Environmental Change and Human Security

Published: Spring 1991|    By: Thomas Homer-Dixon    |    Volume 48, No. 3


As I write this article in late November 199o, I have no idea what the world will look like as you read it in the spring of 1991 or later. Will war envelop the Middle East? Will the Soviet Union survive the winter, or will it break apart under the pressure of economic collapse, food riots, and civil strife? How will Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and other East European countries manage as their fuel supplies dwindle, economies stagger, and ancient nationalisms flare? Will South Africa pull back from the brink of intertribal fratricide and Afrikaner reaction? Is India on the verge of another round of fierce communal violence?

The current changes in our world are quick, unprecedented, and unpredictable. Long-established norms, principles, and procedures for international conduct are weakening, and new ones have yet to crystalize. A bipolar system of animosity between the superpowers, codified and institutionalized by two mighty military alliances and giving a certain degree of order to international affairs, has been left far behind by events in Europe. As I write, each day’s developments can evoke optimism or pessimism: on the one hand, the United Nations has become the vehicle for singular international co-operation to oppose Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait; on the other, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade may unravel because of a sharp dispute over agricultural subsidies. Humankind seems poised on a threshold: it must make a fateful choice between various co-operative or conflictual world orders, a choice that will shape international affairs for generations to come. In today’s shifting, unstructured world,

About the Author

Thomas Homer-Dixon is Co-ordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, University of Toronto, and Co-director of an international research project on Environmental Change and Acute Conflict jointly organized by the Program and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He received his doctorate in Political Science from MIT.