the Malthusians manipulating the fear of terror
From climate change doom-mongers to population alarmists,
every kind of fear entrepreneur is piggy-backing on the ‘war
The world economy may be a bit unsettled, but the global market
in fear is prospering. This month, Lloyd’s of London warned
that climate change could destroy the insurance industry. It counselled
insurers to increase prices in order to avoid being ‘swept
away’ by a sea of claims. ‘If we don’t take action
now to understand the changing nature of our planet, we will face
extinction’, declared Lloyd’s director Rolf Tolle (1).
The insurance industry seems almost addicted to the idea that,
in the future, it could become helpless in the face of global calamity.
After 9/11 the focus was on terrorism. Then, Rodger Lawson, president
of the Alliance of American Insurers, argued that ‘terrorism
is an uninsurable act’ (2). To say that something is ‘uninsurable’
is to believe that it is beyond human management or control. The
notion that society is incapable of managing certain risks through
insurance points to a powerful sense of defeatism about the dangers
ahead. And in this debate about our scary future, terrorism is only
one of many terrible threats we apparently face. ‘Life on
Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster,
such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered
virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of’, said the
famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently (3).
It is now common to hear people argue that the threat of terrorism
is less worrying than other, more menacing dangers of the future.
Earlier this year a report titled Global Risks 2006, published by
the World Economic Forum, revealed that bird flu is the global threat
that most concerns business leaders. The report claimed that the
deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu could ‘disrupt our global
society and economy in an unprecedented way’ (4). Last year,
a report issued by the UK Cabinet Office rated avian flu as among
the greatest threats facing the country, posing as big a danger
to Britain as terrorism does (5).
Both the World Bank and the Pentagon have discussed reports which
warn that climate change is a greater threat than terrorism. And
recently a report published by the Oxford Research Group argued
that ‘international terrorism is actually a relatively minor
threat when compared to other more serious global trends’,
such as climate change (6). Others accept these doom-laden arguments
about global warming but raise the stakes further by claiming that,
actually, overpopulation poses the principal threat to life on Earth.
In Britain, the Optimum Population Trust is devoted to promoting
this kind of alarmist propaganda (7).
There is very little to distinguish between the claims and dire
warnings made by various different doom-mongers, whether they are
left or right, green or business-oriented. So environmentalist groups
are quite happy to harness the security concerns of the Pentagon
in order to advance their cause. Greenpeace International has embraced
a report written for the Pentagon, which predicts that ‘future
wars will be fought over the issue of survival rather than religion,
ideology or national honour’ (8).
Expanding the ‘security threat’
Competing claims about what constitutes the greatest threat to
global security are an exercise in what sociologists call domain
expansion. ‘Once a problem gains widespread recognition and
acceptance, there is a tendency to piggyback new claims on to the
old name, to expand the problem’s domain’, writes the
sociologist Joel Best (9). In other words, once terrorism and security
have been defined as big problems that require serious attention,
other claim-makers can appropriate these concerns to serve their
own interests. Various different problems are now repackaged as
‘global threats’. ‘The initial claims become a
foot in the door, an opening wedge for further advocacy’,
says Best. Anxieties about international terrorism are not only
mobilised to promote the ‘war on terror’ – they
are also activated to highlight issues that have little to do with
terrorists. So when a recent report concluded that the spread of
HIV is ‘as big of a threat as terrorism’, it was drawing
on the cultural script of the post-9/11 era (10). Other fear entrepreneurs
have presented poverty reduction as being indispensable in the broader
fight against international terrorism (11).
The Worldwatch Institute, a green-leaning research institute, borrows
from Washington’s anti-terrorist agenda in an attempt to boost
its own objectives. In its post-9/11 statement ‘Bioterror
in your burger’, it noted that although past attempts to clean
up America’s food chain have ‘failed to inspire politicians’,
a patriotic attempt for homeland security could ‘finally lead
to meaningful action’. In its report Climate Change Poses
Greater Security Threat Than Terrorism, it argued that ‘the
parallels with terrorism are compelling’, adding: ‘[A]s
with terrorism, we know that changes will occur, but not when or
where they will strike.’ (12) Here, that well-known Homeland
Security soundbite ‘the question is not if, but when…’
is adapted and recycled as a statement about the imminent threat
posed by climate change.
