Saturday, December 31, 2016

Limits to co-operation and two neoliberal fallacies

I have a forthcoming opinion piece in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) blog (and perhaps it will make it to the BMJ print version).. it is relevant to peace, Syria and global refugees. (It is restricted to 600 words, hence pretty compressed). It is called "Regional overload, planetary health and population displacement". It discusses the underlying ecological/demographic and environmental determinants of conflict, displacement and refugess

War criminals should be prosecuted - but complacent academics should be censured

My work on conflict and resource scarcity is controversial. Some of my critics argue that to raise any dimension of environmental resources as a contributing cause to conflict somehow excuses or justifies war and other crimes, including genocide. It doesn't - not least as such criminals have themselves often profited excessively from inequality, before the genocide/war crime. But genociders rarely bear exclusive responsibility.  Academics, herded by neoliberal forces, have far too often shared the groupthink that all will be well, if we just have freer markets; eg see: The 2015 refugee crisis and the complicity of far too many academics.

Limits to co-operation

A second point is even more controversial; I argue that there are limits to human co-operation; ie the Limits to Growth implicitly includes limits to co-operation (eg see Butler, C. D. (2016). Sounding the alarm: health in the Anthropocene. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13: 665; doi:610.3390/ijerph13070665). (open access). This is controversial, because it implies that human groups cannot and in some cases should not get along with each other. Some may think it a justification for a fortress world. But, while some people are so altruistic that they may give away all their food, even if they are starving, this is not a wide-spread trait. It is not only na├»ve, but dangerous to deny this. However, the world can be a lot fairer than it is.

I believe it is important to think about these issues because the current dominant paradigm implicitly argues that:

(a) humans can continue to consume resources indefinitely (think Trump!) (or for that matter, think Clinton or Putin);  and

(b) any existing or future conflict can be solved or prevented without substantial resource availability and redistribution.

I believe this paradigm is still dominant because of the mentality of high income populations which refuse to recognize their own contribution to the evolving global crisis. There is also insufficient co-operation among high income populations and also between high and low income populations.

Let us imagine Americans agree to reduce their resource use by 10%, hoping that Saudi Arabians will, too. But as there is not enough trust between the two parties, neither does.

While it is hard for me to be optimistic for humanity I believe it is possible to have a fairly high living standard (though not many international flights) with a lower resource use than at present, and that will reduce the chance of conflict. This can be done by accelerating the energy transition (ie to non-fossil fuelled energy), by reducing meat ingestion, by having fewer children, and by being more thoughtful and conscious in one's purchasing behaviour, such as by avoiding palm oil produced in Kalimantan. I also think it is valuable to lobby for better development in low income settings. But it is also vital that academics stop pretending that issues of resource availability are not important contributions to conflict in low-income settings, such as Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, Yemen and Syria. 

Challenging the power of dominant schools of political science

There is an influential political science literature which analyses conflict but with minimal recognition of the physical resource dimension, but according to O'Sullivan, T. M. (2015) Environmental Security is Homeland Security: Climate Disruption as the Ultimate Disaster Risk Multiplier (Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy 6(2): 183-222) this has been challenged by the so-called social constructivist “Copenhagen school” that emerged in Europe advocated a broadening of traditional, realist theoretical security concepts. 

I need to study this school more, because, the traditional view, which even argues that considering natural resource distribution is a form of environmental determinism, is far too strong.

Social dynamics matter, but so too do resources.

Two key neoliberal fallacies

What are the two key neoliberal fallacies I wish to highlight? 

One: that we can go on consuming Earth's treasure with more or less impunity.

Two: that resource maldistribution (social and natural) is not an important source of conflict.


In a few lines I cannot describe solutions. Even if I could, people would not act. However, if enough academics, billionaires (including the Gates Foundation) and high officials in government could rethink fundamental assumptions about the issues I raise here then our future as a species and an advanced civilization would be brighter. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

BODHI, Buddhism and social justice

This is to appear in the 50th issue of the newsletter BODHI Times.

When BODHI was co-founded in 1989 (in the US as well as Australia) it became one of the world’s first Buddhist-influenced non-government organizations seeking to improve social and environmental justice for all. Both major forms of Buddhism recognise the importance of compassion. A central tenet of Mahayana Buddhism (which includes Tibetan Buddhism) is the concept of “bodhicitta”, the wish to be of benefit to all beings. An important aspect of Theravada Buddhism is the concept and practice of “metta”, or loving kindness. In principle, both forms of compassion extend to all forms of life, including people of any race, faith, ethnicity, status or caste.

