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Finding protection in definitions: the quest for environmental security.

The waning salience of superpower confrontation in the past decade has given rise to new flexibility in the concept of national security. Once limited in scope to a defined set of external military threats, the label now frequently underscores the centrality of concerns such as environmental protection, economic development, and global sustainability. The phrase "environmental security" is increasingly finding favor within both common usage (Wagner, 1997) as well as governmental policy. Named as a concern in international affairs, the concept of environmental security is being used to define our interests with regard to other countries in a number of contexts. The Kyoto agreement limiting global greenhouse gases, for example, has been attacked (Ashcroft, 1998) and defended (Goodman, 1998) based upon its effect on America's "national security." Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher in a 1996 speech at Stanford University emphasized the determination of the Clinton administration "to put environmental issues where they belong: in the mainstream of American foreign policy" (in Matthew, 1996, p. 39). Following suit, President Clinton has named environmental security as one of a handful of 'Millennial Challenges' facing America in the next century (Edley, 199, p. c01). The linkage of environmental and defense issues is also reflected in new offices and rifles: the defense structure currently includes a National Defense Center for Environmental Excellence as well as a Pentagon Undersecretary for Environmental Security.

The basic concept of environmental security represents an attempt to draw attention to issues of environmental degradation by explicitly tying them to formerly military concepts of security. "The new sources of danger," Lester Brown wrote in 1986, "arise from off depletion, soft erosion, land degradation, shrinking forests, deteriorating grasslands, and climate alteration" (p. 195). To Brown, these dangers "threaten not only national economic and political security, but the stability of the international economy itself' (pp. 195-6). According to supporters of the environment-security linkage, the dangers of environmental degradation are at least as severe as the military threats which we generally include under the security umbrella and the emergence of these new threats should cause us to rethink our concept of national security. Norman Myers (1995), argues:

All in all, then, national security is no longer about fighting forces and weaponry alone. It relates increasingly to watersheds, croplands, forests, genetic resources, climate, and other factors rarely considered by military experts and political leaders, but that taken together deserve to be viewed as equally crucial to a nation's security as military prowess (p. 258).

The argument for environmental security can either be expressed in the claim that environmental degradation may cause security threats, such as tension and war, or in the claim that environmental degradation functionally constitutes a security threat. In both cases, proponents argue for increased attention to the national and international importance of eco-system health, but the latter case holds special interest for students of argument since it represents an attempt to increase the salience of a traditionally neglected area by definitionally linking those concerns to an area with high traditional emphasis: The environment is placed on the agenda through identification with the conventional state interest in security.

It is at this point of identification that the argument for an environment-security linkage finds its critics. Many scholars writing within the peace research perspective have sharply criticized efforts to harness environmental aims to the concept of national security. Daniel Duedney (1991) writes:

Nationalist sentiment and the war system have a long established character that are likely to defy any rhetorically conjured redirection toward benign ends. . . When environmentalists dress their programs in the blood-soaked garments of the war system, they betray their core values and create confusion about the real tasks at hand. (p. 28)

In addition to this philosophical inconsistency, opponents also see practical difficulties with the project. Richard Matthew (1996) argues:

Environmental issues lack the muscle that appeals to many members of the security, intelligence, and diplomatic communities. Environmental problems tend to emerge gradually through the complex interaction of economic, political, demographic, and technological variables. Unlike the staples of foreign policy - war and trade - they cannot usually be resolved through superior force or the signing of a treaty, and they rarely offer a quick or tangible payoff to policy-makers. (p. 40)

