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Risks of conflict - resource and population pressures

Linacre Lecture, University of Oxford, 2001-03-08


The theme you have given me has risen and fallen in popularity over the last few years. It arouses strong feelings, not least because it is hard to define - or even to identify with certainty - and still harder to cope with. The implications go far and wide. Tonight I step gingerly into the debate.

Wars, conflicts and the use of force are the endemic conditions of humanity. Few like it. Almost all condone it. The reasons are almost as various as people themselves: ideology, fear, glory, greed, habit, pressure on resources, and the compulsions of power all play a part. Fights between our near cousins the chimpanzees may be painful for them but they leave little trace afterwards. Only with the enormous growth in the human population and its ever increasing demands has war affected our physical surroundings, and in the last century the good health of the planetary environment as a whole.

The two world wars in the last century showed how dangerous wars between industrial states had become. It is probably no coincidence that there has been none since then. As the United Nations Secretary General remarked in his Millennial Report last year, "the majority of wars today are wars among the poor". Violence within societies has also increased.

Of the 27 armed conflicts that took place in 1999, all but two were within national boundaries. It is one of the products of the current decline in the power and status of the nation state. Power is moving upwards to international institutions (however ill equipped to receive it) to cope with problems outside the abilities of any state; it is moving downwards to regional, ethnic and local communities anxious to recover identity and meaning; and it is moving sideways between citizens worldwide through the marvels of radio, television, the internet and other electronic means of communication.

In these changing circumstances the world looks a messier place than I have known it during my 36 years as a diplomat. The pressures on human society are increasing relentlessly. A recent book on the environmental history of the 20th century was well entitled Something New Under the Sun. Up to now there has been a precedent for most things: population explosions of particular plants or animals; periodical extinctions; changes in soil fertility; rapid global cooling and rapid global warming; even impacts of objects from outer space. But in the history of life there are few if any precedents for the enormous impact on the earth of one animal species: our own.

It can be seen as a case of malignant maladaptation in which a species, like infected tissue in the organism of life, multiplies out of control, affecting everything else. In terms of factors of increase within the last century, the human population rose by four, air pollution by around five, water use by nine, sulphur emissions by thirteen, energy use by sixteen, carbon dioxide emission by seventeen, marine fish catch by thirty-five, and industrial output by forty.

Reasons for Conflict

Most of the implications remain unrecognized. Our lives are too short to grasp them. Tonight I focus on their potentialities for violence. With human communities everywhere under strain, there are five main drivers for change in the human condition, each associated with the others, and all pointing towards risks of social breakdown, which in turn could lead to violence in one form or another.

Population increase

First comes the rate of human population increase. At the end of the last Ice Age some 12,000 years ago, the human population was probably around 10 million. With the introduction of agriculture, urbanization and complex social organization, numbers rose steeply. At the time of Thomas Malthus, when industrialization was just beginning, the population was around one billion. By 1930 it had risen to two billion. Today it is over six billion, and according to most predictions it will rise to between eight and ten billion by the middle of this century.

Between the Rio conference of 1992 and 2000, some 450 million new people came to inhabit the earth. This is more than the total population at the time of the Roman and Han empires some two thousand years before. If the increase had been in elephants, swallows, sharks, or cockroaches, we would have been scared silly; but as it is ourselves, we shrug our shoulders as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

Within the figures there are some clear trends:

Soil degradation

The second driver is change in the condition of the land. More people need more space and more resources. Soil degradation is estimated to affect some 10% of the current world agricultural area. Although more and more land, whatever its quality, is used for human purposes, increase in food supplies has not kept pace with increase in population. Today many of the problems are of distribution. But even countries generating food surpluses can see limits ahead. Application of biotechnology, itself with some dubious aspects, could never hope to meet likely shortfalls.

In the meantime industrial contamination of various kinds has greatly increased. To run our complex societies, we need copious amounts of energy, at present overwhelmingly derived from the world's dwindling resources of fossil fuels laid down hundreds of millions of years ago. We also have to deal with the mounting problems of waste disposal, including the toxic products of industry.


