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What kinds of conflict stem from resource scarcity?

Posted By Johanna Hoffman, Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Johanna Hoffman, a member of our Emerging Fellows program detects the probable conflicts that may arise due to the shortage of resources. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


When resources dwindle, conflict soon follows. This is as true today as it was thousands of years ago, when the Roman Empire invaded Egypt in 30 AD largely to secure more grain. The colonial subjugation of peoples in the Americas, India and Africa was partly rationalized as a means to augment declining resource stocks, in everything from timber to enslaved human labor. In this century, the drought in Syria and the famine that followed laid the groundwork for one of the most violent civil wars in living memory.


If current climate change trajectories are not proactively addressed, environmental instability will spark greater resource strain and conflict will spread. These strains will likely take two forms - what researchers call supply-induced scarcity and structural scarcity. The former typically stems from environmental degradation, when the overall amount of a limited resource drops. In the northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Sea of Japan, for example, the combined impacts of rising temperatures and overfishing between 1930 and 2010 have diminished fish populations by as much as 35 percent. Structural scarcity, on the other hand, occurs when governmental dysfunction or systemic discrimination leads to the unequal distribution of necessary goods. Think of the ways corruption and mismanagement have compounded the effects of drought in Zimbabwe in recent years, creating an economic crisis that is quickly threatening to morph into famine. It’s the rare government that becomes more just and effective when instability spikes.


Already powerful disruptors, food and water access are poised to become increasingly significant sources of tension. Researchers have found that roughly two thirds of the world’s existing population live without sufficient access to fresh, safe water for at least one month per year. The extreme weather events and ecosystem collapse that come with our changing climate will exacerbate those numbers. The rise of new diseases, another significant consequence of climate change, could spark greater disruptions in supply chains, leading to rising agricultural vulnerability and economic volatility. Without meaningful intervention, food security is slated to rapidly deteriorate in poorer regions. Already, supply chain disruption from the current coronavirus pandemic is creating a hunger emergency from Sudan to Mozambique that threatens the lives of millions.


The types of conflicts that arise from these resource-constrained conditions will differ depending on location and circumstance. In wealthier nations, trade wars may well be the first step. While technically non-violent, trade wars often lead to increased tension, which can easily grow into larger conflict or outright war. Among other tragedies, warfare creates more refugees. If environmental instability continues as many climate models predict, the amount of places torn apart by aggression will grow, exponentially multiplying the number of humans in need of safe haven.


Which brings us back to the core of the issue -- when population levels are high and resource levels are low, conflict isn’t far away. Rather than isolated incidents, these resource-related conflicts often spark associated tensions. As refugees fleeing aggression migrate to other countries, factors like border disputes and institutional instability can instigate new hostilities, augmenting what becomes an increasingly vicious cycle. In today’s interconnected world, the chain effects of resource-induced conflict cannot be discounted.


© Johanna Hoffman 2020

Tags:  economics  instability  resources 

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What alternative could arise?

Posted By Tyler Mongan, Thursday, May 14, 2020

Tyler Mongan, a member of our Emerging Fellows program envisions the alternative future scenarios of the Arctic region in his fifth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


Sustaining the current geopolitical system in the Arctic will become increasingly challenging. Alternative scenarios will be shaped by continued collaboration and/or growing strategic competition. Regardless of what emerges, the Arctic Council’s role in the region might be forced to either expand or become irrelevant. Five scenarios help frame what could arise in the region: (1) Sustained Current State, (2) Polar Cold War (3) Diplomacy Triumphs (4) Polar Commons, and (5) The Bering Plug.


A sustained current state would require the Arctic Nations to agree to keeping the Arctic open for the common good, while also yielding competition in favor of collaboration. However, the Arctic Council has limited powers to ensure that collaboration is sustained. Even if Arctic Nations verbally commit to cooperation, competition over sea routes and natural resources will continue to rise. The Arctic Council does not have the political or financial resources to mitigate the growing tension in the region.


A Polar Cold War might be on the Horizon. The US claim that the Arctic is in an “era of strategic competition” is a signal that tensions will grow in the region. Although the US is lagging behind in Arctic military developments it could shift course and seek to expand military operations in response to Russian and Chinese activities. China’s maritime access has several choke points, but these will be alleviated as scientific and commercial BRI partnerships with Russia, Finland and Iceland continue to expand. These partnerships could also lay the foundation for a wider military strategy and China’s Beidou-3 Satellite system is already in place to support the navigation of both missiles and Arctic ships. Russia’s military developments will expand to include the revitalization of cold war military installations. New airbases, radar stations and monitoring systems will bolster Russia’s already strong maritime presence in the Arctic. As the Polar Cold War scenario unfolds. The region will become militarized and Arctic Nations will seek to enclose their territories. The Arctic Council will play an increasingly smaller role in the region and bilateral and multilateral agreements will dominate.


