03 December 2021

Ecological overshoot as a driver of conflict

With rising human demand, the availability of biological resources such cropland, pastures, fishing grounds and forests is limiting prospects for sustainable peace and development more than ever before. Humanity’s use of these resources exceeds what our planet regenerates — its biocapacity — by at least 73 per cent.The effects of this ecological overshoot are visible in climate change, groundwater depletion, soil erosion, fisheries collapse, deforestation and other planetary boundaries. Biologically productive areas are now becoming more constraining than non-renewables such as fossil fuel reserves or metals and minerals. Overshoot will not continue indefinitely; it will end either by design or disaster.

In an era shaped by a growing imbalance between what is consumed and what the planet can regenerate, biological resources are likely to play an increasingly central role in security and conflict. Access to these resources has already been documented as contributing to patterns of violence, conflict and forced displacement across regions including the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East; these effects are predicted to increase in the future. While ensuring access to critical resources is already an integral part of national security, biological resource security has been underexplored as an integrating framework that can help security institutions and governments more broadly analyse and mitigate risks to both humans and the environment.

What’s Been Done

National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts, using UN data stretching from 1961 to today, track both demand on ecosystems and their regenerative capacity. Analysis of this data has revealed momentous shifts in the material relationship between people and the planet, as well as significant resource risk exposure for a growing number of countries. Countries differ in the extent to which their own consumption exceeds domestic regenerative capacity, as well as their ability to postpone the inevitable consequences by purchasing resources from elsewhere. Seventy-two per cent of the world population already lives in countries with an ecological deficit and less than world-average income, rendering them particularly vulnerable to shocks.

So far, analyses of ecological overshoot have focused on biodiversity conservation, urban planning, international development and investment risks. However, the trends that have been observed also have clear implications for security and stability. The growing percentage of the world population living in countries in ecological deficit, combined with a steady decline in the availability of biological resources, points to increasing fragility and risks of conflict. Five domains shape the supply and demand for biological resources. These offer a framework for analysing security risks and prioritizing interventions:

1. Conservation, restoration and regeneration of the planet’s ecosystems
2. Urban systems management and planning, which largely define energy, materials, and transport demands
3. Production and consumption of energy
4. Food production, distribution and processing
5. Population size, which determines demand and the biocapacity available per person

Looking Ahead

Human security is inextricably linked to the environment on which all depend. As competition increases for biocapacity, including carbon sequestration, food, fibre, energy and water, security policy and practice must reflect the extent to which these resources determine development and security outcomes.

National security institutions can incorporate an analysis of ecological overshoot into planning to better anticipate emerging risks and vulnerabilities. Overshoot metrics can be used to assess the likelihood of resource-induced violence and conflict in regions of interest. Attention should be paid to the extent to which national policies are shifting the balance between consumption and regeneration; the five overshoot domains offer a framework for measuring trends toward greater vulnerability or resilience.

Security and justice institutions can also take steps to reduce overshoot. In the conservation domain, they can enforce environmental legislation, combat illegal practices contributing to environmental degradation, and assist in restoring damaged ecosystems. As overshoot persists, radically reducing resource dependence will become an increasingly important part of national security strategies; these institutions’ influence also enables them to advocate for addressing overshoot as a matter of national priority.

Overshoot is equally relevant at the subnational level. Significant differences in levels of insecurity and access to security and justice in peripheral regions play a key role in accelerating internal displacement, urban migration and related resource pressures — trends that are also exacerbated by climate change. Drawing on localized data, governments can prioritize enhancing biological resource security and reducing conflict and crime in underserved areas. Subnational governments and their development partners can also use the five domains identified above to develop pilot projects that address resource pressures from multiple perspectives to reduce local risks of violence and conflict.

But involving security and justice actors should not come at the expense of empowering and resourcing other civilian institutions. Governments will need to use all existing capacities to address overshoot within a framework of human rights and accountability; security institutions offer innovative tools and approaches that can play a key role in broader strategies for shifting current trends. The time required to implement transitions to sustainable systems and infrastructure means that today’s decisions about systems of production and consumption have far-reaching consequences for security and conflict prevention. Ultimately, sustainable peace and development will only be possible within the planet’s biophysical limits.

By Abigail Robinson and Viola Csordas, Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) (Switzerland); Mathis Wackernagel, Global Footprint Network (USA, Switzerland)

This article was first published in Ecosystem for Peace on 24 November 2021.

Photo credit: Richard Allaway/Flickr