Conflict and Change in the Era of Economic Decline: Part 1 – The 21st century landscape of conflict

December 4, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Many of the readers of Energy Bulletin, and now, have come to share a certain view of the world. It’s probably fair to say that, as a group, we see resource depletion, financial chaos, and environmental disasters (principally associated with global climate change) as looming storms converging on industrial civilization. We also tend to see the unprecedented level of complexity of our society today as resulting from the historically recent energy subsidies of fossil fuels, and to a certain extent the enabling factor of financial innovation. Thus, as the quality and quantity of our energy sources inevitably decline, and as financial claims melt away with the ongoing burst of history’s greatest credit bubble, a simplification and decentralization of societal systems is inevitable.

In this essay, which will appear in five installments, I hope to explore some of the social implications of simplification and decentralization. Will wars and revolutions break out with ever-greater frequency? Will democracy thrive, or will traumatized masses find themselves at the mercy of tyrants? Will nation states survive, or will they break apart? Will regional warlords rule over impoverished and enslaved survivors? Or will local food networks and Occupy groups positively transform society from the ground up?
I don’t claim to have a functioning crystal ball. But tracing current trends, and looking to historic analogies, may help us understand our prospects better, and help us make the most of them.
The 21st century landscape of conflict
Looking forward, four principal drivers of conflict are easily apparent. More may be lurking along the way.
First is the increasing prospect of conflict between rich and poor—i.e., between those who benefitted during history’s biggest growth bash on one hand, and on the other hand those who provided the labor, sat on the sidelines, or were pushed aside in resource grabs.
Economic growth produces inequality as a byproduct. Not only do industrialists appropriate the surplus value of the labor of their workers, as Marx pointed out, but bankers accumulate wealth from the interest paid by borrowers. We see inequality being generated by economic growth in real time in China, where roughly six hundred million people have been lifted from poverty in the last thirty years as a result of nine percent annual economic growth—but where economic inequality now surpasses levels in U.S. and even Eastern Europe.
Just as economic growth produces winners and losers domestically, the level of wealth inequality between nations grows as the global economy expands. Today the disparity between average incomes in the world’s richest and poorest nations is higher than ever.
The primary forces working against inequality as economies grow consist of government spending on social programs of all sorts, and on international aid projects.
As economic growth stops, those who have benefitted the most have both the incentive to maintain their relative advantage and, in many cases, the means to do so. Which means that in a contracting economy, those who have the least tend to lose the most. There are exceptions, of course. Billionaires can in theory go broke in a matter of hours or even seconds as a result of a market crash. But in the era of “too-big-to-fail” banks and corporations, government provides a safety net for the rich as well as the poor.
High and increasing inequality is usually bearable during boom times, as people at the bottom of the wealth pyramid are encouraged by the prospect of its overall expansion. Once growth ceases and slips into reverse, inequality becomes socially unsustainable. Declining expectations lead to unrest, while absolute misery (in the sense of not having enough to eat) often results in revolution.
We’ve seen plenty of examples of these trends in the past two years in Greece, Ireland, Spain, the U.S., and the Middle East.
In many countries, including the U.S., government efforts to forestall or head off uprisings appear to be taking the forms of criminalization of dissent, the militarization of police, and a massive expansion of surveillance using an array of new electronic spy technologies. At the same time, intelligence agencies are now able to employ up-to-date sociological and psychological research to infiltrate, co-opt, misdirect, and manipulate popular movements aimed at achieving economic redistribution.
However, these military, police, public relations, and intelligence efforts require massive funding as well as functioning grid, fuel, and transport infrastructures. Further, their effectiveness is limited if and when the nation’s level of economic pain becomes too intense, widespread, or prolonged.
A second source of conflict consists of increasing competition over access to depleting resources, including oil, water, and minerals. Among the wealthiest nations, oil is likely to be the object of the most intensive struggle, since oil is essential for nearly all transport and trade. The race for oil began in the early 20th century and has shaped the politics and geopolitics of the Middle East and Central Asia; now that race is expanding to include the Arctic and deep oceans, such as the South China Sea.
Resource conflicts occur not just between nations, but also within societies: witness the ongoing insurgencies in the Niger Delta, where oil revenue fuels rampant political corruption while drilling leads to environmental ravages felt primarily by the Ogoni ethnic group; see also the political infighting in fracking country here in the U.S., where ecological impacts put ever-greater strains on the social fabric. Neighbors who benefit from lease payments no longer speak to neighbors who have to put up with polluted water, a blighted landscape, and the noise of thousands of trucks carrying equipment, water, and chemicals. Eventually, however, boomtowns turn to ghost towns, and nearly everyone loses.
Third, climate change and other forms of ecological degradation are likely to lead to conflict over access to places of refuge from natural disasters. The responsible agencies—including the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security—point out that there are already 12 million environmental refugees worldwide, and that this number is destined to soar as extreme weather events increase in frequency and severity. Typically, when bad weather strikes, people leave their homes only as a last resort; in the worst instances they have no other option. As America learned during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when hundreds of thousand were displaced from farms in the prairies, rapid shifts in population due to forced migration can create economic and social stresses, including competition for scarce jobs, land, and resources, leading to discrimination and sometimes violence.
Where do refugees go when the world is already full? Growing economies are usually able to absorb immigrants and governments may even encourage immigration in order to keep wages down. But when economic growth ceases, immigrants are often seen as taking jobs away from native-born workers.
In this instance as well, conflict will appear both within and between countries. Low-lying island nations may disappear completely, and cross-border weather-driven migrations will increase dramatically. Inhabitants of coastal communities will move further inland. Farmers in drought-plagued areas will pick up stakes. But can all of these people be absorbed into shantytowns in the world’s sprawling megacities? Or will at least some of these cities themselves see an exodus of population due to an inability to maintain basic life-support services?
Lastly, climate change, water scarcity, high oil prices, vanishing credit, and the leveling off of per-hectare productivity and the amount of arable land are all combining to create the conditions for a historic food crisis, which will impact the poor first and most forcibly. High food prices breed social instability—whether in 18th century France or 21st century Egypt. As today’s high prices rise further, social instability could spread, leading to demonstrations, riots, insurgencies, and revolutions.
In summary, conflict in the decades ahead will likely center on the four factors of money, energy, land, and food. These sources of conflict will overlap in various ways. While economic inequality will not itself be at the root of all this conflict (one could argue that population growth is a deeper if often unacknowledged cause of strife), inequality does seem destined to play a role in most conflict, whether the immediate trigger is extreme weather, high food prices, or energy shortages.
This is not to say that no other sources of conflict beyond money, energy, land, and food will exist. Undoubtedly religion will provide the ostensible banner for contention in many instances. However, as so often in history, this is likely to be a secondary rather than a primary driver of discord.
This essay was originally an address to the International Conference on Sustainability, Transition and Culture Change, November 16, 2012, by Richard Heinberg

Image credit: Occupy 6 – Guy Denning

Richard Heinberg

Richard is Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of fourteen books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis. He has authored hundreds of essays and articles that have appeared in such journals as Nature and The Wall Street Journal; delivered hundreds of lectures on energy and climate issues to audiences on six continents; and has been quoted and interviewed countless times for print, television, and radio. His monthly MuseLetter has been in publication since 1992. Full bio at

Tags: Occupy movement, Overshoot, social change