Scarcity and Conflict: Homer-Dixon's Findings

He has been called the "Doom-meister." He himself describes his research as "subversive" and an "irritant" to conservative sensibilities. Thomas Homer-Dixon, Director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Toronto, and co-author with Val Percival of a new briefing book, Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict, is no stranger to controversy

By Colleen Malone | 1996-07-01 12:00:00

Homer-Dixon, Percival, and Philip Howard have been creating controversy in briefings for policy makers in Toronto, Washington, and Ottawa. These briefings on the Project on Environment, Population, and Security were designed to help policy makers steer their way through the debates surrounding this research. Homer-Dixon wants his research to represent a middle course between the skeptics who argue that there are no links between environmental scarcity and conflict, and those who overstate the linkage and "sensationalize" the issue. He describes environmental scarcity as being caused by three main factors: the degradation and depletion of renewable resources, the increased consumption of such resources, and their unequal distribution.

Homer-Dixon and Percival explore the link between environmental scarcity and conflict in 12 case studies: Chiapas (Mexico), Pakistan, Gaza, Rwanda, South Africa, Bangladesh/India, Senegal/ Mauritania, El Salvador/ Honduras, Haiti, Peru, the Philippines, and the West Bank. Key findings from these case studies were presented in the briefings.

Especially Resource Scarcities

The first of these findings is that renewable resource scarcities, such as the depletion of agricultural land, forests, water, and fish, will have greater social impact than other forms of environmental change, such as stratospheric ozone depletion. Vast numbers of people in the developing world are already suffering due to renewable resource scarcity. The social effects of atmospheric problems, however, will not be seen until well into the next century, and then only in interaction with other environmental, economic, and demographic pressures. The Project on Environment, Population, and Security has therefore focused solely on renewable resource scarcity.

The research shows that renewable resource scarcities can produce civil conflict, instability, large and destabilizing population movements, aggravated racial, ethnic, or religious tensions, and debilitated political and social institutions. According to Homer-Dixon, the role of environmental scarcity in contributing causally to conflict is often downplayed or ignored entirely.

The relationship between environmental scarcity and conflict is a complex one. Scarcities can interact with numerous social, economic, and political factors, such as the legitimacy of the political regime and the character of the economic system. These social effects can then, under certain conditions, cause ethnic conflicts, insurgencies, and coups d'etat. The likelihood of violence will increase as the balance of power in the society shifts away from the state and moves toward challenger groups. The capacity of the state to respond to challenger groups is thus key to the containment, or the explosion, of violence.

Societies must adapt in response to resource scarcity to avoid this potential violence. They can do so in two possible ways, writes Homer-Dixon. They can use their resources more efficiently, or they can lessen their dependence on these resources. Each manner of adaptation relies on social and technical "ingenuity" (understood as ideas applied to solve practical social and technical problems) for its successful completion. Ingenuity is a precious commodity. While the development of a new drought-resistant wheat might be important for a country's agriculture, for example, so too is designing institutions to enable that research. Social ingenuity must be a precursor to technical ingenuity.

Some poorer countries, however, will not be able to supply this essential ingenuity. Among other problems, their social institutions may not be robust, their government bureaucracies competent, or their research well-endowed. Also, posits Homer-Dixon, scarcities may simultaneously reduce a society's ability to respond by weakening its institutions and creating social turmoil.

States can therefore be weakened by a lack of adaptation in the face of environmental scarcity. Governments in this position will experience increased financial and political demands from their citizens, and their legitimacy may decline as a result of their inability to meet these demands. Scarcities will also simultaneously increase the incentives for powerful groups to "capture" the scarce resources, and thus profit enormously. A delicate balance must be achieved for a state to be able to respond to the demands of society and yet not become hostage to those demands.

Warlords And Migrants

A state's lack of adaptation to scarcity can have further consequences. The project has found that scarcity can sharpen distinctions among groups, while also increasing these groups' opportunities to participate in violent collective action. Environmental scarcities can change the balance of power within societies, intensify competition among groups, and create challengers to state legitimacy and stability.

The case study of South Africa in the Project on Environment, Population, and Security illustrates the powerful effect of environmental factors on conflict. During apartheid, the country's majority black population was forced onto a mere 13 percent of the land. This over-crowding of homelands led to a degraded environment. Degradation increased the migrations to the cities, as people headed to urban areas to search for alternative income earning opportunities. The townships and informal settlements that sprang up around these urban areas were built on marginal lands and often lacked a basic infrastructure.

These migrations, the lack of infrastructure and the severity of the environmental stresses had a number of effects, including weakened community institutions and the rise of warlordism. Warlords' struggle for land quickly became politicized as the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party sought control of the post-apartheid state. Warlords were able to mobilize "alienated and under-employed" young men. Violence rose to horrifyingly high levels, and remain so even in post-apartheid South Africa. Homer-Dixon and Percival convincingly argue that this violence can not be addressed without also examining underlying environmental problems.

