Homer-Dixon Key findings on resources and war / violence

The Project on Environmental Scarcities, State Capacity, and Civil Violence

Key Findings

Abot 50 experts from 5 countries, developed a detailed set of conceptual tools for thinking about environmental scarcity and state capacity.

Environmental scarcity has 3 sources:

  1. reduced resource supply (from degradation or depletion)
  2. increased resource demand (from larger populations or higher per capita consumption)
  3. skewed resource distribution.

State capacity is a function of the state’s fiscal resources, political autonomy, legitimacy, internal coherence, and responsiveness (see Table 1 below).

This set of conceptual tools has allowed our researchers to identify links between rising environmental scarcity and declining state capacity. They have found 4 separate and often simultaneous effects:

  1. Environmental scarcities increase financial and political demands on the state. In addition, analysis of diverse cases — including those of South Africa, Pakistan, and the Philippines — shows that environmental scarcities expand marginal groups that need help from government by constraining rural economic development and by encouraging people to move into cities where they demand food, shelter, transport, energy, and jobs. In response, governments come under pressure to introduce subsidies of urban services; these subsidies drain revenues, distort prices, and cause misallocations of capital.
  2. Resource scarcities affect the state via their effects on elites. On one hand, scarcities can threaten the incomes of elites that depend on resource extraction. These elites often compete among themselves for shrinking resource rents; they may turn to the state for compensation, or they may act to block institutional reforms that would distribute more fairly the costs of rising scarcity. Scarcities can also aggravate competition among political elites that derive their power from rival political institutions. The management of such conflicts requires immense amounts of state attention, time, and money.On the other hand, environmental scarcities generate opportunities for powerful coalitions of elite members to capture windfall wealth. Scarcities can boost the economic power of small elite groups. As they become more powerful, these groups are increasingly able to ignore state dictates, shirk taxes on their greater wealth, and penetrate the state to make it do their bidding. In particular, they often lobby to change the property rights and other laws governing the use of scarce resources such as water, land, and forests. These groups have a great incentive to pursue such change: the state is usually able to generate large economic rents by expanding the range of permissible uses of resources and by granting monopolistic access to resources. In many societies, these rent-seeking elite groups influence the state through bribery, kickbacks, and other forms of corruption.
  3. Such predatory behavior by elites often evokes defensive reactions by weaker groups that directly depend on the resources in question. The struggle for resource control between powerful and weak groups, and among weak groups themselves, worsens social segmentation, which in turn debilitates civil society and erodes the trust-building processes that civil society promotes. The loss of trust, of information flows from society to the state, and of private implementation of state policies reduces the reach and responsiveness of the state at the local level. The state’s failure to meet local needs then depresses its legitimacy.
  4. If resource scarcity affects the economy’s general productivity, tax revenues to local and national governments can decline. Such a revenue decline hurts elites that benefit from state largesse and reduces the state’s capacity to meet the increased demands arising from environmental scarcity.

We see, therefore, that environmental scarcity can affect a number of the variables measuring state capacity. It can directly constrain a state’s fiscal resources, and by encouraging predatory behavior by elites, it can reduce state autonomy. Rivalry among political elites reduces coherence, and competition among groups over resources weakens civil society. The conjunction of these four changes, in turn, hinders state responsiveness by reducing its ability to supply social ingenuity in the form of efficient markets, clear property rights, and an effective judicial and police system. Environmental scarcity can also boost financial and political demands on the state and increase grievances of marginal groups. A widening gap between rising demands and state performance, in turn, erodes state legitimacy, further aggravates conflicts among elites, and sharpens disputes between the elites and the masses. As the state weakens, the social balance of power can shift in favor of groups challenging state authority.

In addition to the Case Studies below, there are other articles on this topic here.

Case Studies

Chiapas, Mexico. The rebellion of Zapatista insurgents in Chiapas, Mexico is a result, in part, of a classical process of ecological marginalization. Indigenous peasants were pushed into ecologically vulnerable highland and tropical forest areas; high population growth and land degradation in these areas in turn exacerbated the poverty that catalysed the insurgency. The Chiapas rebellion has had a monumental effect on Mexican economic stability. It has disrupted international investment and strained NAFTA. It is an example of the potentially large-scale social and economic impacts of population and ecological problems.

Gaza. The achievement of limited autonomy for Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho in 1993 engendered hope for peace in the Middle East, yet violence persists. In Gaza, water scarcity has clearly aggravated socio-economic conditions. These conditions, in turn, have contributed to the grievances behind ongoing violence against Israel and emerging tensions among Palestinians in Gaza.

Pakistan. With one of the highest population growth rates in Asia, widespread land degradation and water scarcity, stalled economic reform, and weak governmental authority in both the cities and countryside, Pakistan’s political stability is threatened. A radicalization of the Pakistani regime would have implications for stability throughout South Asia, especially in the context of the unending crisis in Kashmir, the nuclear dimension of Indo-Pakistani relations, and continued turmoil in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Rwanda The recent catastrophe in Rwanda is of great concern to policymakers, and many analysts have suggested that demographic and ecological factors powerfully contributed to the violence. A report on Rwanda therefore examines whether rapid population growth and cropland scarcities helped cause the civil conflict. Although the report concludes that the country’s demographic and scarcity stresses were extreme, these pressures are best seen as factors aggravating, not directly causing, the country’s widespread ethnocide.

South Africa Although astonishing political changes have taken place recently in South Africa, many people do not realize that the country remains burdened by extreme land degradation in the former homelands. This resource scarcity and rapid population growth are driving large migrations of homeland residents into urban areas. Urban squatter settlements and townships are still experiencing high levels of ethnic violence exacerbated by this migration. South Africa’s move to democratic stability is therefore threatened by environmental and demographic pressures.

Table 1: Indicators of State Capacity
Indicators of the State’s (or its Components’) Intrinsic Characteristics:
Human Capital The technical and managerial skill level of individuals within the state and its component parts.
Instrumental Rationality The ability of state’s components to gather and evaluate information relevant to their interests and to make reasoned decisions maximizing their utility. (Note that “utility” may be locally defined; i.e., it may reflect the narrow interests of the component and not the broader interests of the state or society.)
Coherence The degree to which the state’s components agree and act on shared ideological bases, objectives, and methods; also, the ability of these components to communicate and constructively debate ideas, information, and policies among themselves.
Resilience The state’s capacity to absorb sudden shocks, to adapt to longer-term changes in socio-economic conditions, and to sustainably resolve societal disputes without catastrophic breakdown. The opposite of “brittleness.”
Indicators of the Relations between the State (or its Components) and Society:
Autonomy The extent to which the state can act independently of external forces, both domestic and international, and coopt those that would alter or constrain its actions.
Fiscal Resources The financial capacity of the state or of a given component of the state. This capacity is a function of both current and reasonably feasible revenue streams as well as demands on that revenue.
Reach and Responsiveness The degree to which the state is successful in extending its ideology, socio-political structures, and administrative apparatus throughout society (both geographically, and into the socio-economic structures of civil society); the responsiveness of these structures and apparatus to the local needs of the society.
Legitimacy The strength of the state’s moral authority — the extent to which the populace obeys its commands out of a sense of allegiance and duty, rather than as a result of coercion or economic initiative.
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