The third driver is water. No resource is in greater demand than fresh water. At present such demand doubles every twenty-one years, and seems to be accelerating. Yet supply in a world of six billion people is the same as it has been for thousands of years. Falling water tables are widespread and cause serious problems, both because they lead to water shortages and in coastal areas to salt intrusion. Already the Global Environment Outlook 2000 (published by the United Nations Environment Programme) refers to a global water crisis. In the future we must expect water to be a still greater cause of dissension and conflict than in the past.

At the same time there has been increasing pollution of water, both fresh and salt. Some rivers, for example the Yellow River in China and the River Jordan, have dwindled into noxious streams. It can be no surprise that coastal areas are at particular risk from materials brought down by rivers to the sea. There is an increasing incidence of toxins produced by blue-green algae along rivers and coasts, and in the deep oceans fish stocks are rapidly declining. Indeed fishing fleets are 40% larger than fishing stocks can sustain.


The fourth driver is damage to the natural ecosystems of which humans are a small but immodest part. Human activities are causing extinction of other species at around a thousand times the natural rate, while the replacement rate is as always slow and capricious. Too easily we forget human dependence on other species.

Reduction of biodiversity affects food supplies (already heavily dependent on a few genetic strains) and medicine (heavily dependent on limited plant and animal sources). But more important are the ecological benefits: we rely on forests and vegetation to produce soil, to hold it together, and to regulate supplies by preserving catchment basins, recharging ground water and buffering extreme conditions; we rely on soils to be fertile and break down pollutants; and we rely on nutrients for recycling and disposal of waste.

There is no conceivable substitute for such natural services. At present there is a general impoverishment of the biosphere. According to the Living Planet Index put together by WWF last year, the state of the Earth's natural ecosystems has declined by about a third in the last 30 years, while the ecological pressure of humanity has increased by about a half during the same period. These processes are accelerating.

The fifth driver is change in the chemistry of the atmosphere. Acidification from industry has affected wide areas downwind. Depletion of the atmospheric ozone layer is permitting more ultra-violet radiation to reach the surface of the earth, with so far unmeasured effects on organisms unadapted to it. Greenhouse gases are increasing at a rate which could change average world temperature, with big resulting variations in climate and local weather as well as sea levels.

The latest reports from Working Groups 1 and 2 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change well illustrate the scope of the problem. By any reckoning their conclusions are alarming, and the world has yet to take proper account of them. Here the Prime Minister, following his two predecessors in office, gave a real lead in his speech on Tuesday 6 March [2001]. The debate about climate has shifted from whether change is happening at all to the degree of change and how it will affect different parts of the world. The recent Nino phenomenon has well illustrated what vast changes can be caused by small perturbations in the climate system.

The implications for security are obvious. So long as human numbers were relatively small, changes in climate, as over the last ten thousand years, could be accommodated by movements of people. But in a crowded world, where people are up against natural limits, big movements of population, as after the last ice age, are not practical politics. No wonder that climate change has often been identified as the single biggest threat to world stability.

Its manifestations in the form of drought, floods or sea level rise could lead to any number of conflicts. But it is rather the combination of the circumstances I have described which is most important. In 1972 a prophetic book was published entitled The Limits to Growth. Many people poured scorn on it as an extrapolation of existing trends. This was somewhat unfair as the authors were simply trying to warn about what might happen if such trends continued.

Twenty years later the same authors published Beyond the Limits. In it they showed that on current models with expanding human population and continuing economic growth, the world economy as it is now known will eventually be unable to function: not just for the obvious reasons, important as they are, but because governments and communities would simply be unable to cope. There would be a creeping contagion of breakdown in different countries at different times. The problem of what has been called state failure is very real. There have been cases in which state bankruptcy has led society to collapse like a subsiding sand hill, with the inhabitants of cities returning to an unwelcoming reception in their countryside of origin, or even less welcoming neighbour countries. This has happened already, for example in West Africa, Haiti and parts of Asia, including Indonesia.

Prospects for Conflict

So if the prospects for conflict are limitless, what are the likely triggers? How can we be more precise? Nothing is more difficult, not least because circumstances are so different, and effects do not directly follow causes. In poor countries depletion or degradation of natural resources, for example water, land for crops, fuel wood, and fish have a multiplicity of social consequences. They create poverty, promote inequity, aggravate tensions within communities, and weaken institutions.

