Debating Disaster: The World Is Not Enough

Debating Disaster: The World Is Not Enough

Mini Teaser: In the previous issue of The National Interest, David Victor argued that the threat of resource wars is exaggerated.

by Author(s): Thomas Homer-DixonMichael T. KlareSherri W. GoodmanPaul J. KernDavid G. Victor


In the last issue of The National Interest, David Victor argued that the threat of resource wars is overplayed and overblown. To recap:

RISING ENERGY prices and mounting concerns about environmental depletion have animated fears that the world may be headed for a spate of "resource wars"-hot conflicts triggered by a struggle to grab valuable resources. Such fears come in many stripes, but the threat industry has sounded the alarm bells especially loudly in three areas. First is the rise of China, which is poorly endowed with many of the resources it needs-such as oil, gas, timber and most minerals-and has already "gone out" to the world with the goal of securing what it wants. Violent conflicts may follow as the country shunts others aside. A second potential path down the road to resource wars starts with all the money now flowing into poorly governed but resource-rich countries. Money can fund civil wars and other hostilities, even leaking into the hands of terrorists. And third is global climate change, which could multiply stresses on natural resources and trigger water wars, catalyze the spread of disease or bring about mass migrations.
Most of this is bunk, and nearly all of it has focused on the wrong lessons for policy. Classic resource wars are good material for Hollywood screenwriters. they rarely occur in the real world. to be sure, resource money can magnify and prolong some conflicts, but the root causes of those hostilities usually lie elsewhere. Fixing them requires focusing on the underlying institutions that govern how resources are used and largely determine whether stress explodes into violence. When conflicts do arise, the weak link isn't a dearth in resources but a dearth in governance.

Now we hear from Victor's critics, Thomas Homer-Dixon, Michael Klare, Sherri Goodman and Paul Kern. they tackle him on everything, from climate change to the impact of oil shortages and the mass spread of disease. Victor has the last word.


Straw Man in the Wind

Thomas Homer-Dixon

PUNDITS, JOURNALISTS and Sunday morning news show commentators sometimes say silly things about the links between resources and war. "Iraq is all about oil" or "Global warming caused the Darfur genocide." And, sometimes, NGO leaders and policymakers say similar silly things when they want the media to pay attention to a particular region or issue. It's easy to criticize these statements. But thoughtful commentators, of whom David Victor is normally one, know they contribute little by doing so. Yet, in this case, he's pulled together several oft-heard arguments about why threats from resource wars are overblown. Some of the skeptical positions have merit, but many are deeply misleading. No serious scholar of this issue says that resource stress causes violence by itself; almost none asserts that the causal links between resource stress and violence are direct; and very few argue that interstate war is the most likely outcome. Resource stresses are security dangers, though they are one among many. They will not be the only cause of conflict, but they will add to the risk of war.

If you listen to Victor, though, you might just get lulled into a false sense of security. He beats down straw-man arguments, in the end offering nothing but false reassurances about the security risks posed by resource stress. If the author had been willing to take on nuance, he wouldn't have been able to write the kind of simplistic and ideologically charged article that appeared in these pages. That's because serious scholars who have spent years studying the links between resources and mass violence-and I count myself in that group-rarely, if ever, make the kinds of arguments Victor so boldly attacks.

Rather, we argue that resource stress always interacts in complex conjunction with a host of other factors-ecological, institutional, economic and political-to cause mass violence. Also, causation is almost always indirect. People, groups and countries rarely fight over natural resources directly; instead, resource stress causes various forms of social dislocation-including widening gaps between rich and poor, increased rent-seeking by elites, weakening of states and deeper ethnic cleavages-that, in turn, make violence more likely. And, finally, this violence is almost always sub-national; it takes the form of insurgency, rebellion, gangsterism and urban criminality, not overt interstate war.

