Resource Scarcity and Political Conflict Research Paper

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I. Introduction

II. The Current State of Research

III. A New Variable: Climate Change

IV. Where Next?

V. What Resource Problem?

VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction

The popular press is rife with economists, ecologists, and religious doomsayers seeking to explain, predict, and profit from the problem of resource scarcity and its twin, resource allocation. Closely following are an increasing number of scholarly forays in economics, anthropology, geography, and political science.

The modern scholarship’s groundwork may be said to properly begin with Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). Therein, he in part argues that given finite resources, and an infinitely expanding population, political, social, and spiritual turmoil is inevitable. The flurry of activity the publication of that essay created has been ever present, so that subsequent generations of popular writers (e.g., Charles Dickens and others) were able to tap into the broader theme. Thus by the late 1800s, socialist theorists were able to exploit Malthusian ideas as a means of broadcasting the desirability (or, following Marx, the inevitability) of democratic equality.

Neo-Malthusian conservationists such as Harry Overstreet (1915), Thomas Carver (1915), and Richard Ely (1916) reexamined the previous centuries’ analyses and added their own Edwardian twist—the need to conserve resources for “civilized” peoples. Yet for all their scholarly attempts, the conclusions were proscriptive rather than prescriptive and more than a bit race based.

It was not until the 1920s that deeper analyses were conducted and prescriptions for policymakers proffered. These Wilsonian internationalists stressed the need for necessary resources such as food, water, and fuel to be distributed or redistributed according to need rather than according to profits. More vocal academics, such as Powers in his 1928 International Institutions: Formal Mechanisms for Dealing With Resource Conflicts, was but one among many who saw the necessity of supranational actors as arbiters of dispute.

The economic crisis of the 1930s saw more and more attempts to move policy actors to embrace anti-conflict measures of resource problems (Barnes & Field, 1933; Burns, 1934). Many saw within Hitler’s demand for lebensraum one country’s rather nakedly pragmatic attempt at a chauvinistic redress of conflict scarcity and were appalled by the possibility of such a tactic being embraced by similar actors elsewhere (Speier, 1939; Spengler, 1937). World War II was to make those fears realized.

During the cold war era, academic attempts to be prescriptive about solving political conflicts over resource scarcity either veered into ideological territory by asserting the necessity of the “free world” to triumph over the forces of communism or were besmirched with the label of communism, as Galtung’s (1965) work was so tagged. This retarded the progress made earlier, and it was not until the later 1960s and 1970s, as researchers became more interdisciplinary and reached out to the physical and life sciences, that scholarship began to move forward again. Richard Cooper’s (1973) foray still stands as a paragon of this type of research.

Cooper’s now classic work on the economic anthropology and settlement patterns of the Hmong in northern Thailand was a breakthrough. By establishing how the production of opium in highland family units and the fights over such production affected them, Cooper melded anthropology, environmental science, and sociology in a much admired and much copied recipe for the study of resource allocation and policy reactions to potential conflicts. The weakness, of course, is in inferring generalizations from the individual level to larger actors. But nonetheless, it was a grand experiment in its observation of actualities, rather than an ivory tower research exercise. With Cooper’s research, resource allocations become more personal and more pointed, and hit closer to home.

Once research put a human face on the various aspects of resource scarcity and conflict, attempts to generalize became more possible because numerous field studies became less anecdotal as they were gathered together and compiled and became more empirical as they became data. Not all data are created equal, and many of the individual biases of the researchers remain in some of that gathered materiel. But data-gathering techniques have improved and become more uniform, and coding has proceeded apace. Thus anthropology, sociology, physical science, life science, geography, economics, and statistics come together in modern political science analyses. The current state of scholarship can be best understood as a multidisciplinary effort, with political science having wrested much control of the discourse from other disciplines, due in no small part to the ability to meld, merge, and synthesize, as well as create, novel empirical explorations. The following discussion attempts to thematically display the current state of scholarship.

II. The Current State of Research

Much of the literature rests on pure physical resource scarcity and allocation. This body of work assumes, predicated on historical events, that resources are finite or near finite and that one entity’s possessing an amount of a resource necessarily denies access, production, or use of that resource to another entity.

Ross’s (2004) review of cross-national econometric and qualitative studies of scarcity and conflict concludes that collectively, most prior work can be grouped according to its conclusory assumptions:

  1. Oil increases the likelihood of conflict, particularly separatist conflict.
  2. “Lootable” commodities such as gemstones and drugs do not make conflict more likely to begin but do prolong existing conflicts.
  3. There is no apparent link between agricultural commodities and civil war.
  4. The association between primary commodities, which include both oil and agricultural goods, and the onset of conflict is not robust.