A Diplomacy Triumphs scenario could emerge if the Arctic Council, or another multinational organization, is granted legal political powers to settle disputes and govern commercial and military operations in the region. In this scenario, as Arctic Nations pursue their national strategies, the tension in the region increases. However, diplomacy and legally binding cooperation keep things stable. Friction between Russia and US would become a norm, as Russia seeks to maintain its rights to a large portion of the Arctic and enclose its sea routes and territory.


To sustain a Polar Commons, the Arctic Nations agree to expand the role of the Arctic Circle to include legal governance over Arctic Circle developments. Military operations take the backseat to economic and scientific collaboration and cooperation. China expands the “Polar Silk Road” though bilateral and multilateral partnerships. The increased oversight and governance by the Arctic Council alienates Russia or the US, who are resistant to give up their rights to act unilaterally. In general, the Arctic is unenclosed, sea routes are open for international use, and economic developments are cooperative.


The rate of climate change and uneven ice melt could result in wildcard scenarios. Tides and wind could continue to create a much colder, ice covered Bering Strait. This Bering Plug is a growing possibility that would make access to, and development of the Northern Sea Route and North West Passage uncertain. Asian Nations would have inconsistent access to the new shipping route, decreasing China’s maritime interests in the region. This would reduce Russia’s profits from transportation tariffs and curtail Russia-China developmental partnerships, shifting focus to Russia-European Partnerships. The Bering Plug would also reduce Russia-US tension that is created by maritime boundary lines and military operations through the straights. Overall, a Bering Plug might reduce some of the competition and strategic positioning in the region. If this is the case, then the current role of the Arctic Council might look similar for several years into the future.


Regardless, The Arctic region will continue to change in both climate and geopolitical landscapes. The emergence of these alternative scenarios will depend on the desired future outcomes of the Arctic Nations and the interplay of their national strategies.


© Tyler Mongan 2020

Tags:  Arctic  resources  scenario 

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Can resources own themselves?

Posted By Tim Morgan, Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Tim Morgan inspects the ownership of resources by themselves in his ninth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


In April 2016 the world’s first decentralized autonomous organization was launched. This crowdfunded organization, aptly named “The DAO”, was a collection of interlocking digital smart-contracts designed to use the Ethereum blockchain to fund investor proposed projects. The only human interactions allowed were voting on new projects by shareholders. All other management activities were conducted according to its founding smart-contract rules. This organization worth US$150 million existed as a purely digitally managed company with no legal charter, no physical address, no board of directors, no CEO, and no human management. It was the world’s first stateless autonomous company. Though The DAO was shut down later that year after hackers compromised it, new frameworks like the Aragon project and DaoStack are actively being developed.


Decentralized autonomous organizations (Daos) represent a new stage in capitalism, one that embraces the idea of giving ownership control to non-human algorithmic entities. This is a continuation of a centuries old trend of owners progressively giving up more and more control of capital to managers, corporations, investment funds, and the like. This takes that progression one step further. A Dao controls itself and all the value associated with it. It can have investors. It can pay people for work performed. It could even own physical property if a government chose to charter a Dao as a corporation. We are one legal step from autonomous organizations getting personhood-like rights of a human-chartered corporation. Is it plausible we could take the next step? Can non-human entities have human-like legal rights?


The International Center for the Rights of Nature maintains a timeline showing the accelerating adoption of legal rights for nature. Ecuador wrote Rights of Nature into their constitution in 2008. Mexico City put language into its city constitution in 2017 that would “recognize and regulate the broader protection of the rights of nature formed by all its ecosystems and species as a collective entity subject to rights”. There are many other examples. However, one right seems to always be neglected: the right for nature to engage in commerce. That leaves even legally protected natural resources at the mercy of market pressure on governments and the court of public opinion.


What happens though if we put Daos and rights-holding natural resources together? What we get are autonomous resources that can become full active participants in markets and the legal system. These “deodands”, as futurist Karl Schroeder has named them, could protect themselves from exploitation by entering into commercial contracts for sustainable extraction of their resources, hiring security, funding scientists to monitor their health, and maintaining lawyers to sue contractual or rights violators. They could even hire programmers and engineers to improve their own decision-making algorithms and sensing technologies as the state-of-the-art progresses.


Can resources own themselves? They can if we let them. If we blend a bit of technology with a dash of nature and a smidgen of legal rights, then a whole new level of ecologically sustainable development will be unlocked. Best of all is that markets will be working for sustainability. Their new owners will demand it.


© Tim Morgan 2019

Tags:  economics  ownership  resources 

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