top of page


Article Reviews

‘Environmental Change and Violent Conflict’ by Thomas F. Homer-Dixon; prepared for the Workshop on ‘Environmental Change and Threats to Security’ at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, March 1990.

Commenting on Fukuyama’s article ‘The End of History’, Homer-Dixon notes that during the next half-century, we can expect a rise in human population to nine billion, major decreases in irrigated agricultural land, virgin forests, degradation of freshwater resources, collapse of fisheries, probable significant climate change, all occurring against a background of increases in nuclear and chemical weapons and fossil fuel storages. He concludes that

In the next decades, environmental problems may come to dominate over all other factors affecting the international system. Contrary to Fukuyama, the most dramatic episodes of our historical saga are probably yet to come; and the script will be written by material not ideological factors.

This, from the Introduction to Homer-Dixon’s article indicates the drive of his thinking and its significance for Science for Peace. His question: ‘Will large-scale environmental changes produce violent national and international conflict?’ lies at the heart of his analysis.

In terms of method, Homer-Dixon contends that analysts of global-societal change have failed ‘to separate … the mechanisms by which environmental change could lead to conflict from their analysis of the regions that will be most susceptible.’ Moreover, he is critical of current tendencies to consider world problems on a state-by-state basis and to concentrate on ‘simple scarcity conflicts’. Homer-Dixon maintains that the emphasis should be on ‘strategic’ environmental resources — water, agricultural land, fisheries — disputes over which lead to conflicts within states (e.g. the Philippines, over forestry abuses) and between states (e.g. Turkey and Syria, over the water of the Euphrates).

Homer-Dixon selects for special consideration three principal types of theories by social scientists among a typology of thirteen ‘common theories of conflict’ which he proposes; these three are: (i) frustration-aggression theories; (ii) group-identity theories; (iii) structural theories. He writes that

‘… relative-deprivation and insurgency perspectives together tell us that severe civil strife is likely when 1) there is a clear group structure within a society; 2) the distribution of rewards within the society is regarded by certain of these groups as wholly illegitimate; 3) the balance of power within the society is regarded by these same groups as unstable; that is, they believe there are ‘opportunities’ for increasing their power or overthrowing the structures of authority in the society; and 4) there is the organizational and leadership capacity within these groups to provide them with adequate information and coordination.

Reflecting on the actions of Indian groups within Canada this summer one cannot but be impressed by the aptness of these claims by Homer-Dixon and by his prescience (the article was written much earlier this year). ‘Practical politicians’ are frequently scornful of the theoretical flights of social and political scientists, but that may largely be because their education has been neglected. Indeed, the Canadian Government might do well to ponder Homer-Dixon’s subsequent words:

In addition, by altering group members’ self-perceptions, their understandings of the nature of power, and their assumptions about the possible means to achieve change, leaders can instil the belief that their group will be much more likely to succeed in a contest for power.

Homer-Dixon reveals eminent sensibleness in noting that further research on the relations between environmental change and conflict may sometimes ‘indicate planning to adapt is not a sensible policy response … and that we should move as quickly as possible to prevent environmental disruption.’

In an appendix, Homer-Dixon gives a compact and useful ‘typology of common theories of conflict’ in which he briefly sets forth social and political theories that deal with the individual (innate aggressiveness, aggressive personality, frustration aggression, misperception and cognitive process theories), the group (aggressive-group, group-identity, organizational process, and vested interest theories), and lastly the system of interacting units (structural, Hobbesian-anarchy, spiral-anarchy, communitarian and liberal theories).

Homer-Dixon illustrates his discourse by the use of a number of diagrams that attempt to portray the dynamics of this thesis; the topics or problems addressed include 1) environmental change and human conflict, 2) environmental problems facing the developing world, 3) social effects of environmental change in developing countries, 4) hypotheses regarding the effects of environmental change on agricultural production, 5) hypotheses on effects of environmental change on productivity in developing countries, 6) feedback between social effects, 7) types of conflict arising from environmental change in the developing world. Although these schemes are presented in the general form of systems analysis diagrams or flow charts, replete with arrows to indicate cause and effect, feedback, etc., and are clearly designed, I find them less useful than the body of the text. I think this is because many of them have ‘too many boxes’ and become confusing both because of this and because of the too-complex mix of categories of information they imply — from very concrete and definite to extremely speculative.

In attached pages, not specifically listed as an appendix, Homer-Dixon has included a bevy of figures and tables of data and information about environmental change, ranging from growth of the human population to change in temperature and CO2 (and other greenhouse gases), ozone, chlorofluorocarbon chemistry and per capita water availability, to the Milankovitch Cycles (effects of Earth’s orbital change on the extent of the tropics). The material collected here is very useful as background. The paper includes a comprehensive reference list.

