Population, Environment and Security: A New Trinity

Date Published: July 15, 2006

The end of the Cold War has forced a redefinition of national security in the United States. While "rogue states" like Iraq have replaced the Soviet Union as the enemy (Klare 1995), globalization has ushered in an era of more amorphous threats. The environment ranks high among them. 'Environment and security' are linked together in a rapidly growing policy enterprise which involves the U.S. Departments of State and Defense, the CIA, academic research institutes, private foundations and non-governmental organizations. There are a number of reasons why 'environment and security' is an idea whose time has come. Clearly, serious global environmental problems such as ozone depletion, global warming and pollution of the seas require new forms of international cooperation. Whether or not these should be the purview of national security agencies is another question, given their tradition of competition, secrecy, and nationalism (Deudney 1991).

The focus of the environment and security field is less on these legitimate concerns, however, than on a supposed causal relationship between population pressures, resource scarcities and intrastate conflict in the South. According to the main architect of this theory, Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon, environmentally-induced internal conflict in turn causes states to fragment or become more authoritarian, seriously disrupting international security (Homer-Dixon 1994).

The scarcity-conflict model is fast becoming conventional wisdom in foreign policy, population and environment circles, popularized and sensationalized by writers such as Robert Kaplan and Paul Kennedy (Kaplan 1994, Connelly and Kennedy 1994). Top State Department officials have blamed political strife in Haiti, Rwanda and Chiapas, Mexico in large part on population and environmental stresses (Wirth 1994, Christopher 1996).

Opportunism no doubt plays a role in making the model a fashionable trend. For the State Department it is a convenient form of ideological spin control which masks the tragic human consequences of U.S. support for military regimes and Duvalier-style dictatorships during the Cold War. For the military it provides new rationales and missions to legitimize its multi-billion dollar budget. This also means more business for the large aerospace corporations suffering from the loss of Cold War defense contracts. Increasingly, the military-industrial complex is becoming a "military-environmental security complex" (Deibert 1996:29).

The international relations field also needs new raisons d'etre, and environment and security research is well-funded. The population lobby has seized on it too for several reasons. As birth rates continue to fall around the globe more rapidly than anticipated, it is hard to sustain the alarmism that fuels popular support for population control. Building an image of an overpopulated, environmentally degraded and violent Third World is politically expedient, especially as it feeds on popular fears that refugees from this chaos will storm our borders.

An appeal to national security interests is also a strategy to counter the right-wing assault on international family planning assistance. For example, a recent Rockefeller Foundation report High Stakes: The United States, Global Population and Our Common Future (whose cover contrasts sad dark-skinned children with happy white ones) draws heavily on the scarcity-conflict model in order to move a recalcitrant Congress:

Resource scarcities, often exacerbated by population growth, undermine the quality of life, confidence in government, and threaten to destabilize many parts of the globe... Once a resource becomes scarce, a society's "haves" often seize control of it, leaving an even smaller share for the "have-nots." Since population growth rates are highest among the have-nots, this means that an even larger number of people are competing for a smaller share of resources -- and violent conflict is often the result (Rockefeller Foundation 1997: 9,21).

In a kind of strange deja-vu, the threat of resource scarcities and political instability also featured in Rockefeller's first rationales for population control in the 1950s (Hartmann 1995).

Opportunism and political pragmatism are not the only explanations for the rapid acceptance of the scarcity-conflict model, however. The concept of scarcity has a deep resonance in the U.S. cultural and political psyche. Andrew Ross draws the link between the manufacturing of social scarcity essential to capitalist, competitive individualist regimes and the notion of natural scarcity (Ross 1996). The grossly unequal division of wealth in a society of resource abundance and waste demands an ethic of social scarcity to explain poverty. In the 1970s the wasteful consumer class in the U.S. spearheaded concerns about a global ecology crisis; worried about the earth's 'natural limits,' they brought a new paradigm of natural scarcity into being.

The result, according to Ross, is that:
For more than two decades now, public consciousness has sustained complex assumptions about both kinds of scarcity. In that same period of time, however, neo-liberalism's austerity regime has ushered in what can only be described as a pro-scarcity climate, distinguished, economically, by deep concessions and cutbacks, and politically, by the rollback of "excessive" rights. As a result, the new concerns about natural scarcity have been paralleled, every step of the way, by a brutal imposition of social scarcity...the two forms of scarcity have been confused, either deliberately, in order to reinforce austerity measures against the poor, or else inadvertently, through a lack of information about how natural resources are produced and distributed (6).