The argument between those who would use or avoid an environment-security linkage is for the most part not an argument over the reality or the importance of environmental threats. Neither side in this argument denies the basic claim that threats to the habitability of the planet are comparable to military threats in their importance. Rather, the argument has centered on the value of a redefinition of security. The question is whether the benefits of increased attention for environmental issues to be gained through association with security are worth the harms caused by imprecision and negative connotation and effect. This is an argument with policy implications as well as implications for how we think about definitions and definitional change. This essay seeks to evaluate both sides of this debate from a rhetorical perspective on definitional argument. Reviewing and critiquing the arguments that each side offers for or against definitional change from a point of view that sees definitional argument as a strategy rather than as a truth claim, this essay advances a point of view that judges arguments for or against definitions to be better based on the degree to which they acknowledge a functional perspective. Initially, I explain and justify this attitude toward definitional argument. Subsequently, I review and critique the arguments for and against environmental security from this perspective. Finally, I conclude with some observations on the nature of definitional argument and the role of argument critics in improving debates over meaning.


It is probably accurate to say that most students of argumentation, rhetoric, and communication are safely past the point at which definitions are seen as descriptions of reality. For the critic as well as for the philosopher, definitions are most productively thought of as arguments: "even uncontroversial definitions function as claims about how part of the world should be conceptualized; how part of the world is" (Schiappa, 1993, p. 404). As products of conceptualization, definitions have come to be seen as "tools, not truths" (Sederberg, 1984, p. 119) and are thus evaluated based upon their functional ability to help conceptualize our world and work within it.

Previously, Edward Schiappa (1993; 1996) has addressed definitional argument as a rhetorical process which forswears "real definition" in favor of an understanding of meaning that acknowledges competing interests and evaluates claims based upon the political ground that is either subsumed or excluded in an act of defining. "Definitions are interest-driven and saturated with questions of power and persuasion" (1996, p. 226) because each act of conceptual inclusion or exclusion is premised upon the functional benefit or harm which comes from the social recognition that a given phenomenon ought to fit within a given class and warrant the social responses traditionally given to members of that class. By addressing definition within the realm of contingent, contextual human action, a rhetorical perspective encourages a distrust of any definitional claims based on accuracy and correspondence to reality.

Still, this perspective ought not be read as reducing the concept of meaning to simply the power of the better argument. I cannot reshape public conception and use of a word simply by arguing that it should be so reshaped. Arguments over preferred meaning take place in a context of previously recognized uses of a term. The 'meaning' that one seeks to alter is not a property of a term per se but a use to which the term is put. This pragmatic approach to language finds its most succinct expression in Ludwig Wittgenstein's conception of meaning as use: The most pragmatic conception of definition can be found in the action accomplished through a word's use.

At first blush, the perspective that sees meaning as the sum total of usage by a language community would seem to suggest that definition is a descriptive act. A definition of a term would be accomplished by providing an accurate, perhaps empirical, account of how a term is actually used in practice. According to this literal interpretation of meaning as use, the normative question of how a term ought to be used is irrelevant and replaced by the simple question of how a term is used. Within a complex, which is to say human, language system however such a static interpretation of meaning is problematic. As Wittgenstein himself admits, words carry multiple over-lapping meanings: "they are used in a thousand different ways which gradually merge into one another" (1958, p. 28). The use of any word brings into play multiple potential meanings within the language system, or to use Wittgenstein's metaphor, multiple playing pieces within the language game. When several pieces are potentially in play, a normarive perspective on definition would be preserved: Advocates debating over meaning would be debating over which of the pieces on the board, or which of the potential meanings recognized in general usage, ought to be advanced as the agreed-upon use for this word. Arguments over meaning would involve choices among a finite, though large, set of meanings since to be in play a given meaning would have to be to some extent recognized in usage.

But what of the advocate who would seek to radically alter the meaning for a given word, to stipulate a meaning that is not recognized as even one of the many potential uses of a word; the advocate who seeks to place a new playing piece onto the board? The burdens for this advocate are clearly higher, but their task is not impossible. An argumentative victory by the advocate of one conventional definition over another conventional definition can hope for an immediate result, but the advocate of an unconventional definition could only hope that their argument sets in motion a 'conventionalizing' process which, in time, could establish new social usage for a term. Thus, accepting a rhetorical perspective on definition does not suggest that we need to believe that meaning change simply accompanies the better argument. Rather, the better argument, or the socially accepted argument, would merely set in motion a process of meaning change that ultimately would have to win assent within social patterns of use in order to effectively constitute a meaning shift.

