Indicators of our current insecurity

Global insecurity today is shaped by the combination of an environmental crisis, in which climate change is prominent but by no means the only element, and a darkening security horizon. These twin crises are linked: each worsens the other so steps to address them can and should also be linked.

Nature and peace: damage one, damage the other; protect one, enhance the other.

To identify possible remedies for the global malady, we need to understand the intersection of problems and issues. But it may be useful to begin by looking at the components. After all, insecurity is not just one thing, nor is the environmental crisis. There are diverse indicators of each.

Summing up

The number of wars each year approximately doubled during the second decade of this century. So far as the rather uncertain data show, the number of war deaths did too. And likewise the number of refugees by 2020, compared to 2010.

The number of nuclear warheads and bombs worldwide continued to fall throughout the century and are at their lowest numerical level for many decades, though nuclear arms control has gone beyond crisis into stasis and there are some worrisome signs that numbers may increase during this decade. After almost 25 years of non-use of chemical weapons in war, they have again been used in recent years.

Meanwhile, global military spending increased throughout the two-plus decades of the century and by 2021 had reached its highest ever level – just over two trillion US dollars. There is every indication that, in the context set by the war in Ukraine, military spending will increase further in the coming decade.

This is part of the backdrop to the war in Ukraine, reflecting a darkening security horizon over more than a decade, the increasing toxicity of geopolitics, and intensifying confrontations between global and regional rivals – in Europe, in east Asia over Taiwan, in the Middle East and especially the Gulf – as well as a rising tide of armed conflicts in, in particular, the Middle East and Africa.

And part of the backdrop to the backdrop is the ever sharpening environmental crisis. It is seen in the loss of biodiversity, the loss of biomass, massive changes in the use of land, air pollution, chemical pollution, plastics pollution and climate change, with effects on health, food security, livelihoods, social and political stability, conflicts and the ability to handle them.

We are approaching tipping points in ecosystems’ deterioration and the further cause for concern is that they will likely have economic, social, political and conflictual consequences. In a nutshell, that’s our problem.

Those are the headlines. If you want some more to fill out the picture a little, read on.

Filling out the picture

What follows is the not the full story on any of those issues, but a taste of what’s been going on. It draws on Part I of the scientific report that lies behind SIPRI‘s policy report, Environment of Peace: Security in a new era of risk, published in May 2022.

I. Wars and the military

Wars: After the end of the Cold War around 1990, there was a good news story that mostly went untold: the world’s zone of peace expanded. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) there were about 50 armed conflicts in 1990. The annual number rose in the following half decade due to the wars of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, the USSR’s break-up and more conflicts in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Then the number began to fall and in 2010, there were around 30. After that, the trend reversed and by 2021 there were 56 armed conflicts in which at least one party was a recognised state, and many violent conflicts of other kinds.

Source: Uppsala Data Conflict Project, <;, accessed 21 October 2022.

War deaths: Data on war deaths is full of uncertainties. As far as can be determined, war deaths approximately doubled in the second decade of the 21st century compared to the first, primarily due to warfare in Syria. Even so, the number is much lower over the past 20 years than for much of the period since the end of World War II.

Refugees: In 2021 there were 89.3 million forcibly displaced people – more than 1 per cent of the world’s population – compared to 41 million in 2010. In other words, the second decade of this century saw a doubling of the number of people forced to flee their home and often their country for fear of violence and repression. In 2022, the war in Ukraine alone ensures the figure will be yet higher. 

Nuclear warheads and bombs: Another under-reported good news story of the last 30 years has been the reduction in the number of nuclear weapons. At its peak in the 1980s the global stockpile of nuclear warheads and bombs was some 70,000. In January 2022, SIPRI estimated the total to be some 12,705.

Source: SIPRI Yearbook 2022.

Though today’s nuclear weapons are in many ways more capable than those built 30 years ago, the reduction is both large and significant. 

There are signs, however, that nuclear reductions have stalled. In 2020 the number of operational warheads (that is, the ones on bombers, in missile siloes or in submarines ready for use, about 30 per cent of the global total) increased by 100, their first increase in a long time. In addition, commercial satellite imagery in 2021 showed what appears to be construction of 300 new intercontinental ballistic missile siloes in northern China. If so, this could signify an increase in the size of China’s arsenal by as much as 1000 warheads in the coming decade. 

Meanwhile, the architecture of nuclear arms control put in place at the end of the Cold War and since has been crumbling for years.

Chemical weapons (CW): The past decade also saw the use of CW, in Syria, almost a quarter of a century since they were last used in open warfare by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The first evidence of Syrian forces using CW came in December 2012, with further CW attacks taking place in 2013. Following a Russian proposal, an international effort was made to ship all Syria’s CW out of the country. By June 2014, the Syrian government claimed the job was done but reports of CW use in Syria soon re-surfaced. ” target=”_blank”>A commission set up by the UN Human Rights Council confirmed at least 34 Syrian government uses of CW between 2013 and 2018, many using chlorine or the nerve agent sarin, while Human Rights Watch reported 85 CW attacks in the same period, mostly by the government.*

Military spending and the arms trade: Increased military spending and major weapons transfers during the 2010s are evidence of a widespread and growing atmosphere of insecurity. In 2021 world military spending surpassed $2 trillion—the highest level it has ever been. It is now one-third higher than it was as the Cold War was coming to an end in 1988 and 1989, and not far short of double its level in 2000. Its steady upward movement since then was only interrupted by the after-effects of the global financial and economic crisis of 2008-2010.

