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Putting Environmental Stress (Back) On the Mass Atrocities Agenda


Darfur refugee camp in Chad, Photo by Mark Knobil

By Cullen Hendrix, Center for Climate and Security Senior Research Advisor; Korbel School, University of Denver & Peterson Institute for International Economics

When and why do environmental stressors, including climate change, play a role in precipitating mass atrocities–genocides and politicides, forced displacement, war crimes, and crimes against humanity–and what can the international community do about them? Fears stemming from demographic and environmental stress—particularly access to arable land–were associated with some of the 20th century’s worst mass atrocities. Adolf Hitler’s territorial ambitions in Europe were fueled by an obsession with lebensraum, literally, “living space,” and Japan’s invasion and sack of Manchuria was similarly motivated by a desire to access the territory’s vast renewable and mineral resources.

In the post-WWII era, the overwhelming majority of mass atrocities—including but not limited to genocides, politicides, and forced displacement—have occurred in agrarian societies. Environmental stressors have been implicated in mass atrocities in Rwanda and Darfur. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was among the voices asserting the Darfur conflict “began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.”

In a just-released brief for the Stanley Foundation, I argue research on the direct links between environmental stressors and mass atrocities is still in its infancy, leaving policymakers without a coherent conceptual model of where demographic and environmental stresses might catalyze mass atrocities. These stresses can be real, in the form of land, water, and food scarcity, or imagined and promulgated by politicians seeking to capitalize on fears of scarcity. Thus, policymakers are at a loss to identify those factors that could be monitored to anticipate the outbreak of these events and act to diminish tensions before they boil over into violence.

To help create some conceptual and theoretical clarity, I developed a theoretical model in which demographic-environmental stress is more likely to result in mass atrocities in societies characterized by high groupness—the degree to which individuals in society depend on distinct identity groups for their economic prospects, physical security, and as a platform to pursue political power—and political institutions that do not constrain the executive or guarantee minority groups a say in policy formation.

Still, many societies characterized by both do not experience mass atrocities: demographic and institutional factors alone “overpredict” the occurrence of mass atrocities. Within these contexts, the choices powerful political actors make about inclusive national narratives often determine whether societies with high groupness and exclusive political institutions actually experience mass atrocities. That is, leadership matters.

These conjectures are broadly consistent with insights from both the literatures on environmental security and genocide/mass atrocities, and are then explored via discussions of cases where these factors led to mass atrocities (Darfur) and where they did not (Cote d’Ivoire). The brief concludes with several important policy implications, including the need for research to interrogate this plausible but untested theoretical model and to monitor scarcity-related discourse in the agrarian societies of Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia.

Even as these regions urbanize rapidly, their rural populations will continue to grow and put increasing pressure on the ecosystems—already buffeted by climate change—that sustain them. Whether this stress will translate into mass atrocities is thus a crucial but open question. This brief offers some ideas, and hopefully re-opens an important discussion.

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