Environment, Scarcity, and Violence

Environment, Scarcity, and Violence

Thomas F. Homer-Dixon
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Environment, Scarcity, and Violence
    Book Description:

    The Earth's human population is expected to pass eight billion by the year 2025, while rapid growth in the global economy will spur ever increasing demands for natural resources. The world will consequently face growing scarcities of such vital renewable resources as cropland, fresh water, and forests. Thomas Homer-Dixon argues in this sobering book that these environmental scarcities will have profound social consequences--contributing to insurrections, ethnic clashes, urban unrest, and other forms of civil violence, especially in the developing world.

    Homer-Dixon synthesizes work from a wide range of international research projects to develop a detailed model of the sources of environmental scarcity. He refers to water shortages in China, population growth in sub-Saharan Africa, and land distribution in Mexico, for example, to show that scarcities stem from the degradation and depletion of renewable resources, the increased demand for these resources, and/or their unequal distribution. He shows that these scarcities can lead to deepened poverty, large-scale migrations, sharpened social cleavages, and weakened institutions. And he describes the kinds of violence that can result from these social effects, arguing that conflicts in Chiapas, Mexico and ongoing turmoil in many African and Asian countries, for instance, are already partly a consequence of scarcity.

    Homer-Dixon is careful to point out that the effects of environmental scarcity are indirect and act in combination with other social, political, and economic stresses. He also acknowledges that human ingenuity can reduce the likelihood of conflict, particularly in countries with efficient markets, capable states, and an educated populace. But he argues that the violent consequences of scarcity should not be underestimated--especially when about half the world's population depends directly on local renewables for their day-to-day well-being. In the next decades, he writes, growing scarcities will affect billions of people with unprecedented severity and at an unparalleled scale and pace.

    Clearly written and forcefully argued, this book will become the standard work on the complex relationship between environmental scarcities and human violence.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2299-7
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-2)
  7. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 3-11)

    In recent years, a number of analysts have argued that human-induced environmental pressures might seriously affect national and international security.¹ These experts offer interesting and important arguments. But the topic of “environmental security” encompasses an almost unmanageable array of sub-issues, especially if we define “security” broadly to include general physical, social, and economic well-being.² For example, is the potential inundation of coastal cities caused by climate change and rising seas a threat to security? Does loss of biodiversity from deforestation risk the security of future generations by limiting their opportunities to create new crops and medicines?

    We can narrow the...

  8. 2 Overview
    (pp. 12-27)

    Preliminary research indicates that scarcities of critical environmental resources—especially of cropland, freshwater, and forests—contribute to violence in many parts of the world. These environmental scarcities usually do not cause wars among countries, but they can generate severe social stresses within countries, helping to stimulate subnational insurgencies, ethnic clashes, and urban unrest. Such civil violence particularly affects developing societies, because they are, in general, highly dependent on environmental resources and less able to buffer themselves from the social crises that environmental scarcities cause.

    Although this violence affects developing societies most, policymakers and citizens in the industrialized world ignore it...

  9. 3 Two Centuries of Debate
    (pp. 28-46)

    Discussion of the relationship between population growth, natural resource scarcity, and prosperity dates back to Confucius and Plato. But vigorous debate began only with the writings of the British clergyman and economist Thomas Malthus in the late eighteenth century.

    At some risk of oversimplification, I identify three main positions in today’s version of this debate, two of which I have already highlighted in the previous chapter.¹ As noted there, neo-Malthusians, who are often biologists or ecologists, claim that finite natural resources place strict limits on the growth of human population and consumption; if these limits are exceeded, poverty and social...

  10. 4 Environmental Scarcity
    (pp. 47-72)

    As we have seen in previous chapters, natural resources can be roughly divided into two groups: nonrenewables, like oil and minerals, and renewables, like freshwater, forests, fertile soils, and Earth’s ozone layer. A nonrenewable consists of astock, which is the total quantity of the resource available for consumption. A renewable resource has both a stock and aflow, which is the incremental addition to, or restoration of, the stock per unit of time.¹ Surprisingly, many of the participants in the long debate over the relationship between resource scarcity and prosperity have not highlighted this critical distinction between renewables and...

  11. 5 Interactions and Social Effects
    (pp. 73-106)

    The environmental problems described in the previous chapter are largescale, long-term, and inadequately understood. They strike directly at our most intimate links to the biosphere, such as our ability to obtain the food and water we need for survival. Many people have a strong intuition that these problems will affect social stability, and some analysts have given voice to this intuition.¹ But sensational claims about “water wars,” “food wars,” and “environmental refugees” in the popular literature are—almost without exception—simplistic and flawed, largely because they are not based on a sturdy foundation of clear concepts, variables, and empirically grounded...

  12. 6 Ingenuity and Adaptation
    (pp. 107-132)

    Societies may be able to alter the processes linking human activity, environmental scarcity, and violence. If they wish to prevent severe environmental scarcity, they need to understand and act on its precursor ideational and physical variables. If they wish to promote nondisruptive adaptation to scarcity, they need to understand and act on the links between environmental scarcity and its negative social effects, including impoverishment, migrations, and the like. And if they wish to prevent conflict (even though scarcity and its negative social effects may be severe), they need to understand and act on the links between the negative social effects...

  13. 7 Violence
    (pp. 133-176)

    In the previous three chapters, I have identified key types of environmental scarcity, key negative social effects that result from these scarcities, and several factors that affect whether societies adapt to scarcities. In this chapter I put these pieces together into one encompassing core model of how environmental scarcity and its social effects can cause both rural and urban violence.

    Figure 7.1 presents this core model. Supply-induced, demand-induced, and structural scarcities act singly or in interaction to boost local and regional scarcities of cropland, water, forests, and fish. These increased scarcities can reduce or constrain economic productivity (a variable that,...

  14. 8 Conclusions
    (pp. 177-182)

    In the preceding chapters, I developed a theory of the causal links between severe environmental scarcity and violence. I illustrated this theory with evidence drawn from numerous case studies. I also reviewed the long debate between optimists and pessimists on the ability of societies to adapt to natural resource scarcity, and I identified reasons why some poor societies may not be able to adapt to severe scarcity in the future. In this concluding chapter, I summarize the book’s main findings, respond to some common skeptical arguments, and offer suggestions for future research.

    My key finding is straightforward: preliminary research indicates...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 183-240)
  16. General Readings on Environmental Security
    (pp. 241-246)
  17. Index
    (pp. 247-253)