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The environmental costs of war

Professor Paul Rogers

Professor of Peace Studies, University of Bradford 


Public lecture presented at Lancaster University on 13th July 2002


Compared with the effects on people and on economies, the environmental effects of war have so far been relatively limited.   At the same time, they can be severe under certain circumstances, war industries can have serious local impacts and some forms of conflict could potentially have calamitous results.   Moreover, there are examples of wars that have already had severe environmental impacts, and these should give us concern for the future.

What is much more significant in relating environmental issues to conflict is the existence of profoundly important relationships between environmental processes and the causes of conflict.   In this talk I want to cover both aspects, broadening out the theme to examine environmental interactions and war rather than limit ourselves to environmental consequences of war.   I will do this in the belief that human interactions with environmental processes, at both the regional and global levels, are going to be key factors in the evolution of international conflict in the coming decades.

But let us look first at the environmental effects of war.

Most forms of conflict involve violent actions directed specifically at opponents and their economies.   In their most extreme form these can involve the wholesale destruction of armed forces in the field, and the targeting of civilian populations in their towns and cities.   Such actions inevitably have major environmental side effects, examples being the utter destruction on the western front in the First World War, the destruction of cities, dams, irrigation systems and many other features.

The side effects on natural environments are severe, but they are usually relatively short-term.   In part this is because ecosystems have a remarkable capacity for regeneration, especially when areas of intense destruction are surrounded by relatively unscathed zones.   Even the wholesale destruction in Flanders was remedied by a couple of decades of re-growth, and the huge swathes of bomb damage in East London in the 1940s resulted in the colonisation of sites that was to last for years until the city was rebuilt.

In short, wars up until now have inevitably had their major effects on people and their societies.   Even so, there have been important exceptions.   Significant among these has been the impact of war industries, especially at times of major conflict.   In such circumstances, any semblance of pollution control and other forms of environmental safeguards have been discounted, with massive consequent damage.  

Many of the examples of environmental damage in the North of England were particularly significant during the First and Second World Wars.   In Huddersfield, for example, there was the wholesale destruction of one of the most beautiful woodlands in the town as a result of air pollution caused by munitions production as local dye-works were subsumed into the war effort in the First World War.   This beauty spot, Kilner Bank, was reduced to a deeply acidic wasteland (pH1.5) and was not restored to anything approaching its original state until an innovative land restoration project in the early 1970s.

More recently, we have seen the far more massive side effects resulting from the development of the nuclear weapons industry.   Extensive radioactive contamination resulting from nuclear testing has been a feature of large areas of land in New Mexico and Nevada in the United States, parts of Siberia and the Russia Arctic, and areas of South Australia, French Polynesia and other Pacific islands and, almost certainly parts of China.

In Britain, the Windscale fire in the 1950s spread contamination across much of Cumbria, there are reliable reports of serious contamination following an accident in a nuclear waste deposit in the Soviet Union at about the same time, and there is a substantial problem of disposal relating to Soviet-era nuclear submarine reactors.    The United States nuclear weapons industry has been plagued by problems of waste disposal, with much of it closed down in the early 1990s, in part, because of these problems.   Rocky Flats and Hanford River both have clean-up problems running into billions of dollars and the environmental and human costs in Russia are reported to be massive.

Although not directly related to nuclear weapons, the radioactive contamination resulting from the incident at Chernobyl has given us some idea of the effects of a nuclear war, with the nearby city of Pripiat abandoned as being far too costly to decontaminate. 

Since the end of the Cold War we have learnt that the much derided estimates by peace researchers of the likely consequences of a nuclear war were actually remarkably accurate.   If Britain had been subject to a 100-megaton attack, up to 40 million of the population of 56 million would have died, and much of the country would have been reduced to a radioactive wasteland.  

Moreover, work done towards the end of the Cold War established that a central nuclear exchange between the superpowers would, besides killing hundreds of millions of people in the short term, have created a two-year nuclear winter which would have devastated the human communities and natural environments of most of the northern hemisphere.

