Environment and Conflict: Security, Climate Change, and Commodity Resources

Article excerpt

In the current, post-9/11 era "conflict" has become increasingly more complex. Realists' theories in International Relations which focus on state-to-state interactions are inadequate to capture new or more active modes and agents of conflict. Non-state terrorism, the interests of profit-seeking corporations and industries, and the widespread use of communication media by non-state actors, such as the Arab Spring protests, challenge the idea of state actors as the only-or even key-players in conflict. Samuel P. Huntington's predictive view of cultural conflict centers not on state to state tensions, but on tensions between self-identifying groups of people which may transcend state borders.1 The "Clash of Civilizations" argument looks to differences between cultures, values, and world views as the basis for conflict. However, it is difficult to determine how cultural values may be clearly distinguished from economic issues, or what the objective of culturally-motivated, armed conflict might be other than to secure territory in efforts to exercise self-determination and to gain or protect sovereign statehood.

Conflict is complex precisely because it refers to different types of tensions, involving different types of actors, and happening at multiple-often simultaneous-spatial scales. The very geopolitics of conflict have become more obviously complicated than mere state-to-state conflict. Conflict is most often thought of as armed and involving direct, physical aggression. However, there are many types of conflict, and violence can interfere with human well-being. Johan Galtung's work on peace and conflict offered this perspective, " Violence is here defined as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual., between what could have been and what is."2 More recently, James Tyner has written about ways in which violence and place are co-constitutive, and about the indirect violence of state-sanctioned activities as an often overlooked feature in scholarship.3 Indeed, there is a vast, multidisciplinary literature on violence, and it is mentioned to acknowledge that a focus on armed conflict does not necessarily capture the trends and processes which are affecting individuals and groups in many different contexts.

The changing geopolitical nature of conflict becomes particularly evident and even more complicated when considering the ways in which natural resources, ecosystem services, and other environmental features are integrated with conflict-armed or otherwise-at multiple spatial scales. Recent scholarship examining environment-related conflict demonstrates a richness and breadth of focus. Definitions of conflict can range from civil society engagement with resource development4 to a military strategy involving the intentional infliction of environmental damage.5 Environmental features in conflict can include the built environment, such as the destruction of urban spaces and the violent production of new spaces to eradicate the living spaces of certain communities.6 Other work has examined anti-terrorist rhetoric influences on popular understandings of how natural resources may be linked to conflict.7 A political economy perspective recognizes that conflict related to natural resources, such as common pool resources, involves multiple spatial scales beyond local actions and impacts.8 These are but a few examples of how conflict linked to environmental features is currendy understood.

In this paper, we focus on three aspects of environmental features that are currendy attracting attention as a conflict within the related literature: environmental security, climate change, and commodity resources. This coverage is not intended to be comprehensive as much as illustrative. By focusing on key themes of each of these topics, a more nuanced and spatially sensitive understanding of environmental features may be increasingly linked to different kinds of conflict.


Environmental security is a concept that has been widely discussed and debated. …