People, resources, and conflict

January 28th, 2017 by Giangiacomo Bravo

Are you dreaming of a lost Golden Age? Are you sharing Rousseau’s view of a primeval state of nature blessed with peace and harmony? Do you believe that our ancestors lived in balance with nature? Sorry to break your romantic dream. Growing evidence pictures out a different story, one of widespread competition over resources and scarcity-induced conflict. Yesterday, and today.

The most common human story is neither balanced nor quiet. When prehistoric human groups colonised new, richer territories, a period of abundance usually followed. Unfortunately, far too often that produces to population growth and the consequent overexploitation of local resources, triggering a crisis leading to starvation and the need to move further away. The colonization of New Zealand by Polynesian people in the late 13th century, which led to the extinction of at least nine species of moa (large, wingless birds), perfectly represents this pattern. The same happened in many other Pacific islands where, when moving was no longer possible, groups declined or disappeared. When possible, the alternative to starvation was to steal resources from some more lucky neighbours, which often requires to chase them out of their land, or simply to kill them.

The well known popular science writer Jared Diamond is an early proposal of this story (also included in his recent book The World Until Yesterday), so did Clive Ponting in his inspiring Green History of the World. Evidence is growing that they are right. For instance, Mark Allen and colleagues found a clear link between resource scarcity and lethal violence among prehistoric hunter-gatherers in Central California. Nor were early European farmers much better, as shown by the repeated findings of mass graves with victims holding signs of systematic torture and violent death.

The same may have also happened on a much larger scale. A research I recently co-authored shows that human population dynamics in South America 9000 to 5000 years ago cannot be explained without taking into account widespread migration and conflict. What we did is simply to check the ability of two models to reproduce the continental population dynamics recently reported in a Nature paper. In the first, only local natural resources were exploited by human groups, while in the second they had the possibility to move to already occupied neighbouring areas in case of scarcity. The latter model was the only able to correctly reproduce the empirical data, with the logical conclusion that migration and conflict affected human demography at the scale of a whole continent long before globalization and long distance mass transport.

Resource scarcity plays a role in today’s violence and conflicts as well. For instance, among the causes of the Syrian war lies a dramatic stress over domestic water resources due to the growth of the country population, bad agricultural practices, and a multi-year drought, the latter plausibly linked with climate change. In general, changes in the climate and rainfall regime have historically acted as triggers for conflict, especially in situations already presenting factors that produce social tension, such as ethnic divides.

The situation seems not so different in other parts of the world. Failing states represents today one of the main threats to world security. The international displacement of people that the world has experienced in the last few years may well become the norm in the close future. All that can be linked together by what we learned from history. Far to often, humans reached the limit of the environment where they lived. That not only led to poverty and starvation. Far to often also to conflict, warfare, and genocide.

I obviously don’t like these solutions to what, ultimately, are resource scarcity problems. No sane person would. That does not make the study of environmental conflicts less important. Far to often we base our policies and proposed solutions to the problems of the world on an idealised picture of humans and their behaviour. Some blame ridiculous conspiracies (from reptilians to chemtrails) for all the bad they see. More often, weakly defined forces, such as capitalism or globalization, are pointed out. These seem only scapegoats to me. It does not matter if you base your policy on the assumption of socio-economic structures fully conditioning behaviour (Marxism) or on the one of human as perfectly-informed, fully-rational machines (macro-economics models). As long as these assumptions are wrong, your well-intentioned actions are doomed to failure.

Like it or not, the picture that emerges from rigorous research is that we are not noble savages, nor fallen angels. We are the product of blind evolutionary forces, just as any other living being. That may sound depressing. Still, I believe that the recent accumulation of serious knowledge on how human actually behave (and behaved) is invaluable. More than that, it is essential to build sustainable societies and institutions: something that may work with actual people, not only with an idealised picture of what we’d like to be.

Giangiacomo Bravo on Twitter
Giangiacomo Bravo
Professor at Linnaeus University, Växjö. Doing research in environmental and computational social sciences.

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