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From the frying pan to the fire: environmental crises and their implications for conflict resolution

Michael Shank

The current pandemic and its socio-economic effects can be considered the opening salvo in a series of potential crises caused by human activities that are redefining the relations between humankind and the natural environment. This essay describes the threats most likely to produce escalated social conflicts in the immediate and medium-term future. Considering the difficulties of changing well-entrenched complex systems, what can be done to alter the conditions producing biomedical crises, climatic disasters, and destructive industrial practices? The author suggests how these challenges are likely to alter methods of conflict mitigation and resolution, outlining new methods that might prove effective under post-pandemic conditions.


Two environmentally rooted crises - the planetary crisis and the current pandemic - deserve the conflict field's attention with preventive, not only responsive, approaches. Conflicts emerging from these crises, such as climate refugee claims, resource wars, unequal socio-economic impacts from COVID-19, and disputes over health mandates, merit response. But prevention is paramount when transforming systems that exploit natural and human capital. The systems that caused the climate crisis and coronavirus rely on resource extraction, fossil fuels, factory farming, deforestation, and destruction of natural habitat. They intersect on impacts - e.g., higher COVID-19 death rates are linked with air pollution (Friedman 2020)1 - and they will continue to instigate conflict until production and consumption of energy and food are sustainably managed. In response, this chapter presents pathways for the conflict community to assist in transforming these conflict-promoting systems. A first step is to narratively position them as structurally violent; a second step is to widen the field and build a multidisciplinary practice in order to dismantle these systems and rebuild regenerative alternatives.

Structurally violent systems

The conflict field is ever-evolving (Kriesberg 2009, 15)2 and exploring new frontiers in systems and behavior change. Using Johan Galtung's work on structural violence, this chapter encourages the field to go further. In identifying the economic, political, or cultural structures that prevent the fulfillment of the basic human needs, Galtung also encouraged the field to focus on “social injustice” (Galtung 1969, 171),3 which is germane to this chapter since energy and food systems have disproportionately negative consequences for, and human need-limiting impacts on, low-income communities and communities of color:

Fossil fuel facilities adversely impact low-income communities (Israel 2012)4 and communities of color (NAACP 2014)5 by locating air-, water- and land-polluting oil, coal, and gas plants within these communities, exposing them to health-deteriorating toxins and contaminants.

Factory farm facilities, which produce the majority of cow, pork, and poultry products in the United States and the majority of pork and poultry products globally (Harvey et al 2017),6 are responsible for air, water and land pollution in low-income communities and communities of color (Nicole 2013).7 Factory farms are also reliant on immigrant and undocumented labor (Spangher 2014)8 and culpable for pandemics that have disproportionate health impacts on communities of color (Godoy 2020).9

The conflict community has an opportunity to utilize Galtung's structural violence framing, and social justice narratives, to address both need-limiting systems. As Richard E. Rubenstein noted in his book Resolving Structural Conflicts (Rubenstein 2017,2),10 it is the conflict field’s job is to discover what these arrangements are, which cause violent conflict, and transform them.

By exploring the climate crisis and coronavirus through structural violence lenses, and examining how these systems prevent fulfillment of basic human needs, the field can begin to articulate how fossil fuels responsible for the current climate crisis (IPCC 2013),11 and animal farming, deforestation and destruction of natural habitat, which produced COVID-19 and the majority of recent pandemics (Dalton 2020),12 can be addressed by the conflict community.

Climate and conflict

The climate crisis is generating ample conflict. Global heating is creating deadly heat waves, permanent droughts, recurring wildfires, and more torrential storms, displacing millions of people and increasing armed conflict up to 20% (Mach, Kraan, and Adger 2019, 194).13 Aided by rising sea levels, it is estimated to displace 1 billion people by 2050 (Kamal 2017).14 It is already destroying countless homes, mobilizing a burgeoning climate refugee population, and escalating competition over scarce resources. There are nearly 1,000 global conflicts, to date, with water as the root cause (World Water, n.d.),15 and the “causal and substantive linkages . . . between food security and violent conflict, spanning the individual, local, regional, country and global levels” are well-documented by the Food and Agricultural Organization (Martin-Shields and Stojetz, 2018, 23).16

There is ample work resolving these climate conflicts, whether in territorial disputes over water resources, conflicts over food scarcity, or physical violence experienced by climate refugees. Instead of a conflict response, however, this section focuses on the need for preventive practice in transforming fossil-fueled systems.

Fossil fuels, the systems they energize, and the behaviors they enable, are structurally violent in three primary ways. First, exploitative oil, coal, and gas extraction practices pollute resource-adjacent communities’ air, water, and land. Second, distribution systems for these fuels are often located within under-resourced communities, similarly polluting their air, water, and land. And third, the burning of oil, coal, and gas further pollutes, causing premature death in seven million people annually (WHO 2014).17 In response, the conflict field has an opportunity to pioneer a multidisciplinary practice, in coordination with environmental, racial, and justice fields, in co-creating just, nonviolent alternatives.