One explanation of the vehicle for this meaning shift can be found in Stevenson's (1944) concept of the "persuasive definition." To Stevenson, advocates of a new definition seek to preserve a pattern of associations surrounding a given term while changing the specific object that the term is used to invoke. Using Wittgenstein's terms, one use of the term is preserved while another use is altered. This strategy is common to definitional argument, but finds particularly apt expression in cases in which a word is very rich in connotative effect, but imprecise in specific denotative usage.

A great many definitions of emotive terms are persuasive, in intent and in effect. Our language abounds with words which, like 'culture' have both a vague descriptive meaning and a rich emotive meaning. The descriptive meaning of them all is subject to constant redefinition. The words are prizes which each man seeks to bestow on the qualities of his own choice. (Stevenson, 1944, pp. 212-13)

The acknowledgment that definition and definitional change is dependent on argument rather than correspondence to reality together with a dynamic conception of meaning as use opens up the possibility for reasoned dispute and establishes its relevance in the construction of social meanings. If definitions are claims and tools for meaning and if meaning is a dynamic social agreement, then definitional argument can play a vital role in the construction of political value, and in numerous disputes over the form of public interest. Without legitimizing the legerdeman of a "private language" it remains possible to suggest that community meanings can be re-shaped, over time, through the force of argument over the benefits of new meaning. "Though we can never free ourselves from the shackles of community-imposed meaning," Sederberg (1984) writes, "we can reforge them, link by link, through a process appropriately considered political" (p. 119).


Clearly, those in favor of linking environmental protection to the existing concept of security are attempting just such a 'reforging' of community meaning for a political purpose. While some proponents have called for an enhanced appreciation of the causal relationship between environmental problems and traditional security threats (e.g., Gleik, 1991; Magno, 1997; Weiss, 1997) others have argued for a more basic redefinition of the concept of security in order to embrace and include these environmental threats (e.g., Brown, 1986; Mathews, 1989; Mische, 1992; Ullman, 1983), and this analysis will focus on the latter group. I do not seek to enter the debate on whether or not the environment should or should not be conceived as a security concern. Instead, it is my purpose or point out productive and unproductive tendencies in the definitional argument. In other words, my objective is to argue, based on a rhetorical understanding of definitional change, that there are points at which the environmental security debate moves forward and there are points at which that same debate moves in circles by reinforcing ultimately self-defeating concepts of definition and definitional change.

Specifically, three arguments from those arguing in favor of the linkage deserve criticism: first, that the current concept of security actually does include the environment; second, that the current concept of security is overly narrow because it omits the environment; and third, that reality has changed, so the current definition must change as well. Each of these arguments potentially has merit, but each also risks falling victim to an unproductive view of meaning.

Initially, supporters of an environment-security linkage have attempted to include environmental protection within the current conception of national security. Patricia Mische (1992) for example, has argued that security has traditionally been conceived along holistic lines, which have included environmental interests. "Only relatively recently in history," she writes, "has the concept of security taken on a narrow, military character" (p. 106). In addition to finding a historical linkage, others have argued in favor of linkage based on the 'root' concepts contained in the current meaning. Richard Matthew (1996)(1) for example argues, that "the ultimate objective of U.S. foreign policy is to protect and promote the health, prosperity, security, and freedom of Americans" (p. 46) and further argues that "scientists have amply demonstrated that environmental change is transnational, related to human activities, and threatening to human welfare" (p. 40). In other words, security, at least defined in its ultimate sense, would include concerns which can be empirically linked to environmental change. The problem with justifying definitional expansion based upon root meanings (conceived either historically, or lexically) is that the strategy presents a paradox for the advocate. If one believes that argument is necessary in order to justify a given definition, then the argument can only be seen as necessary if a given definition is currently not recognized. The argument for definitional expansion based upon a hidden or forgotten root meaning seeks to convince an audience that the meaning of a term is actually broader than their conception of a term's meaning. The argument encourages us to look for a realm of "accurate meaning" that stands apart from the conventions of current usage. In a political context however the definitional argument based on presumed accuracy is unwinnable owing to the lack of any standard of accuracy beyond conventional usage. Either the accuracy of meaning is accepted, in which case argument is unnecessary, or it is not, in which case argument based on 'accuracy' is futile. It is more productive to understand meaning and definition as use, and to view attempts to change meaning as requiring arguments based on something other than a true recognition of the term's meaning.