Apart from the possible effects of nuclear war, a risk which is still with us, there are a number of examples of the environmental effects of conflict that indicate the capacity for destruction.   One is the pernicious effect of anti-personnel land mines, removing land from production for generations.   There remain large tracts of NW Egypt that are still no-go areas as a result of mines laid at the time of the battle of El Alamein, and more recent use of land mines involves devices that are more difficult to detect and clear.  

A second is the use of area-impact weapons such as napalm, cluster bombs and fuel-air explosives, all of which are intentionally destructive over a wide area.   While aimed at people, they also have an environmental impact that can have a lasting effect on surviving communities.   Moreover, they have been noted occasions where there has been the intentional destruction of large areas of natural forests and also crops, as a means of restricting insurgents.   This was a technique developed by the British in Malaya and taken up on a much larger scale by the United States in its use of the notorious Agent Orange in Vietnam.   More recently, the most noted example of deliberate environmental damage was the destruction and firing of the Kuwaiti oil wells by retreating Iraqi forces in 1991.

Even so, the environmental effects of war may be severe, and could be calamitous in the event of nuclear use, but the more significant connection between environmental systems and conflicts lies in a range of interactions that relate partly to resource location and use and partly to the longer-term impact of human effects on the global ecosystem.

These two features represent one of two core drivers of potential conflict in the coming years and should be analysed alongside the other, the rapidly growing disparity between a relatively small global elite of around a billion people and an increasingly educated yet marginalised majority of five billion.

The violent effects of increasing socio-economic polarisation are already apparent, with a likely trend towards further instability and conflict.    On its own, this is, at the very least, be a matter for real concern.   It might therefore be argued that such a trend will be recognised, and that sufficient economic reforms might be put in place to curb an excess of insecurity.   There are few signs of this happening and it would, in any case, have little effect unless it was part of a recognition of the second global trend, the growing impact of environmental constraints on human activity.  

In essence, the limitations of the global ecosystem now look likely to make it very difficult if not impossible for human well-being to be continually improved by current forms of economic growth.   This is certainly not a new prognosis, and formed a central part of the frequently derided “limits to growth” ideas of the early 1970s.   Those ideas stemmed from some of the early experiences of human/environment interaction, notably the problems of pesticide toxicity, land dereliction and air pollution, all initially significant problems in industrialised countries.

The earliest indications came in the 1950s with severe problems of air pollution affecting many industrial cities, most notably a disastrous smog episode in London in 1952, responsible for the death of some 4,000 people bronchitic and elderly people.   A decade later came the recognition of the effects of organophosphorus pesticides on wildlife, a process greatly stimulated by a single book, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.   Later in the 1960s there were environmental disasters in Europe including a massive fish kill in the Rhine, the wrecking of the Torrey Canyon oil tanker near the Scilly Isles and the killing of over 140 people, mostly children, when a coal mining waste tip engulfed a school in the village of Aberfan in Wales.

By the early 1970s, environmental concern was sufficient to stimulate the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm.   Although initially likely to be concerned with the environmental problems of industrialised states, the Stockholm meeting was substantially influenced by an early systems study of global environmental trends, Limits to Growth, published a few months earlier. 

While widely criticised as a somewhat crude simulation study of the global system, Limits to Growth was seminal in introducing the idea that the global ecosystem might not be able to absorb the overall effects of human activity, especially those stemming from the highly resource-consumptive and polluting lifestyles of the richer states of the industrialised North.

The early signs of environmental problems were joined by much more significant changes in the past two decades.   Air pollution became recognised as a regional phenomenon through the experience of acid rain, and a global problem, the depletion of the ozone layer, began to be recognised as serious in the 1980s.   Ozone depletion has a significance as being the first major global effect of human activity.   It resulted from the effects of a range of specific pollutants, chlorflourocarbons (CFCs) and related chemicals, on the thin layer of ozone in the upper atmosphere that normally shields the earth’s surface against excessive amounts of UV radiation.

