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Overpopulation, Resource Wars, Revolution and Genocide

Posted May 04 2010 12:21pm
With the threat of resource scarcity looming many people are talking about the prospects for resource wars in the future. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq raised speculation that the U.S. was seeking military domination over Middle Eastern oil. The Arab Israeli wars have often had water rights as one of their causes. The 1967 war had its roots in Lebanese efforts to divert water from a tributary of the Jordan, and the 2006 Lebanon war followed an Israeli warning that Lebanese water works on the Litani would be considered a Causa Belli.

However resource wars are not the only form of violence that face an overpopulated world that has outrun its resources. Complete social breakdown is another possibility. Jared Diamond’s book, “Collapse” presents numerous examples of cultures that overexploited their environment and faced horrendous consequences as a result. From the Easter Islanders to the Mayans, to the Anasazi Indians, ancient cultures have grown beyond the ability of their environment to support them and seen their civilizations crash as a result.

One of the most disturbing examples that Diamond uses is the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Typically portrayed as an ethnic conflict, the Rwanda killings display a good deal of evidence that population pressures were also a factor. Rwanda and Burundi were two of the most densely populated countries in Africa, and the population will heavily rural, relying on agricultural production for subsistence. The typical farm had shrunk to less than an acre per family—not enough to feed everyone, so that farmers needed to earn outside income to supplement their income. When the coffee market collapsed in the 1990s, it further aggravated economic conditions.

Although the killing began after a radical Hutu government seized control and implemented plans to kill moderate Hutus and Tutsis. The government took to the radio urging Hutus to kill all Tutsis. Estimates of the dead that resulted range as high as a million people.

Once the killing began, it expanded beyond simple ethnic killing, as in the most crowded province of Kanama where most people were impoverished, hungry and desperate. Although there was only one known Tutsi living in Kanama, an estimated five percent of the population was killed. A disproportionate number of the victims were older, larger land owners, or younger, impoverished men and children. The descent into violence provided an opportunity to settle old scores, to gain property, and to relieve the most extreme land pressures.

Rwanda is an extreme example of population pressure exploding into violence, but history records that population pressures have been a factor in many of the major revolutions and state collapses of the early modern era.

“Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World” by Jack Goldstone argues that population pressures are a major factor behind revolution and state collapses. Goldstone studies the English Revolution of 1640 and the French Revolution of 1789, as well as revolts in the Ottoman Empire and China during the same time periods.

Population increases preceded both the English Revolution of 1640 and the French Revolution of 1789. England after 1640 experienced stable or declining populations while France after 1789 much slower growth. Population in both the Ottoman Empire and China did not recover from the wars and plagues of the fourteenth century until the early sixteenth century, but in the next hundred years, population grew rapidly.

Population pressures contributed to state financial stresses brought on by a growing imbalance between revenues and the increasing obligations of a growing population. An increase in the upper classes resulted in severe divisions, including both alienation from the state and intra-elite conflicts, brought on by increasing insecurity and competition for elite positions. Among the general public, population pressures resulted in rising grievances such as high rents and food prices and low wages. At the same time population growth increased the proportion of youth who were most likely to act on revolutionary rhetoric.

The result was a wave of revolutions in the mid seventeenth century, followed by a century of relative stability, then a second wave of revolution in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Stability returned in no small part because the coal powered industrial revolution allowed the incorporation of major new food producing regions into a world market so that a larger population could be supported. The twentieth century brought the oil economy which fueled the “green revolution” in farming and further brought the world’s markets together.

Now, however, we face a looming peak in oil production which will end the era of cheap energy and dramatically change our economy. As the world increasingly feels the pressures of resource scarcity, we face the prospect of violence on an unprecedented scale. The conditions that Goldstone outlined in the early modern era will emerge once again.

A foreshadowing of this came in 2008 when food price spikes resulted in food riots in thirty-seven countries, while hundreds of millions of people slipped into poverty. New prosperity in Asia means more competition among world elites, similar to the early modern period, while youthful populations throughout much of Asia and Africa and the growing number of failed states similarly echo past patterns.

Goldstone’s framework for understanding the waves of revolution and rebellion of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries offer an ominous warning for what we face in our own future.
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