The claim that resource stress is sufficient by itself to cause violence is easily refuted. One simply has to identify cases where resource stress was present but violence didn't occur. Likewise, the claim that resource stress is a necessary cause of violence is easily refuted by finding cases of violence not preceded by resource stress. At various points in his article, Victor uses exactly these strategies to debunk the link between resources and war.

If resource stress causes violence in complex interaction with other factors, a much more nuanced refutation than what Victor offers is required. It's all about context. Careful analyses of specific cases are needed. Darfur is just one example. Here, the host of factors contributing to the violence and the tangled relationships among these factors are carefully identified, one by one. A critic who wants to refute this kind of claim needs to take on the facts of the case itself and marshal empirical evidence to challenge the claim's specifics. This exercise is hard, and it takes time.

Victor doesn't engage with this type of voluminous work. My research team and others around the world have undertaken painstaking analyses of cases as diverse as the Philippines, Pakistan, Haiti and South Africa. This research has shown that severe resource stress-including water scarcity, forest loss, land degradation and collapse of coastal fisheries-multiplies the impact of a society's existing vulnerabilities, including its ethnic cleavages and skewed distribution of land, wealth and power. Rural folk who depend directly on the local environment for their day-to-day livelihoods become poorer, while powerful elites manipulate laws to gain control of-and extract exorbitant rents from-increasingly valuable land, forests and water. As these resources dwindle in the countryside, people sometimes join local insurgencies against landowners and government officials. Other times, they migrate in large numbers to regions where resources seem more plentiful, only to fight with people who already inhabit those regions. They might also migrate to urban slums, where unemployed young men, especially, can be primed to join criminal gangs or radical political groups.

In light of these findings, Victor too quickly dismisses the security dangers of climate change. "Serious thinking about climate change", he writes, "must recognize that the ‘hard' security threats that are supposedly lurking are mostly a ruse." Yet, the recent report of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identifies multiple pathways through which global warming will hurt poor people in the Third World and hinder economic development there more generally. Large swaths of land in subtropical latitudes-zones inhabited by billions of people-will experience more drought, more coastal damage from storms, higher mortality from heat waves, worse outbreaks of agricultural pests and an increased burden of infectious disease. The potential impact on food output is a particular concern: In semi-arid regions where water is already scarce and cropland overused, climate change could devastate agriculture. Also, many cereal crops in tropical zones are already near their limits of heat tolerance, and even a couple degrees warming could lead to much lower yields.

By weakening rural economies, boosting unemployment and dislocating people's lives, global warming will increase the frustrations and anger of hundreds of millions of people in vulnerable poor countries. Especially in Africa, but also in some parts of Asia and Latin America, climate changes will undermine already frail governments-and make challenges from violent groups more likely-by reducing government revenues, increasing the economic clout of rent-seeking elites, overwhelming bureaucracies with problems and revealing how incapable these governments are of helping their citizens. We've learned in recent years that this kind of societal failure can have consequences around the world and that great powers can't always isolate themselves from these consequences. So climate change could readily produce "hard security threats" by any reasonable definition of the phrase.

At one point, Victor does acknowledge the reality of such complex causation: "Resource-related conflicts are multi-causal", he writes. But then he immediately draws a misleading conclusion from this fact: Because resource-related conflicts are multi-causal, he goes on, "primal ‘resource wars' can never exist." Here he sets up, once again, a straw man. No serious analyst of resource-related conflict would say any conflict is exclusively about resources.

Implicit in Victor's argument here is the notion that if a conflict has multiple causes, and if resource stress is one of these causes, then resource stress is probably not particularly important. The real cause is probably "deeper" and likely involves governmental or institutional failure. For instance, he writes:

Some analysts have pointed to conflicts over resources, including water and valuable land, as a cause in the Rwandan genocide. . . .Recently, the UN secretary-general suggested that climate change was already exacerbating the conflicts in Sudan. But none of these supposed causal chains stays linked under close scrutiny-the conflicts over resources are usually symptomatic of deeper failures in governance. . . .Climate is just one of many factors that contribute to tension.
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