While the potential for an ozone depletion problem was recognised in the 1970s, concern was hugely boosted by the discovery in the early 1980s of an annual ‘ozone hole’ over the Antarctic each Spring.    The problem was brought under some degree of control by international agreements, specifically the Vienna Convention in 1985 and the Montreal Protocol two years later, but still had a large effect on environmental thinking - this was a human activity that was having a discernible and potentially devastating impact on the entire global ecosystem.  

Other problems developing on a global scale also rose to prominence.   They included desertification and deforestation, the latter having an immediate effect in terms of soil erosion and flooding, and the salinisation of soils, especially in semi-arid areas.   Other forms of resource depletion became evident, most notably the decline in the resources of some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, not least in the continental shelf fishing grounds of North America and Western Europe.

Problems of water shortages and water quality are already severe in many parts of the world.   Around half of the population of Southern Asia and Africa does not have access to safe drinking water, and eighty per cent of diseases in these areas stem from unsafe water.

At a more general level, there have been tensions between states over the status and use of major river systems.  

The 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan resulted in joint control over the mid-Nile waters, but Ethiopia controls 85% of the sources of the Nile, with Sudan and Egypt having the prime dependencies.   Similarly, the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers are essential to Bangladesh, with its rapidly growing population.   Schemes for joint utilisation exist with India and Nepal, but Bangladeshi requirements and Himalayan deforestation remain twin pressures.

A more specific source of potential conflict is the substantial Turkish programme of dams, hydro-electric and irrigation programmes on the upper waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in South East Anatolia, rivers which are subsequently essential to the economic well-being of Syria and Iraq.  

Also in the Middle East, a much smaller-scale problem, that forms a largely hidden part of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is found in the West Bank.   Winter rainfall on the West Bank hills provides water not just for the West Bank, but also for much of Israel in the form of underground aquifers flowing westwards towards the Mediterranean.   Any long-term settlement will require a fair sharing of the water resources that will be very difficult to achieve given the already heavy use of water by Israel and the increasing water demands in both Israel and the West Bank.

In some parts of the world a persistent failure to come to terms with human environmental impacts produced near-catastrophic results.   Nowhere was this more clear than in many parts of the former-Soviet Union, with a drying-out of the Aral Sea, massive problems of pesticide pollution and the radioactive contamination of Arctic environments are the most obvious examples.

Individual problems of pressures on land, water, fisheries and other resources are likely to increase, notwithstanding some successful cross-border agreements, as population growth and increases in per capital resource consumption combine in their effects.   Even so, two much more broad global phenomena will have a more profound impact on global security, the ‘resource shift’ and climate change.

The resource shift is a centuries-old phenomenon that stems from the original industrial revolutions of Europe and North America feeding initially on domestically-available raw materials, whether coal, iron ore, copper, tin, lead and other non-renewable resources.   In the early nineteenth century, European industrial growth was based largely on such resources mined within Europe, and the much more resource-rich United States could continue to be largely self-sufficient until the latter half of the twentieth century.

Much of the era of colonial expansion was predicated on requirements for resources, and many of the colonial wars, so costly to the newly colonised peoples, stemmed from the determination to control land and supplies of raw materials.

In the past century, the industrialised North has become progressively more dependent on physical resources from the South, as its own deposits of key ore, coal, oil and gas have become progressively more costly to extract.   This resource shift has meant that certain physical resources have acquired a strategic significance that, in a number of cases, already results in actual or potential conflict.    

Zaire, for example, has had much of its politics in the forty years since independence dominated by competition for the control of Shaba Province, formerly Katanga.   This has included outright violence during the civil war after independence in 1960, and rebellions in Shaba in 1977 and 1978 that were helped by Eastern Bloc aid from neighbouring Angola and were controlled by Franco-Belgian military interventions with logistic support from NATO.  

At the root of these conflicts has been the formidable mineral deposits of Shaba.   Of these, the best known may be copper and industrial diamonds, but of at least as great significance are the cobalt mines around Kolwezi and Mutshatsha, these deposits representing about half of known world reserves in the late 1970s.   With cobalt a key component of ferro-cobalt alloys used in ballistic missile motors, jet engines and other defence-related products, preventing the control of the Shaba deposits falling into the hands of leftist rebels was a priority.  