Homer-Dixon has offered an important service to those interested in the mainsprings of conflict in a world in which change — economics, socio-political, and environmental — is obvious, rapid, frequently uncontrollable, and usually to be viewed with apprehension. We cannot stop or suspend change, and there are many changes that persons of good will and peaceful intent will want to foster and expedite — if, in many cases, these are principally changes in attitude. But Homer-Dixon performs a capital function in bringing home to political scientists the inescapable realities of physical environmental changes that form a background to world problems, while reminding them that to operate as thinkers in today’s world they cannot afford to ignore the accumulated knowledge of past conflicts and their interpretation in the light of modern social, biological and economic understanding. We can look forward to much of interest from this stimulating author in the future.

Alan H. Weatherley

‘Strategic Defence for the 1990s’ by Gregory Canavan and Edward Teller, Nature, 344, April 19, 199, pp. 699-704.

In this long article Canavan and Teller analyse the ‘cost-effectiveness’ of ‘nuclear attack missiles, … space-based defensive missiles designed to collide with the missiles as they leave the atmosphere, … anti-satellite missiles directed against space-based defenders and … the costs of (the) passive defensive measures of hardening, evasive manoeuvre and decoys, singly and in combination’, as featured by space-based defenders.

This mission has macabre undertones, of course. Thus, the cost-effectiveness of a nuclear missile ‘which could destroy a nation with an estimated monetary value of $10 million million can be generalized to 36:1:

Using such an approach, the authors determine case by case, the most economical of the space-based defenses, anti-satellite missiles, etc. This treatment leads to claims such as the following:

Throughout the next ten years, the most effective countermeasure to space-based defenders is likely to be a guided missile armed with a nuclear weapon. … the benefits of hardening and manoeuvre (as applied to space-based defenders) are separately marginal, particularly against improved anti-satellites. Only hardened manoeuverable carriers with a large warning range lie within the region of probable effective anti-satellite masses … carriers become more survivable at all warning ranges as the mass of the defenders is reduced. … a combination of hardening, manoeuverability and decoys is three times more cost-effective than hardening and manoeuvre combined.

For survivability, defenders are best deployed in self-reliant singlets. In 1983 the singlet proposal would have evoked scepticism: today, Brilliant Pebbles are clearly feasible … the US Strategic Defense Initiative Office has recognized the advantages and decided to develop singlets in preference to large carrier vehicles.

The authors also consider ‘further countermeasures to frustrate the defence’, including beam weapons (they claim the Soviet Union has them), ‘red-out’ from nuclear explosions in the high atmospheres to conceal the attack and anti-satellite missiles, the problem of keeping anti-satellite replacement costs low (said to be solved by Brilliant Pebbles), and vulnerability from complexity (and therefore likely system failure: again, solved by Brilliant Pebbles which are claimed to be simple and cheap).

To most readers the consideration of these questions, especially by Edward Teller, will recall the days of the Reagan Cold War. And certainly it seems strange to see these matters argued about in a journal like Nature. In mitigation, if that is an appropriate word, Canavan and Teller state that

The cost of deploying 100 Brilliant Pebbles is proably less than $1,000 million. Such deployment is an urgent and necessary step … Political objections … could be overcome by making the enterprise an open and international undertaking That would be particularly fitting because, since its inception, the strategic defense initiative has been intended to protect the whole of mankind, not just a single nation. A cooperative demonstration supported in part by … other nations would be a highly constructive step towards assured safety for all.

However, as everyone knows, critics of SDI concentrate on two major problems (quite apart from ‘cost-effectiveness’ !): viz., 1) the enormous complexity and the resulting problems of functional reliability — both of which have been judged by many as essentially ‘insoluble’; 2) the threat that SDI defenses, if not universally deployed would constitute for those nations’ not possessing it, an unavoidable challenge to devise ways to overcome it — result: a perpetual destabilizing effect.

Who can tell? Perhaps one day we shall all live under a ‘Reagan umbrella’, with a potential cloud of Brilliant Pebbles, or their distant decendants, permanently orbiting overhead. Meanwhile, let us get on with building peace, social justice, and universal disarmament.

Alan H. Weatherley

‘Third World Ballistic Missiles’ by J.E. Nolan and A.D.Wheelon, Scientific American, 263, August 1990

In this article Nolan and Wheelon recount how during ‘the past decade the number of countries in the missile club has more than doubled, to 18. Many of the new members have been at war …’. The authors explain the steps by which the ‘big industrialized countries’ armed client nations, disregarding the effects this would produce in later years. They explain how

A pattern by which missile technology reaches hands for which it was not intended can be discerned. First the clients modify missiles to achieve capabilities that the original suppliers would not have countenanced. Next they produce copies of the improved version. Then they design new missiles from scratch, seeking export markets to defray some of the expense. The emergence of Third World missile exporters has helped create a buyer’s market, in which a remarkable range of missile technology is available to anyone with cash.

