Somewhere, someone is writing a magnum opus on resource scarcity and its social effects. Unfortunately, this is not that book. Published in the late nSomewhere, someone is writing a magnum opus on resource scarcity and its social effects. Unfortunately, this is not that book. Published in the late nineties, the purpose of this academic work is to formulate a few theories of resource scarcity and its social effects. There are a bunch of critical questions asked here, ones very much worth asking, such as:
-will decreased availability of natural resources result in interstate warfare? If not, what kind of conflicts will it engender? -Who will suffer the most, and who will suffer the least? -If water becomes harder to come by, what will that do to international relations? -What will that do to local economies in rich countries? Poor ones?
You might think this is all the work of a die-hard Malthusian, someone who looks at the world and sees logarithmic graphs everywhere. That is and is not the case - Homer-Dixon is very critical of those who think that scarcity has no effect on technological innovation - in other words, people who like to throw their hands up and declare that everyone's standard of living is only going to get worse and we all might as well start socking away bottled water and Nutra-Grain bars. He likes to point out examples where declining availability of cropland has caused people to just change their farming practices, and so on. But he also spends a lot of ink pointing out just how silly is the expectation that market incentives will solve every scarcity problem. While it takes a long time for him to explain, the rationale is pretty simple.
Imagine you're a farmer in Haiti named Jean. Your great-great-great-great-grandparents declared independence from France, and for a little while everything was hunky dory. After the richly deserving monsieur was put to the sword, everyone just divided up the land and started tilling. France was a little cranky, but also a little too far away to go through and take everything back. Great-great-great-great-grandaddy plowed his own fields, ate his own food, sold whatever he didn't eat, made enough profits to have and support a couple kids. Wait a second, though. What did HE do with the land? Well, he had little Jean-Baptiste and little Yves to deal with, and little Julie who would eventually need a dowry, so he just split the land into three equal pieces and that was that. Repeat ad nauseum, and fast forward to now. Due to generations of splitting and a multitude of land-grabs by Haitian elites, you are the proud owner of a quarter acre of highly eroded soil. You need food, but you've reached the minimum quantum of land that you can own and live on without cutting your shack in half. Your children are going to be even poorer than you are, because Haiti's a very small country, and all the timber has already been burnt for fuel, mostly by people just as poor as you are but less scrupulous. You can't even sell anything because you and everyone you know spends all their time trying to get by.
A die-hard capitalist will look at this situation and say, well, SOMETHING is bound to give. Jean is going to come up with something he can do or a service he can provide, sell it to others, and because he's engaging in trade he and the people he sells his services to will be richer, in a sense. Jean has just increased the net productivity of Haitian society by specializing. Homer-Dixon says not so fast. Jean doesn't have government-provided water, so he has to walk a few miles to get a litre of highly saline swill from a well every day, and even that only when he can afford it. He doesn't have much energy because his caloric intake is too low. Because the transaction costs on everyday existence are so incredibly high, Jean is going to stay poor - Jean might be a textbook case of someone in need of technical innovation, but being an entrepreneur takes robust public institutions and a certain social buffer. Resource scarcity can provide an incentive to come up with technical solutions to everyday problems, but it can also sharply limit people's inventiveness and capacity to implement those solutions. Jean isn't going to do it because he basically spends all of his time covering his minimum material needs, and so does everyone he knows.
The problem is, in explaining this, Homer-Dixon starts to look at the technical solutions that would enable Jean to flourish as one measurable thing, which he terms ingenuity. What does Jean need to make his own life better? Sure, he needs more robust public institutions to guarantee that he isn't wasting half his day in search of clean water, but failing that, he needs some scientist to come in and make his day with a cheap machine that purifies water and allows him to sit back and smoke a cigar while his quarter acre gets irrigated automatically: ingenuity! Bangladeshis on permanent food support while their cropland gets more and more worthless? What they need is: You guessed it, ingenuity! The gap between the difficulties imposed by scarcity and the potential material productivity of any given society ends up being covered either not at all or by Ingenuity, no matter what is creating that gap and no matter how wide the gap is. Anything that helps you is Ingenuity. Anything that doesn't is Scarcity, or Poor Government Institutions.