A second tendency in this effort to focus on the actual meaning of security can be found in the circular argument that military conceptions of security are inadequate precisely because they do not include environmental conceptions. Norman Myers (1989) has argued that "the conventional approach to security interests surely reflects an overly narrow perception of security problems and of available responses, largely military, to security threats" (p. 41). Similarly, Magno (1997) has noted that, "opposition to the narrow conception of security has focused on inadequate efforts at addressing the non-military aspects of security" (p. 98). These arguments may seem appealing in the sense that they seem to acknowledge that definition is a normative choice and they seem to provide a warrant for preferring one definition over the other. The judgement that a definition is "narrow" because it does not include a given quality, however, presumes that the inclusion of that quality is appropriate and necessary to the definition. That presumption, however, is the definitional claim that the argument seeks to support. The argument that "military security" is too narrow because it does not include "environmental security" classically begs the question: the military conception is "too narrow" only if we have determined a priori that the environment is a security concern. Conceived rhetorically, the question is whether the environment should be seen as a security concern, and the critique of the narrowness of current security concerns rearranges the terms of the debate, but does not make a normative argument for expansion.

A final and more common argument for a definitional linkage of environment and security concerns is the argument that realities of security threats have changed and our definition must catch-up. Examples of this argument abound: The average article justifying a definitional expansion will begin by noting the new threats which force us to upgrade our concept of security. Writing one of the original and most frequently-cited calls for a definitional expansion, Jessica Tuchman Mathews (1989) argued that "the 1990s will demand a redefinition of what constitutes national security" adding later that prior assumptions "are a poor fit with those new realities" (p. 162). To Peter Gleik (1991), the redefinition merely reflects "the fundamental change in the nature of global threats" (p. 21). Similarly, Francisco Magno (1997) has argued that the need for cooperation caused by ecological, economic, and public health disasters, "necessitates an expanded understanding of security" (p. 98). An extended example of this argument is provided by Michael Harbottle:

'Proper soldiering' set out to show that while armed forces will continue to be the guardians of national security, they, like everyone in our emerging world, will need to adapt to new responsibilities and to broaden their definition of security. Security cannot any longer be categorized in purely military and political terms. Security has a holistic dimension, embracing in its broadest sense the whole gamut of human relationships-economic, social, cultural, ethnic, sectarian, humanitarian and environmental. In truth military and political security considerations should not be thought of as being paramount but subordinate to human security requirements. (p. 2)

