Ecological security: five questions

Ecological disruption takes many forms and poses many challenges because it leads to a weakening of the foundations in nature on which human communities and societies are based. One of these sets of challenges is in the security sphere, as set out in the recent SIPRI report, Five questions on ecological security, which I co-authored with Rod Schoonover. 

The security challenges of today and tomorrow include some that are unprecedented because they are driven by ecological disruption, the extent and kinds of which are themselves unprecedented. The issues are new and how they combine together is new. It follows that we need some serious thinking and rethinking about security.

I have been pondering and re-pondering what security means in some recent blog posts, and in last week’s post I looked at the policy implications of focussing on ecological disruption. Basically, step one is to find out more about the problems and their likely health, economic, behavioural, social and conflictual knock-on effects.

In this post, I summarise some of the science that lays out the challenge of ecological disruption in the security sphere.

Five questions, then:

  1. Amplification of antimicrobial resistance (pathogens that are increasingly drug-resistant), 
  2. The physiological consequences of pollution, 
  3. The loss of nature’s contribution to people’s well-being, 
  4. Local and regional ecological tipping points, and 
  5. Detrimental organisms and processes that thrive in the rapidly changing planet.

Here we go.

1. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR)

One form of AMR is antibacterial resistance (ABR), about which there is plenty of public discussion because of the effect of over-use of antibiotic medicines. But AMR including ABR can actually arise in the environment without it being subjected to natural or synthetic drugs. Focussing on ABR as the result only of antibiotics over-use thus risks under-estimating the issue.

In 2016, the annual death toll of AMR was estimated at about 500,000, likely rising to 10 million by 2050. That would make it a major cause of death but its effect will go further. When penicillin became available for general use after World War II, it not only saved lives but speeded up recovery from infections and serious ailments.

The risk is that AMR may well return societies to a pre-penicillin condition. 

In many countries, national health systems are already over-stretched. If poor health increases, this inevitably has an economic downside; recently, the President of the Royal Society of Arts in the United Kingdom warned that the worsening health of the British people is now constraining economic growth, reversing a 200-year trend.

And what happens to social cohesion in a world in which everyday infectious diseases and the risks that are met in routine surgeries and during pregnancies return to previous levels of danger? The possibility is that health inequalities will soar, adding to already well-entrenched and widespread feelings of grievance and frustration. 

2. Physiological consequences of pollution

There is so much happening under the heading of pollution, it is hard to summarise in a couple of paragraphs.

Take air pollution. Over 90 per cent of the world’s population breathes unhealthy air and a World Bank report last year estimated the direct costs of the negative impact on health of air pollution alone at a beyond eye watering 8.1 trillion US dollars per year. That’s 8,100,000,000,000 – about 6 per cent of world economic output. The annual death toll was estimated in 2019 to be 5.4 million people.

And then there’s the behavioural change. Various studies have found that high levels of air pollution increase aggressive behaviour among children, increase depression among adults, reduce creativity and innovation, and appear to decrease grey matter in regions of the brain involved in regulating emotions, suggesting reduced emotional stability may be a consequence. Other studies have explored aspects of this connection. A 2019 study of crime in the United States showed a robust relationship with violent crime, specifically assault, but no relationship with property crime while in 2020, researchers found that poor air quality in London was correlated with spontaneous crimes, such as interpersonal violence, but not premeditated crimes.

In short, air pollution directly damages our health and may also lead to emotional stress, poor decision-making, less imagination about how to confront major problems, and increasingly aggressive and violent behaviour – all of which suggest a seriously concerning prospect for social cohesion, political stability and human security, especially in urban settings.

There are many unanswered questions about air pollution and its effects. For example, it is not just one thing: there are different air pollutants – and we have little idea if any about what is the most behaviourally and socially toxic mix of them. Despite such gaps in basic knowledge, it seems to me that air pollution’s pathways of social, political and conflict impact are better lit than they are for some other types of pollution.

Take plastic pollution, for example. On the basis of a 2017 calculation, it can be estimated that total world plastics production since 1950 is about 10 billion tonnes. Plastics have entered every type of ecosystem, where they are widely agreed to be long-lived, though it is not clear how long. Public campaigns against plastic bags draw on well-established knowledge about how plastic masse can entangle and strangle organisms. But the effects of microplastics are poorly understood and though they have been found in every physiological system in the human body, and even in mothers’ milk, there is an as yet unresolved debate about health impacts.

Or take chemical pollution. It is unclear how many chemicals are in use. The World Health Organisation says over 160 million chemicals are known to humans, of which 40,000-60,000 are in use commercially; the EU says the figure in commercial use is more like 100,000, while a multinational academic study puts it at 350,000. Against that background of uncertainty, what we know is that chemicals get everywhere.

And we know that only a small proportion of the chemicals in use have been thoroughly analysed for their behaviour and effects when released into the environment. We do know, it is true, something about some negative health effects of some chemicals – lead in paint and asbestos, for example, and we know that some chemical pollutants, especially in soil, reduce fertility among animals, including among humans. But a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention platform currently lists just 199 chemical compounds and minerals whose toxicology has been assessed, out of however many thousands of chemicals are out there.

All this, and as yet I haven’t mentioned light and noise pollution. It has long been clear that prolonged exposure to excessive noise has a range of negative effects on both physical health and cognitive capacities. Meanwhile, light pollution is a profoundly under-estimated problem because, after all, we both need and love light; it’s just that as with so many other good things, we produce way too much, don’t use most of it, and don’t think about what that does to the 69 per cent of mammals that are nocturnal creatures, or to our bodies’ circadian rhythm leading to a host of physical and mental disorders.

