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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
See Nordås and Gleditsch (2005) for an evaluation of arguments linking climate change to conflict.
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.
Madeleine Albright, 21 April 1994, cited in Peluso and Watts, 2001: 7.
Cf. www.nobel.no/eng_lau_announce2004.html. For a critical view of the Nobel Committee’s reasoning, see Gleditsch and Urdal (2004).
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.
See also Dryzek (1987) for discussion of the various environmental discourses.
In this brief survey, we ignore studies of scarcity and interstate conflict, which are less relevant to our empirical test below.
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).
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).
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.
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.
We use the Clarify program to compute substantive effects (Tomz et al., 2003).
Or .73 if both are logged. The correlation matrix in Appendix 2 reports .78, which is the correlation between logged EF and unlogged income.
See the Footprint Term Glossary, downloaded from www.footprintnetwork.org/gfn_sub.php?content=glossary# biologicallyproductivelandandwater, 14 January 2007.
These results are not presented in the tables, but can be reproduced using our replication data (see the first footnote).
For a much more detailed study casting doubt on population pressure as a driver of internal conflict, see Urdal (2005).
Aall, C.,& Norland, I. T. (2002). Det økologiske fotavtrykk for Oslo kommune [The Ecological Footprint for the City of Oslo]. Report 1/02. Sogndal, Norway: Western Norway Research Institute. (Updated 2006 at www.vestforsk.no/www/show.do?page=12&articleid=1755).
Auty, R. M. (Ed.) (2001). Resource abundance and economic development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ayres, R. U. (2000). Commentary on the utility of the ecological footprint concept. Ecological Economics, 32(3), 347–349.
Barbieri, K., & Reuveny, R. (2005). Economic globalization and civil war. Journal of Politics, 67(4), 1228–1247.
Boserup, E. (1965). The conditions of agricultural growth; the economics of agrarian change under population pressure. London: Allan and Unwin.
Brauch, H. G. (Ed.) (2003). Security and the environment in the mediterranean: Conceptualising security and environmental conflicts. Berlin: Springer.
Cassils, J. A. (2004). Overpopulation, sustainable development, and security: Developing an integrated strategy. Population and Environment, 25(3), 171–194.
Collier, P., Elliot, L., Hegre, H., Hoeffler, A., Reynal-Querol, M., & Sambanis, N. (2003). Breaking the conflict trap: Civil war and development policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dauvergne, P. (2005). Research in global environmental politics: History and trends. In P Dauvergne (Ed.), Handbook of global environmental politics (pp. 8–32). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
de Soysa, I. (2002). Ecoviolence: Shrinking pie or honey pot? Global Environmental Politics, 2(4), 1–27.
de Soysa, I. (2005). Filthy rich, not dirt poor! How nature nurtures civil violence. In P. Dauvergne (Ed.), Handbook of global environmental politics (pp. 149–169). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive. London: Penguin.
Dryzek, J. S. (1987). Rational ecology. Environment and political economy. Oxford: Blackwell.
EAI (2002). Assessing the ecological footprint. A look at the WWF’s living planet report 2002. Copenhagen: Environmental Assessment Institute. Downloaded from http://www.imv.dk/Files/Filer/Rapporter/Verdens%20og%20Europas%20tilstand/ecological_footprint.pdf, 5 August 2005.
Esty, D. C., Goldstone, J. A., Gurr, T. R., Harff, B., Levy, M., Dabelko, G. D., Surko, P T., & Unger, A. N. (1998) State failure task force report. Phase II findings. McLean, VA: Science Applications International, for State Failure Task Force.
Fearon, J. D. (2005). Primary commodities exports and civil war. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49(4), 483–507.
Fearon, J. D., & Laitin, D. D. (2003). Ethnicity, insurgency, and civil war. American Political Science Review, 97(1), 75–90.
Ferguson, A. R. B. (2002). The assumptions underlying eco-footprinting. Population and Environment, 23(3), 303–313.
Gleditsch, N. P. (1998). Armed conflict and the environment: A critique of the literature. Journal of Peace Research, 35(3), 381–400.
Gleditsch, N. P. (2003). Environmental conflict: Neomalthusians vs. Cornucopians. In H. G. Brauch (Ed.), Security and the environment in the mediterranean: Conceptualising security and environmental conflicts (pp. 477–485). Berlin: Springer.
Gleditsch, N. P., Nordås, R., & Salehyan, I. (2007). Climate change, migration, and conflict. Coping with crisis, conflict and change: The United Nations and evolving capacities for managing global crises. New York: International Peace Academy, www.ipacademy.org.
Gleditsch, N. P., & Urdal, H. (2004). Roots of conflict: Don’t blame environmental decay for the next war, International Herald Tribune (op-ed), 22 November: 10, www.iht.com/articles/2004/11/21/opinion/ednils.html.
Gleditsch, N. P., Wallensteen, P., Eriksson, M., Sollenberg, M., & Strand, H. (2002). Armed conflict 1946–2001: A new dataset. Journal of Peace Research, 39(5), 615–637.
Hauge, W., & Ellingsen, T. (1998). Beyond environmental scarcity: Causal pathways to conflict. Journal of Peace Research, 35(3), 299–317.
Hegre, H. (2000). Development and the liberal peace: What does it take to be a trading state? Journal of Peace Research, 37(1), 5–30.
Hegre, H., & Sambanis, N. (2006). Sensitivity analysis of empirical results on civil war onset. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50(4), 508–535.
Homer-Dixon, T. F. (1999). Environment, scarcity, and violence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Homer-Dixon, T. F. (2000). The ingenuity gap. New York: Knopf.
King, G., & Zeng, L. (2001). Improving forecasts of state failure. World Politics, 53(4), 623–658.
