Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

People, resources, and conflict

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

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 too often humans reached the limit of the environment where they lived. That not only led to poverty and starvation, 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 too 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.

Yet another blog on sustainability!

Monday, November 7th, 2016

Since quite a long time I have tough about holding a blog on sustainability issues. The temptation was strong. I have worked with natural resource management and people behaviour since almost 20 years now, and I think I have something to say! However, so many sources of information (and misinformation) already exist, and the question clearly become whether I can add something meaningful to the debate.

Since I’m writing this, I obviously decided that the answer should be yes. Too often the debate on environmental issues takes a partisan, when not ideological, stand. Scientific evidence is misused, ignored (if it just does not conform to the speaker’s beliefs) and mixed with any sort of arguments from unchecked and unreliable sources. That clearly does not help the public and the decision makers to take the sometimes difficult choices they face in order to provide both us and the future generations with an healthier economy, society and environment. In short, the more the debate is biased the less likely becomes to find a sustainable path for a decent human development on this planet.

What I hope to contribute here is a discussion and clarification of important themes like climate change, biodiversity loss, resource shortages, etc. and of their drivers growth in population and consumption, wrong technological choices, etc. – based on the best-available scientific evidence rather than on arbitrary beliefs based on some obscure online source. I’ll also try to comment news and scientific breakthroughs on environmental issues. There are so many that the only problem will be to select them.

Clearly, I don’t posses the truth and I‘ll be sometimes wrong in my judgements and arguments. In other words, I cannot promise to be always reliable and fool-proof in what I wrote. What I can promise is to select reliable sources of information and to make clear references to them, so that the reader will be able to trace back my arguments. I can also promise to revise them whenever significant contradicting facts are advanced. After all, that’s what we all should do, what science does when at its best, and what the rest of the society unfortunately almost never does.

See you soon!