Resource Scarcity and Violent Conflict: On the Material Origins, Nature and Conditions of Modern Terrorism

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Buchanan, Christopher, Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Buchanan, Christopher, Arts & Sciences Graduate, University of Virginia

The continued spread and escalation of terrorism worldwide suggests that the general approach of the War on Terror is inappropriate and the conventional understanding of the phenomenon, which has provided the strategic basis for the war, is erroneous. In contrast to the conventional view that terrorism is only a subjective political phenomenon which emanates from extreme emotions, viewpoints, and beliefs, this work suggests that it is an objective phenomenon which arises from basic material concerns. From this alternative perspective a fundamental-level scientific theory of modern terrorism is developed and is tested using relevant data. This theory offers an explanation for the origin, nature, and characteristic conditions of terrorism and provides a markedly different conception of the phenomenon compared with the prevailing view. It suggests that terrorism’s origin lies in primal material concerns, namely basic survival and wellbeing, its nature is mainly economic and environmental and involves violent conflict related to essential resources, and its defining condition is resource scarcity. The main thesis examined is the possible connection between terrorism and the scarcity of essential natural resources. Scarcity is defined in a relative sense and identified through two different comparisons (temporal and geographic) using detailed data related to essential renewable resources. The data indicate that conditions of greater resource scarcity are associated with higher levels of terrorist activity. A global scale temporal analysis reveals that resource scarcity and the number of terrorist incidents are both increasing with time and at comparable rates. A national-level geographic analysis shows that countries having greater relative resource scarcity tend to experience higher levels of terrorist incidents compared to countries with relative resource abundance. While most countries experience only low levels of terrorist incidents, those countries that experience significant terrorism have greater levels of resource scarcity. This behavior supports the theory proposed here that terrorism has its origin in fundamental material concerns and is brought about, at least partially, by the scarcity of vital natural resources. These findings imply that resource scarcity currently developing across the world may be partially responsible for the recent increase in terrorist activity and could be conducive to even higher levels in the future. Based upon these findings an alternative and substantially different approach to terrorism is suggested.

MA (Master of Arts)
terrorism, resources, scarcity, environment, economy
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