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Some notes on comparing the conflict theories of Thomas F. Homer-Dixon and Betsy Hartmann

In one of our first Reading Group discussions at the LIPI on conflict theory, we compared the work of a well-known theorist, Thomas F. Homer-Dixon (1999), with a critique of his work by Betsy Hartmann (Hartmann 2001). In Table 1, I give an outline of some of their differences. Though the two points of view are opposed in many ways, they both agree on the importance role played by economic and ecological factors in violent conflicts. Both lay emphasis on the problem of resource capture by elites, though Homer-Dixon sees population growth as an important variable, while Hartmann prefers to emphasize political factors. Homer-Dixon advocates a security approach that would reduce the risk of conflict or at least maintain the status quo, while Hartmann advocates radical political and economic transformations to remove the conditions for conflict.

Table 1: Major differences in the views of Homer-Dixon and Hartmann


Thomas F. Homer-Dixon

Betsy Hartmann




1. What is the most common or primary cause of conflict?

Environmental scarcity & population growth

Resource wealth

2. How does scarcity arise?

Population growth and depletion of renewable resources. This can lead to “resource capture” by elites, intensifying scarcity for poor.

Resource capture by elites is the primary cause of scarcity, not a follow-up to degradation by a growing population

3. What causes land degradation?

Poor peasants forced on to ecologically marginal lands

Land concessions to large-scale commercial interests

4. Migration

Always negative force

Can be positive force by promoting spread of ingenuity, intercultural contact

5. Population growth

Always negative

Can provide incentive to boost productivity through innovation

6. Conflict due to pressure on resources is due to

Internal population growth and environmental decline

Demand and consumption by outsiders

7. Risk of civil conflict increases

With scarcity of resources

With abundance of easily lootable primary commodity exports

8. Methodologies proposed

Environmental security approach

Gender analysis

“Environmental entitlements” framework

Political economy

Political ecology

9. Future aims of research and intervention

Reduce the risk of increasing conflict – at least maintain status quo

Promote the possibility of positive political and economic transformations

 The two schools are fundamentally opposed on the question of whether the risk of civil conflict increases in conditions of abundance or scarcity. We have seen how conflicts often arise in areas having great resource wealth, such as Aceh, Kalimantan or Papua, or in the diamond fields of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Hartmann may be right that resource-rich areas are prone to conflict when elites engage in resource capture, though the sorts of mass violence we have witnessed in such areas are often carried out by those who feel they have not received their share of the riches. The question would then be one of distribution rather than scarcity or abundance. If so, then inequality would have to be considered an important element predisposing an area to conflict (see Stewart 2001).