Ross concludes that systematic inequalities underlie both shortages of economic resources and environmental degradation. Unlike New Right economists like Julian Simon, he does not minimize the severity of environmental problems, but points to the need for redistribution of wealth and power in order to prevent the "lonely hour when biological scarcity is the 'last instance' of determination in planetary life" (26).

Neo-Malthusianism dovetails nicely with the ideology of social and natural scarcity and has proved very compatible with neo-liberalism. It is not surprising that it occupies such an important place in the environment and security framework.

Parables of Scarcity

In 1989 Jessica Matthews' article "Redefining Security" helped set the stage for the linking of environment and security. "Population growth lies at the core of most environmental trends," she wrote and then went on to recommend support for international family planning as one of the four most important steps in a new security agenda (Matthews 1989:163, 177).

Since that time references to population pressures as a, if not the, major strain on the environment have become seemingly obligatory in the literature. They are usually unsubstantiated, presented as a self-evident truth. The 1996 U.S. National Security Strategy announces in the preface that "large-scale environmental degradation, exacerbated by rapid population growth, threatens to undermine political stability in many countries and regions" (White House 1996:72). "Exacerbated by population growth" (and nothing else) is in fact a constant refrain.

Just what is the evidence for these assumptions? Thomas Homer-Dixon's Project on Environment, Population and Security, jointly sponsored by the University of Toronto, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Canadian Center for Global Security, has produced a series of case studies (e.g. of Rwanda, South Africa, Pakistan, and Chiapas) to investigate the relationship between population growth, renewable resource scarcities, migration and violent conflict. While the text of the case studies tends to be more nuanced, the models based on them are simple diagrams of questionable causality.

Homer-Dixon admits that his project did not address the complex root causes of environmental scarcities such as "the maldistribution or depletion of resources, dysfunctional markets, exploitative gender relations and the international political economy." Instead "the project began its analysis with the existence of scarcity and examined the social consequences of that scarcity"(Homer-Dixon 1996:45). This is a fundamental flaw: analytically, how can one separate the root causes from the consequences? 'Scarcity,' like an artificial wall, stops and separates dynamic social and ecological processes.

In Figure 1 Homer-Dixon illustrates the main lines of causality between environmental scarcity and conflict. In Figure 2 he depicts the process of 'resource capture', and in Figure 3 that of 'ecological marginalization.' Note the important role of population growth in all three -- and the notable absence of the "root causes" he neglects.

From Homer-Dixon 1996:45-46.
There are a number of problems with these models. First, by their very nature, they homogenize diverse regions with distinct histories and cultures. Clearly, the specific colonial and post-colonial histories of countries such as Rwanda and Haiti, for example, have much to do with the present generation of 'scarcity' in those places.

Also missing from the picture is serious discussion of economic inequalities. Although Homer-Dixon acknowledges their importance, the place they occupy in his models skews causality, in effect naturalizing the processes of maldistribution. Combined with population growth, he argues, resource scarcity encourages powerful groups within a society to shift distribution in their favor -- this is the 'resource capture' presented in Figure 2. Similarly, agricultural shortfalls due to population growth and land degradation are seen to induce large development schemes, the benefits of which are then captured by the rich (Homer-Dixon 1994:13).

The origins of inequalities and the role of powerful forces -- agribusiness, mining, timber and other corporate interests -- in environmental degradation receive little attention. The argument that environmental stress weakens state structures, or that it makes them more authoritarian, puts the cart before the horse, since state structures themselves profoundly affect how resources are distributed and managed. The choice of a large development scheme over more sustainable small-scale projects, for example, may have little or nothing to do with agricultural shortfalls and instead reflect the links between foreign donors and domestic elites who stand to gain from lucrative procurement and construction contracts.

Homer-Dixon's view of the state is oddly idealized. Environmental scarcities, he argues, "threaten the delicate give and take relationship between state and society." If the state cannot cope with the resulting agricultural shortfalls, economic stress and migration, then "grass-roots organizations" responsive only to their own constituencies may step in to respond. This enhances "the opportunities for powerful groups to seize control of local institutions or the state and use them for their own gain (Homer-Dixon 1996:48)."

