A Professor for peace: Thomas Homer-Dixon

By Peigi G Rockwell | 1993-06-01 12:00:00

It's time to focus attention on the low level violence within nations, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies Programat the University of Toronto's University College. "Institutions and leaders of many developing countries are being overloaded and overwhelmed by environmental and population pressures," which frequently manifest themselves as violent group identity conflicts.

Since March 1990, Homer-Dixon has been co-directing the project on Environmental Change and Acute Conflict with Jeffery H. Boutwell from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and George W. Rathjens from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The project directors brought together over 30 researchers from around the world to investigate the links between environmental change and conflict in the developing world. Water scarcity, population displacement and economic decline are major focal pointsthat are often caused by environmental change and can lead to violent disputes.

In an article entitled "Environmental Change and Violent Conflict" in the February Scientific American, Homer-Dixon and his colleagues show that scarcity of renewable resources increases the pressure on developing nations who don't have the social and technical resources to cope. The result is often conflict.

The cases come from all over the world:

In Bangladesh, scarcity of cropland, exacerbated by overwhelming population growth, has pushed millions of migrants into India, which has put enormous pressure on the Indian states receiving them. This caused violent disagreements between religious and ethnic groups, including one five-hour massacre when 1,700 Bengalis were killed.

In Mauritius, 700,000 people were expelled into Senegal because of racial tensions brought on by disputes over new agricultural land created by the Manantali Dam on the Senegal River.

In the Philippines, unfair distribution of agricultural land and an ever-growing population have forced peasants up into the environmentally fragile hillsides, causing permanent damage, deprivation, and organized resistance. Similar situations are common in the Himalayas, the Sahel, Indonesia, Brazil, and Costa Rica.

In China, pollution threatens crop yields and clean water supplies, forcing millions of people to move to the already booming coastal cities. The added economic and political stress may weaken the state.

In the Middle East, water shortages are expected to exacerbate tensions between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis.

Our planet is small. Violence and hardship on one side of the planet affects the people on the other side, if in no other way than through migrations," says Homer-Dixon. "Countries in crisis, starting to disintegrate due to internal stress, are not effective partners in international negotiations for collective security arrangements or in environmental programs on a planetary scale."

Homer-Dixon predicts that unless the world moves toward sustainability, the planet's environment will be threatened and world peace will be unachievable.

Conflict, disarmament issues and arms control problems have interested Homer-Dixon since 1976 when he was a second-year student of political science and environmental studies at the University of Victoria. Those interests led him to establish Canadian Student Pugwash and to become its first national coordinator in 1979 after he completed his degree at Carleton University in Ottawa.

In Student Pugwash we focused on science and society-on the relationship between ethics and science, which was brand new and very exciting," says Homer-Dixon. "We also looked at the problems of the arms race and superpower issue. It was a non-partisan forum for discussion and we held thousands of workshops across the country."

He spent three years with Pugwash where he did large-scale fundraising, and then traveled in South East Africa, South Asi, and Europe. He was in the Soviet Union when Brezhnev died. He then went on to do a Ph.D. in Political Science at MIT.

Through all this my interest has been: why do conflicts occur? What were the forces behind the superpowers' arms race and what are the causes of inter-group conflict?" says Homer-Dixon.

There was a belief that the conflict with the Soviet Union was the result of misperceptions or vested interests. But the conflict was really about visions of the world, visions about social order. It was real conflict. When the ideology changed and the nature of the state changed, the conflict stopped. It's important for people, particularly those on the left, to reflect on this." Homer-Dixon sees himself as having moved from sympathizing with the left to being more of a centrist.

There's a tremendous need for good research, and careful thought on conflict. That will allow us to be more effective with our advocacy as we try to change the world."

A large part of his work is centred on undergraduates at University College. Since he took over administering the Peace and Conflict Studies program, in 1989, enrollment has increased from 12 to 22 students and he expects more increase next year. For the past three years he has been publicizing the program and revising the curriculum.

Students select courses from various departments and certain core courses which I teach. During their first year, they lay out their four years of study in order to think about their courses as an integrated set. Each course of study is custom-designed. We can have one student studying crime in North America while another works on civil insurgency in Sri Lanka."

This interdisciplinary field spans economics, political science, history, and psychology. "It's the wave of the future," says Homer-Dixon. "Many of the problems we are now facing require the ability to combine ideas from various fields." Graduates usually aim for law, graduate school, or a career with an NGO or a government organization. "Our graduates are not dilettantes."

And neither is their professor. In addition to his responsibilities to Peace and Conflict Studies and the project on Environmental Change and Acute Conflict, Homer-Dixon is currently writing a book on the principles of conflict in which he examines population and resource pressures and group identity conflict. The book's working title is "Conflict in the 21st Century."

Homer-Dixon caution's the peace movement not to become too vague. He chooses Amnesty International as an example of how effective an organization can be if it has clear goals and defined concerns. "It makes our job as researchers and advocates more tractable if we have a focus. It is important that we don't get tangled up arguing over moral issues such as the nature of justice."

And lest we forget, he adds, "people need security from violent disruptions which upset their regular patterns of existence. It is conflict and violence which are unjust."

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1993, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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