Ross suggests that the inconsistencies among studies may be caused by differences in the ways researchers code civil wars and cope with missing data. His conclusion is all the more interesting given the problems inherent in qualitative studies that have been well documented along these lines. His conclusion thus seemingly implies the need for more rigor in empirical work and better cross-study coder reliability and pasigraphization of definitions and terms.

Finding little support for almost all empirical assessments, however, is the work of Urdal (2005). Noting that neo-Malthusians’ assertion that population pressure on natural renewable resources makes societies more prone to low-intensity civil war enjoys little support, he goes on to demonstrate that “resource-optimists’” assumption that agricultural land scarcity caused by increasing population density drives economic development, in turn driving peace, is unfounded as well. He tests both in a time-series cross section from 1950 to 2000, with results for either being tepid, at best, or counterfactual.

Countries experiencing high rates of population growth, high rates of urbanization, or large refugee populations do not face greater risks of internal armed conflict than other countries do. There is some indication that scarcity of potential cropland may have a pacifying effect.

However, where land scarcity combines with high rates of population growth, the risk of armed conflict increases somewhat. . . . Overall, the robustness of the empirical support for both paradigms is low. A strong emphasis on security as a macro rationale for reducing global population growth thus seems unwarranted. (Urdal, 2005, p. 417)

Becsi and Lahiri (2007) examine scarcity and conflict via a simple trade theoretic model (two regions in conflict, war equilibrium determined endogenously). Their finding is that an abundance of uncontested natural resources discourages conflict (a more even ratio) and an abundance of contested natural resources encourages conflict. They also note that when entities (regions) possess power to affect the terms of trade, and use that power, the effect of ownership on conflict “may be strengthened or weakened depending on factor intensities of production and the relative strength of income and substitution effects” (p. 17).

Le Billon analyzes the vulnerability of resource-dependent countries, concludes that long-term stability in resource-exporting regions is dependent on their levels of development, and calls for a broad reform agenda prioritizing the basic needs and security of local populations. Similarly, Bannon and Collier (2003) find that the entities (in this case, nations) most likely to be affected by conflict are those whose economies depend mostly on natural resources, a phenomenon they term resource dependence conflict.

Bogalea, Taebb, and Endoc (2006) use multinomial discrete choice models to identify determinants of household choice among alternative land property right regimes and whether those rights help mitigate negative consequences of scarcity-induced land-related conflicts. They assert that two factors, dependency ratio (i.e., that proportion of a population composed of dependents, or people who are too young or too old to work. The dependency ratio is equal to the number of individuals younger than 15 or older than 64, divided by the number of individuals aged 15 to 64, expressed as a percentage) and level of education, produce the most predictive power, whether or not the household prefers a common property resource regime. Conversely, the variables number of household members, livestock holding of the household, and area of cultivated land lost due to enclosure were found to be more relevant in determining a preference for resettlement. Such a study assists the researcher in determining model framework and methodological choice, especially given the personal nature such discrete choices entail.

Lujala, Gleditsch, and Gilmore (2005), in examining “lootable resources” (here, diamonds), offer a competing model along similarly strong methodological lines. While territory, oil, and water are most often mentioned as the type of contestable resources likely to lead to conflict, diamonds have emerged in recent literature as a prominent factor. The authors find a strong bivariate relationship between diamonds (particularly secondary diamonds) and the onset of conflict, but adding diamond dummies to standard models produces less robust conclusions. The secondary–primary distinction is important because production of secondary diamonds increases the risk of ethnic conflict, but not other types, whereas primary diamonds make ethnic conflict less likely. Most intriguing is that the impact of diamonds has been substantially stronger in the post–cold war era, suggesting a tantalizing ideology–resource link.

Klare (2002) broadens the single-item resource paradigm to a more widely encompassing one. As the complexities of rapidly increasing demand of globalizing industrialization continue, the concentration of resources in unstable states and the competing claims to ownership of resources by neighboring states predict a greater likelihood of conflict. Examples include the potential for conflict over oil in the Persian Gulf and in the Caspian and South China Seas; over water in the Nile Basin and other multinational river systems; and over timber, gems, and minerals from Borneo to Sierra Leone. Klare’s analyses of likely conflicts are informed by detailed research into projected usage rates, population growth, and other relevant trends that show such to affect the likelihood of conflict: a pattern repeated throughout the world.