The experience of each of the co-founders of BODHI was that organized and practical expressions of either metta or bodhicitta were rare, at least by Buddhists and Buddhist sympathisers. We knew, of course, that Buddhist teachings had a powerful, generally positive influence in many countries, but also that many nominally Buddhist counties had experienced internal conflict and overt aggression - but so had many Christian and Muslim countries. We also knew of organized programmes in Western countries to raise funds for Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal, efforts which had commenced soon after His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama had fled the Chinese invaders in 1959, accompanied by about 80,000 of his countrymen, in the first of several waves. (See an interview with the Dalai Lama in 1960.) We also knew of small groups working to support individuals, families, monastics and monasteries. But we did not know of any Buddhist-influenced organizations similar in aspiration to OxFam, Save the Children Fund, or the Catholic aid organization Caritas.

Although a Buddhist group called Tzu Chi (“compassionate relief”) had been founded in Taiwan in 1966 we did not, at that stage, know of it. Nor (in those pre-internet days, when research was more difficult) did we know of the Karuna Trust, which, based in the UK, had then been active for several years. We knew of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, but its focus was more on dialogue and the promotion of peace, than on poverty relief via partners, as we intended.

Today, there are many Buddhist-influenced organizations that seek to promote social and environmental justice, from Buddhist Global Relief to the Foundation for Universal Responsibility. Some of these are linked in the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.

However, few among these groups seek to actively promote poverty relief and poverty prevention. BODHI, though small, has supported almost 50 such projects, mainly in India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Tibet. We also have tried to raise concerns about numerous issues relevant to social justice, in our newsletters (of which this is the 50th), on our various websites, and via Facebook. Recurrent themes have included climate change, inequality, racial and other forms of discrimination and the lack of female education and empowerment and its consequent effect on poverty. Compared to the need, BODHI can only make a small difference, but we can do far more collectively than as individuals.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Syrian crisis: the cause is more than "political economy"

A paper from 2013 called "Did Drought Trigger The Crisis In Syria?" is useful, but as is often the case for authors with a background in political science and economics, they see only part of the spectrum. The paper usefully describes policies which heightened inequality and which also increased irrigation, including from groundwater extraction, but the authors are especially blind to limits to growth, including demographic factors. 

Risk multiplication vs political economy: is there a pre-eminent cause?

The paper acknowledges that "invoking drought as a destabilizing force in Syria is intuitively appealing" but that if "terms such as ‘stressor’ or ‘threat multiplier’ are applied to drought, shifting rainfall patterns, floods, and other environmental events in the Middle East they often obscure rather than illuminate the causes of uprisings and political change. There is perhaps no better illustration of this dynamic than Syria, where a closer examination shows that government policy helped construct vulnerability to the effects of the drought during the 2000s."

Further: " When one delves into the details, drought as an external factor recedes and political economy takes center stage."

Political economy is usefully defined here as "the study of how those in power structure access to economic resources".

How can political economy be disentangled from the environment?
My fundamental criticism is that the paper refuses to accept the "risk multiplier" concept. Elsewhere, one of the authors has argued: "The environment is a quintessentially human category and susceptible to adaptation, not an external variable that mechanically triggers socio-political consequences." Sure, the environment is not an external actor, but it is surely an external variable to which people react. Also, how can something such as a drought be  a quintessentially human category?

In any case, I argue that
the dysfunctional political economy is part of the milieu in which the drought interacted. Would the conflict have occurred so early, with abundant rain?

Eco-social tipping points
Secondly, the article does mention that the population of Syria was growing rapidly in recent decades. It does state "Before climate change was a commonly employed term, political rulers in the region faced dwindling per capita water resources, desertification, deforestation, soil salinity, and the like." However, I have long argued, there are thresholds of scarcity which matter .. societies, even poorly managed, can cope with declining per capita resources ... to a point.

Third – there is no hint of understanding of the demographic dividend, nor that an under-appreciated aspect of limits to growth is that co-operation is also not infinite.

PS There are many analyses of the Syrian conflict which are more balanced than the one which provoked this blog, such as Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest

Friday, December 16, 2016

World War III: avoided in 2020 by the election of Senator Elizabeth Warren

In the year 2000 I published long articles in each of two newly formed journals, Ecosystem Health and Global Change and Human Health. These papers were called "Entrapment: global ecological and/or local demographic? Reflections upon reading the BMJ's "six billion day" special issue"  and "Inequality, global change and the sustainability of civilisation". They are both behind paywalls today, but their titles convey their essential meaning. Their abstracts are also free, at least while we have a functioning internet and publishing system.

A chequerboard of barbarianisation

Until very recently I thought the biggest risk to civilization before 2050 has been though a process I call "piecemeal barbarianisation", such as we have become conditioned to watch in Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Burundi and elsewhere. I, with many others, worried about the rise of inequality, both globally and within rich countries, and I tried to warn about it too. But despite writing my doctoral thesis on inequality (and sustainability), despite numerous articles and chapters (about 150), edited books, blogs, tweets and media interviews I feel I have had very little impact - especially with mainstream media, who have largely ignored me, with a few humble exceptions.

