Environmental Scarcity, Population Growth

and Inter-group Conflict




                                    Marissa Vahlsing

                                  Swarthmore College

                           Email: mvahlsi1@swarthmore.edu




At present, there are 6.5 billion people in the world and the number continues to multiply. In contrast, there are only a limited number of natural resources. Any person capable of reading a line graph can observe the inherent problem with such statistics. On a global basis, the human population has shown a J-shaped pattern of growth over the past two thousand years, while the availability of natural resources mandatory for human survival is in slow decline. The implications of this are not limited to mass starvation, poverty and overcrowding of poorly sanitized cities. In fact, the current stress created by the imbalance between a burgeoning population and a finite number of resources are also one of the main factors contributing to the rise of violent inter-group conflict.  Clearly, something must change in order to insure our own survival and the survival of our planet. The question may be then, are humans flexible enough to alter our consumption patterns, or must we invent our way out of this problem by synthesizing more resources?

Unfortunately, human nature adopted its current manufacture and consumption habits during a time when the balance between the number of humans and their available resources was not nearly as stressed. The world’s population early in the agricultural revolution (about 8,000 BC) was probably no more than 10 million. (Southwick 159) In addition, the number of natural resources available for human use was much greater. Thus, humans are continuing to live as though there were an unlimited amount of natural resources, setting themselves up for dire consequences in the future. According to a contemporary anthropologist and writer, “Most ecologists consider human population growth to be one of the greatest problems in global ecology and a major driving force of environmental degradation. They see excessive consumption as an equally important cause of pollution and environmental deterioration. Most agree that the two factors work hand in hand to threaten the world’s ecological integrity.” (Southwick 159).

Southwick also reminds us that although the situation we have set up for ourselves in the future might be highly regrettable, we are already reaping the bad seed that we sowed in some parts of the world. We often forget that a greater part of the developing world is suffering at the hand of this incredible discrepancy between burgeoning population and environmental scarcity. As of 1992,

-One out of every five people in the world, including one out of three children under the age of five is hungry or malnourished.

-17 million are refugees, stateless, landless and often homeless.

-One out of three people have poor health care and not enough fuel to cook food or keep warm.

-Over a billion people are seriously ill with preventable diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, schistosomiasis, trypanosomiasis, and filariasis.


(Miller, GT. 1992. Living in the Environment: An introduction to Environmental Science. Belmont, CA: Wordsworth.)


According to Southwick, scientists estimate that the optimum global population is no more than 2 billion people. They believe that somewhere between 1 and 2 billion people could be supported in relative prosperity. (161) Compare this with the current gl0bal human population of 6.5 Billion. Clearly, a problem is at hand. Some pessimistic although perhaps realistic scientists even view the current human population growth as a carcinogenic or cancer-like growth with the potential of destroying the global ecosystem.  (Southwick161)

In simple terms, the problem of the rapid growth in human population stems from the fact that at present, three births are occurring in the world for every death. (Southwick 163) One explanation for this is that human reproductive mentality evolved at a time when mortality was high and longevity was low. This can be observed in the current birth and death rates in a large part of the developing world. At present, the average number of children per household in countries like the US is around 2. In contrast, in many less-developed nations where the women are acclimated to high mortality rates in children, the average number of children per woman is somewhere between 4 and 10. (Southwick, 164) .  However, due to the current improvements in medicine and sanitation technologies, the mortality rate in many of these countries has drastically lowered. The problem arises then when the women in these countries reproduce as though the situation was still one in which a fair number of the children never lived past the age of five. This may be what Paul Erlich refers to as a cultural evolutionary hangover; where a society has not evolved culturally to respond to the current macroevolutionary factors, such as resource depletion. Thus, regrettably, the fastest population growth and the greatest increases in total numbers are occurring in countries least able to support the impact of such growth.

According to Southwick, scientists view the connection between poverty and high population growth  with two different interpretations. Some scientist view poverty as the result of population growth. This is the traditional Malthusian view, which upholds that rapid population increase strains resource bases, so there are inevitable shortages of both material and economic resources. IN simple terms, there are too many people and a finite amount of resources. In contrast, other scientists see poverty as the cause of high population growth. They blame lack of education, lack of healthcare and lack of a reasonable standard of living as the root causes of unrestrained population growth. These scientists maintain that families in the poorer nations view children even at the age of 4 or 5 as assets in “the menial chores of village life”.( Southwick167)  Furthermore, such families who are primarily without social security, view their children as an insurance that will support them in their old age. In fact, the World Health Organization recently supported this theory with a projection that population growth will only be supported by the reduction in infant mortality rates. One reason for this may be because a reduction in infant mortality is oven codependent upon better heath and sanitation policy in general. If the poorer nations were to be provided with adequate housing, food, education and healthcare, then they may reach an equilibrium where both infant mortality and rapid population growth fizzle out.