The discourse on diamonds points up not only the break from primary resources to produced or manufactured resources but the ecological effect such production has as well. Joseph Stiglitz’s works (e.g., his 2002 Globalization and Its Discontents) have been a lodestone for those examining production and manufacture as a source of conflict. In contrast with earlier studies focusing on fuel, mineral, and agricultural resources and the efficiency by which they are allocated, the concern Stiglitz examines is similar to that of the climate-change scholars, in that he also includes the environmental consequences of resource extraction and use.

III. A New Variable: Climate Change

This new debate, that of human activity—particularly industrialization and its attendant problems—causing global climate change, is notable because an increasing number of players in this discourse have argued that climate change will lead to resource competition, mass migration, and, ultimately, an increase in armed conflict around the world. Salehyan (2008) takes issue with such “determinism.” He posits instead that the effect of climate change on armed conflict interacts with a number of political and social variables. Ignoring interaction effects results in spurious correlations and problematic predictions about when and where conflict is likely. He offers the assiduous scholar a research program predicated on more rigorous and sophisticated methodologies than the comparative case study. Biocapacity (a measure of how biologically productive land is) and ecological reserve (a measure of the amount of land available for production) are also predictive of peace, but the community of scholars engaged in this research arena cautions such results are less robust. Given the extractive elements necessary for possessing such an ecological footprint—which, for all intents and purposes, comprises the old idea of the first world—their critics assert that there exist conflating, interactive, and indirect effects not fully explained.

These interaction effects, which Homer-Dixon (2009) has noted since 1991, are ameliorated, he says, by the ability of the extractors, producers, and consumers to use “human ingenuity” positively. That said, this enfant terrible of this arena as well is willing to lay fault at the feet of crass corporate and elitist carpet-bagging and the social structures of repression, as well as comment on the role urbanization plays in exacerbating scarcity, as he has done since 1999. He does not, in the end, insist that ingenuity can or will more than partially offset scarcity-related problems, which only reductions in scarcity can do fully.

This finding is similar in vein to what Gausset, Whyte, and Birch-Thomsen (2005) attempt. They deliver an alternative perspective to conflict analysis by building on theories of political ecology that have developed from Marxist geography and cultural anthropology. Such an approach sets aside the neo-Malthusian accounts anchored in population determinism and linear causality. They instead ask for a neo-dialectical approach by focusing on the processes by which natural resources are manipulated by vested interests for assuming power, some arguments of which have been explored previously by Peluso and Watts (2001).

A weakness of the dialectical approach is in not acknowledging that “one of the important contributions of Malthusian and neo-Malthusian models is that they make individual agency central” (Peluso & Watts, 2001, p. 17). Glossing over this aspect of natural resource consumption and carrying capacity are problematic. A more appropriate model, Peluso and Watts (2001) argue, bridges the dialectic with historicity of study. To that end, they develop the concept of political scarcity, but this itself tends to neglect the physical constraints of resource availability.

The importance of political models as part of the study of scarcity is one that Nobel laureates such as Amartya Sen and Wangaari Maathai have commented on. But the danger of a political scarcity model is potentially absolving individual consumption patterns and ecological behavior of human societies. Moreover, although the political model approach is commendable, failing to account for material aspects suggests an incomplete model. Bailis (2006) notes the incompleteness of contemporary models, and Reuveny (2008) asserts that if explanation is part of empirical social science, so then is prediction. That is, the effects of climate change on migration can be forecast by exploring the effects of earlier environmental conditions on migration in recent decades. He argues that adaptation, mitigation, and emigration are the three possible human responses, the choice dependent on the extent of problems and mitigation capabilities. People living in lesser developed countries may be more likely to leave affected areas, which may cause conflict in receiving areas.

Stringer et al. (2009) agree but, as with most work in this area, use a regional study to support that theory. While not fully generalizable, their postdictive examination of climate-sensitive development strategies serves to make their foray an observational natural experiment of sorts— itself very useful. Hendrix and Glaser (2007), examining a wider area (sub-Saharan Africa), contribute further by examining multiple time dimensions, both long-term trends in climate and short-term climatic triggers on civil conflict onset. They find, similar to the first world operationalization noted earlier, that climate suitable for Eurasian agriculture is associated with a decreased likelihood of conflict, which is concomitant with distribution ratios of freshwater resources per capita being positively associated with the likelihood of conflict. Using simulated data up to 2099, they also predict climate conflict, finding, surprisingly, that there are few statistically significant, positive trends, suggesting the lesser probability of climate change dramatically affecting conflict. That in turn infers a Bayesian, or instantaneous learning and updating process, is at work intraculturally, or even cross-culturally.

