Steven Pinker: Resource Scarcity Doesn’t Cause Wars

by David Bier on November 28, 2011

in Blog, Global Warming 101, Science

In Steven Pinker’s brilliant new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he demonstrates that peace has actually increased over the course of human history, even over the past few centuries, and particularly the last few decades. In this excerpt, Pinker discusses the myth that resource scarcity increases violent conflict, and that climate change could contribute to more war, terrorism, and violence.

A 2007 New York Times op-ed warned, “Climate stress may well represent a challenge to international security just as dangerous–and more intractable–than the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War or the proliferation of nuclear weapons among rogue states today.” That same year Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their call to action against global warming because, according to the citation, climate change is a threat to international security. A rising fear lifts all the boats. Calling global warming “a force multiplier for instability,” a group of military officers wrote that “climate change will provide the conditions that will extend the war on terror.”

Once again it seems to me that the appropriate response is “maybe, but maybe not.” Though climate change can cause plenty of misery… it will not necessarily lead to armed conflict. The political scientists who track war and peace, such as Halvard Buhaug, Idean Salehyan, Ole Theisen, and Nils Gleditsch, are skeptical of the popular idea that people fight wars over scarce resources. Hunger and resource shortages are tragically common in sub-Saharan countries such as Malawi, Zambia, and Tanzania, but wars involving them are not. Hurricanes, floods, droughts, and tsunamis (such as the disastrous one in the Indian Ocean in 2004) do not generally lead to conflict. The American dust bowl in the 1930s, to take another example, caused plenty of deprivation but no civil war. And while temperatures have been rising steadily in Africa during the past fifteen years, civil wars and war deaths have been falling.

Pressures on access to land and water can certainly cause local skirmishes, but a genuine war requires that hostile forces be organized and armed, and that depends more on the influence of bad governments, closed economies, and militant ideologies than on the sheer availability of land and water. Certainly any connection to terrorism is in the imagination of the terror warriors: terrorists tend to be underemployed lower-middle-class men, not subsistence farmers. As for genocide, the Sudanese government finds it convenient to blame violence in Darfur on desertification, distracting the world from its own role in tolerating or encouraging the ethnic cleansing.

In a regression analysis on armed conflicts from 1980 to 1992, Theisen found that conflict was more likely if a country was poor, populous, politically unstable, and abundant in oil, but not if it had suffered from droughts, water shortages, or mild land degradation. (Severe land degradation did have a small effect.) Reviewing analyses that examined a large number (N) of countries rather than cherry-picking one or toe, he concluded, “Those who foresee doom, because of the relationship between resource scarcity and violent internal conflict, have very little support from the large-N literature.”

Salehyan adds that relatively inexpensive advances in water use and agricultural practices in the developing world can yield massive increases in productivity with a constant or even shrinking amount of land, and that better governance can mitigate the human costs of environmental damage, as it does in developed democracies. Since the state of the environment is at most one ingredient in a mixture that depends far more on political and social organization, resource wars are far from inevitable, even in a climate-changed world.

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