Many of these fossil-fueled systems are located near urban areas since cities are hubs for fuel transport and represent the majority of the world's energy use. (In response, cities like Portland, Oregon, and New York City are banning new fossil fuel infrastructure.) Embedding conflict practitioners within a city's environmental practice - and its racial and social justice work, which has been reinvigorated given recent global protests - and training conflict practitioners to serve as co-designers of the urban experience, and that which fuels it, could help prevent conflict across the fuel supply chain. Global cities are transforming their energy systems more aggressively than many large national polluters, which is why the ground for collaboration among urban practitioners is particularly fertile.

Cities are also reconfiguring in response to COVID-19. Environmental staff are being seconded to social services, and there is new cross-departmental coordination that invites a rethink of how policymakers can best serve society in a multidisciplinary, versus siloed, way. Since greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030 to prevent irreversible climate chaos (Harvey 2019),1S this kind of outside-the-box thinking is necessary.

It is time to complement conflict response - e.g., resolving resource wars, managing resource scarcity, and transforming climate refugee relationships - with new investments in conflict prevention and the design of structurally nonviolent systems. By partnering with environmental, racial and social justice practitioners, operating across the urban and academic space, the conflict field demonstrates its ability to remain agile amid emerging conflicts and apply itself to sociology in new ways.

The narrative moment for questioning the exploitative capitalism economy on which fossil fuel systems depend is now; policymaker conversations abound regarding the “end of capitalism.” Furthermore, regenerative systems and solutions, referenced below, are becoming mainstream. These are all good signs for an academic rethink of the system. The first step now is to position, and structure the way the field understands, key components of this system as “structurally violent.”

COVID-19 and conflict

Food systems vary little from energy systems: they are as exploitative and extractive, whether in informal slaughterhouses in Wuhan, China, or formal ones in Waco, Texas. The practice of crowding animals into unsanitary, unsafe conditions for sale and slaughter is responsible for the majority of pandemics in recent history, including COVID-19 (Foer and Gross 2020).19 Most animal product consumed globally is raised in factory-farmed, pathogen-friendly environments, where thousands of animals are packed into small spaces to maximize efficiency. This system is dependent on widespread deforestation and habitat destruction, which also contributed to COVID-19 (Einhorn 2O2O).20

In redesigning this system, the conflict community has a role. Food behaviors are perceived as personal or cultural and thus, potentially, intractable. (Fossil fuels can be personal when impacting food, fashion and family planning, but the bigger carbon contributors - i.e. buildings, transportation, and waste - are not as burdened by cultural constrictions.) Transitioning from industrial animal agricultural requires a sea change in food production and consumption and a commitment to making food regeneratively. Conversations about food require the kind of intervention that the conflict field is trained to handle. Culture-and-conflict studies are well-developed and need to expand to include food systems.

Behavioral barriers are not insignificant. Heavily subsidized animal agriculture makes factory-farmed meat cheaper for mass consumption (Shapiro 2016),21 and meat is associated with economic prosperity (Bereznicka and Pawlonka 2018, 18-19)22 and identity - e.g., meat is very “American” (Ziegelman 2020).23 Positioning patriotic identities around plant-based diets, then, which have a substantially lower carbon footprint, requires new narratives. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently directed $100 million to the plant-based protein industry, he boasted that by "using 100 percent Canadian inputs, it will also support farmers” and that “standing up for hard-working farmers, creating good jobs, [and] setting up Canada for success on the world stage” are things Canada will always get behind (Global News 2020).24 This patriotic repositioning and jobs-based framing make alternative plant-based identities viable.

Disarming this system yields significant benefits by avoiding premature deaths - from COVID-19 and future pandemics - and preventing exploitative and extractive practices. While conflict responses to COVID-19-related disputes - e.g., labor disputes by undocumented factory farm workers (Gra-bel 2017),25 violent disputes over COVID-19 mask-wearing (Hutchinson 2020),26 or environmental disputes over factory farming's polluting practices in low-income communities of color (EWG 2016)27 - are necessary. But they are responses, and, while helpfill in reducing conflict, may fail to transform the system.

Preventive practice proposes a buildout in the conflict field that embraces food policy, specifically the field of regenerative agriculture (which, discussed below, is helpfill in reducing climate-crisis-causing carbon emissions). By engaging sectors that deal with food systems decision-making within international institutions (e.g., Food and Agriculture Organization),28 national governments (e.g., departments and ministries of food and agriculture), and the private sector, the redesign of food systems can be influenced through a conflict lens. This calls for a recognition by the field of food's role in creating conflict, and, subsequently, partnerships across multiple disciplines to ensure the field’s foothold in this space going forward.

From restorative to regenerative

There is another way to change these systems: foster behavior changes as a way of forcing systems change, since these industries depend on consumer demand. Modeling restorative justice's role in transforming the criminal justice system, the conflict field could add to its practice the study of regenerative economics (Fath et al 2019),29 in which goods and sendees contribute to well-being rather than undermining it, and regenerative agriculture (LaCanne and Lundgren 2018),30 which focuses on rehabilitative approaches that enhance ecosystems rather than eroding them. Both could reorient energy and food systems, prevent conflict emergence, and grow the field.