If you're getting the feeling I find this a bit weak, you would be right. The reason is that Ingenuity isn't something that exists in a vacuum. This whole gee-whiz bit of TH-D's analysis reminds me of an old recurring comedy sketch that I think used to be on NPR: "Ask Doctor Science! He has a master's degree... in science!" Governments don't have an Ingenuity Fund that they plunk their tax surpluses into and it spits out a space shuttle every couple of years. Ingenuity has to be for something. You don't put money into the Haitian Innovation Fund, you put money into the Find Cheaper Ways to Get Haitians Water fund. You don't put money in the Bangladeshi Ingenuity fund, you put it in the Develop Rice that Doesn't Mind Monsoons fund. Sometimes ingenuity just takes the form of more robust government. For example, according to TH-D, if Pakistan could find a way to exercise stronger federal control over transport infrastructure in Karachi instead of allowing a minority group to keep its stranglehold on how everyone gets around, there might be less ethnic strife in that country. Ingenuity is completely situational and means far too many different things to reduce it to a single variable in a scarcity equation.
All that said, there are some very important insights to be gained here. One is that widespread interstate conflict will probably not result from increased scarcity of oil, water, arable land or anything else. Part of this is the perceived illegitimacy of any government that engages in conflicts like this. It's really hard to exploit resources when no one wants you there, and oftentimes, the effort you have to go to to make war in the first place renders any resource gains moot. Even if people do end up fighting over resources, renewable resources are far less likely to be the object of violent conflict than non-renewables. TH-D could only come up with two examples of war over renewables, the Anglo-Icelandic Cod War of the '70s (I don't think anyone was killed), and the far more serious Soccer War between Honduras and Nicaragua, which had farmland scarcity and mass immigration as a proximate cause.
Instead of war over resources, if indeed scarcity becomes a more serious issue in the near to middle future...
-We can expect elites to engage in intensified rent-seeking behaviors. Groups in positions of privilege typically try to restructure laws and regulations so as to maximise their own access to increasingly rare commodities.
-Gaps between perceived availability of scarce resources can be a major driver of mass immigration, so we might expect people to move to places they see as flourishing.
-TH-D sees Indonesia, Pakistan and Nigeria as countries seriously threatened by declining environmental bases, consequent social unrest, and possible authoritarian government. This was written in '99, so it's not too early to test its predictive power, and while Indonesia seems to be flourishing, Pakistan and Nigeria are indeed unstable and on a perpetual razor's edge.
-"There is no clear correlation between economic hardship and violence." (p. 143) One of the more stunning conclusions in here, TH-D rallies a fair bit of evidence to show that endemic violence depends on largely on groups' notions of economic justice, and some people just don't tend to think of themselves as being dry-humped. Even when they do, it usually takes a special opportunity combined with confidence in not being punished for people to engage in insurgency.
-"It takes a much longer spell of good weather to restore social buffers than it does for a series of extreme events to deplete them." (p. 41)
-One mammoth realisation here is that small coalitions within countries - gangs and other relatively small groups - are better positioned to exploit and engage in resource capture than large groups, such as whole religious or ethnic communities. This is because interpersonal social pressures exert stronger influence than allegiance to an abstraction or a very large number of people; TH-D remarks that "there is 'no constraint on the social cost such an organization will find it expedient to impose on the society in the course of obtaining a larger share of the social output for itself...'"
Overall, I recommend this if, like me, you're on the prowl for works on the linkage between resource scarcity, government and social comfort. If you're not, what're you doing here? Anyway, it's pretty academic with some long sections on methodology, and I couldn't help thinking that TH-D could've used a little more substance and less exposition. But given the paucity of research in this area outside of increasingly marginal and hard-to-find journals, any book on these subjects is welcome....more