Green giant or straw man? Environmental pressure and civil conflict, 1961–99


The proposition that environmental scarcity causes violent conflict attracts both popular and academic interest. Neomalthusian writers have developed theoretical arguments explaining this connection, and have conducted numerous case studies that seem to support the view that scarcity of biological assets such as land and other renewable resources causes conflict. So far there have been few systematic quantitative or comparative studies, and the few that exist have focused on particular forms of environmental degradation or on a small subset of resources, particularly mineral wealth. We test a more general argument about the effects of resource scarcity by examining the most widely-used measure of environmental sustainability: the ecological footprint. Contrary to neomalthusian thinking, we find that countries with a heavier footprint have a substantially greater chance of peace. Biocapacity and the ecological reserve also predict to peace, but these results are more fragile. Separate tests for smaller conflicts, for the post-Cold War period, and with additional control variables do not yield stronger support for the scarcity thesis. On the whole, the neomalthusian model of conflict receives little support from this analysis. We cannot exclude that erosion of the earth’s carrying capacity can increase conflict in the long run, but an empirical analysis with the ecological footprint measure does not provide any support for such a position.

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  1. 1.

    See Nordås and Gleditsch (2005) for an evaluation of arguments linking climate change to conflict.

  2. 2.

    A stock measure captures aspects of scarcity relative to needs much better than flow, since flows are annual indicators that may not capture aspects of total availability.

  3. 3.

    Madeleine Albright, 21 April 1994, cited in Peluso and Watts, 2001: 7.

  4. 4.

    Cf. For a critical view of the Nobel Committee’s reasoning, see Gleditsch and Urdal (2004).

  5. 5.

    The MEA cites the work of Thomas Homer-Dixon in support of its claims. We will also concentrate largely on Homer-Dixon’s work below.

  6. 6.

    See also Dryzek (1987) for discussion of the various environmental discourses.

  7. 7.

    Meadows, Meadows, Randers, and Behrens (1972) and Meadows, Randers, and Meadows (2004). For a critical review, see Smil (2005).

  8. 8.

    In this brief survey, we ignore studies of scarcity and interstate conflict, which are less relevant to our empirical test below.

  9. 9.

    Strong sustainability is the notion that there is no substitutability between forms of capital. In other words, nature should be kept intact for future generations. Weak sustainability is the notion that natural capital can be substituted by human and physical capital. In other words, knowledge and technology can substitute for ecoservices (Neumayer, 2003).

  10. 10.

    See Monfreda, Wackernagel, and Deumling (2004), Wackernagel and Rees (1996) and Wackernagel et al. (1999, 2004). For an explication with some critical remarks, see Ferguson (2002).

  11. 11.

    Biocapacity represents the ‘maximum theoretical rate of resource supply that can be sustained on its [the nation’s] territory under prevailing technology and management schemes.’ (Wackernagel et al., 2004: 18). To convert actual hectares into comparable ‘global hectares’ the nation’s bioproductive areas are multiplied by an equivalence factor (for the given year) and a yield factor (for the given country and year). The six different bioproductive areas have different factors (WWF, 2004: 36).

  12. 12.

    Wackernagel’s publications are very widely cited in the academic literature. Wackernagel and Rees (1996) has over 300 citations on ISI Web of Science and over 1,000 on Google Scholar.

  13. 13.

    In sensitivity analyses undertaken in response to the comments of a referee, we ran the models with log transformed income per capita (natural log) as well as the non-transformed income variable used by Fearon and Laitin (2003). None of the basic results changed significantly.

  14. 14.

    We use the Clarify program to compute substantive effects (Tomz et al., 2003).

  15. 15.

    Or .73 if both are logged. The correlation matrix in Appendix 2 reports .78, which is the correlation between logged EF and unlogged income.

  16. 16.

    See the Footprint Term Glossary, downloaded from biologicallyproductivelandandwater, 14 January 2007.

  17. 17.

    These results are not presented in the tables, but can be reproduced using our replication data (see the first footnote).

  18. 18.

    For a much more detailed study casting doubt on population pressure as a driver of internal conflict, see Urdal (2005).


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Correspondence to Helga Malmin Binningsbø.

Additional information

Our work on this paper has been supported by the Research Council of Norway. We are also grateful to the Global Footprint Network for making their data available to us. Earlier versions of the paper were presented at the 101st Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, 1–4 September 2005, the Third General Conference of the European Consortium for Political Research, Budapest, 8–10 September 2005 and the 47th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, San Diego, California, 22–25 March 2006. We are grateful for comments from the participants of these meetings, the Editor of this journal, as well as an anonymous referee. Our data are available at PRIO’s replication data page, The order of the authors is alphabetical.



Appendix 1 Summary statistics, 1961–1999
Appendix 2 Correlation matrix

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Binningsbø, H.M., de Soysa, I. & Gleditsch, N.P. Green giant or straw man? Environmental pressure and civil conflict, 1961–99. Popul Environ 28, 337 (2007).

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  • Ecological footprint
  • Armed conflict
  • Neomalthusianism
  • Resource scarcity