Many fear entrepreneurs now use the rhetorical device of drawing
parallels between their own issues and terrorism. A report on disease
pandemics published by the Australian Homeland Security Research
Centre argued that ‘pandemics are like terrorism – both
are probable but no-one knows when [they will occur], or what their
consequences will be’ (13). Here we can see how uncertainty
about the future can be recast as an immediate security problem
in the here and now.
Through this rhetorical expansion of the meaning of security, terrorism
has become the benchmark by which all other threats are measured.
In effect, terrorism is now the idiom for spreading anxiety about
numerous issues. So in November 2003, then UK health minister Rosie
Winterton informed an international meeting of her counterparts
that ‘recent events have shown that terrorist attacks and
natural disasters can happen anywhere and at any time, and that
all our citizens are potentially at risk’ (14). The ease with
which Winterton made a conceptual jump from the spectre of terrorism
to the threat of natural disasters reveals much about the contemporary
imagination. The public’s concern about terror has become
a kind of resource which can be mobilised for giving other threats
A central element of all this ‘domain expansion’ is
the argument that certain calamities will cause more casualties
than terrorism does. The Worldwatch Institute claims: ‘Climate
change already claims more lives than terrorism, according to the
World Health Organisation.’ The Institute repeats the figure
of 160,000 deaths caused by climate change per year, in order to
underline the incredible power of this threat. With climate change
apparently causing such large numbers of casualties, terrorism can
appear almost benign by comparison.
Population control is another area where advocacy groups have attempted
to piggyback their claims on the security agenda. Since the Seventies
advocates of population control have been on the defensive (15).
The traditional Malthusian argument that food production could not
keep up with population growth had been discredited over the previous
century. As a result, the Malthusian movement has sought out new
arguments to justify its objective of population control –
and in recent years it has tried to win support by claiming that
population growth is the root cause of global insecurity and terrorism.
Thus, the Malthusian fantasy about a ‘population bomb’
has been recycled in a new form. According to this simplistic scenario,
overpopulation creates a lot of poor, unemployed, discontented men;
many of them turn into troublemakers; some of them become canon
fodder for terrorist networks, and they end up on the wrong side
of the ‘war on terror’.
In the Seventies, Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb argued
that population growth in the South inexorably led to the triumph
of communism. Today he has recycled that simplistic diagnosis to
account for the rise of international terror. He argues that demographic
factors are ‘likely contributors’ to terrorism. Why?
Because the ‘vast majority of terrorists are young males’
and there are ‘huge numbers of boys under 15’ who live
in Muslim nations (16).
The idea that large numbers of young males = potential terror threat
is systematically promoted by supporters of population control.
‘It is impossible to ignore the link between rapid population
growth and terrorism’, argues the director of the Population
Coalition (17). In reality, the link is based on a simpleton’s
logic, which says that because population growth and terrorism happen
to coincide they must be linked. From this view, anything that coincides
with current demographic patterns – Hurricane Katrina, the
property boom in London, the popularity of iPods – must be
linked to population growth.
