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Critique of Eco-scarcity Theory

Eco-scarcity theory is a logically sound extension of the original Malthusian framework which, at least sometimes and in some places, applied before the advent of industrial civilization (LeBlanc 2003); would apply in the absence of industrial civilization; and will again apply after its terminal demise. In the presence of industrial civilization, however, it is an easy target for empirical criticism. The reason for this is that, just as classical Malthusianism, eco-scarcity theory fails to account for the beneficial systemic effects of industrial civilization (see Sect. 4.2.2). Due to this failure, it is easy for critics to come up with countervailing case studies to “falsify” eco-scarcity theory (e.g. Peluso and Watts 2001).

For the same reason, eco-scarcity theory can also be undermined by the application of conventional statistical techniques. Here, the procedure is to collapse eco-scarcity models into bundles of causal factors, with violent conflict as the dependent variable and environmental pressure as the independent variable of interest. Factors intervening in eco-scarcity models, such as the strength of state institutions, are added to the list of independent variables as “controls”. This reductive procedure makes it then possible to “test” via correlation analysis whether or not there is a connection between environmental pressure and violent conflict.

While early quantitative scholarship seemed to confirm the claim of a strong and significant causal relationship between environmental pressure and violent conflict, subsequent studies have undermined this belief.[1] Consider the fate of an early quantitative study that found a clear causal link between environmental pressures, such as land degradation and fresh water scarcity, and the risk of domestic armed conflict (Hauge and Ellingsen 1998). Ten years after its publication, the study was replicated by another scholar—and most of its findings turned out to be spurious (Theisen 2008). Overall, the balance of recent quantitative studies do not support the claim that environmental pressure has any statistically significant causal effect on violent conflict (Bernauer et al. 2012).

To be sure, the quantitative literature debunking eco-scarcity theory can itself be criticized. It is problematic to reduce complex social-ecological processes, with their multiple discontinuities and feedback mechanisms, to independent and dependent variables. Insofar as environmental strains and population pressure are remote causes in complex social-ecological processes, it is unfair to place them alongside more proximate causes such as unequal distribution, ethnic hatred, or inadequate institutions. The danger of reductivism is occasionally recognized even by quantitative scholars: “Conventional statistical techniques run into problems when the relationships to be investigated are of a complex and interactive kind, which is exactly the case for eco-scarcity theory” (Theisen 2008, 814).

And yet, when measured against its own validity claims, eco-scarcity theory is in trouble. The absence of a strong and demonstrable statistical nexus linking environmental pressure with violent conflict questions the applicability of this complex neo-Malthusian school of thought to the analysis of conflict patterns.

That said, however, it is important to recall that the criticism applies only to the recent past. It does not alter the fact that eco-scarcity scenarios may yet be borne out in the near future if industrial civilization enters a terminal decline. Just as the neoMalthusian proponents of eco-scarcity theory fail to acknowledge that we are still living in the industrial age, their critics fail to appreciate that the durability of industrial civilization cannot be taken for granted in a world entering various forms of geophysical turbulence. Climate change and energy scarcity, either to prevent catastrophic global warming or due to a terminal decline of global oil production, are dramatic game changers that may drive the world towards a post-industrial and post-global age where we may see precisely the complex neo-Malthusian scenarios that have so often been discarded (Friedrichs 2013).

  • [1] See for example Urdal (2005); Binningsbø et al. (2007)
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