Again this argument carries an apparent rhetorical appeal because it acknowledges a choice in meanings and seems to provide a reason why a new meaning ought to be adopted. However, this argument also justifies a definitional shift only by presuming that a definitional shift has already taken place. If one sees environmental harms as "security" concerns, then of course increases in the threat-level of environmental problems will be readily seen as increasing security concerns. If however, one views "security" as a term which embraces uniquely military threats, then an increase in environmental threats may well provide a reason for expanded environmental policy, but would not provide a reason to see these policies as matters of "security." Together with the previous two rationales for definitional expansion, the argument that "reality has changed" constitutes a dysfunctional strategy since it is premised on a belief in an underlying reality of "security" which a definition merely serves to reflect. This reliance on "real definition" seeks to show that a new definition is actually a more accurate and more faithful rendering of the true meaning of a term. "The revised meaning of a concept," Schiappa (1993) writes in characterizing this strategy, "is the 'true' or 'essential' definition, while opponents' (including past users) counter-definitions are explained away as imperfect realizations of the real definition" (p. 409). This seems to be exactly what pro-linkage advocates like Ullman (1983) are doing when they argue that, "defining national security merely (or even primarily) in military terms conveys a profoundly false image of reality" (p. 129). To Ullman and others, to deny the classification of environmental threats as "security" threats is to deny the reality of current security threats: saying that the environment is not a security concern is tantamount to saying that it is not a concern at all.

Apart from embracing a dated conception of meaning, such strategies do not provide productive argument since they focus on that which is a security threat rather than on that which should be conceived as a security threat. In an influential discussion on the complexity of definitions, Robinson (1954) has argued at length that proponents of nonconventional definitions should see these definitions as stipulated rather than simply recognized. While Robinson seemed to base the utility of such stipulations on the field-specific authority of the stipulator, it also seems reasonable that stipulated definitions could be seen as more or less assertable based upon the existence of good reasons advanced in favor of the new definition. If meaning is conceived as the word in use, the work that the word does, then arguments in favor of a new stipulated meaning should be premised upon practical advantages, benefits based on the "pragmatic needs of a given community of language-users located in a particular historical moment" (Schiappa, 1993, p. 413).

While arguments in favor of an environment-security linkage have frequently appealed to the reality of this new definition, several other arguments have been advanced which are based on the pragmatic benefits of this new usage. Mathew (1996), for example, has argued that "environmental security" may contribute to a "greening" of the military by promoting an appreciation of potential roles for the defense department in addressing eco-system threats. In addition, several advocates have noted that a "securitizing" of environmental issues may be effective in winning greater public assent for environmental causes. Lester Brown (1986) for example has noted that one factor which prevents broad social mobilization in favor of the environment has been the fact that environmental threats, for the most part, result from the gradual and cumulative effect of human activities, rarely manifesting themselves in a single catalyzing event, and then only when it is too late. Recasting such threats as security concerns promotes an association of immediacy and a need for quick action that is otherwise not present in common perceptions. As Mische (1992) writes, "the word security is a power word. It is related to the primary need to survive" (p. 105). Making the case quite plain, perhaps a bit too plain in the view of critics, Ullman argues that "environmental security" contributes to better management of public opinion:

The 'public good' is much more easily defined; sacrifice can not only be asked but expected; particular interests are more easily coopted or, failing that, overridden; it is easier to demonstrate that 'business a usual' must give way to extraordinary measures; dissent is more readily swept aside in the name of forging a national consensus. (p. 135)

Independent of the truth or value of such claims they are more suited to a rhetorical view of definition change since they are premised on the idea that the new definition has a social benefit, not that the new definition is more true than a previous definition. The more that environmental security advocates rely on practical benefits of reinterpretation, the more the debate will constitute a social discussion of appropriate goals, and the less it will be a circular appeal to received meanings. Ironically, however, it seems to be exactly this normative aspect of the pro-linkage argument that has brought about the sharpest response from those suspicious of environmental security.


Those who counsel a rejection of the construct of environmental security advance several credible arguments, but they also base much of their appeal on either a fatalistic view of the impossibility of definitional change or a dismissal of the idea that definitions should be justified based on their rhetorical effect. Those opposed to an environment-security linkage have argued that it is a 'rhetorical ploy,' that it violates the real meaning of security, and that it carries automatic and intractable connotative baggage. Each one of these lines of argument represents a non-productive avenue for definitional clash.