Censorship of global scientific assessments
I have been part of four international scientific assessments, including the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Global Environmental Outlook. In each of these I have witnessed the heavy hand of censorship, applied if authors dare to hint at taboo subjects such as a critique of runaway capitalism, high rates of population growth and its effect on poverty, or human rights. I recently wrote of a recent experience of this censorship, by a Chinese reviewer, but most censorship is self-imposed. Contact with the chairs of some working groups in these assessments can also have a chilling effect, as I experienced in 2003 when I tried to raise the issue of human carrying capacity and limits to growth, only to be told by Dr *** that "Boserup has solved that; we'll have a drink to discuss in more detail". In reality, I knew far more than Dr *** about Ester Boserup, and our friendly chat over a drink never eventuated.

The taboo on straight talking about the risk of  conflict over declining resources

Writing about the risk of conflict has also generally been tabooed in these assessments, even when the topic is future human well-being until 2100. I also recently wrote about this in more detail, concerning suppression of the reality and risk of conflict over scarce water, even though, for sure, limited resources can sometimes stimulate co-operation. I believe that this taboo in part occurs because the global power elites and the military industrial complex penetrate very deeply within academia, especially in the US, but also, to a substantial (and increasing) degree in Australia

The main reason conservative academics, who are more likely to be funded, downplay the risk of conflict over declining resources is their concern that the literature will be "securitised". By this, they appear to think that talking about such risks might enhance the likelihood of conflict, leading to a "self-fulfilling prophecy". Actually, the converse is true. If academics don't discuss the risk of conflict arising though competition for limited resources, then only the military will .. and they certainly do. Denial of the risks of conflict from diminishing resources is one reason we are now in such peril, as a civilisation.

Paths to accidental World War III

I mentioned that I have mainly worried about pockets of barbarity, whether in sub-Saharan Africa (eg 1300 children  recruited as soldiers in 2016 in Christian South Sudan), the Middle East or South Asia. But the election of Donald Trump is tilting the scales towards accidental World War III, and much sooner than 2050. China has brazenly grabbed power in the South China Sea, and there are growing concerns that Russiawill re-occupy the Baltic states. I have likened Trump's election to a sorcerer, whose spells cannot be controlled, released by excessive faith in market forces (which led to unacceptable class and regional inequality and thus rejection of Hilary Clinton)

But Trump is selecting a cabinet which itself has profited from neoliberalism, and controlling wealth equal to that held by the over 100 million Americans, have proven themselves brilliant at plundering the resources not only of the American people, but of much of the world. It is in the self-interest of the kleptocracies which now rule the Russian Federation and the US to avoid nuclear annihilation, and perhaps the coziness between Putin and the coming US cabinet will avert this.

WW III is also not in the self-interest of China (also ruled by a rising kleptocracy) and, probably, Chinese threats over Trump's phone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will soon calm down. Likely, cool heads within the US military will minimise further provocation of China, due to their assessment that Chinese pride and fear of loss of face will in fact provoke extremely violent retaliation, such as against Taiwan.

But even though the three great powers are likely to co-operate in a triangle of mutually assured destruction (MAD) meaning proxy wars, rather than direct confrontation, there are numerous other routes which could trigger WWIII, including an attack on Iran.


It truly is hard to find hope at the moment. However, there is hope. California Governor Jerry Brown has suggested that California launch its own satellite to monitor climate change, even if Trump's administration cuts all funding for this. Although most people in Florida appear to be walking into a gigantic financial trap, due to rising sea levels and falling property prices, they recently resisted an attempt by the big utility companies to slow the solar transition. Third, the rise of Bernie Sanders and the rejection of Hilary Clinton's neoliberalism means that, even in America, there is an awakening to the folly of untramelled market forces. 

Although such forces have given birth to the coming kleptocracy of the Trump cabinet, the new cabinet is unlikely to be able to do much to reduce the plight of the working class in the US (even if they try, which seems unlikely given their own backgrounds of eroding public goods). Trump's regime could therefore be voted out in four years, perhaps to be replaced by Elizabeth Warren (with a vice president chosen from the South, or the mid-West).

I have above argued that the three main nuclear powers are likely to avoid launching their ballistic missiles aimed at each other. So, in 2021, there may still be a civilisation worth saving. The election of Warren may usher a more rational, fairer, and scientific America. China, I think, does not really seek world domination, only to be seen as at least equal to its two main rivals. Russia may be content (irrespective of who is in power in the US) to prowl within its territory, occasionally growling at its neighbours.

The real solution lies in being more honest about the long term threats we face, reducing piecemeal barbarianisation, and lowering the taboo on these discussions. That won't happen under Trump, but it could in the 2020s.

Also giving hope is the rise of the internet and the power of the young, such as the Earth Guardians.