Environmental Security: PRB Talks With Thomas Homer-Dixon

(January 2001) PRB recently interviewed Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Toronto. Dr. Homer-Dixon’s research is internationally-recognized for exploring the links among environmental scarcity, population, and civil violence in less developed countries. He is the author of Environment, Scarcity, and Violence (1999) and has co-edited (with Jessica Blitt) Ecoviolence: Links among Environment, Population, and Security (1998). He has also published numerous articles on the subject, including “Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases,” in International Security (Summer 1994), and “The Ingenuity Gap: Can Poor Countries Adapt to Resource Scarcity?” in Population and Development Review (September 1995). His most recent book, The Ingenuity Gap, examines how societies cope with complex stress, including rapid environmental change.

With several colleagues, Dr. Homer-Dixon has developed a model of the relationship between the scarcity of renewable resources such as water and soil on the one hand, and the outbreak of violent conflict within countries on the other. In essence, the model describes how environmental scarcity contributes to certain destabilizing social effects that make violent conflict more likely.

PRB: What prompted you to make the connection between environmental scarcity and violent conflict the focus of your research for much of the 1990s?

Homer-Dixon: I had always been interested in environmental issues on the one hand, and conflict studies on the other, so I was naturally drawn to the overlap between these two areas. In addition, I was getting into this right after the fall of the Soviet Union, so there was room for thinking about new security issues. That’s not to say that the kind of conflict we’ve been looking at is new; it has actually been around for quite a while. Some of the case studies we’ve done have actually looked at conflicts — the “Soccer War” in El Salvador, for example — that predate the end of the Cold War.

PRB: Do you have a working definition of the term “environmental security?”

Homer-Dixon: No. I avoid that term because I think it is too open to misinterpretation. My research has focused on the relationship between environmental stress and specific kinds of violence — insurgencies, ethnic clashes, and rebellions in particular. Environmental stress we define in terms of the environmental scarcity that arises from ecological degradation, population growth, or skewed access to natural resources. But I have stayed away from trying to define “environmental security.” You can define security however you want, and I find that attempts to redefine or expand our concept of security often leave you with a term that is so broad that it is not very useful.

PRB: You’ve been involved in many different case studies looking at the ways in which scarcity of vital natural resources such as cropland can lead to violent conflict within countries. Where do you think the clearest connections between scarcity and violence have emerged?

Homer-Dixon: I think there are many cases that one could point to — I wouldn’t want to put one above the rest. It also depends on what kind of civil violence you’re talking about. If you’re talking about ethnic conflict, then one of the clearest cases is the massive movement of people out of Bangladesh into the Indian state of Assam in the 1970s and early 1980s that subsequently led to horrible violence in the 1980s. As for a more recent example, it has become clear that population pressures and land scarcity were aggravating factors behind the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s. These are not isolated examples, though, and I don’t want to highlight one at the expense of the rest. They’re meant to demonstrate a broader trend. I could just as easily talk about how environmental scarcity has contributed to civil violence in Peru, the Philippines, Kenya, El Salvador, Pakistan, or many other countries.

PRB: Is the scarcity-conflict model that you have developed the only model that is out there for talking about how environmental issues and violent conflict are related?

Homer-Dixon: Gunther Baechler in Germany has done some interesting work as well. His work is not so different from ours, though — it’s mainly different approaches to categorizing things. Not many other people have really looked at this problem in a theoretical way. Of course, our model has been criticized by other social scientists, but the critics have not put forward a model of their own.

PRB: What does your model mean for policymakers? Where in the progression from environmental scarcity to violence are there opportunities for intervention?

Homer-Dixon: Every case is different, but there are a few general points to keep in mind. First, it’s best to intervene as early as possible. If you wait until conflict has broken out, the problem will have become too entrenched to resolve easily. The conflicts that arise from environmental scarcity tend to be chronic and diffuse, and this is exactly the kind of conflict that we have difficulty managing. These long-running conflicts can also erode the ability of governments to manage society, which of course exacerbates the situation.

Second, there is no one “magic bullet” that will fix these problems. The causes behind these conflicts are complex, and can include such problems as debilitating debt loads, social inequality, rapid population growth, and unsustainable agricultural practices. Policymakers thus need to respond with a broad and integrated set of responses at every level from international relations to the local community.

Third, governments do not have to launch capital-intensive programs to deal with these problems. Instead, officials can increase support for NGOs that are helping to rehabilitate environmental resources, or devote more resources to such activities as researching crops that can grow in eroded soil.

Fourth, many of the solutions that relieve environmental scarcity are worth implementing for other reasons. Such measures as debt relief and development of human capital are widely touted as important for promoting economic growth in impoverished communities around the world.

It’s also worth remembering that environmental scarcity never creates violence by itself; instead it interacts with what I call contextual factors, and some of these are subject to influence. For example, policymakers should try to make sure that prices accurately reflect the cost of resource use. Resource prices that are too low fail to generate the kind of innovation that can help relieve resource scarcity, and also promote overconsumption of the resource. Another key question is the extent to which the government is dominated by powerful elites that depend upon control of natural resources. If such elite groups are dominant and enjoy privileged access to vital resources, it’s very difficult to cope with environmental scarcity.

PRB: Do you think that governments and NGOs are getting better at taking advantage of insights from your model?

Homer-Dixon: There has definitely been interest in our work, particularly during the Clinton-Gore administration. A lot of our ideas have made inroads into the bureaucracy in Washington and also in NGOs. If in the early 1990s you had put forward the idea that environmental problems could be a destabilizing factor, people would have been in dismissive. I think that it has now actually become part of the received wisdom, and if you mention it people will say “I know about that — that’s nothing new.” Curiously enough, I think that’s a sign of success.


Stopping the Progression from Scarcity to Conflict

  • Intervene in the process as early as possible
  • Don’t look for one magic bullet fix — solutions must be multi-faceted
  • Solutions don’t have to be capital-intensive
  • Many potential solutions are worth implementing for other reasons

For More Information

For detailed case studies of environmentally-related conflicts, visit the website of the Project on Environment, Population, and Security at the University of Toronto:

For the latest on Professor Homer-Dixon’s research, visit his personal web page:

For updates on developments in the field of environmental security, visit the Environmental Change and Security Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:

For more on Professor Homer-Dixon’s research, read PRB’s article “Environmental Scarcity and the Outbreak of Conflict.”

Bingham Kennedy, Jr. is associate editor at the Population Reference Bureau.