But, as with the other kinds of pollution, the picture of physiological effects remains incomplete, and a picture of knock-on social and political consequences based on what we know today would amount only to an outline sketch.

3. Loss of nature’s contribution to people’s well-being (NCP)

There is a term that is widely used in the study of ecology to depict what we humans get from nature – ecosystem services. For various reasons, I dislike it. It has too much of the feeling of nature doing something for us humans, when what we should be aiming for is a balance in which we humans thrive as part of a thriving natural world, even while most of us live in towns and cities. The fairly widely used alternative is nature’s contribution to people (NCP), which still misses the point about balance, but somehow feels better.

The 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity  identified 18 kinds of contribution that nature makes to people’s well-being. They are processes that work for us. Medicines are an example: some 4 billion people depend on natural medicines for healthcare and about 70 per cent of the drugs used to treat cancer are either natural products or, if synthetic, were first identified because of the effects of natural products. Pollination is another example: about 75 per cent of crop types grown by humans require pollination by insects.And there are non-material NCPs, such as spiritual and aesthetic experiences, opportunities for healthy living, and safeguarding the future.

Because of their direct link to the provision of food, the decline of pollinators, especially wild honeybees, is of deep concern.

It is well documented that there have been significant declines in wild insect pollinators in Europe and North America, though the global picture remains unclear. It is not difficult to envisage the consequences of a continued loss of pollinators – economic problems for countries especially dependent on pollination for growing food they export, rising prices for food importers, heightened food insecurity, and potential cascades of social and political instability and upheaval.

In a world in which, thanks to climate change, extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity, an important NCP is to protect against sea-surges, floods, cyclones and the like. Five urgent questions on ecological security gives the example of the protection mangrove forests provided local inhabitants of the Irrawaddy Delta in Myanmar when Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008 – and conversely of the vulnerability of villages in areas where the mangrove forests had been cleared in the name of development of agriculture and aquaculture.

The removal of those natural defences against disaster means that either the state steps in to construct alternative defences, or people are left to suffer and manage as best they can. When the state is uncaring, incompetent, corrupt or simply lacks the necessary resources to protect its citizens hit by extreme weather events, grievances may be quick to surface. If these are mobilized politically, there is an increasing risk of instability and insecurity.

4. Local and regional ecological tipping points

An ecological regime shift, more informally and more commonly called a tipping point, is a large, sudden and persistent change in the function and structure of an ecosystem. We are used to discussing the concept in relation to the effects of climate change, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet; if it is not checked by a radical brown-to-green economic transformation, a regime shift like that will have vast impacts.

Equally important in many ways are more localized regime shifts, as a species ceases to thrive in a given area – for example, when a dead zone is created in the sea, a lake or a river. A few regime shifts are mostly reversible, primarily very localised ones such as in ponds and lakes. But many if not most are irreversible or what is known as hysteretic, which is when the pathway for an ecosystem’s recovery differs from its decline, so it becomes viable but in a different form.

Some tipping points will almost certainly have a substantial negative impact on people and societies. For example, the loss of dissolved oxygen in water often triggers mass die-offs in marine life, including commercially important fish, and creates dead zones in freshwater and oceans. This has evident, direct impacts on livelihoods, employment and food security. To understand how this might play out as a security issue, it is only necessary to refer to the increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia as fishing communities there found their normal fishing grounds exhausted, largely thanks to massive-scale factory fishing. Whatever the causes, disruptive changes are unsettling, can include profound psychological and psycho-social effects, and can overthrow previous social norms if survival becomes the paramount goal for a community.

5. Detrimental organisms and processes

Invasive species are a growing problem in the 21st century due to the increasing number of global connections and transportation networks, which enable species to move between regions with ease. As natural habitats change or are lost, and impelled at the same time by rising temperatures and a changing climate, different species are likely to be moving more and more into new environments. There, they can often outcompete native species, leading to displacement or even extinction. At the same time, pathogens and parasites are often tagging along with the newly arrived species, also ready to affect and infect organisms that aren’t used to them and lack natural defences against them. And organisms, of course, includes humans.

This is why the term ecological disruption is the right one to use: there are places where biomass is not declining, just changing, but not always in a good way.

Even before the heavier press of ecological disruption sets in, invasive species are already causing damage to a variety of sectors, including agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries, livestock, forestry, shipping and tourism. Think, for example, of the 5,000-mile-long Great Sargassum Belt loitering in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. Relatively small bits of this algae (or seaweed) wash ashore – small relative to how much sargassum there is in the belt as a whole, but massive quantities in ordinary perception, and extremely hard to deal with. Left to itself on shore, it starts rotting in a couple of days and gives off gas that is noxious and dangerous.

There’s always been seaweed and there’s been sargassum for about 65 million years, but it’s only in the last 10 to 15 years that it has become a hazard.

Or think of jellyfish: some regions are seeing a decline but others are seeing a new abundance that reduces fish populations, can impede fishing activities, and interfere with ships engines and with desalination and power plants.

The security implications of these changes need some consideration. For example, harmful algal bloom events in the Chiloé Archipelago in Chile in 2016 killed many millions of commercially important fish over a few weeks, devastating livelihoods and fuelling civil unrest and citizen blockades in its aftermath. Similar discord arrived in the wake of the 2017–2021 armyworm plague in southern Africa.

And so?

Five questions then. That was a summary that is, I think, about a quarter to a third as long as the science part of Five urgent questions on ecological security. The two authors of the report are sure that not only have we not “answered” the questions (i.e., we haven’t set out what to do about the problems because we do not yet know), but also we have not fully asked or even identified all the questions. So what we need is a serious research programme – multi-disciplinary, multi-year, multi-national – to figure out the questions, explore their full implications and consequences, and get moving toward some answers.

More on this later.

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