The protracted and bitter 25-year conflict for the control of Western Sahara between Morocco and the independence-seeking Polisario Front has complex causes, but a central factor is the massive reserves of rock phosphates at Boucraa in the North of the country.   Rock phosphates form the basis of phosphate fertilisers, in turn the essential components of compound fertilisers used throughout world agriculture.   On its own, Morocco is the world’s main exporter of rock phosphate, but with the Western Sahara reserves it achieves near-dominance.

Elsewhere in Africa, illicit trading in diamonds has fuelled conflicts in Sierra Leone and Angola, much of the western support for South Africa during the apartheid years was a consequence of South Africa’s dominance of gold and platinum markets, and Russian determination to maintain control of parts of the Caucasus is due, in part, to access to Caspian Basin oil.  

Even so, transcending all of these is the geo-strategic significance of the oil reserves of the Persian Gulf region, reserves that are both remarkably plentiful and cheap to extract.   At the end of the 20th century, some two-thirds of all the world’s proved reserves of oil were located in Persian Gulf states with production costs typically around $3 a barrel compared with up to $12 a barrel for oil from more difficult fields such as the North Sea or Alaska.

When the Iraqi army occupied Kuwait in August 1990, the Saddam Hussein regime added Kuwait’s oil fields to its own even larger deposits, gaining control of 19.5% of all of the world’s known oil reserves.   Saudi support for the subsequent coalition military build-up stemmed, to a large degree, from a fear that the Iraqis would go on to seek control of the massive Saudi oilfields close to Kuwait.   With Saudi oil then representing over a quarter of all known world oil reserves, the western coalition perceived the Iraqi regime as threatening to control 45% of the world’s oil, an entirely unacceptable prognosis demanding reversal.

The exploitation of world oil reserves is a remarkable example of the resource shift in that the world’s largest consumer of oil, the United States, was until the early 1970s self-sufficient, but is now a massive oil importer.   During the 1990s, in particular, the United States progressively ran down its own reserves of easily extracted oil, while new reserves proved elsewhere in the world typically increased the holdings of many countries.  

To be specific, the US had reserves totalling 34 billion barrels in 1990; these decreased by more than a third during the decade, whereas the proven reserves of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, all much larger than those of the US, actually increased.   Thus, in all of these states, the discovery of new reserves exceeded production.   By the year 2000, all the major industrialised states of the world, except Russia but including China, were becoming progressively more dependent on Persian Gulf oil, even allowing for the deposits of the Caspian Basin.

Overall, and throughout the 20th century, the industrialised states of the North have become progressively more dependent on the physical resources of the South, a trend set to continue well into the new century.  As a potential source of conflict it is a core feature of the global economy.

Of the many environmental impacts now being witnessed, one stands out above all the others - the development of the phenomenon of climate change as a result of the release of so-called greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide and methane.    One of the most fundamental of modern human activities, the combustion of fossil fuels, is demonstrably affecting the global climate.   Among the many effects already apparent and likely to accelerate are changes in temperature and rainfall patterns and in the intensity of storms.  

The greenhouse effect caused by increases in gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been recognised for some decades, and it was initially expected to have its most notable impact in terms of increases in atmospheric temperature - hence the use of the term global warming.    

In the past two decades this has become recognised as a pronounced oversimplification of much more complex changes in the world’s climate, including considerable regional variations.   It has also been more widely recognised that there are substantial natural climatic cycles, some of which, such as the El Nino effect in the Pacific, may also be affected by human activity.   Furthermore, other forms of atmospheric pollution resulting from human activity might even counter the effect of the greenhouse gases.

A further complexity is that it has been generally believed that the more pronounced effects of climate change would happen in temperate regions, with tropical latitudes largely buffered against substantial change, a belief based on some historical evidence that the tropics had been least affected by earlier natural climatic cycles.   The expectation has been that there would be substantial effects on North and South temperate latitudes and on polar regions.   The former might variably involve changes in rainfall distribution, increases in temperature and increased severity of storms.    