In industrial countries technology can sometimes hold such problems at bay, at least for a while. At present they are dependent on access to fossil fuels for their energy supplies, and most of these, including some off shore, are inconveniently situated outside their control. They are generally more vulnerable than they suppose, as was brought out last month in a paper entitled The Future Strategic Context for Defence by the British Ministry of Defence. Many of the same points appear in a CIA paper entitled Global Trends 2015, although here the perennial US spirit of optimism permeates the analysis.

The triggers for conflict within and between countries and communities can come almost anywhere, and once conflicts start, they are likely to persist and to spread. Here are some examples. Water shortage, increased by depletion of aquifers, is one of the underlying sources of tension between Israelis and Palestinians. At present illegal Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories take up four times as much water as the Palestinian inhabitants.

Destruction of forest cover and degradation of crop land, combined with seizures of communal lands, in the Mexican state of Chiapas are the principal source of the present Zapatista uprising against the central government. Comparable problems exist in many parts of Africa, in particular Ethiopia and Rwanda. Soil erosion in Nepal, Haiti, the slopes of the Andes and parts of China have had profoundly destabilizing effects with consequences that governments find increasingly difficult to manage.

So far conflicts between nation states have been rare, with the exception of those arising from oil. This may not continue. Water is one prime threat. I remember an occasion when the Egyptian Foreign Minister made it clear that any attempt by the Ethiopian government to divert or diminish the flow of water from Lake Tana into the Blue Nile could be regard as a casus belli. The export of pollution of any kind across frontiers could be the same. What states do to the environment within their boundaries is no longer for them alone.

Some might even consider deliberate damage to the environment as a tool of war. This has happened often enough in the past. One manifestation is scorching of the earth. The CIA has written several interesting papers on this aspect. Certainly the effects of war on the environment, ranging from Hiroshima to Kosovo, can be catastrophic. When I raised these possibilities in the UN Security Council more than ten years ago, many did not want to hear me. I fear they may have to listen in the future.


Another prime threat arises from refugees. They are a consequence as well as a cause of destabilization. Refugees fall into three broad categories: political refugees (those covered by the UN High Commission for Refugees); economic migrants (those who move from poorer to apparently richer parts of the world); and environmental refugees (those driven out of their homes by changing environmental conditions). Of course there is some blurring between the three groups. Yet there has been a reluctance to recognise environmental refugees as such.

All categories have greatly increased in number over the last quarter century. In January 2000 there were over 22 million political refugees. Environmental refugees, as they have no legal status, are more difficult to quantify, but a 1995 estimate put them at 25 million, with particularly large numbers in Africa south of the Sahara. In the circumstances I have described, the total number could greatly increase during this century.

It is worth looking in more detail at one of the issues raised by refugees. At present a heavy concentration of people is living in low lying coastal areas along the world's great river systems. Nearly one third of humanity lives within 60 kilometres of a coastline. A rise in mean sea level of only 25 cm would have substantial effects, and the predictions are for much more in the next 100 years. The industrial countries might be able to construct new sea defences to protect vulnerable areas, but even they would have difficulty with coping with high tides and storm surges of a kind likely to be more common.

For most poor countries such defences would be out of the question. Many of those living and working in, for example, the delta areas of the Nile, the Ganges and the Yangtze and the Zambezi would be forced out of their homes and livelihood. Such islands as the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands in the Pacific would soon become uninhabitable. Bangladesh with its population of well over 100 million, and Egypt with its population of almost as much, would be particularly affected. A rise in sea level beyond half a metre would have more drastic results. The world would look a different place.

What then could be the scale of the human problem ten, twenty, or forty years from now? Even allowing for piecemeal, gradual responses year by year to the imperatives of change, it would be very large. Plucking a figure from the air, if only 1% (a very low estimate) of a world population of eight billion in 2040 were affected, that would still mean some 80 million refugees of all kinds; and 5% (again a low estimate) would produce 400 million. Even 80 million represents a problem of an order of magnitude which no one has yet had to face.

Nor is it all. Refugees create their own problems. In some cases they can return to their countries of origin. In others they can be resettled. Economic migrants or environmental refugees fall into another category whether they stay in their own country or cross into another. At present they are mostly a phenomenon in poor countries. Shelter, food and medical care are hard to find. There is little prospect of return. They often come from another environment (for example highland Ethiopians are forced down to the plains), and bring with them alien customs, religious practices, eating habits, agricultural methods, and - not least - diseases, with susceptibility to local pathogens.

