the effect of reinforcing inequality, structural violence, and therefore insecurity. So, we must notice both direct and structural violence in our assessment of the effects of proposed security measures. In addition, we must be critical of the actors empowered through the legitimacy and authority granted to them to address the relevant security threats, just as the author is of the private sector actors privileged in the WEF security nexus. Are these actors accountable? Do they represent diverse people’s needs? Do they have the right intentions? Finally, as more critical consumers or purveyors of security discourses, we must also be mindful of what each security discourse obscures from view. Every discourse, through the way it frames problems and reality more broadly, foregrounds some concerns and deemphasizes others. Are the security concerns of some but not others being highlighted? Which possible solutions are sidelined or made invisible by the way the problem is framed?

In other words, the critical analytical framework employed in this research is useful for analyzing both mainstream militarized security discourses—to illuminate the work they do to normalize military action and sideline everyday security threats—and alternative security discourses, such as that presented by Extinction Rebellion through its mobilization around a climate emergency—to ensure that they enable responses to the lived experience of insecurity that are as inclusive and as accountable as possible. The work of demilitarizing security entails not only broadening attention to security concerns beyond military threats but also developing responses to these (as well as to military threats themselves) that are more effective, more inclusive, and more sustainable than yet more violence will ever be. [MW]

Discussion Questions

  • What are the implications of the mainstream militarized discourses put forward daily by political leaders? Whose security do they center? What security threats do they fail to acknowledge? Which responses do they make seem inevitable, and which responses do they hide from view? Which actors do they empower and legitimize, and which do they marginalize?
  • Is naming an issue (like climate change or inadequate access to food or housing) a security concern to bring greater urgency and attention to it a wise move to make? What are the implications of doing so in a particular context?
  • How do we address some forms of everyday insecurity without contributing to other forms of insecurity in the process?

Continued Reading

GPPAC. (N.d.). Human security. Retrieved on July 1, 2021, from

Lowe, A. (2020, December 11). XR fundamentals: Tell the truth. Extinction Rebellion. Retrieved on July 1, 2021, from

Razavi, K. (2021). Record-breaking temperatures mean we must change the way we talk about the climate emergency. Retrieved on July 1, 2021, from

Shifferd, K., Hiller, P., & Swanson, D. (2020). Demilitarizing security. In A global security system: An alternative to war. World Beyond War. Retrieved on July 1, 2021, from

Peace Science Digest. (2021). The disruptive and visionary peacebuilding discourse of U.S. Representative Barbara Lee. Retrieved on July 1, 2021, from

Hoff, H. (2011). Understanding the nexus: Background paper for the Bonn2011 Nexus Conference: The Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus. Stockholm Environment Institute. Retrieved on July 1, 2021, from

Bonn2011 Conference. (2012). Bonn2011 Conference: The water, energy and food security nexus – Solutions for a green economy. Retrieved on July 1, 2021, from

Sharp, G. (1990). Civilian-based defense: A post-military weapons system. Princeton University Press. Retrieved on July 1, 2021, from

Booker, S., & Ohlbaum, D. (2021, July 2). The willful self-delusion of American Independence Day. The Nation. Retrieved on July 9, 2021, from


Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy:

Extinction Rebellion:

Key Words: securitization, environmental security, sustainable development, resource management, human security, private sector, discourse, demilitarizing security

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