I never met Caroline Thomas. But I certainly benefited from her human security insights.
The Southampton University professor passed away last month at 49, leaving behind notable contributions to the field of environment and human security. In her 1987 volume In Search of Security: The Third World in International Relations
, Thomas was one of the first to enunciate the insufficiency of traditional security approaches. She explained that statist security perspectives said little about the immediate environment, development, and health threats facing the majority of the world’s population—residents of the so-called Third World.
Thomas’ call for a broader definition of security was rooted in her focus on pressing threats to human well-being in developing countries. In an obituary of Thomas in The Guardian, Tony Evans describes the book’s contributions:
While today the term is used in a variety of contexts – environmental security, food security, fresh water security, health security and so on – this was not the case until the 1980s. Security previously meant only the military security of the state. In proposing to broaden the agenda beyond its narrow focus on war and arms control, Caroline sought to include issues that confront the people of the developing nations, rather than their states….Caroline argued that questions of security and insecurity were qualitatively different for people in developing nations because the imperial powers had withdrawn, having paid little regard for their future. The people of decolonised states were left in conditions of economic, political, social and military turmoil, with fewer resources for avoiding future misery.Reflecting a common British academic perspective, Thomas highlighted power inequities between the global North and South in the post-colonial era. At the same time, she did not undercut the utility of her arguments by descending into over-the-top caricatures or creating straw-man arguments, blunders that other British critics of environmental and human security research have not always managed to avoid.
Thomas’ focus on power extended to inequities in market relationships. Much of the early environment and conflict work spent too little time considering international trade in natural resources between developing and developed countries and consumer behavior in industrialized nations. Too often, early environment and conflict research focused narrowly on the local dynamics of natural resource extraction or environmental scarcity and what roles they played in contributing to violent conflict.
Thomas’s work should place her permanently on the short list of key early contributors responsible for broadening security’s definitions.