There would be gainers and losers but the major effects of global climate change would be felt, by and large, by richer countries that would best be able to cope.   Some commentators saw it as ironic that those countries that had contributed most to greenhouse gas production would be the countries most affected by climate change.

Not all the effects of climate change would impact on temperate latitudes, and two effects have long been expected to cause substantial problems for poorer countries.   One is the likelihood of more severe storms, especially cyclones.  While rich industrialised countries may be able to cope, albeit at a cost, the changes affecting poor countries will be well beyond their capabilities to handle.  

There are examples of this across the world, and it is sometimes possible to contrast the impact of such disasters on rich and poor countries.   In 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit parts of the United States, killing 52 people and causing damage estimated at $22 billion, over 70% of it covered by insurance.   Six years later, Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras and Nicaragua.   The death toll was 11,000, and less than 3% of the $7 billion damages were insured.

The other effect is the risk of sea level rises, stemming partly from an expansion of the oceans consequent on increases in temperate and partly from a progressive if slow melting of polar icecaps.   Effects of both of these trends would be severe on a number of poorer countries, partly because some of the heaviest concentrations of population are in low-lying river deltas, but more particularly because of the lack of resources to construct adequate sea defences.

Such problems have been recognised for some time, but more recent analysis of climate change, over the past five to ten years, suggests another pattern of effects that are likely to have much more fundamental global consequences.   Although predictions are tentative, evidence has accumulated that the anticipated buffering of climate change in tropical regions may not happen, or at least may be far less pronounced.  

In particular, there are likely to be substantial changes in rainfall distribution patterns across the tropics, with the overall effect being far less rain falling over land and more falling over the oceans and the polar regions.   With the exception of parts of equatorial Africa, almost all the other tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world are likely to experience a ‘drying out’.

The impact of this is likely to be fundamental in terms of human well-being and security.   Across the world as a whole, the great majority of people live in these regions, most of the countries are poor, and most produce their own food, primarily from staple crops dependent on adequate rainfall or irrigation.   Much of the food is still produced by subsistence agriculture.  Most of the heavily populated areas are the major river valleys and fertile deltas, including the Nile, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong and Chanjiang (Yangtze) and areas of high natural rainfall across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia.

A substantial drying-out across the tropics will have a hugely greater effect than any likely impact on temperate latitudes for two reasons.   One is that the basic ecological carrying-capacity of the land - its ability to support given human populations - will decline, and the second is that poor countries will have massive difficulties in trying to adapt their agricultural systems to limit the loss in food production.

Some of the most substantial changes of the last half century have happened with little warning.   Perhaps the most serious crisis of the Cold War, over the Cuban missiles in 1962, came virtually out of the blue.   The oil price rises of the early 1970s were almost entirely unexpected, the anticipation throughout the west being of an era of cheap and plentiful oil.   The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 erupted out of nowhere in a matter of weeks.  

These are  examples of political crises, albeit two of them with resource overtones, but it is also the case that assessing environmental trends, especially at the global level, is frequently difficult - pesticide toxicity in the 1960s, acid rain in the 1970s and the sudden intensity of ozone depletion in the 1980s being among a number of examples.

There has been considerable progress in the study of the global ecosystem in the past half century, especially in terms of the knowledge of the mechanisms of biogeochemical cycles, oceanic systems and the global climate, but all of these are, at the very best, imperfectly understood.   As a consequence, there is every possibility that many current expectations concerning human environmental impacts may be incorrect.   It is possible that some of the warnings now being made, including those discussed above, may turn out to be excessive as natural control mechanisms come into play and moderate the effects of the impacts.

This might be considered re-assuring, but there are several reasons for thinking that such optimism is unwarranted.   The first is that many of the expected effects are likely to prove costly and politically unwelcome.   As a result, where significant environmental research is undertaken in publicly-funded centres, whether government laboratories or universities, there is a tendency for researchers to be cautious in their conclusions.   If the implications of your research results are unpalatable, you tend to be very careful in ensuring that you are as certain as you can be with the evidence.

