Is the world entering a new era of violent conflict, not necessarily propelled by ethnic differences, fanatic ideologies or nation-building wars, but rather as a result of growing resource constraints? The idea of environmental conflict is gaining ground, with advocates suggesting that growing scarcity at the local, regional and national level will lead to new struggles over the remaining water, land or food supplies. The prediction of such scholars is that the number of inter-state wars and intra-state conflicts will steadily increase as environmental conditions get more precarious.
These notions of environmental conflict were challenged by the three speakers, Karen Witsenburg, Harry Verhoeven, and Andrew Loveridge, at a joint event hosted by OXPEACE, the Institute for Human Sciences, and the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. Against the environmental conflict literature, the three presenters argued that a far more complex and finely grained analysis of violent conflict and environmental scarcity is in order. Based on the available statistical data and in-depth case studies, they concluded that there was little evidence to suggest that environmental conflict exists, let alone is becoming an increasingly acute problem.
In particular, the speakers rejected neo-Malthusian theories which posit a mechanistic connection between population growth, resource scarcity and violence, arguing instead for the value of a political-economy analysis about how scarcity is created over time that focuses on the question of who benefits from scarcity and violence. Such an analysis should not be distracted by the question of what might, or might not, trigger a violent incident, but would address the complex and extended processes that produce and sustain scarcity for some and abundance for others in places like Northern Kenya, Darfur and Zimbabwe. When one begins to view conflict in this way, it becomes clear that environmental scarcity should not be treated simply as an unpredictable exogenous factor that may set-off a violent chain reaction of events, but is actually something that needs to be explained. In other words, that some people face scarcity while others enjoy abundance is no accident; rather, it is frequently a product of existing inequalities and local political dynamics. Consequently, what may look like environmental conflict on the surface may actually be a product of political exclusion and marginalization.
All of the speakers also stressed that embarking on such a research agenda will require scholars to embrace a flexible and a multi-disciplinary methodology that integrates different types of data and recognizes that neither case studies nor large data-sets can provide a rounded picture of such complex events when employed on their own.
Download the talks here:
Ethnic Violence, Water Scarcity and Managing Resources to Promote Peace
Karen Witsenburg (Both ENDS and Max Plank Institute for Anthropology)
Climate Change and Conflict in Sudan: what if development is not the answer to save Darfur?
Harry Verhoeven (Politics/St Cross)
The Ecology of Conflict: Human-Wildlife Conflict on the Hwange National Park Boundary, Zimbabwe
Andrew Loveridge (Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Zoology)