This post is an exploration of another conflict risk-factor ‘type’—Resource Scarcity and Unstable Economy. I talk about what conflict risk-factors are here, but just as a quick re-fresh, they’re the things which increase a community’s vulnerability to violent-conflict. They don’t directly spark violence, but they’re the dry kindling that so easily catches alight. I call them risk-factor ‘types’, not to refer to strict categories, but as a guide, pointing towards the kinds of things we ought to consider. The type I’m talking about today is Resources Scarcity and Unstable Economy.
It might make for a clunky title, but I found it helpful to specifically name an unstable economy, as well as resource scarcity. This was to make sure that we think about this risk-factor holistically. Resource scarcity makes us think of the physical absence of things (eg. not enough food because of a drought). This is important, but it isn’t the whole picture. What economic instability makes us think about, is the scarcity that can be brought about through our economic systems and practices. And there doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical shortage in order for an unstable economy to generate scarcity. For example, people might not be able to afford food, because of high unemployment, or because hyperinflation has diminished their purchasing power. In these instances, people experience scarcity, even if there is plenty of food about.
In a sense, there are two parts of scarcity, or ‘not-having-enough’: ‘real’ and ‘systems’. Real being when something is physically lacking. Like if there just isn’t enough land, or floods destroyed the harvest, or if the wells dry up. Systems, is when the structure of our economic system means that there is scarcity. Factors such as increasing costs of land, high unemployment, or inflation are examples of this. This emphasises that how we choose (collectively) to run our economy, impacts on our ability to meet basic needs just as much as environmental factors do. If we want to avert violence, then we need to take both these ‘parts’ of scarcity seriously.
Of course though, the two overlap. Consider this example. Small local market gardens are bought up by companies who replace them with a monoculture cash-crop for export. The economy becomes heavily reliant on the export of this crop. Cash from the export sale is needed to pay off national debts, as well as to import food. However this cash-crop is heavily irrigated and one year, there is a drought. Water becomes scarce because the water table, which has been lowered by irrigation, doesn’t get topped-up. So with low rainfall and insufficient water to irrigate with, the harvest is lower that year. This means that the exports don’t generate the money that they usually do and some of the debt repayments are defaulted on. The economy enters recession. The price for imported food increases, and there is high unemployment. Both physical resource scarcity (lack of water, lack of food), and an unstable economy (dependence on one commodity, debt, poor resource management) are at play here.
In listing unstable economy with resource scarcity, I’m hoping that we won’t forget the human factors, decisions and systems that are at play. And this brings me to a not-so-hypothetical example, and its what we see currently with rising oil prices.
Most people are not aware of just how much our whole economy relies on oil still: fuel to transport goods, fertiliser production, the production of heavy machinery, etc. This (as well as the loss of agricultural exports because of the war in Ukraine), is one of the reasons that we are currently facing rising foods costs globally. To be clear, there is nothing about food that inherently needs oil. However the important thing to consider when thinking about this risk-factor is that our modern, industrial food system does rely on fossil fuels. For transport, for farming equipment, for shipping, for fertilizers.
However, risk factors are not destiny! They are things to look out for, to take seriously, and to address early. So when we start to see rising food prices, we need to consider that it is Proactive Peace Work to try and keep those prices down. We should also consider it to be Proactive Peace Work to try and address some of the inherent economic instability that comes with having a global food system that is so strongly influenced by the price of one commodity. And hey, we might just end up addressing climate change whilst were at it….another aim of Proactive Peace Work.
Exactly how this comes about will vary from one situation to the next. And the Proactive Peace Work that addresses these risk factors will also be different in different times, places and cultures. What doesn’t vary though, is people’s need to eat, drink, sleep and have shelter.