Popular conceptions of political "substance" as distinct from mere "rhetoric" have been very effective in establishing the word "rhetorical" as a convenient devil-term, useful in tarnishing many forms of political advocacy, particularly those which include specific appeals to altered meaning or terminology. To Marc Levy (1995), environmental security "has no basis except as a rhetorical device aimed at drumming up greater support for measures to protect "the environment" (p. 36). Similarly, Richard Matthew criticizes the "maximalist" supporters of an environment-security linkage, noting that "they seek to harness the rhetorically powerful language of security" (p. 43). Simon Dalby (1994) also criticizes the use of "the rhetoric of security to direct political attention" (p. 26). While the argument is not explicitly made, the suggestion is that because the motivation for redefinition is rhetorical, then its use represents an attempt at slight-of-hand or deception. At least within the perspective of communication theory, pointing out that an attempt at redefinition is rhetorical merely points out that it seeks to justify itself based upon social influence. As such, it represents the best and not the worst in definitional argument. The real question is not whether the definition seeks to influence or not, but rather whether the expected influences are likely to be good or bad. Daniel Deudney (1991) accounts for this argument and goes further, saying not only that the redefinition is "rhetorically conjured" (p. 28), but also arguing that the rhetorical effect is likely to be negative:

Another motive for speaking of environmental degradation as a threat to national security is rhetorical: to make people respond to environmental threats with a sense of urgency. But before harnessing the old horse of national security to pull the heavy new environmental wagon, one must examine its temperament. . . If the emotional appeals of national security can somehow be connected to environmental issues, then it is also possible that other, less benign associations may be transferred. Yet the national security mentality engenders an enviable sense of urgency, and a corresponding willingness to accept great personal sacrifice. Unfortunately, these emotions may be difficult to sustain. Crises call for resolution, and the patience of a mobilized populace is rarely long. A cycle of arousal and somnolence is unlikely to establish permanent patterns of environmentally sound behavior, and 'crash' solutions are often bad ones. (pp. 24-25)

Duedney's argument (which will be considered below) represents a more functional approach: it is not simply that the definition is based on rhetorical strategy, the key point is whether it is a good strategy or a bad one. Not all of the arguments against environmental security, however, take this functional approach. Some arguments, like those of their counterparts, seem to be heavily invested with the dysfunctional concept of "real definition." Joseph Nye, for example, argues that security is designed to create "social autonomy as a group, and a degree of political status, not merely to insure the physical survival of individuals within national boundaries" (In halfendorn, 1991, p. 4). Similarly reliant on what security is rather than on what security should be, Freedman (1998) defines environmental issues out of the security agenda:

International security addresses questions of force: how to spot it, stop it, resist it, and occasionally threaten and even use it. It considers the conditions that encourage or discourage organized violence in international affairs and the conduct of all types of military activity. International security therefore deals with the most fundamental questions of war and peace and, consequently, with the highest responsibilities of government. (p. 48)

Along the same lines, Freedman notes that "academics working in economics or on environmental issues rarely see themselves as security specialists" (p. 53). If the question is phrased as how security should be conceived, and which specialists should be associated with security concerns, then Freedman's observations would be useful in describing the current language community, but would not be considered an argument against changing those community meanings. In an interesting parallel to the pro-linkage advocates' argument that reality has changed and the term must adopt, Marc Levy (1995) argues that reality has changed back again to its original militarybound concept of security: "Those heady days of optimism are past. The world of 1995 looks nowhere near as primed for a nudge toward ecotopia as the world of 1989 did" (p. 61). Both approaches seem intuitive in the sense that they seek to base term meaning on the changing realities of empirical threats and empirical possibilities for political action. But both approaches suffer from the illusion that the definition's role is to simply correspond to this external reality. Whether environmental threats are great or small, whether the current mood is friendly or hostile to environmentalism, the question remains: is it productive or unproductive to conceive of environmental risks within the envelope of national security?