The other case studies in the briefing book also demonstrate links between environmental scarcity and conflict. In Bangladesh, for example, land scarcity and flooding encouraged migration from rural to urban areas and out of the country entirely. The large numbers of Bengali migrants to India have altered land distribution patterns, shifted economic and political power balances, and destabilized religious and ethnic relations. One result has been civil strife.

In the Chiapas, land distribution has played a significant role in the recent outburst of a long-standing conflict. Land scarcity has a combination of causes, including inequitable land distribution, population growth, and soil erosion. Chiapan peasants clear land in an effort to circumvent these land scarcities, but that land is often grabbed by the elites for their own cultivation. The government's land reform policies has allowed a further concentration of land in the hands of this elite group. The fight for land redistribution led to the Zapatista uprising, which has been supported by the aggrieved Chiapan peasants.

Pakistan also faces environmental scarcities. The population growth rate is startlingly high (3.1 percent), soil erosion, salinity, waterlogging, and flooding hamper efforts at agricultural productivity, and water scarcity is also a serious problem. Small, powerful groups control Pakistan's precious resources and restrict access to those resources. Many people have been forced by the scarcities to migrate to urban areas or to fragile, least desirable land. Urban services have been inadequate for the level of urban migration, and disease levels in the cities are high as a result. Environmental scarcity in Pakistan has therefore resulted in declining state legitimacy as the state fails to provide basic necessities for citizens. The scarcities have also raised grievance levels and increased the division between various groups. At the same time, Homer-Dixon states, incentives and opportunities for violence have also increased. Cities such as Karachi are thus experiencing violent conflict as clashes between ethnic groups intensify, and the lack of urban services leads to violent protests.

How does environmental scarcity affect inter-state relations? The research has found that environmental scarcity, while its effects can be significant within states, rarely contributes directly to interstate conflict. War has indeed occurred over non-renewable resources such as oil, but this is largely because non-renewable resources, unlike renewable ones, can easily be converted into state power. Also, the countries that generally are most dependent on renewable resources (and thus would be most likely to go to war in the pursuit of such resources), are impoverished, and therefore less able to wage a "resource war."

What are the implications of these findings for the international community? The authors argued at the briefings that conflict caused in part by environmental scarcity can be diffuse, persistent, and subnational. It can cause refugee flows and humanitarian disasters. The international response to these devastating effects strains the resources of developed countries and international organizations as well.

States weakened by environmental stress also run the risk of fragmenting. Warlords and other challengers to state authority increase the likelihood of state fragmentation. Fragmentation might be countered by a state that is militarized and authoritarian, but such regimes, cautions Homer-Dixon, often violate human rights and threaten their neighbors.


Homer-Dixon is concerned that environmental scarcity weakens states. In response to critics who question his belief in the necessity of strong states, Homer-Dixon argues that strong states are not necessarily coercive and authoritarian. Ideally, states should be humane, responsive to their citizens, strong, competent, and autonomous.

Homer-Dixon calls his work subversive to the conservative world view because it links traditionally conservative issues, namely security, with issues not traditionally in the conservative realm, such as social justice. The research gives policy makers cause for concern, as well as a valuable perspective on conflict and its links to environmental scarcity.

The controversy over Homer-Dixon's research began with Robert Kaplan's article in the February 1994 Atlantic Monthly, which cited Homer-Dixon's work and painted a bleak future. Perhaps the best response to this critique came in a piece by Homer-Dixon himself in the Globe and Mail, May 10, 1994. He identifies three mistakes commonly made by optimists. The first is the use of highly aggregate data, which fails to give a precise outlook for individual countries. Such data can hide alarming trends within countries.

The second mistake he identifies is the extrapolation of current trends into the future. This disregards the possibility of non-linearities or sudden changes in, for example, agricultural productivity or fertility rates.

The third mistake is the assumption that as long as a country sustains its economic growth, environmental scarcities do not pose a threat. While Homer-Dixon admits that economic prosperity can indeed help slow environmentally-damaging activities, it can also strengthen elite, often exploitive, groups.

He argues that the optimist position is one side of a "sterile" debate. The optimists will maintain that there need be no limits to population growth or global consumption of resources. They place high value on the human ability to find ways out of any environmental problem with increased technology. Homer-Dixon agrees that this emphasis on ingenuity is necessary in response to scarcity, but he feels that it is dangerous to assume that human ingenuity is limitless.

On the other side of the debate, continues Homer-Dixon, are the neo-Malthusians, who argue that the supply of natural resources strictly limits population growth and consumption. Anarchy would result from outstripping these limits. Homer-Dixon feels that both of these perspectives tell part (but only part) of the story. To tell the whole story is a task he and his colleagues are tackling with their research.

Colleen Malone is a recent graduate in Peace and Conflict Studies, U. of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1996

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1996, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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