Eco-scarcity Theory

Another complex version of neo-Malthusianism is “eco-scarcity theory”, whereby land degradation and other environmental strains combine with population pressure to unleash Malthusian scenarios of social conflict and political disorder.

Eco-scarcity began in the 1990s with conflict theorists suggesting complex causal links between environmental pressure, defined as scarcities of renewable resources, and the outbreak of violent conflict.[1] Their strategy was to collect case studies substantiating the claim that, particularly in overpopulated developing countries, environmental pressure can lead to the outbreak of violence. Two ample collections of case studies were produced roughly at the same time, one by a Canadian team (Homer-Dixon 1994, 1999) and the other by a team based in Switzerland (Bächler et al. 1996). Both of these teams focused on developing countries, and both had the aim of tracing the social processes leading from environmental scarcity, eventually combined with population pressure, to the outbreak of violent conflict. Thomas Homer-Dixon (1994, 31), the leader of the Canadian team, presented these “mechanisms” in a neat causal model (Fig. 4.7).[2]

According to the model, environmental scarcity is triggered by a combination of population growth and excessive strain on some dwindling renewable resource, typically exacerbated by unequal access to that resource. Together with the direct effects of the scarcity itself, the ensuing economic crisis engenders the forcible displacement of people and/or their voluntary emigration. The result is social segregation and a weakening of state structures, both in the country affected by the scarcity and in neighboring countries targeted by a massive inflow of migrants. In some cases this may lead to a coup d'état or even state collapse.

All of this increases the risk of conflict in two different ways. First, scarcity-driven migration may provoke violent clashes between the migrant population displaced by environmental pressure and the recipient population (ethnic conflicts). Second, the economic crisis in the area immediately affected by the scarcity, combined with a declining ability of the state to manage the crisis, can lead to an insurgency of citizens who feel deprived of the standard of living they either feel entitled to, or need in order to survive (deprivation conflicts).

  • [1] For a recent survey, see Bernauer et al. (2012); see also Mildner et al. (2011)
  • [2] For a slightly modified version of the model, see Homer-Dixon (1999, 134); see also Kahl (2006, 59)
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