Ingenuity Gaps and Democracy

By John Bacher | 1996-07-01 12:00:00

There's an obvious link between Homer-Dixon's research and current research on the success of democracy.

Numerous peace researchers have studied the thesis that war or militarism is a major cause of environmental problems. University of Toronto Peace Studies Professor Thomas (Tad) Homer-Dixon and his team at The Project on Environment, Population and Security, have reversed this causal analysis. Their research attempts to show that environmental problems are a cause of civil wars - which now constitute all the world's armed conflicts.

According to a recent Globe and Mail commentary on his research, Tad Homer-Dixon has found that high infant mortality is a major cause of today's wars. Parents, traumatized by the cries of their dying infants, may take up arms.

In studying several conflicts around the world, Homer-Dixon has shown how environmental degradation has been a motivating factor for war. The Chiapas region of Mexico, for instance, suffers from deforestation and soil erosion, often accelerated by a traditional peasantry being displaced through power dams, logging, and oil exploration. In South Africa and the Gaza Strip, elite white South Africans and Israeli settlers enjoy the luxuries of high water consumption in an arid land. While Israeli settlers tend to have well- watered lawns and swimming pools, Palestinians, until the achievement of home rule, were not even permitted to catch rain water for cisterns. South Africa's environmental laws under apartheid did not protect the black "independent homelands." These "homelands" could not afford to pay for
adequate sanitation and also suffered massive soil erosion. Israel banned DDT at home, but allowed its use in Palestinian territories. Such cruel inequities encourage explosive situations of violence.

One benefit of studying war in Homer-Dixon's way - i.e. considering it as a result of the destruction of nature - is that it takes the powerful political issue of security away from the conventional political right. On the other hand, one shortcoming of his analysis, and especially that of his popularizer, Atlantic Monthly editor Robert Kaplan, is that it does not easily yield recommendations for remedying the key problems. The solution that Homer-Dixon does propose to the war-inducing environmental problems is valid but somewhat vague: It involves overcoming what he calls the "ingenuity gap" by developing creative responses to resource scarcity.

The Importance Of Democracy

This notion of "ingenuity gap" needs more specificity. A more cogent way of describing the issue is to see it as a problem of political democracy. Homer-Dixon and his colleagues could benefit from the extensive research on democracies in less developed societies by social scientists who are applying the theories of Seymour Martin Lipset. For example, Larry Diamond and Gary Marks have shown that poor societies that have stabilized their democracies did so by encouraging improved public health, achieving universal literacy, and fostering political cultures of toleration, inclusion, and participation. The 10 developing countries with populations above a million that have maintained virtually continuous democracy since 1965 have achieved
signficantly better results in reducing infant mortality than dictatorships in that period. This fits Homer-Dixon's view that a "strong state" is needed for the sake of attaining economic and environmental self-sufficiency if by a "strong state" he means a state that is able to deliver necessary social services.

Achieving basic human rights is the important first step to resolving Homer-Dixon's "ingenuity gap." This was recently dramatically shown in Nigeria, where environmentalists were executed for attempting to impose the same safeguards on oil development that are normal in Western democratic states. Likewise China's ecocidal Three Gorges Dam proceeds only because the Chinese government will not permit opposition to it within the country.

While it is wrong to suggest that democracy is a magic wand for a green society, it is a necessary precondition for addressing the environmental problems that are fueling civil wars around the world. One of democracy's common results is the diversion of funds away from militarism. This effect can be seen most vividly in the case of Costa Rica, a stable democracy without an army. The same outcome has also been encouraged in the new South Africa, which has already significantly reduced military expenditure for the sake of meeting social needs.

Homer-Dixon's research can thus gain significance by linking to those studies that recognize democracy as a solution to the problems of social and environmental development.

John Bacher is a historian and activist based in St. Catharines, Ontario.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1996

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1996, page 19. Some rights reserved.

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