One argument centering on the unproductive nature of this linkage is based upon the effects that are likely to result. A common concern is that seeking salience for environmental programs through the conventionally military route of "security," risks tainting environmental programs with militaristic associations and effects. The connotations of national power, force, and blind submission are seen as among those associations which are "inherent in using a term that is widely used with decidedly unprogressive overtones" (Dalby, 1994, p. 45, emphasis added). Security is seen as "a status quo concept" (Weaver, 1984, p. 64). In addition, the definition is seen as having the unavoidable effect of inappropriately reinforcing the nation-state as a solution to problems which are actually trans-national:

Framing global environmental politics within the general context of global environmental security has several far-reaching effects: above all it implies that environmental politics must be global in nature, which automatically leads to including the nation-states (and within the nation-states their military-industrial complexes) as at least part of the solution to global environmental change and degradation. (Finger, 1994, p. 182, emphasis added)

Based upon these effects, opponents such as Deudney (1995) argue that a reliance upon a construct of environmental security can have the unfortunate effect of increasing the likelihood of military conflicts over pollution and resource use. While it is clearly relevant and necessary to carefully consider the effects of definitional change, there is a danger in seeing these effects as automatically tied to the term and beyond human control. "Lets not forget," Wittgenstein (1958) wrote, "that a word hasn't got a meaning given to it, as it were, by a power independent of us. . .a word has the meaning someone has given to it" (p. 28). That meaning may be more or less ingrained, more or less resistant to change, but it cannot be inevitable and inescapable. Definitions are created and maintained through human action, logically they can be altered in the same fashion. Some critics of environmental security admit the possibility of definitional change, but believe that in this case such change is unlikely or risky. Suggesting that "security" be abandoned and replaced by a new term, Simon Dalby (1994) fears that "to depart so far from the Cold War understanding of security leads back to the question of whether the term can be stretched so far and reformulated so drastically at all" (p. 43). Acknowledging that environmental security could contribute to either the "greening" of security issues, or the "militarizing" of environmental issues, critics still fear that environmental forces would lose on balance. "We may end up contributing more to the militarization of environmental politics than to the demilitarization of security politics" (Brock, 1992, p. 98). While it is certainly a risk that one association could prove stronger than the other, critics do not seem to provide a reason why the forces for stasis would overcome the forces for transformation. For this reason, it seems that critics of the environmental security linkage are attributing an extraordinary degree of presumption to the force of current meanings.

Those opposed to the concept of environmental security can be criticized for stigmatizing the rhetorical goals of redefinition, for basing their appeals on the 'reality' of security concerns, and for a measure of lexical determinism in assuming that definitional change is extremely unlikely or impossible. Still, there are some rhetorically sound arguments against an environmental security linkage. These arguments focus on the negative effects of such a linkage. One such argument is over-breadth: if the term is stretched so far that it includes all threats, then it loses utility as an analytic tool (Boulding, 1992; Duedney, 1995; Weaver, 1994). "Once anything that generates anxiety or threatens the quality of life in some respect becomes labeled a 'security problem,' the field risks losing all focus," Freedman (1998) writes, "Such an agenda is conceivably rich, and is certainly inclusive, but it can also be off-puttingly vague" (p. 53).

An additional argument, previously mentioned, centers on the metaphoric carry-over from the use of a military expression to characterize environmental needs. According to this view, environmental security "may be a recipe for more attention to environmental policy, but it is also a recipe for bad environmental policy" (Levy, 1995, p. 45). The reason that environmental policies which take the security route may be tainted is due to the traditional reliance by the security infrastructure on clearly identified enemies, specific retaliatory or defensive actions, and solutions centered on unilateral nation-state power, "Invoking hierarchical, competitive, and ultimately confiictual metaphors," Ken Conca (1994) writes, "makes it harder to imagine a world in which transformed social structures reinforce simultaneously the values of peace, justice, and equality as well as sustainability" (p. 18). Conca also points out that "security" conveys an image of isolation and separation: to be secure is to be free from something, and that conceptual separation between human action and the environment could arguably reinforce the kind of mindset which has promoted global environmental decline: the idea that we are outside of our own environment. Since the nature of "persuasive definition" as Stevenson (1944) conceived it, centers of the strategy to change a term's specific denotation while preserving connotation, then the existence of negative connotations is clearly a relevant and productive area of argument. Opponents of definitional change in this instance acknowledge the possibility that society would adopt new meanings while at the same time arguing that the persistence of old connotations and metaphoric associations could delay or taint any such effort.