Such is contra Martin, Blowers, and Boersema (2006). They begin by noting that conflict is often intratribal, -ethnic, or -religious. But large data sets disconfirm association between a country’s social diversity and the likelihood of warfare; rather the converse relationship is more often found: ethnic and religious diversity tends to foster peace, not war. This departs from Crawford and Lipschutz’s (1998) Myth of “Ethnic Conflict.” Martin et al. assume two largely independent dimensions to the study of environmental conflict. The first investigates what has been dubbed the resource curse. Resource abundance (especially oil) is viewed as a factor in motivating secessionist movements, whereas a wider range of high-value resources (oil, gold, drugs, coltan, tin, diamonds, timbers) provides a means of financing rebel armies and thus sustaining and escalating already existing violence (Bannon & Collier, 2003). In contrast to concerns about abundance, resource scarcity may be viewed as a possible cause of violence. Scarcity in this context refers mainly to renewable resources such as water, fuel-wood, and soil and arises from reduced supply (depletion or degradation), increased demand, increasing inequality of distribution, or a combination of these.

Brown, Hammill, and McLeman (2007) review the linkages between climate change and security in Africa and analyze the role of climate change adaptation policies in future conflict prevention. Ameliorating or adapting to such projections necessitates an accounting of the other variables interacting: existing social, political, and economic tensions.

In terms of indirect effects, Obioha (2008) asks what happens when climate change (herein, depressed rainfall) -> scarcity (herein, crop shortages) -> conflict? Focusing, as much of the literature does, on sub-Saharan Africa—Nigeria in particular—Obioha investigates the chain of interactions between climate change, population drift and pressure, and conflict over land resources. Thus he is able to use not only the indirect effects model but an admixture of indirect and interaction effects—not only a more sophisticated method but a more nuanced and inclusive one.

This is what Reuveny (2008) does as well, and across time and space. His foray into post-Katrina Louisiana and Mississippi, 1950s Bangladesh, and the dust bowl of the United States during the 1930s offers a model that demonstrates pre- and post-policy changes due to climate disasters and demonstrates that environmental change can trigger large outmigration, leading to violent conflict in areas receiving migrants. He asserts that policies seeking to minimize migration induced by climate change and violent conflict in receiving areas require an engineered economic slowdown in the developed countries and population stabilization and economic growth in the developing countries, financed by the developed countries. Either is a prescription for uneasy politics.

Within the realm of climate-change and political interaction models lie the works of those focusing on renewable, yet restricted, resources. Examples abound in examinations of water scarcity and conflict. The water conflict in northern Thailand was precipitated by a water shortage that ruined an orchard, causing the lowlanders to become angry toward the highlanders, as El Nino lessened precipitation during the rainy season of 1997. Ekkawatpanit, Kazama, Sawamoto, and Ranjan (2009) show that the conflict itself was less about a widespread water shortage (affecting most parties equally) than about the ability of wealthy farmers to purchase water while poorer ones became insolvent, which demonstrates that water scarcity on a discursive level does not reflect the real scarcity.

This is different from Pearce (2007), who makes a compelling case that a worldwide fresh and potable water shortage is the most fearful looming environmental crisis. His expository delivery of statistical evidence is indeed doom-like. What this work supplies the researcher is data, accompanied by a grim narrative. Unfortunately, the empirical connections are lost, and the effort comes across as less than rigorous.

Water, argues Shiva (2008), is intrinsically different from other resources and products and cannot be treated simply as a commodity: Without water, people and the environment cannot survive. To subject water to commercial restrictions and to control its availability to people and communities are normatively unacceptable. Contrary to others who claim that water scarcity will lead to conflicts in the future, Shiva provides evidence that water wars are already with us and are happening all over the world. She is convinced that conflicts will become increasingly violent as freshwater resources dwindle. Unfortunately for many readers, there is a tendency to dwell on the ethics and morals, and not fully develop the empirical arguments.

Humphreys, Sachs, and Stiglitz (2007) lead a postmodern indagation focusing on a particular extracted and processed resource, petroleum. They not only make a careful assessment of the effect extraction and processing have on climate but also discuss economic hindrances and helps deriving from oil funds. Their work is the best representative of a host of efforts examining how the fight over petrodollars has exacerbated scarcity and conflict.

