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Scarcity and Violence

Scarcity and Violence

Reports of New Yorkers’ fistfights at gasoline pumps after Hurricane Sandy, and of their irritability about unreliable supplies of electricity, water, food and conveniences, emphasize the old truth that scarcity and violence often travel together. Sandy’s temporary shortages invite us to consider how a world of more pervasive, continuing, scarcity might look.

A Brooklyn scholar, Christian Parenti, imagined such a world in his book, “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.” One early casualty is civil order: a successful state must maintain a monopoly of legitimate force, and violence outside its law must be crimes the state discourages and punishes. Today’s world has “failed states” where warlords, pirates and militias exercise force without fear of state interference, and Parenti argues that global warming will produce more. Many will resist attempts to keep order when they must struggle for survival.

It’s old news that severe scarcity produces violent competition for  essentials.  Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, once said “The man who has gotten everything he wants is all in favor of peace and order.” If satisfying minimum needs becomes harder as climate change intensifies, “peace and order” in impoverished societies will become rarer and failed states, bathed in violence, more common.

Isolation is impractical in today’s world, as illustrated both by international refugees fleeing violence and by rich countries’ continuing imports of goods and raw materials. What can the developed world do to prevent failed states? One small step would be to stop causing food shortages and higher food prices by converting corn into biofuels.  Second, developed countries should encourage non-violent measures to slow population growth and promote eventual population reductions.  Third, Americans in particular need a healthier and more modest consumption ethic, one more respectful of Mother Earth’s limits.

Image by Trailer screenshot Licencing information : and (North by Northwest trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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