Prominent Malthusian organisations, including the Worldwatch Institute
and the Population Institute, are reposing population control as
an effective counter-terrorist measure. The Population Institute’s
study Breeding Insecurity: Global Security Implications Of Rapid
Population Growth argues that ‘rapid population growth in
developing countries creates national security problems, including
civil unrest and terrorism’ (18). The report cites a study
by another Malthusian group, Population Action International, which
claims that ‘youth bulges create instability and increase
the likelihood for terrorism and civil unrest by as much as 50 per
Fifty per cent might sound like a big number – but don’t
worry, it is a made-up figure, the figment of an imagination fixated
on constructing a relationship between demographic growth and terrorism.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from the Malthusian’s new
arguments is that the threat of terrorism can be halved if we implement
a vigorous programme of population control. In short, the solution
to terrorism is to stop people over there from breeding. As the
Population Institute’s report concludes: ‘[W]hile family
planning programmes will not create a more secure world on their
own, they will go a long way towards reducing pressures on societies
that lead to instability, unrest and terrorism.’ (20)
A new security agenda
The linking of human fertility with the danger of terrorism shows
the rise of a new and expanded concept of security. Since the end
of the Cold War, the meaning of security has been challenged by
critics who argue that the threats faced by society are no longer
confined to that traditional paradigm of national security. Instead,
threats are said to be diffuse and transnational. From this perspective,
threats are not simply the result of actions that intentionally
seek to undermine national security, for example actions carried
out by terrorists or drug traffickers – rather, threats to
security are also the unintended consequence of human action itself.
The new spectre of transnational threats raised by today’s
fear entrepreneurs – from population growth to environmental
degradation, climate change to water shortage – all result
from human behaviour.
According to the traditional view of national security, threats
to society were caused by national rivalries, expansionist governments
or ideological competition. The new security agenda shifts the focus
from the geopolitical domain to the environmental domain. It is
underpinned by a powerful sense of environmental determinism, which
sees environmental degradation and diminishing natural resources
as the principal threat to global security. According to the Oxford
Research Group, climate change and a variety of associated natural
disasters threaten global survival itself. Moreover, competition
for natural resources such as oil and water apparently threaten
to intensify conflict (21). All of these threats are transnational.
But why should we describe them as a ‘threat to security’?
How a problem or threat is viewed and discussed depends on the
prevailing cultural and social attitudes. According to one account,
HIV/AIDS is a ‘military and security issue’ since it
inhibits some governments from sending peacekeeping troops ‘for
fear that soldiers deployed abroad may further spread the virus
or bring it back to their local communities’ (22). This argument
is echoed by Peter Piot, director of the United Nation programme
UNAIDS, who compares AIDS to terrorism on the basis that the disease
can cause poverty and unrest which can in turn lead to cross-border
conflict (23). However, why this disease should be conceptualised
as a security issue, as opposed to a health problem, is far from
Similarly, infectious diseases such as avian flu have the potential
to kill large numbers of people, but why describe them as national
security issues rather than as public health problems? Environmental
degradation and climate change may well represent a major challenge
to human ingenuity – but they are not problems that require
a military or security solution. They demand technical and political
Of course, in one sense everything – from unemployment to
a computer virus – has some bearing on the state of security.
But such problems are very different to the threat of intentionally
promoted organised violence. Protection against such violence by
the state is a key aspect of security policy. The attempt to expand
the meaning of security either confuses the issue and disorientates
the response to the threat of terrorist violence, or it extends
security policies into areas for which it is not suited.
Proponents of the new security agenda often criticise those behind
the ‘war on terror’ for conspiring to create a climate
of fear. So according to the authors of Global Responses To Global
Threats; Sustainable Security For The Twenty-Firstt Century:
‘The “war on terror” is creating a climate of
fear that can be politically advantageous for those in power; a
climate in which, for example, a sizeable percentage of Americans
consistently, and unrealistically, report they are worried that
they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism.’
The authors of the report are critical of the tendency to promote
and manipulate fear of terrorism. Yet they have few inhibitions
when it comes to raising public anxiety about their own fear agenda.
So the report goes on to argue that if its agenda of dealing with
climate change, global poverty, arms proliferation and competition
for scarce resources is ignored, then that will make ‘future
terrorist attacks more likely’ (25).
The new Malthusian security advocates use fearmongering tactics
every bit as shamelessly as those overseeing the ‘war on terror’.