Whether these objections to an environmental security linkage are sufficient to warrant a rejection of the strategy is a matter for the advocates in the debate. What this analysis should point out is that arguments which implicitly or explicitly take meaning to be a matter of pre-determined accuracy are least likely to move the debate forward, while arguments which directly discuss and compare the likelihood and value of a social change in meaning are most likely to result in useful dialogue.


"This multiplicity is not something fixed, given once and for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten" (Wittgenstein, 1953, p. 11e). Thus meaning is a political arena, and definition an instrument of struggle. To those who would seek to contribute to the obsolescence of current "security" and to initiate broadened concepts of environmental security, the importance of the definitional dispute does not lie in simply winning the argument, but in instigating a social transformation in the way society understands security. Authors on both sides of the debate have recognized that definitional change requires "a complete change in the discourse of international security" (Dalby, 1994, p. 45) including "a sustained effort at public education" (Ullman, 1983, p. 152). The argument over the proper definition of security, then, ought to be seen as merely a precursor (or a preventative, depending on your point of view) to this kind of discursive transformation. The increased prevalence of "environmental security" in public and official discourse, may indicate that such a transformation is underway, or it may indicate that labels are merely being changed without any attempt at changing the broad conceptions and military foundations of security. It may be troubling, for example, that the military seems to have enthusiastically adopted the label (e.g., the "Pentagon Undersecretary for Environmental Security") while the environmental movement has not similarly embraced the concept of security.

While there may be cause for cynicism, it is difficult to simply adopt Robinson's (1954) view that the effort to persuade with definitions is "at best a mistake and at worst a lie" (p. 170). There may yet be a benefit in selling environmentalism to those who are used to viewing national priorities through a security lens. Discussing President Reagan's rhetoric on welfare, for example, Zarefsky, Miller-Tutzauer and Tutzauer (1984) observed that a strategic choice of definition "can enable a rhetor simultaneously to plead more than one cause, as audiences are attracted to different aspects of the definition" (p. 113). It is easy to imagine that an environmental security program could have the effect of appealing to some based on environmentalism and appealing to others based on security.

If the debate over the appropriateness of environmental security continues, disputants would be advised to orient their arguments toward the issue of political appeal and away from static and reified views of meaning. Those who favor an environment-security linkage should defend its rhetorical effect in adding salience to environmental issues, and should also answer the charge that security discourse carries negative connotations and habits of application which will overwhelm these benefits. Those who oppose an environment security linkage should similarly be expected to focus on political efficacy, and to explain why an attempt to change our responses toward security is a doomed enterprise.

In summary, the question of environmental security has been debated too often as a question of fact (is the environment a security concern?) when it should be debated as a question of policy: Should we, as makers of meaning, include environmental concerns within the framework of security?

1 Arguing to some extent against both the "maximalists" (such as Myers, 1995) who call for a radical re-thinking of security, as well as the "rejectionists" (such as Deudney, 1991) who counsel against any broad revision of security, Richard Matthew argues for a middle ground in which environmental concerns are incorporated within traditional security conceptions. Due to this middle position, his views are relevant to both sides of this argument.


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Kenneth T. Broda-Bahm is an Assistant Professor in the Mass Communication and Communication Studies Department at Towson University.
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Author:Broda-Bahm, Kenneth T.
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Date:Mar 22, 1999
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