Most have great difficulty in adjusting themselves to new circumstances. Like normal refugees, they mostly depend on charity. Resettlement is never easy, and full assimilation is rare. In any numbers they tend to spread their poverty around them, and to compound the problem from which they first tried to escape. In a world of rapid change they would constitute only one of myriad animal species trying to cope with disruption of their way of life.

Within a country refugees would represent a dangerous element in what would anyway be increasing difficulties of social and economic management. Some governments can cope, some evidently cannot. But few outside the industrial world have the structure or resources to manage a continuing crisis. Such secondary effects as disorder, terrorism, economic breakdown, disease, or bankruptcy, could become endemic. We are all too familiar with them already.

Between countries and regions there would be still greater difficulties. To a greater or lesser extent all would be suffering, and undergoing adjustment. Thus willingness to help others would be limited, the more so if such help threatened to put at risk the adjustment process at home. In times of trouble the pressure of recognizable aliens is liable to ignite popular resentment with the speed of a brush fire.

In industrial countries many feel rightly or wrongly that there is an absolute limit to the number of people from other countries and cultures which can be absorbed without damaging social cohesion and national identity. Some of them certainly welcome migrants with particular qualities and skills. Countries with ageing populations could find a well controlled infusion of the young an advantage. But general resistance to refugees has become popular politics. They can even bedevil foreign policy. As we have recently seen, Albanian, Kurdish, Tamil, Ethopian and Eritrean refugees often want to use their safety abroad to play politics at home. This can be profoundly embarrassing to the host country. Any aggravation of the refugee problem would only strengthen such resistance.

But even if some people and governments wished to seal themselves off from the rest of the world, like Americans in suburban enclaves, they could not do so. In no country or city can the rich fortify themselves for long against the poor. All form part of an increasingly interdependent society. Land frontiers can always be penetrated. The movement northwards of Mexicans and other Latin Americans across the long southern frontier of the United States has so far proved irresistible, and every year parts of the United States develop more hispanic characteristics.

Nor are short sea crossings a real barrier. Desperation could push Africans into Europe, Chinese into the relatively empty parts of Russia, the Indonesians into northern Australia. Sheer numbers could swamp most efforts at control. Yet the refugee issue remains strangely low on the world's long term agenda. The issue may be too hot to handle now. But it will surely be still hotter in the future.


Looking ahead at the prospects for conflict, we seem to be in for a bumpy ride. Violence within and between communities and between nation states could well increase. The precedents are all around us. It would be nave to expect otherwise, and we must be prepared for it. Efforts have been made to work out sets of indicators to show when and where problems are likely to reach danger point. The trouble is that almost every one is special with its own characteristics. No one knows which way the cat will jump or if it will jump at all. Water scarcity could lead to war, or it could lead to cooperation.

In some cases things may have to get worse before they can get better. There is nothing like a catastrophe to concentrate the mind. Certainly we need to think differently about our place in the natural world, the numbers that the world can support, the ways in which we are using or abusing its resources, the philosophies of exploitation and consumerism which guide our society, even the methods by which we measure wealth and wellbeing.

As animals we are both tough and adaptable. But our toughness and adaptability might be tested beyond endurance. For many that is when the fighting begins. We have grown, lived and flourished as elements in specific social and environmental surroundings. Those surroundings or ecosystems could be so damaged that they could fall apart, as they often have in the past, and be replaced by different ones. We should remember the fate of the thirty or so societies which have preceded our own, and left no more than traces behind them.

There are no magic solutions. Obviously we need to be able to contain violence, and to have enforceable rules to govern relations not only between states but also between governments and their citizens. There is a panoply of international institutions, conventions and declarations for the purpose. But perhaps more important is to go for the underlying causes of conflict and try to diminish or mitigate the consequences. Old Adam and old Eve are with us - competitive, docile, various, peaceful, violent, creative and wasteful - now as in the future.

It is a poor lookout. But as the would-be philosopher Oliver Edwards once said of the gloom that was expected of him: "I don't know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in." Let us leave it that way.


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