It takes quite a stretch of the imagination to believe the states which he has studied, which include Mexico, Pakistan and Rwanda after all, had a nice give and take relationship with their people before scarcity set in. In fact, one could argue the real scarcity in those places was and still is one of democratic control over the structures that govern access to both economic and natural resources. Characterizing "grassroots organizations" as forces for social segmentation also neglects the role many such groups have played in building a democratic civil society to challenge corrupt and authoritarian states.

The neglect of external actors constitutes a further lacuna. Intra-state violence is seldom a self-contained phenomenon -- where, for example, does the role of the arms trade, geo-political maneuvering and international financial institutions figure in Homer-Dixon's models? The models are essentially closed systems in which internal stresses may generate movement outward, mainly though mass migration, but the outside is rarely seen to be pressing in.

Homer-Dixon, for example, depicts ecological marginalization (Figure 3) as a process by which unequal resource access and population growth force the migration of the poorest groups to ecologically vulnerable areas such as steep hillsides and tropical rain forests. The pressure of their numbers and their lack of knowledge and capital then cause environmental scarcity and poverty (Homer-Dixon 1996:47).

But should population growth and unequal resource access really be ascribed equal weight as the 'push factors' causing people to migrate to such areas? An extensive study of deforestation by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development notes that while many observers blame deforestation on forest clearing by poor migrants, they ignore the larger forces attracting or pushing these migrants into forest areas, such as the expansion of large-scale commercial farming, ranching, logging and mining. "To blame poor migrants for destroying the forest is like blaming poor conscripts for the ravages of war" (Barraclough and Ghimire 1990:130). The study found an absence of any close correspondence between deforestation rates and rates of either total or agricultural population growth.

In most cases the ecological damage caused by poor peasants pales in comparison with that caused by commercial extraction of resources, often for export. The greatest deforestation occurred under colonialism, and today most tropical wood and beef production, for example, is destined for foreign markets. The failure to link the consumption patterns of developed countries and Southern elites to 'local' land uses is in fact a key shortcoming of Homer-Dixon's approach. The scope of inquiry is surprisingly insular in a period of rapid global economic integration.

The narrow conceptualization of population is also surprising given that population field itself is opening up to more gender-sensitive analysis and programming. Homer-Dixon, and the environment and security literature in general, focus mainly on aggregate population size and density, paying little attention to other key dynamics such as age distribution, differential mortality rates, and sex ratios (Arizpe, Stone and Major 1994). Neglecting history once again, the literature displays little understanding of the processes of demographic transition to lower birth and death rates.

Nor, except for a few obligatory references to the need for women's literacy programs, does it seriously address gender inequalities despite a significant body of research in this area. Subsumed into the analytic frame of 'population pressure', women implicitly become the breeders of both environmental destruction and violence. Important questions are not asked, much less answered. What are women's property rights, labor obligations, and roles in the management of environmental resources? How have structural adjustment policies affected their health, workloads and status relative to male family members? Where are investments being made: in basic food production, where rural women most often work, or in export agriculture? If men are forced to migrate to earn cash or to join militaries, how do women cope with the labor requirements needed to sustain food production and maintain infrastructure?

Instead of linking violence to women's fertility, one can ask how violence affects women's capacity to support the family and community institutions on which protection of the local environment depends. Even more than conventional inter-state war, current conflicts in Africa brutally target women and children in order to destroy communities and at the same time depend on their labor to sustain military forces with both food and fresh recruits (Turshen and Twagiramariya 1998). Women are often discriminated against in post-conflict transitions as well. In Rwanda, for example, there are concerns that widows may lose access to land because of women's limited property rights, undermining the process of agricultural rehabilitation (Byrne, Marcus and Power-Stevens 1995).

Violence is also a direct cause of environmental destruction. The German Institute for Peace Policy estimates that one-fifth of all global environmental degradation is due to military and related activities (Hynes 1993). Feminist geographer Joni Seager argues that whether they are at peace or war, militaries are the biggest threat to the global environment (Seager 1993). Even after the cessation of conflict, land mines and the lingering effects of scorched earth policies and chemical warfare obstruct environmental restoration.

