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Biophysical security

By Peter Curson - posted Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Over the next few decades, we face the major task of making our society more resilient and safer when faced by pandemics, epidemics, the threat of biological warfare and environmental crises as well as physical threats to our nation’s stability.

Much has been written about our National Security but very little about our Biophysical Security and the critical ties between our natural environment and our security. 

Largely our National Security has always been defined in terms of international relations, the defence of our territorial integrity and the protection of all our citizens from national and international threats. 


Only rarely have outbreaks of infectious disease been seriously considered as playing a major role in our National Security. Given how society has been affected by the Coronavirus outbreak and the continuing threat of future pandemics, it is perhaps time to consider the ties that exist between our natural biophysical environment and our security.

Today in an increasingly interconnected world where bacteria and viruses move almost as fast as financial transactions, we can no longer take refuge in the belief that time and physical distance operate as a defence against the spread of infectious disease.

More than half of the world’s infectious diseases originate from wildlife and our natural environment. SARS, Ebola, Bird Flu, Plague and now Coronavirus are all zoonotic diseases harboured and nurtured among wild animals and in many cases permanently maintained in natural reservoirs among wildlife.

On occasions epizootics occur among such animal hosts and often human intrusion on their natural environment takes place encouraging such infections to spill over and affect other species as well as humans.

Much of this has been encouraged by our exploitation, modification and destruction of our natural biophysical environment, particularly the way we encroach on remote wilderness areas and intrude on the natural reservoirs of wildlife species.

There is little doubt that we have produced rapid and widespread changes across the biophysical environment of our world, transforming the atmosphere, depleting soils, destroying forests, polluting water, threatening food security, exploiting wildlife and increasing contact with wild animal reservoirs.


Much of this stems from our continuing belief that we are the dominant species in the world and that any outbreak of infectious disease can simply be addressed by reliance on modern medicine and public health focusing on vaccine development and the application of a range of seclusion, lockdown, isolation and quarantine procedures.

Our basic problem is that we continue to overlook the fact that the microbial world is built for survival and exhibits a dynamism and capacity for change and adaptation that renders our “magic bullet” approach to confront outbreaks of infectious disease as largely second rate.

Changes in our biophysical environment can also radically alter the relationship that exists between the microbial world, animal hosts, disease vectors and humans. Decades of agricultural and farming procedures, urban expansion, irrigation and development projects as well as terrorist attacks and civil unrest are the most common ways we come into contact with natural reservoirs of infectious disease.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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