The second is that there is growing evidence from various long-term fossil and other evidence, that the global ecosystem, especially its climate, has been much more volatile than was previously thought.   In other words, natural ‘buffering’ systems may not have coped with induced change in the past.   Finally, the time-scales of human interaction are much more immediate in terms of ‘ecosystem time’ than anything short of rare natural cataclysms such as a massive meteor or comet striking the earth, one explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Humans evolved over several million years, but only spread right across the world by 20,000 years ago, numbering perhaps five million before they learnt to farm 10,000 years ago.   Cities and empires have developed in the past 5,000 years but environmental impacts were limited in extent and confined to a few locations until the start of the industrial revolution just over 200 years ago.   Only since then have there been major regional impacts and only in the past 100 years can these be said to have ‘gone global’, with most of that effect coming in the closing decades of the last century.  

In other words, a global ecosystem evolving over several billion years was hardly affected by its most intelligent species until the most recent century, but that one species is engaging in activities that do just that.  In such circumstances, it is probably wise to err on the side of caution and expect the unexpected to be a cause further problems rather than a solution to them.

To summarise the argument so far, the current economic system is not delivering economic justice, and there are now firm indications that it is not environmentally sustainable.   This combination of wealth disparities and limits to current forms of economic growth is likely to lead to a crisis of unsatisfied expectations within an increasingly informed global majority of the disempowered.

Such a crisis, as seen from the elites of the North, is a threatening future.   As Wolfgang Sachs puts it:

The North now glowers at the South from behind fortress walls.   It no longer talks of the South as a cluster of young nations with a bright future, but views it with suspicion as a breeding ground for crises.

At first, developed nations saw the South as a colonial area, then as developing nations.   Now they are views as risk-prone zones suffering from epidemics, violence, desertification, over-population and corruption.

The North has unified its vision of these diverse nations by cramming them into a category called “risk”.   It has moved from the idea of hegemony for progress to hegemony for stability.

In Sach’s view, the North has utilised the resources of the South for generations but has now come up against environmental limits to growth:

Having enjoyed the fruits of development, that same small portion of the world is now trying to contain the explosion of demands on the global environment.   To manage the planet has become a matter of security to the North.

Managing the planet means, in the final analysis, controlling conflict, and within the framework of the development/environment interaction, several issues are likely to come to the fore, stemming from migratory pressures, environmental conflict and anti-elite violence.   None of these is new and there are recent examples of all.

Potential sources of conflict stem from a greater likelihood of increased human migration arising from economic, social and especially environmental desperation.   This movement will focus on regions of relative wealth and is already leading to shifts in the political spectrum in recipient regions, including the increased prevalence of nationalist attitudes and cultural conflict.    

Such tendencies are often most pronounced in the most vulnerable and disempowered populations within the recipient regions, with extremist political leaders and sections of the popular media ready to play on fears of unemployment.  

This trend is seen clearly in western Europe, especially in countries such as France and Austria, where antagonism towards migrants from neighbouring regions such as North Africa and Eastern Europe has increased markedly.   It also figures in the defence postures of a number of countries, with several southern European states reconfiguring their armed forces towards a “threat from the South” across the Mediterranean.

There are already some 30 to 40 million people displaced either across state boundaries or within states, and this figure is expected to rise dramatically as the consequences of global climate change begin to have an effect.   The pressures are likely to be particularly intense from Central into North America, Africa and Western Asia into Europe and South-East Asia towards Australia.   The most probable response will be a ‘close the castle gates’ approach to security, leading in turn to much suffering and not a little ‘militant migration’ as marginalised migrants are radicalised.

Perhaps least easy to assess is the manner in which an economically polarised and increasingly constrained global system will result in competitive and violent responses by the disempowered, both within and between states.   There are already many examples of such actions, whether the Zapatista revolt in Mexico, or movements stemming from the disempowered in North Africa, the Middle East and Southern and South East Asia.