IV. Where Next?

The reassessments of this line of inquiry—specifically, methodological and empirical reassessments—have thus added new vigor to the discourse and sharpened the debate outside academe. An excellent take on how measurement matters comes recently from O’Lear and Diehl (2007):

In armed conflicts, particularly those involving natural resources and other environmental factors, the issue of scale remains overlooked and underanalysed. Although previous work has considered conflict at different analytical resolutions, scale itself is rarely addressed directly or as an important characteristic of a conflict. . . . Literature on natural resource related conflict has tended to overlook issues of scale and create a self imposed constraint on our understanding of conflict by determining a priori, and often indirectly, the scope or frame of a conflict. (p. 179)

In addition, authors are beginning to reevaluate Western notions of scarcity and its effects—for instance, Ember, Ember, Korotayev, and de Munck’s (2007) perlustrative examination of fat and thin, noting that resource scarcity and valuing fatness in women are negatively associated when there is little or no food storage and unrelated when there is moderate or high storage. Such work helps to shape the field by reevaluating the marks and measures, assumptions and paradigms of the effect scarcity may have.

V. What Resource Problem?

Not all work in the field accepts that scarcity necessarily leads to conflict. Such an assumption has come under increasing scrutiny, leading to more, and frankly better, empirical assessments. Not all are supportive of the earlier findings—note Theisen (2008): “The theory relating civil violence to the degradation of natural resources receives only limited support” (p. 802). Theisen’s most recent work finds little support linking resource scarcity and civil conflict, but it replicates earlier findings on the importance of poverty, instability, and dependence of fuel exports, seemingly vindicating the free-market critics. Of note as well is Urdal’s (2005) assumption:

In the environmental security literature, great rural resource scarcity, causing rural to urban migration, is seen as an important source of violent conflict. . . . Urban disorder is primarily associated with a lack of consistent political institutions, economic shocks, and ongoing civil conflict. (p. 418)

Within the world of scholarship and popular political punditry, the counterarguments tend to follow eight lines, with some overlap:

  1. There is no such thing as resource scarcity (Wright & Czelusta, 2004).
  2. Resource scarcity may exist, but property rights ameliorate it (Mehta, 2007).
  3. Resource scarcity may exist, but it is not the source of violent conflict (Dwyer & Oh, 1987).
  4. Resource scarcity exists only in nondemocratic and/or corrupt states (Kalyuzhnova & Nygaard, 2008).
  5. Resource scarcity may exist, but conflict management mitigates it (Himes, 2008).
  6. Resource scarcity cannot exist where sufficient technological advances exist (Gowdy & Julia, 2007).
  7. Resource scarcity may exist, but free markets prevent it (Horwitz, 2008).
  8. Resource scarcity exists, but the data support no causality (Salehyan, 2008).

Outside academe, the counterarguments tend to be more strident:

  1. There is no such thing as resource scarcity, and the theory that there is, is Marxist propaganda (Mills, 2008).
  2. Resource scarcity doesn’t exist, and the sources of violent conflict are Marxist redistributive policies (Lott, 2007).
  3. Resource scarcity exists only in nondemocratic states because free markets prevent it from appearing in democratic ones (Corsi & Smith, 2005).
  4. Resource scarcity may exist, but climate change and environmental degradation aren’t the causes; corruption at the local level is (Singer & Avery, 2008).

The non-resource-scarcity literature is thin in most parts, but some of the academic critiques are worthy of further examination. But most of the non-resource-scarcity literature finds itself running headlong into the same wall repeatedly—the data and evidence in support of the various resource scarcity theories far outweigh those that do not. In the words of Krautkraemer (2005), “The general conclusion . . . is that technological progress has ameliorated the scarcity of natural resource commodities; but resource amenities have become more scarce, and it is unlikely that technology alone can remedy that” (p. 2).

VI. Conclusion

Richard Matthew’s summary (2008) of the state of the discipline is a clear, concise assessment of much of the scholarship, and the essays by Dobkowski and Wallimann (2002) can certainly serve as an ideal introduction to the subject. A number of works cited in this all-too-brief examination of the literature would serve as well as subject- specific overviews. But a unified treatment of the problems of resource scarcity and political conflict issuing from it is yet to be seen.

Part of this absence is due to the problems of definition and delineation, part to measurement, and part to empirical analyses. Le Billon (2007) makes a strong case, following the comparativists’ admonishment, that scale matters—not only area, but amounts and impacts. Otherwise, we are comparing apples not to apples, or oranges, but to bricks. It thus stands that much, then, needs to be done in unifying the disparate treatments, universalizing the language, and standardizing the definitions and measures. Perhaps then can scholarship proceed and policy prescriptions begin.

Read more:


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