Thus, does a bigger population mean a worse environment?  Another expert, Edwin G. Dolan, says not necessarily. He maintains that if we are able to minimize a person’s ecological footprint, then the earth and it’s resources could support such a rapidly growing population. (Dolan 61)

However, other scientists have a different take of the situation. Anthropologist, Thomas Homer-Dixon, maintains that not only does this rapid population problem cause stress on people and their environments, but also it sets the stage for some of the most violent inter-group conflict and warfare present today. He predicts that by the year 2025, the planet’s human population will reach just over eight billion. Consequentially, the total production of goods and services traded in markets around the planet will triple in dollars. As a result of these two trends, vital renewable resources such as soil, water, forests and fish will be exhausted. Homer-Dixon goes on to assert that such environmental scarcity is a significant contributor to many of the very violent conflicts erupting in the developing world. “Moreover, these conflicts may be the early signs of an upsurge of violence in the coming decades- especially in poor countries- that is caused or aggravated by environmental change.” (Dixon, 342)

         Most of the hypothesized connections between inter-group conflict and environmental scarcity as a result of population growth posed by experts have focused mainly on the demographic pressure that results when there are too many people and too few resources. Not only does global environmental damage increase the gap between rich and poor within a geographical area, but it strains the connections between rich and poor countries over disparities in international trade agreements. Namely, frustration arises when the poorer countries do not agree on the global environmental standards put forward by the richer countries because they feel they are being penalized for the pollution caused by the richer countries in the past.

Homer-Dixon asserts, “Environmental change could in time cause a slow deepening of poverty in poor countries, which might open bitter divisions between classes and ethnic groups, corrode democratic institutions and spawn revolutions and insurgencies” (Dixon, 343)

The research conducted by Homer-Dixon and his team suggests that violence arising from environmental scarcity doesn’t generally follow the age-old trend of conflicts over scarce resources; where one country or group attempts to seize the resources of another. Rather, the global problem more from the disregard by certain groups for global resources held in common by all that inhabit the planet, such as the ozone layer, further asserts that “the social effects of environmental scarcity are often insidious, such as slow population displacement and economic disruption , that can in turn lead to clashes between ethnic groups and social rebellion. But while these types of conflict may not be as conspicuous or dramatic as wars between countries over scarce resources, they may have critical implications for the security interests of rich and poor nations alike.” (343)

Often, the type of conflict that breeds from environmental scarcity is one that results from large-scale migration of populations in search of better work or food. Often, migration resulting from a drop in food output into the cities may further reduce food production by causing a shortage in agricultural  labor. Furthermore, a similar mechanism is in effect when the economic decline that results from such a migration leads to the further migration of people of wealth and education, which in turn leads to a general weakening in institutions of health and economic management. In addition, environmental decline often weakens the very fabric of social institutions, organizations, rules customs and habitual behavior. This in turn corrodes the confidence of the people in a greater national purpose. Consequentially, “mass migrations of people into a new region will drive down wages, shift relations between workers, peasants, and land owners, and upset the long standing balance of economic and political power among ethnic groups” (350, Dixon). Additionally, the tension caused between groups in a situation of environmental scarcity often escalates as a result of the naturally weakened state of health among the people in such areas. Often, such poverty drives people to radical measures.

Of course, scarcity conflicts such as we assume might take, often still do. These stem primarily from the fact that the resources available to humanity are fixed, while our desires aren’t. Such conflicts will probably arise over three types of resources in particular: river water, prime fisheries, and good cropland. Some examples where problems such as these have arisen were: the disagreement between Turkey and Syria over the Aswan High Damn in 1989, the conflicts precipitating from the situation in India where massive migrations to fertile Bangladesh exist, or the dispute over the Senegal river basin between Mauritania and Senegal.

We cannot forget, however, that human endeavors have been somewhat successful in synthesizing resources for ourselves. Dolan reminds us that,“No less significantly, advances in agricultural and industrial technology have effectively increased the size of the globe over the last two centuries, in terms of the maximum population which it will support.”  (Dolan 58) We must, however, be skeptical of a quick tech-fix. Although humans are undoubtedly clever enough to devise a plan that may maximize the number of resources available for certain people, we must be careful because such innovative planning may only increase the amount of resources available to the rich in the world and in turn, consign the poor. Homer-Dixon points out, “the property rights that affect resource distribution often change as a result of large scale development projects or the introduction of new technologies that alter the relative value of resources”. (Dixon, 346)

As it stands now, it is clear that nothing but a heightened awareness of the delicate balance between population growth and environmental resources, technology and global environmental efforts. In addition, what developmental efforts or initiatives that we do enact must take into careful consideration how sustainable they will be for both the people and the natural environment. Namely, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank must take care to make decisions that best reflect the long-term interests of the people and the ecosystems. Furthermore, it should be suggested that any policy decisions that affect the surrounding environment, should be made on a regional or ecosystem basis, rather than along national lines. If we want to insure our human population and our natural environment against the fate that we have currently instituted for them, then we must do nothing short of creating more sustainable and carefully meditated policies. At present, the global community is connected like never before. If we can maximize this connection by adopting policy compatible with those ecological and demographic areas it might affect, than we might work together to solve the greatest crisis that we will ever encounter.




Southwick, Charles H., Ch. 15 from "Global Ecology in Human Perspective" Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 159-182.


Dolan, Edwin G., Ch. 5 from "TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis" 1974, pp. 55-72.


Klare, Michael T. and Ghandrani, Yogesh; chapter 17 from World Security: Challenges for a New Century. Bedford/ St. Martin’s. NY.1998. Article by Thomas Homer-Dixon.