Matt Hanley, Development and Humanitarianism in an Unequal World, Lancaster University, 2019 Cohort
One cold winter afternoon in Berlin in 2016 I stood in solidarity with a small group of fellow antifascists, squaring up to about 3000 right-wing anti-immigrant protestors as they marched through the city’s Government quarter, chanting ‘We are the people’ and ‘Merkel must go!’. They were protesting the arrival in Germany of mostly Syrian refugees escaping the bloody civil war.
Since 2015 (and before) we’ve watched masses of desperate people fleeing violence, persecution or chronic poverty in their home countries, seeking refuge and a better life within Europe’s safe borders. And we’ve seen our political institutions largely fail to address this migration of largely forcibly displaced people, leading to people living in squalid refugee camps on our borders, NGOs fishing bodies out of the Mediterranean Sea, and the resulting domestic political upheaval. Working in frontline antifascism in the UK, I watched in horror at how far-right politicians across Europe whipped up the threat and exploited the fear of immigrants for political gain, from Le Front Nationale in France to Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) in Germany. In one way or another, the electoral cudgel of immigration can be identified in the Brexit mess, and has been exploited as a campaigning strategy in hard-right nationalist agendas of populist politicians like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in the UK, and Orban, Salvini, Trump, Bolsonaro and others around the world. This in some way is a response to western political institutions failing so ineptly to manage the humanitarian crisis on our doorstep.
The so-called refugee crisis that started in 2015 isn’t going to go away. The disastrous consequences of climate change will worsen, severely impacting people in the developing world. The assumption on which international environmental security discourse at the UN level down is based is that resource degradation will either inevitably lead to violent resource conflict, or will exacerbate already-existing regional conflicts, forcing more displaced people onto rickety boats bound for Europe. And if we continue to do nothing, more people will be turned into (climate) refugees, inhuman refugee camps on Europe’s borders will grow, more people will drown in the Mediterranean, and Europe’s far-right will grow stronger.
And then we all lose.
So, years of frontline antiracist and antifascist activism led me into academia in an attempt to join efforts in addressing the root cause of environmental security concerns. The starting point of environmental peacebuilding is to stand the premise of environmental (in)security on its head: ‘Rather than asking whether environmental degradation can trigger broader forms of intergroup violent conflict, we ask whether environmental cooperation can trigger broader forms of peace. If shared ecological resources can be catalysed as a peacebuilding platform, a conservation process around which (potentially) conflicting countries can unite, then the conservation of that resource has the potential to become a source of both human and resource security.
For example, if conflicting countries share a body of fresh water that they all rely on for agriculture, sanitation or drinking water, it is in all their interests that the body of water isn’t polluted by any one community. Because pollution doesn’t care about borders: if one country pollutes the water and renders the resource unusable, that pollution will cross the border and render the water unusable for everyone. Therefore, at a technical, scientific (low-) level, it catalyses all countries’ interests to cooperate in order to protect their shared resource, operating crucially well below the national political rhetoric. Case studies suggest that the ‘spill-over’ effects of that cooperation (lower levels of suspicion, higher levels of trust and familiarity, increased norms of working together), brings local actor communities from partner countries into the conservation discourse, which subsequently encourages local, municipal or regional political interests, and so on, rippling up the (high-level) political ladder.
This initial process has the potential to act as an entry point into peace negotiations between conflicting countries, possibly avoiding resource conflicts before they start. Furthermore, in the shadow of climate change, environmental peacebuilding has the potential to become a virtuous circle of security in countries and communities vulnerable to climate shocks. The spill-over effects of such cooperation around ecological resources could lead to greater resource conservation (resource security, avoiding resource conflict), which could lead to greater regional political cooperation (human security, less conflict and forced displacement of people), towards greater environmental conservation (resource security) and so on.
As people are often keen to point out (including my PhD supervisors!), this may all sound hopelessly naïve, but I see the potential of environmental peacebuilding as a speck of light in the descending climate darkness: waging peace, preserving life, preventing conflict, halting forced migration, preventing the creation of climate refugees, giving fascists one less excuse… it’s something worth dedicating my time to.