Interesting … and yet hardly remarkable. This must surely be the essential pattern of all arms sales: proliferation — improvement — more sales technologies, from the development of the bow and arrow upwards. How else could it be? The authors ‘explain’ how the Great Powers failed to see clearly what the consequences of arms sales would be because the ‘preoccupation with East-West issues overshadowed problems in the Third World.’ Yes, well, if this is a sample of the failure of the strategic moves of the Great Powers to grasp the sublimely obvious, it at least helps to explain why those same Great Powers have 1) contributed so much to the present chaotic world situation, and 2) should never again be trusted with any degree of insight into the conduct of international affairs. Great Power does not refer, in the realms of international strategic matters, to great brain power.

The authors (Janne E. Nolan is a senior fellow in the Brookings Institute; Albert D. Wheelon was chief executive of the Hughes Aircraft Company, from which he retired in 1988 to teach at MIT in 1989, before that he was a deputy director of the CIA) catalogue the present missile capabilities of the countries of the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, and South America; they also discuss South Africa.

Among the fifteen countries considered, Israel, with missiles it has developed itself, has the most dangerous weapons in the Middle East. Its missiles could reach to all of its neighbouring countries and are almost certainly nuclear-armed. Saudi Arabia has the Chinese CSS-2 which has nuclear carrying capability and a range of more than 1500 miles. The authors regard the Iraqi missiles as a future threat second only to those of Israel, particularly as Iraq is actively seeking nuclear capability.

In East Asia, India has (in 1989) independently developed a 1500 mile missile ‘derived’ from space-launch technology provided by France and the Soviet Union. Ironically, the US was prepared to provide additional space technology on the eve of the launch and may still do so.

Nolan and Wheelen point out that although hazards and ranges of missiles may differ greatly, ‘strategic weapons cannot be defined in absolute terms. What matters is the weapon’s ability to reach beyond the front lines to threaten an enemy’s depots, factories and cities.’ They also suggest that missiles are uniquely effective as terror weapons; here they cite the particularly demoralizing effects on civilian populations of the German V-2 rockets launched against the British population in World War II, and modern versions of such weapons used by Iraq against Iran in their recent conflict.

The authors conclude that

The proliferation of ballistic missiles cannot be reversed, but some of its greatest dangers can be mitigated. Above all the US should recognize the waning of its influence on the global arms race so that it can wisely wield the influence it retains. The stakes have never been higher.

To this, we may add that it is the US and other Great Powers, by their attitudes of attempting to safeguard their interests by endless proliferation of arms that have promoted the growth of Third World missiles, and that there is therefore no particular reason why we should assume that the US will be any wiser now in its influence than previously. Finally, Nolan and Wheelon have provided us with the clearest of indications (should we need them!) that ‘poor countries’ are increasingly liable to be dangerously enough armed to be feared by any country.

Alan H. Weatherley

Book Review

Boyce Richardson, Time to Change, Summerhill Press, Toronto, 1990, 299 pp., $14.95

Staff members at CIIPS were struck by the discordance between two documents that arrived in the spring of 1987. One was the Brundtland commission report, ‘Our Common Future’. The other, apparently oblivious to environmental threats to security, was our national White Paper on national defence. As Nancy Gordon and Fen Hampson say in the preface to this book, ‘it doesn’t matter how many tanks or guns or subs or missiles you have if the most important enemies you face are environmental degradation, economic decline, and demographic trends.’

Faced with the gulf between these two reports, the CIIPS staff wondered, ‘What is going on here? What are the threats to Canadian security? How should Canada reponse to those threats?’ They asked writer and film-maker Boyce Richardson to produce a book on these subjects. To help him tap relevant expertise, they organized a series of working dinners for about 20 people, with a short presentation followed by structured discussion at each dinner.

The outcome is a well-written, hard-hitting book for the general Canadian public. Its five chapters are organized around five challenges: environmental, economic, demographic, military, and political. Although it presents little that is new for the reader who is already reasonably well-informed about these topics, it does provide a readable overview for the relative newcomer to these fields. Because it provides a specifically Canadian account, readers in Canada may well prefer to gain their introduction from this book than from the various American and European overviews that are available.

Allen Tough Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

Recent Posts

See All

SfP Bulletin archive

SfP Bulletin February 2017 The President’s Corner: Science for Peace as a Foreign Language Metta Spencer Report of the Working Group on Global Governance Helmut Burkhardt Report of the Working Group o

Report of the Working Group on Global Governance

(2016-09-17) Members: Helmut Burkhardt (chair), Norman Dyson, Rose Dyson, Brydon Gombay, Julia Morton-Marr, Tom Simunovic, Peter Venton, Adnan Zuberi Mandate: We believe good global governance is mean


bottom of page