One of our own, Benno Hansen, has written “Ecowar: Natural Resources and Conflict”, an interesting book on the topic of the relationship between climate and wars over resources. Benno maintains that wars are more often waged over resources – whether because the resources are scarce, or because they are valuable – than over religion.
Climate change comes into play because a slightly colder climate will tend to make food scarcer, forcing tribes or nations to compete for farmland, storehouses, etc. Even a difference of one degree, as he mentions in a section on China, will start to be reflected in population records. “A 1 degree cooling,” he writes, “coincided with the fall of the Ming dynasty. Population growth is seen to rise during the 1741-1805 warm phase and drop during the 1806-1850 cold phase. The war periods generally lag the onset of cold phases by 10 to 30 years which makes sense since it would take some time for the reduced agricultural productivity to manifest as resource limitations and overpopulation (p. 16).”
Research like this is only possible in countries that keep detailed records for long periods of time. Another culture that keep useful records for this kind of research was Bavaria. The records showed “significant correlation between the amount of rain, the price of rye and the rate of property crime: They rose and fell together (p. 20).”
Another fascinating tho bloody episode was the war in Angola, with one side funded by the oil trade and the opposition funded by the diamond trade. Now there's a twist on the term “resource war”!
While most of the conflicts discussed in the book are historical, some conflicts are sure to hit the headlines as global warming and melting ice caps increase competition for everything from oil to fishing stocks. What will the fish in the Bering Sea do when the waters get too warm for them? Will they swim north or die off? And will it be economically feasible for fishermen to follow the schools north, if that is indeed what the fish will do?
While most of the time the only instance when water rights hit the news is when an agreement is signed, in 2009 water became a serious issue in Kenya. The BBC reported that a crime syndicate was diverting half the water that was supposed to go to farm irrigation. The United Nations estimated almost 4 million Kenyans were in need of emergency food aid, and both water and electricity had to be rationed. (The hydro-electric dams were running dry!)
Even in discussion of modern conflicts where we think we know pretty well what is going on, there are surprises. For example, in Darfur, Benno states that “a strong correlation between annual temperature variations and civil war in the 1980-2002 period for the area has been shown statistically.” Sudan is also in danger of losing its rubber business, as the long-term drought reduces the yield of the biggest rubber producer in the world.
In spite of the wealth of material and research behind this work, I could make a laundry list of weaknesses. One is the near-total lack of graphic material. Talking about the correlation between temperatures, population and war is just not as strong as seeing a chart. And I am sure there are works of art – paintings, sketches, even mosaics and maps – that would help flesh out the verbiage. One of the few illustrations is an old ad, apparently from the time of the Berlin airlift, with the headline: “Milk . . . new weapon of Democracy!” There are also a few typos which an editor should have cleared up.
What's there is good, but Benno just needs to write more of it. A book on such an important topic could run to several volumes, if you really wanted. But at any rate, I find 144 pages is just not enough to flesh out the theory or the history.
One of the happy surprises in the book were the Interludes, as he calls them. The first is when the author talks in the voice of Neanderthal hunter living with his family on the edge of the glaciers. There, the competition was with sapiens, and obviously the Neanderthals lost. I would have enjoyed reading a bit more of his tales of life as seen through the filter of his theory, and as seen through the eyes of people who lived through eras of desperate competition for food, water, land and access to any and all resources. Benno wrote six such “Interludes”. I enjoyed them and hope that he would consider adding more of them to illustrate struggles over resources, or perhaps develop them into longer “interludes”.
Some of the Interludes are sure to be controversial. One deals with the shooting down of a United Nations plane bearing Dag Hammarskjold in 1961 by British forces over Rhodesia. It is far too brief, with no explanation of the African crisis that Hammarskjold was flying towards in hope of calming the situation. I suspect that Benno assumes that all of his readers know the details, but the fact is many of his readers were born after that tragedy occurred.
Other types of violence can spring from resource scarcity besides wars. One of the more interesting segments was on the correlation between food prices to riots. “When marked on a graph of the UN food price index, riots clearly cluster around price spikes.” At the same time, Benno does acknowledge that the relationship between food prices and riots is a complex one. “The researchers do not conclude 'high food prices cause riots'. What they say, is that expensive food could be one factor among others setting the stage for riots. When populations are hungry, it takes lesser trigger incidents to kick-start a riot (p. 81).”
Thanks to Benno for a sneak peek at his book. A link to the interview by Scott Butki is given in the first comment.