At an individual and local level, much of the response from the margins takes the form of criminality, usually by young adult males and directed not just against wealthier sectors of society but often against the poor and unprotected.   For middle-class elites in many Southern states, though, security is an every-day fact of life, with people moving from secure work-places through travel in private cars to gated communities and leisure facilities with 24-hour protection.   For the richest sectors of society, security extends to armed bodyguards and stringent anti-kidnapping precautions, with a host of specialist companies offering their services.

This is the environment that is already the norm throughout most countries of the South, and the widening rich/poor gap suggests it will get worse.   But the more difficult and potentially more important problem stems from substantial new social movements directed, often with violence, against the elites.   Predictions are difficult but four features are relevant.

The first is that anti-elite movements may have recourse to political, religious, nationalist or ethnic justifications, with these frequently being fundamentalist, simplistic and radical.   Many recent analyses focus on the belief systems themselves, with much emphasis placed by western writers on religious fundamentalisms, especially within the Islamic world.  

While such religious movements are significant, they are far from being alone in serving as a motivation against marginalisation and for empowerment, with ethnic, nationalist and political ideologies, cultures or beliefs also being of great significance.   At times, it is as if the “Islamic threat” is being erected to replace the Soviet threat of the Cold War years, an attractive yet thoroughly dangerous simplification of a much more complex set of processes.

The second feature is that anti-elite movements may be more prevalent in the poorer states and regions of the world, and they may therefore be considered of little concern to the relatively small number of wealthy states that dominate the world economy.   But in an era of globalisation, instability in some part of the majority world can have a considerable effect on financial markets throughout the world, making the security of local elites of real concern to the West.   Wealthy states are dependent on resources from the South, on cheap labour supplies and on the development of new markets for their advanced industrial products.   Fifty years ago, a civil disturbance in a country of the South might have its effect in the North within weeks.   Now, it can be within minutes.

Thirdly, there is a perception across much of the majority world that a powerful and firmly rooted western hegemony is now in place and a very widespread response is one of real antagonism to this control of the world economy.   It is easy to assume, from a western ethnocentric position, that antagonisms are most likely to be directed from the margins at local elites.   This is not necessarily the case.   There is, instead, every chance that it is the western economic dominance that will be blamed for marginalisation, not the activities of local elites.

Finally, there is sufficient evidence from economic and environmental trends to indicate that marginalisation of the majority of the world’s people is continuing and increasing, and that it is extremely difficult to predict how and when different forms of anti-elite action may develop.   It was not predictable that Guzman’s teachings in Peru would lead to a movement of the intensity and human impact of Sendero Luminosa, nor was the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico anticipated.   When the Algerian armed forces curtailed elections in 1991 for fear that they would bring a rigorous Islamic party to power, few predicted a bloody conflict that would claim many tens of thousands of lives.  

What should be expected is that new social movements will develop that are essentially anti-elite in nature and draw their support from people, especially men, on the margins.   In different contexts and circumstances they may have the roots in political ideologies, religious beliefs, ethnic, nationalist or cultural identities, or a complex combination of several of these.  

They may be focused on individuals or groups but the most common feature is an opposition to existing centres of power.   They may be sub-state groups directed at the elites in their own state or foreign interests, or they may hold power in states in the South, and will no doubt be labelled as rogue states as they direct their responses towards the North.   What can be said is that, on present trends, anti-elite action will be a core feature of the next thirty years - not so much a clash of civilisations, more an age of insurgencies.

The economic geographer, Edwin Brooks, put it succinctly nearly thirty years ago when he said it was so important to avoid:

a crowded glowering planet of massive inequalities of wealth, buttressed by stark force yet endlessly threatened by desperate people in the global ghettos.


To avoid such a dystopic world requires immense energy and commitment as we seek the processes of socio-economic and political change that will help us achieve a more just and sustainable world order.   The next ten years will be of fundamental importance in achieving this and our work and progress in this direction may well determine the shape of much of the new century.


Professor Paul Rogers

Professor of Peace Studies, University of Bradford 


This lecture draws, in part, from Chapter 5, “The New Security Paradigm” of Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century, Paul Rogers, Pluto Press, (Second Edition) June 2002.

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