Environmental Change & Security Project Report, Issue 6
(Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center, Summer 2000), pp. 77-93
by Daniel Schwartz, Tom Deligiannis, and Thomas Homer-Dixon

The environment, population, and conflict thesis remains central to current environment and security debates. During the 1990s, an explosion of scholarship and policy attention was devoted to unraveling the linkages among the three variables. While it can easily be argued that both the research and policy communities have made significant advances, the scholarly findings and policy lessons remain the subject of intense debate. The recent publication of a host of significant contributions to this debate dictated a special commentary section to supplement the lengthy book reviews provided in this 2000 issue of the Environmental Change and Security Project Report.

In the first article, leading figure Thomas Homer-Dixon and his colleagues from the University of Toronto respond to the prominent critique enunciated by fellow peace researcher Nils Petter Gleditsch from the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (see box on Gleditsch’s critique). Richard Matthew of the University of California, Irvine, comments on the five-year NATO Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society pilot study entitled Environmental Security in an International Context. Geoffrey D. Dabelko joins Richard Matthew to draw conclusions from a March 2000 environment, population, and conflict workshop with leading scholars. In the last commentary, University of California, Irvine researcher Ted Gaulin briefly critiques Indra de Soysa and Nils Petter Gleditsch’s To Cultivate Peace: Agriculture in a World of Conflict, portions of which were reprinted in issue 4 of the ECSP Report.


Introduction

Nils Petter Gleditsch, senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, has written a widely noted critique of recent research in the new field of environmental security (Gleditsch, 1998).Gleditsch’s critique echoes and builds upon criticisms leveled by skeptics of environment-conflict research (e.g., Deudney, 1991; Levy, 1995; and Rønnfeldt, 1997). He identifies a number of specific “problems” of theory, conceptualization, and methodology, sometimes singling out the work of the team led by Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Toronto (henceforth referred to as the Toronto Group). In this article, we respond to these concerns and propose avenues for future research.

Methodological issues underpin Gleditsch’s critique, and we therefore deal with them in detail. Gleditsch asserts that much environment-conflict research is methodologically unsound and fails to qualify as “systematic research.” He contends it violates the rules of quasiexperimental methodology—used by conventional social scientists in lieu of true experimental methods that are not viable for many social scientific inquiries. This perspective is his starting point for identifying many of the specific problems in environment-conflict research. As a result, he disregards the detailed findings of the Toronto Group, the Swiss-based Environmental Conflicts project (ENCOP), and other research projects that do not meet his standards of evidence. We argue that Gleditsch’s proposed approach is a methodological straightjacket that would, if widely adopted, severely constrain research in the field. We do not take issue with the quasi-experimental methodology per se. Rather, we show that the case-study method used by the Toronto Group has qualities that complement quasi-experimental methods.

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