Militaries also directly contribute to the creation of both 'social' and 'natural' scarcities since they take economic resources away from human development and environmental improvements.

This is not to say that population growth plays no role at all in environmental degradation, but to ascribe to it the leading role is to miss the bigger, more complex picture. It fails to address adequately the question of why birth rates remain high in some places. In El Salvador, for example, the same unequal social and economic relations which have slowed demographic transition underlie unsustainable patterns of resource use (Faber 1992).

Recent research also challenges the neo-Malthusian assumption that population pressure always negatively affects the environment. In parts of Africa, increasing population densities combined with sound agricultural practices have spurred environmental improvements (Tiffen, Mortimore and Gichuki 1994). Similarly, the focus on peasant populations as the destroyers of the environment neglects the important role of traditional agriculture in preserving biodiversity (Altieri and Merrick 1987).

Even though he focuses on population, Homer-Dixon is not a strict Malthusian doomsdayer in the tradition of Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, et al. He believes that social and technical ingenuity can help overcome the problem of resource scarcities. Institutions that "provide the right incentives for technological entrepreneurs" and "family planning and literacy campaigns" that ease population-induced scarcity are among his solutions (Homer-Dixon 1994:16-17). Missing from this technocratic framework is the notion of political transformation. Indeed, progressive movements for social change would probably be put into the category of scarcity-induced conflict.

Despite its popularity among liberals, Homer-Dixon's is a conservative world view where the maldistribution of both power and resources is essentially naturalized and determined by the god of scarcity. When this god of scarcity meets the devil of racism, the result is the greening of hate.

Back to Deepest, Darkest Africa

In 1994 journalist Robert Kaplan popularized Homer-Dixon's views in an Atlantic Monthly piece on "The Coming Anarchy," which proclaimed the environment as the most important national security issue of the 21st century (Kaplan 1994). Much of the article dwells on West Africa which Kaplan presents as a hopeless scene of overpopulation, squalor, environmental degradation and violence, where young men are post-modern barbarians and children with swollen bellies swarm like ants.

Kaplan's article did for Africa what the Bell Curve did for the U.S.: it reintroduced racism as a legitimate form of public discourse. But whereas The Bell Curve was at least attacked by some elements of the liberal press, "The Coming Anarchy" captured the imagination of the liberal establishment, even that of President Clinton himself.

"I was so gripped by many things that were in that article," Clinton said in a speech on population, "and by the more academic treatment of the same subject by Professor Homer-Dixon...You have to say, if you look at the numbers, you must reduce the rate of population growth" (U.S. Department of State 1994).

Homer-Dixon, of course, should not be held responsible for all of Kaplan's racist (and misogynist) stereotyping, and he is now careful to distance himself from the journalist's work. Yet the fact remains that the scarcity-conflict model can easily serve as a vehicle for this kind of thinking. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Africa.

Kaplan expands on the themes of "The Coming Anarchy" in his book The Ends of the Earth which takes environmental determinism to a new and absurd level. For example, he links violence in Liberia to its dense forests. In the dark rain forest where trees and creepers block the view, "men tend to depend less on reason and more on suspicion," he writes. The Liberian forest, "a green prison with iron rain clouds," is thus responsible for the animism and spirit worship which weakened the civilizing influences of Islam and Christianity. Liberia, "a forest culture" further undermined by overpopulation, is naturally more prone to violence (Kaplan 1996a:28-29).

Seen through Kaplan's eyes, African women are mainly bare-breasted and pregnant and their fertility is out of control, with dire consequences. In an interview on the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, he went so far as to suggest that if women in Rwanda had lower fertility, the genocide would not have happened (Kaplan 1996b).

His images of Africa are reminiscent of old colonial accounts of the enlightened white man encountering the primitive savage. In fact, he is enamored of the British colonial writer Richard Burton, who, he notes approvingly, perceived that slaves preferred the "paradise" of the American South and the "lands of happiness" in the West Indies to their native home (Kaplan 1996a:80-81).

