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.