Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Social Justice and Natural Resource Conflict Resolution

by David Yarian, Ph.D.

The Earth possesses a finitude of resources which are currently being extracted and consumed without regard for sustainability. News stories reassuring us that there is a 50-year supply of petroleum in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, or a 200-year supply of coal in the U.S. fail to address the larger question: what happens after 50 years? After 200 years?

Fresh water, oil, agricultural land, forests, fish, iron ore, copper – all are being depleted. The search for new fishing areas, new oil fields, more fresh water, more forest areas to clearcut - untapped resources of all kinds – has entered the realm of diminishing returns. Since the U.S. is amply blessed with many resources, it’s tempting to ignore the critical level of resource depletion that is occurring worldwide. Only the threat of $4.00 per gallon gasoline seems to get the American public’s attention.

As growing populations and the engines of economic growth confront the reality of diminishing resources and environmental degradation, conflict is the inevitable result. While serious religious and cultural tensions exist in the Middle East, it is hard to imagine that those historical conflicts would demand the world’s attention in the way they do, if not for the enormous store of oil reserves located there.

The Cod Wars were a series of confrontations in the 1950s and the 1970s between the United Kingdom and Iceland regarding fishing rights in the North Atlantic. This conflict is currently of little concern, since cod fishing is no longer economically viable due to overfishing and depletion of the resource.

Hitler’s expansionist policies leading up to World War II reflected Germany’s lust for lebensraum – and its desire for the mineral and agricultural resources of the conquered countries.

“Manifest Destiny” was the principle used by the United States to justify its westward expansion, which led to conflict with the indigenous peoples who had occupied the contested territory for thousands of years.

British, French, Spanish, and Dutch colonial policies of imperialism, while rationalized as altruistic efforts to bring Christianity and civilization to the world, were ultimately motivated by the desire to access, control and consume the resources of the colonized areas.

The global history of war and conflict is replete with examples of conflicts driven by contested natural resources, whether fish, agricultural land, petroleum or precious metals. While ethnic and religious strife has caused (and continues to cause) many conflicts, it is clear that in the 21st century conflicts over increasingly scarce natural resources will escalate.

Thus approaches to conflict resolution become increasingly important. America’s war in Iraq demonstrates the incredible cost in lives and resources of utilizing war to attempt to resolve problems. The field of conflict resolution offers a better way to negotiate and resolve conflicts – whether ethnic, religious or economic – before they escalate into protracted armed confrontations.

As the growing economies of the world increasingly confront the challenge of obtaining wanted resources, conflicts are likely to intensify. The tools and techniques of conflict resolution give nations the ability to work towards the cooperative and sustainable use of the Earth’s finite resources.

Social justice is the foundation of workable approaches to conflict resolution. When nations or groups in conflict feel that their needs are not valued and their rights are not respected, any “resolution” is tentative and likely to disintegrate into increased conflict. One has only to look at the history of the Balkans in the 20th century, or the current struggles in the Middle East, to see how accommodations obtained by force of arms do not address the fundamental human need for social justice and do not produce lasting peace and cooperation.

The recommended books in Conflict Resolution include impassioned pleas to avoid the terrible destruction of war; manuals of techniques and approaches to cross-cultural conflict resolution; analyses of how conflicting demands for scarce resources can increasingly destabilize current political arrangements; and roadmaps for promoting international cooperation, social justice and environmental protection.

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