Current Research

I study threats to global security in the 21st century, including economic instability, climate change, and energy scarcity. I’m particularly interested in the deep causes of social conflict, especially economic inequality, antagonistic group identities, polarized ideologies, and scarcities of natural resources. I aim to improve our understanding of how people, organizations, and societies can better resolve their conflicts and innovate in response to complex problems.

My work is highly interdisciplinary, drawing on political science, economics, environmental studies, geography, cognitive science, social psychology, and complex systems theory.

In line with these general interests, as the Associate Director of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation, I oversee and participate in research projects focusing on four topics: the structure of political ideologies and how they change over time; applications of open-source methods to solving complex global problems; alternatives to conventional economic growth, with a particular focus on the relationship between energy and societal complexity; and threshold behavior in physical, ecological, and social systems.

Currently, I’m writing collaborative papers on emerging patterns of global crisis, the use of complexity concepts in international relations theory, applications of cognitive-affective mapping to conflict resolution, and the phenomenon of catastrophic dehumanization in violent conflicts.

I make every effort to communicate my research findings beyond the scholarly community in ways that inform policymakers and the general public.

A video of my 2012 presentation at Oxford University on “Catastrophic Dehumanization: The Psychological Dynamics of Severe Conflict” is available here; and a video of my 2014 talk at the Annual Conference of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, Toronto, on “Growth, Environmental Damage, and Innovation” is available here.

Previous Research

For much of the 1990s, I led several international research projects that studied the relationship between various kinds of environmental stress in poor countries—especially scarcities of cropland, forests, and fresh water—and violent conflict, such as insurgency and ethnic strife.

The material from two of these projects is available on the Web. From 1994 to 1996, the Project on Environment, Population, and Security, a joint effort with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, produced accessible studies for policymakers in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa. From 1994 to 1998, the Project on Environmental Scarcity, State Capacity, and Civil Violence, undertaken with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, focused on the links between environmental stress and weakened states in poor countries.

These were the first research projects to systematically investigate the relationship between environmental stress and violence, using a clear theoretical and conceptual structure and grounding the analysis in detailed empirical study of multiple cases. They involved over one hundred experts and researchers in fifteen countries on four continents. The findings and materials generated by this work were disseminated widely to policy making communities around the world.

After nearly ten years work, I summarized these findings in Environment, Scarcity, and Violence (Princeton, 1999). This book explained that environmental stress by itself does not cause violence. It must combine with other factors, such as the failure of economic institutions and government. Some societies, it turns out, adapt quite smoothly to environmental stress, while others suffer from migrations, worsened poverty, and institutional failure. Why do some societies successfully adapt while others do not?

I concluded that a central characteristic of societies that successfully adapt is their ability to produce and deliver useful ideas (or what I call “ingenuity”) to meet the demands placed on them by worsening environmental problems. Societies that adapt well are able to deliver the right kind of ingenuity at the right time and places to prevent environmental problems from causing severe hardship and, ultimately, violence. My thinking was influenced by recent advances in economics, especially in the subfield of economics called endogenous growth theory, which analyses the role of ideas in economic growth. The argument was elaborated in two articles: “The Ingenuity Gap: Can Poor Countries Adapt to Resource Scarcity?,” which appeared in Population and Development Review in 1995, and “Resource Scarcity and Innovation: Can Poor Countries Attain Endogenous Growth?” coauthored with Edward Barbier, which appeared in Ambio in 1999.

Beginning in 1997, I extended my ingenuity argument beyond poor societies and their environmental problems to examine how societies, in general, adapt to a wide range of complex stresses. I studied the role of ideas in social adaptation: what kinds of practical ideas do societies need, how do their requirements for ideas change over time, and what factors promote or limit the delivery of useful ideas?  In 2000, I provisionally answered these questions in The Ingenuity Gap (Knopf Canada; Knopf USA; and Jonathan Cape).  Although written for a general audience, this book nevertheless comprehensively surveyed research in many fields bearing on social adaptation to complex stress.

Between 2000 and 2006, I extended this line of inquiry further. Another book for a general audience, The Upside of Down:  Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, examined the threat to global stability of simultaneous and interacting demographic, environmental, economic, and political stresses. These deep stresses are operating largely in the background, quietly eroding the resilience of humankind’s adaptive mechanisms. The danger is that several will reach a crisis point simultaneously.  Such a convergence of events could overwhelm the resilience of even the richest and most powerful societies.

This work led me to consider the role of energy in society, especially the thermodynamics of complex social systems. Human civilization is about to go through an epochal energy transition from an age of cheap, abundant, high-quality energy to an age of energy scarcity. Scholars have not adequately explored the implications of this transition for civil peace and political order—implications I continue to address in my research today.

Project on Environment, Population and Security
Environmental Security Database