13 February 2014

Human Security and Sustainable Development terms are vague for a reason: dissertation musings.

Terms like "human security" and "sustainable development," or even "climate change" for that matter, can communicate something specific or nothing at all - depending on the speaker and the audience. I review literature on these terms for my research and am starting to see a common idea. Critiques of terms, such as the ones identified above, make arguments that remind me of the saying "keep your mind open, but not so open that your brain falls out." In one paper, the author suggests that the term human security is as self-defeating as making every piece of luggage on a flight a priority piece of luggage. Suddenly, no luggage is a priority. I get the point. However, I see something different in these arguments and these ideas being put forward.

I see this: that the collective human mind, in only the last 30 or 40 years, has started institutionalizing concepts that reflect value changes, and changes to how we understand relationships between humans and our environment. It takes time for any change to complete a metamorphic cycle.

These concepts maybe vague, but this is because they reflect ideas that are complex and nuanced, which makes them a bit hard to describe. Engineering seeks to simplify complexity to find solutions to challenges society faces, but over and over again, we see that simplification leads to more problems. Complexity, although a challenge to think about, describe, or understand, needs more space to be complex. Just because something stays complex does not make related concepts unimportant. Simplification, not over-simplification, but just simplification, can change focus and understanding. Perhaps instead of being quick to critique and dismiss things we do not understand, we need instead more time and patience to sit with the ideas to recognize why we should care about human security, sustainable development, or climate change. 

Surprisingly, some of these values are commonly held in the traditions of communities such as Native Americans or other indigenous populations of communities that live in the "Fourth World." I say surprising, because the communities I am referring to are not typically present or well-represented in the international community forums, corporate institutions, or in the academy (university) where terms such as human security, sustainable development, or climate change are being batted around. The term Fourth World, coined in the 1970s, connotes communities of people living in a manner that continues a tradition, communities that subsist from environmentally-sourced resources, or marginalized indigenous populations found within the political borders of a nation-state that does not necessarily reflect their rights, needs, or values. The Fourth World has held these now new again concepts of living in mindfulness of the balance of the systems we depend on, ideas put forward by sustainable development. Yes, there are terms for everything.

"Human security" is a concept that seeks to amplify the relevance of threats to people or communities from outside forces. The difference with human security and traditional security is that it focuses on the community level, rather than on the nation-state itself. Here is the complexity though, communities can be nations as well. Communities can be international regions or even virtual communities of people who share common ideas and beliefs, such as the Catholic Church or the United Nations. Why not? In my opinion, this discourse, while still not well defined or accepted, is the next evolution in security studies or development discussions - and it fits in very well with geography studies. Geography, after all, describes human relations to the world around them spatially and temporally. Instead of defaulting to political science or international relations to define what is worth considering for global attention - a nation, a community with an outwardly recognized identity like the Roma - defining communities is well-served by geographic definition. Security for communities not only deals with those communities, but collectively points back to the nation or a region - and gives better understanding of what challenges or advantages the larger community - be it a nation or a continent or the world - face or enjoy.

Those outside forces that threaten human security in my work come under four descriptive sectors - political, environment, economics, and socio-cultural systems. Threats to human security may originate in things like political oppression, revolution, natural disasters, such as droughts or floods are natural hazards not managed effectively, war, environmental disaster, such as an oil spill of nuclear meltdown, crime, disease outbreaks, malnutrition, resource insecurity, such as food or water insecurity, economic insecurity, such as bank failures or market crashes, gender-based violence or bias, lack of access to education or health care, racism, prejudice, or a combination of many of the above factors. 

I digress here a bit, but again to come back to my point about vague terms and complexity - the issues that these controversial terms are grappling with are complex. The ideas are about the very things that we need to address on a global scale as well as in our own communities. These new concepts, vagueness of the terms, are not really the issue. It is what these terms point to that is the challenge, the priority tag on every bag that comes off of a plane at the airport. We need to start somewhere, and the challenges we face with changes in climate, policy, resource-availability, security - these challenges are not simple, not easy, but are necessary for discussion not just for us, but for the other beings we share the planet with, and for any of us who decide to reproduce - the ones that come after us, and after them. Looking at our changing planet, we need to change our ideas and thoughts, most of all we need to change our behaviors and hearts. Changing how we define security objectives, how we do business, how we implement development projects, and how we measure scientific systems to make them relevant for policy decisions - this is the new paradigm, and I am excited to take part in finding how to navigate and participate in how to be a part of the change itself.