Meanwhile, the global trade in major conventional weapons grew steadily from 2002 onwards, though it has stabilized and fallen slightly in the last few years. The 2010s saw it at its highest level since 1990, though significantly lower than its peak in the 1980s.

II. Environmental deterioration

Loss of biodiversity (how many different species of animals and plants there are): The sixth mass extinction of animal species in the planet’s history is well under way. For those for which the counting has been done, an average of around 25 per cent of animal (and plant) species are threatened; the rate of extinction is between tens and hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.

Loss of biomass (how much animal and plant life there is): The loss of biomass is at least equally important as loss of biodiversity. It has been estimated that 83 per cent of wild mammal biomass has been lost since the dawn of human civilisation. More recently, the abundance of wild vertebrates (fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds) fell by 60 per cent between 1970 and 2014.

The bulk of animal life consists of invertebrates like insects. Because they control pests, pollinate plants and recycle nutrients, they are vital for how our food is grown. Some 75 per cent of crop types grown by humans require pollination by insectsDetailed local observations over almost three decades reveal local declines in flying insects of over 75 per cent. Decline in the biomass of insects and spiders in rain forests from the mid-1970s to the early 2010s has been estimated at between 75 and 88 per cent depending on the time of year. No wonder that some researchers describe this multi-continental crisis of insect biomass and diversity as an ‘insect apocalypse’.

Land use: Since 1990 some 420 million hectares of forest (around 10 per cent of the total) have been lost, primarily so that the land can be used for agriculture. The rate of deforestation has slowed down quite a bit in recent years; it’s now about 10 million hectares annually compared to 16 million the 1990s. This is one big reason for the loss of biodiversity and biomass (other reasons include over-hunting, over-fishing and pollution).

Air pollution: A 2017 UN report rated poor air quality as the greatest global environmental risk to health. Some 90–95 per cent of the world’s population breathe outdoor air that is polluted beyond the standard of acceptability set by the World Health Organization. The death toll from outdoor air pollution in 2019 was 4.5 million people, 57 per cent more than the annual figure at the start of this century. Air pollution can affect every organ in the body, causing mental ill health and disorders including depression, increasing the risk of premature birth and reducing fertility. There is also evidence that, along with noise pollution, it increases the risk and incidence of dementia.

Chemical pollution: Chemical pollution has widespread effects on air quality, water and soil, yet it is under-researched. According to the 2017 UN report mentioned in the preceding paragraph, only a few of the tens of thousands of chemicals on the market have been thoroughly analysed for their effects when released into the environment. Among the effects we are aware of, more than 100 000 people die annually from exposure to asbestos, while lead in paint affects the IQ of children. Another growing concern is the use of antibiotics in farming, which is thought to be driving the emergence of bacteria resistant to anti-biotic medication.

Plastics pollution: Since 1950, the world has produced an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic. Depending on its type, quantity and where it is stored or abandoned, plastic may take anything from a couple of years to several centuries and even longer to degrade. Microplastics—tiny plastic particles—are everywhere. They invade the bodies of fish, birds and terrestrial animals, including people. Our estimated average consumption of microplastics is 50,000 particles, each person, each year. These particles have been found in the placenta of pregnant women and in breast milk. There are serious grounds for concern about the toxic effects of microplastics but, as with chemical pollution, there is a shortage of precise knowledge about it. 

Climate change: This has been the year of climate change.

After record droughts and floods, what’s left to say? The statistic that buzzed me out was this:

  • 19 of the 20 hottest years on record occurred since 2000;
  • 29 of the 30 hottest years on record occurred since 1990;
  • 38 of the 40 hottest years on record occurred since 1980.

In short, each decade is warmer than the last and the climate is changing before our eyes.


All these indicators of environmental loss have a direct or indirect impact (or both) on health. Between them, they have effects on the availability or lack of clean water and on food security, livelihoods and social stability, with knock-on consequences for political stability, disputes and grievances, the management of conflicts, and the risk of violent conflict. They reflect the increasing unsteadiness of the natural foundations on which our collective life, our societies and communities are built; as those foundations weaken, instability and worse are predictable consequences that are currently unfolding.

To go back to the opening section of this article, to identify solutions, you first have to unpick and understand the problems; only that way can you really see how much needs to be rethought if a way is to be found out of the current mess. In that spirit, the next article on this blog will look at the idea of security.

* NB: Chemical weapons have also been used for political control, punishment and intimidation in cases such as the polonium poisoning of Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006; the attempted poisoning with novichok of Sergei Skripal, another Russian defector residing in the UK, and his daughter in 2018 (an incident that resulted in the death of an uninvolved British woman); and the novichok poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexander Navalny in 2020.

3 thoughts on “Indicators of our current insecurity

  1. Pingback: The idea of security | Dan Smith's blog

  2. Pingback: Ecological insecurity is about more than climate change | Dan Smith's blog

  3. Pingback: Ecological security: five questions | Dan Smith's blog

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