Despite the lack of substantive evidence, Kaplan maintains that Africa's climate and poverty are the breeding ground for AIDS and other deadly diseases which, along with crime, threaten even our wealthiest suburbs. And that is why self-interest dictates we care about the continent. He is short on solutions, however. He is not keen on democracy, preferring the "honest" authoritarianism of Singapore's dictator Lee Kuan Yew (Kaplan 1996a:377). Hence, he argues, the West should shift emphasis away from promoting democracy in the Third World toward "family planning, environmental renewal, road-building and other stabilizing projects" (Kaplan 1995). He ignores the emergence of many positive national and transnational political forces such as the peace, environmental and women's movements.

Like Kaplan, Jeffrey Goldberg of the New York Times also shoulders a modern day variant of the white man's burden. In a recent feature article entitled "Our Africa Problem," he writes:

There is a whole new set of what might be called biological national-security issues: environmental destruction, explosive population growth, the rapid spread of disease and the emergence of entirely new diseases. It is widely understood that these things hurt Africa. What is not understood is that they can also hurt America (Goldberg 1997:35).

Goldberg warns of yet unknown killer microbes emanating from Central Africa's dense rain forests. "Chaos, though, is the best incubator of disease," he claims, and disease is an incubator of chaos. Africa is caught in a vicious cycle of misery where war and corruption mean no health care and family planning, which leads to "too many sick people" who in turn "create desperation and poverty," leading back to corruption and war (35). This simple closed system leaves out everything from IMF and World Bank-imposed structural adjustment programs that have seriously eroded African public health systems to declining terms of trade for African products on the international market.

Goldberg has solutions, however. Watching the sterilization of a poor, naked Kenyan woman, he notes that U.S. aid for family planning can help stem the biological crisis of overpopulation. Then add to that the magic bullet of the free market. The export of beef and roses, he believes, will save Uganda. The U.S. should pursue a policy of heightened engagement in Africa not only to subdue the microbes, reduce population growth, and stem the tide of refugees, but quite simply "to make money"(80).

But making money is not always conducive to protecting the environment. For example, commercial livestock and flower production may well have a negative impact on Uganda's ecology. Methyl bromide, a highly toxic pesticide which is also a major ozone depletor, is now used on neighboring Kenya's flower crops (Political Ecology Group 1997). The limits of Goldberg's environmental understanding are revealed by his statement that Mobuto, Zaire's recently deposed dictator, was "an effective environmentalist," even if an inadvertent one, because he let the country's infrastructure deteriorate and left its immense forests in near-pristine condition (Goldberg 1997:38). Underdevelopment thus becomes synonymous with environmentalism, as if the human beings inhabiting Zaire do not matter.

A psychoanalyst could have a field day with Kaplan and Goldberg's images of Africa -- the dark, impenetrable rain forest as the subconscious; fears of women's uncontrolled fertility as a manifestation of sexual repression; Africa as the unknown, the other, the enemy; the U.S. as the superpower superego.

Whatever the reason, these images have infected the U.S. political psyche, helping to shape public opinion if not public policy. That overpopulation was a major cause of the genocide in Rwanda has become conventional wisdom in mainstream environmental and foreign policy circles. In a much heralded speech on the environment, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned that "We must not forget the hard lessons of Rwanda, where depleted resources and swollen populations exacerbated the political and economic pressures that exploded into one of this decade's greatest tragedies"(Christopher 1996:83). Similarly, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth remarked recently that in Rwanda "there were simply too many people competing for too few resources" (Wirth 1996:118).

Scholars more familiar with Rwanda's history, and that of neighboring states, offer a much more complex understanding of the tragic events there. While not denying the existence of demographic and environmental pressures, Peter Uvin, who worked as a development consultant in the region, analyzes the role of economic and political inequalities, institutionalized ethnic prejudice, and foreign assistance in generating the conflict. Ironically, the international aid community considered Rwanda a model developing country; even in the 1990s when violent repression and genocidal preparations were becoming state policy, foreign aid more than doubled. Uvin writes:

Rwanda's genocide was the extreme outcome of the failure of a development model that was based on ethnic, regional and social exclusion; that increased deprivation, humiliation and vulnerability of the poor; that allowed state-instigated racism and discrimination to continue unabated; that was top-down and authoritarian; and that left the masses uninformed, uneducated, and unable to resist orders and slogans. It was also the failure of development cooperation based on ethnic amnesia, technocracy and political blindness (Uvin 1996:34).