Indeed, in the very process of depicting environmental and health
issues as a major threat to human survival, they actually take the
politics of fear far beyond the alarmist scenarios dreamt up by
the architects of the ‘war on terror’. The Malthusian
security agenda accepts the ideology of anti-terrorism in order
to draw attention to its claim that there are even graver problems
threatening the future and security of humanity.
In one very important sense, however, the Malthusian security agenda
is even more retrograde than the traditionalist security agenda.
The traditional variety was usually focused on a specific enemy;
in many instances the enemy was clearly identified – the Russians,
the Cubans, or some specific group of subversives. Today’s
security agenda, by contrast, is uncertain about how to distinguish
friend from foe and what the problem really is. According to this
view, there are no friends or foes. The new security agenda adopts
a fiercely misanthropic outlook and blames human behaviour in general
for threatening security. They believe that our behaviour –
leading to population growth, consumption of oil, environmental
degradation – is the real threat. For them, threats are transnational,
global, interconnected; in other words, everything is a potential
threat. Infectious diseases, environmental problems, economic discontent
and terrorist violence are seen as being parts of a broader, generic
In years to come, this approach, which is now institutionalised
through the US Department of Homeland Security, is likely to expand
into more and more spheres of human experience. It is surely only
a matter of time before the assumption implicit in the Malthusian
security agenda – that we do not simply need a ‘war
on terror’ but a ‘war on everything’ – will
be made more explicit.
(1) Cited in ‘Lloyd’s tells members climate change
could destroy insurers’ , Guardian, 6 June 2006
(2) ‘President’s message on terrorism insurance on
target; AAI urges Senate to act’, Insurance Journal, 10 April
(3) Cited in AP News, 13 June 2006
(4) Report cited in ‘Study: Bird flu bigger threat than terrorism’,
Associated Press, 26 January 2006
(5) ‘Bird Flu Pandemic ‘As Grave A Threat As Terrorism’,
Independent, 25 June 2005.
(6) Abbott, C., Rogers, P. and Sloboda, J. (2006) Global Responses
To Global Threats; Sustainable Security For The 21st Century, Oxford
(7) ‘Overpopulation “is main threat to planet”’,
Independent, 7 January 2006 and ‘Population Growth “Bigger
Threat Than Climate Change”’, News Release, 20 March
2006, Optimum Population Trust
(8) See World Bank, Pentagon: global warming red alert; Weather
of mass destruction bigger threat than terrorism, Greenpeace, 22
(9) Best, J.(1999) Random Violence; How We Talk About New Crimes
and New Victims, Berkeley : University of California Press, p.168.
(10) ‘UNAIDS Executive Director Compares AIDS pandemic to
Threat of Terrorism, Says E.U. “Has failed” to Deal
With Diseases, The Body; 20 April 2004.
(11) Abbott et.al., p.18.
(12) See Sawin, J.L. ‘Global Security Brief no. 3 Climate
Change Poses Greater Security Threat Than Terrorism’, 1 April
2005, Worldwatch Institute.
(13) Athol Yates 92005) Business survival and the influenza pandemic,
Australian Homeland Security Research Centre, p.4.
(14) ‘International Health Ministers Agree Action on Pandemic
Flu’, Medical News Today, 19 November 2005
(15) See Furedi, F. (1997) Population & Development, Polity
Press : Cambridge)
(16) See ‘Paul Ehrlich Comments’ , News Release, Stanford
University, 15 November 2002
(17) ‘From Director‘, Press Release, Population Coalition,
(18) Weiland, K. (20050 Breeding Insecurity: Global Security Implications
Of Rapid Population Growth, The Population Institute, 21st Century
papers, no.1, Washington, D.C.
(19) ibid., p.6
(20) ibid., p.16
(21) Abbott et al.
(22) Abbott et al, p.17
(23) UNAIDS Executive Director Compares AIDS pandemic to Threat
of Terrorism, Says E.U. “Has failed” to Deal With Diseases,
The Body; 20 April 2004
(24) Abbott et.al. p.19
(25) Abbott et al, p.26
published on spiked, 27 June 2006