Going further, similar to how restorative justice brings together victims and offenders to reconcile wrongs (Zelir 2002),31 the conflict community

From the frying pan to the fire 29 could convene stakeholders to transform fossil-fueled and factory-farmed systems. With fossil fuels, the conflict field could convene offenders (individuals with the heaviest carbon footprints) and victims (those exposed to pollutants and hit hardest by climate impacts) to address grievances and reconcile wrongs. These conversations do occur, but not in a restorative way, at international climate talks (Mathiesen 2013),32 where conflicts emerge over whether industrialized nations should or should not pay for their historical responsibility in creating climate change and redress wrongs to frontline communities.

The conflict field could also convene offenders in the industrial animal food system (individual consumers of factory-farmed meat) and its victims (populations impacted by deforestation, immigrant workers in factory farms, and low-income communities of color adjacent to factory farms) to understand the impact of their consumption. These relational approaches -allowing offenders to understand the consequences of their actions - may prove effective in transforming consumer demand. While these approaches are primarily utilized within systems causing direct physical violence, the potential to use them within structurally violent systems should also be explored.

Lastly, it is important to note that a shift from exploitative to regenerative practices will not happen immediately, but COVID-19 is increasing the feasibility of system-wide and behavioral shifts. There are moves across all levels of government to boost the health, resilience, safety and security of economic and agricultural systems, which are helpful narratives and frames when marketing to basic human needs.

All of this signals a potential systems and behavioral shift toward economic and agricultural models that are smaller in scope, less industrial in scale, more responsive to negative externalities, and, potentially, more regenerative in practice. Add to this wave of reform, the social and racial justice awareness, narrative, and protest that can be harnessed to address the negative impacts from fossil fuel and factory farm industries on underresourced and under-represented conununities. The conflict field can thus further motivate these shifts by engaging in the multidisciplinary partnerships and narrative framing suggested in this chapter.


As emissions rise and biodiversity rapidly disappears, planetary crises and pandemics become more prevalent and conflicts more pervasive. The conflict field should seize this transitional moment to bring on board the academic and policy partnerships necessary to engage in the transformation of fossil-fueled and factory-farmed systems and the behaviors that support them. By treating the climate crisis and coronavirus in preventive, not only responsive, ways, the conflict field influences a transformational moment and ensures the field remains resilient amid emerging environmental crises. Now is the time to rethink the conflict scope and map new areas of interest, including energy and food systems, building the necessary narratives and multidisciplinary infrastructure to address these structurally violent systems.


  • 1 Lisa Friedman, “New Research Links Air Pollution to Higher Coronavirus Death Rates,” York Hines, April 7, 2020, www.nytimes.coin/2020/04/07/ climate/air-pollution-coronavirus-covid.html.
  • 2 Louis Kriesberg. “Evolution of Conflict Resolution,” in The Sage Handbook of Conflict Resolution, ed. Jacob Bercovitch, Victor Kremenyuk. and I. William Zartman, 15-32. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009).
  • 3 Johan Galtung. “Violence, Peace and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969): 167-91.
  • 4 Brett Israel, “Coal Plants Smother Communities of Color,” Scientific American, November 16, 2012,
  • 5 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “Just Energy Policies: Reducing Pollution and Creating Jobs,” 2014, accessed June 26, 2020.
  • 6 Fiona Harvey, Andrew Wasley, Madlen Davies, and David Child, “Rise of Mega Farms: How the US Model of Intensive Farming Is Invading the World,” The Guardian, July 18, 2017, www.theguardian.eom/environment/2017/jul/18/rise-of-mega-farms-how-the-us-model-of-intensive-farming-is-invading-the-world.
  • 7 Wendee Nicole, “CAFOs and Environmental Justice: The Case of North Carolina,” Environmental Health Perspectives 121. no. 6 (2013): A182-89, doi:10.1289/ehp,121-al82.
  • 8 Lucas Spangher, “The Overlooked Plight of Factory Farm Workers,” Huffington Post, August 18, 2014,; NAACP, 2014,'wp-content/uploads/2014/ 03/Just-Energy-Policies-Compendium-EXECUTIVE-SUMMARY_NAACP. pdf.
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Measures Undergirding Systemic Economic Health.” Global Transitions 1 (2019): 15-27, doi:10.1016/j.glt.2019.02.002.

  • 30 Claire LaCanne and Jonathan Lundgren. “Regenerative Agriculture: Merging Farming and Natural Resource Conservation Profitably,” PeerJ 6 (2018): e4428, doi:10.7717/peerj.4428.
  • 31 Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002).
  • 32 Karl Mathiesen, “Climate Talks: Should Rich Countries Pay for Damage Caused by Global Warming?” The Guardian, November 20, 2013, www.the'environment/2013/nov/20/climate-talks-rich-countries-pay-damage-global-warming.

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