Lal, D., & Mynt, H. (1996). The political economy of poverty, equity, and growth. Oxford: Clarendon.
Leach, M., & Fairhead, J. (2000). Challenging neo-malthusian deforestation analyses in West Africa’s dynamic forest landscapes. Population and Development Review, 26(1), 17–43.
Lomborg, B. (2001). The skeptical environmentalist: Measuring the real state of the world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lujala, P., Gleditsch, N. P., & Gilmore, E. (2005). A diamond curse? Civil war and a lootable resource. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49(4), 538–562.
MEA (2003). Ecosystems and human well-being: A framework for assessment. Washington, DC: Island Press, for Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J., & Behrens, W. W. III (1972). The limits to growth: A report for the club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. London & New York: Earth Island & Universe Books.
Meadows, D. H., Randers, J, & Meadows, D. (2004). Limits to growth: The 30-year update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
Monfreda, C., Wackernagel, M., & Deumling, D. (2004). Establishing national natural capital accounts based on detailed ecological footprint and biological capacity assessments. Land Use Policy, 21(3), 231–246.
Mueller, J. (1989). Retreat from doomsday. The obsolescence of major war. New York: Basic Books.
Neumayer, E. (2003). Weak versus strong sustainability: Exploring the limits of two opposing paradigms. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Neumayer, E. (2004). Indicators of sustainability. In T. Tietenberg & H. Folmer (Eds.), International yearbook of environmental and resource economics (pp. 139–188). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Nordås, R., & Gleditsch, N. P. (2005). Climate conflict: Common sense or nonsense? paper presented at the workshop on Human Security and Climate Change, 21–23 June, Asker, Norway. Available from www.cicero.uio.no/humsec.
Page, E., & Redclift, M. R. (2002). Human security and the environment: International comparisons. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.
Panyarachun, A. (2004). A more secure world: Our shared responsibility. Report on the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. New York: United Nations, www.un.org/secureworld/.
Peluso, N. L., & Watts, M. (2001).Violent environments. In N. L. Peluso & M. Watts (Eds.), Violent environments (pp. 3–38). London: Cornell University Press.
Renner, M. (1996). Fighting for survival: Environmental decline, social conflict, and the new age of insecurity. London: Norton.
Ross, M. L. (1999). Natural resource abundance and economic growth. World Politics, 51(2), 297–332.
Ross, M. L. (2004a). How do natural resources influence civil war? Evidence from case studies. International Organization, 58(2), 35–67.
Ross, M. L. (2004b). What do we know about natural resources and civil war? Journal of Peace Research, 41(3), 337–356.
Rustad, S. C. A. (2006). Forest resources and conflict – How forest resources affect onset and duration of intrastate armed conflicts, paper presented at the 47th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, San Diego, CA, 22–25 March, www.isanet.org.
Sachs, J. D., & Warner, A. (2001). The curse of natural resources. European Economic Review, 45(4–6), 827–838.
Schwartz, D. M., Deligiannis, T., & Homer-Dixon, T. F. (2001). The environment and violent conflict. In P. F. Diehl & N. P. Gleditsch (Eds.), Environmental conflict (pp. 273–294). Boulder, CO: Westview.
Schwartz, P., & Randall, D. (2003). An abrupt climate change scenario and its implications for United States National Security. Washington, DC: Environmental Media Services, www.ems.org/climate/pentagon_climate_change.html.
Simon, J. L. (1998). The ultimate resource II. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Smil, V. (2005). Limits to growth revisited: A review essay. Population and Development Review, 31(1), 157–164.
Theisen, O. M. (2006). Other pathways to conflict? Environmental scarcities and domestic conflict, paper presented to the 47th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, San Diego, CA, 22–25 March.
Tomz, M., Wittenberg, J., & King, G. (2003). Clarify: Software for interpreting and presenting statistical results. Stanford: Department of Political Science, Stanford University.
Urdal, H. (2005). People vs. Malthus: Population pressure, environmental degradation, and armed conflict revisited. Journal of Peace Research 42(4), 417–434.
van den Bergh, J. C. J. M., & Verbruggen, H. (1999). Spatial sustainability, trade and indicators: an evaluation of the ‘ecological footprint’. Ecological Economics, 29(1), 61–72.
Vitousek, P. M., Mooney, H. A., Lubchenko, J., & Melilo, J. A. (1997). Human domination of earth’s ecosystems. Science, 277(5335), 494–499.
Wackernagel, M., Monfreda, C., Moran, D., Goldfinger, S., Deumling, D., & Murray, M. (2004). National footprint and biocapacity accounts 2004: The underlying calculation method 2004. Downloaded from http://www.footprintnetwork.org/download.php?id=5, 29 July 2005.
Wackernagel, M., Onisto, L., Bello, P., Linares, A. C., Falfán, I. S. L., Garciá, J. M., Guerrero, A. I. S., & Guerrero, M. G. S. (1999). National natural capital accounting with the ecological footprint concept. Ecological Economics, 29(3), 375–390.
Wackernagel, M., & Rees, W. E. (1996). Our ecological footprint: Reducing human impact on the earth. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers.
Ward, H. (2006). International linkages and environmental sustainability: The effectiveness of the regime and IGO networks. Journal of Peace Research, 43(2), 149–166.
WWF (2004). Living planet report. Washington, DC: World Wildlife Fund.
WWI (2003). Vital signs 2003: The trends that are shaping our future. London: Norton, for WWI and UNEP: Worldwatch Institute.
York, R., Rosa, E. A., & Dietz, T. (2003). Footprints on the earth: The environmental consequences of modernity. American Sociological Review, 68(2), 279–300.
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, www.prio.no/cscw/datasets. The order of the authors is alphabetical.
About this article
Cite this article
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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11111-007-0053-6
- Ecological footprint
- Armed conflict
- Resource scarcity