Preparing for Peace
The website of the Westmorland General Meeting 'Preparing for Peace' initiative
The environmental costs of war
Professor Paul Rogers
Professor of Peace Studies, University of Bradford
Public lecture presented at Lancaster University on 13th July
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)