New Reality collective work. Photo courtesy Trintira and wikicommons

War and Human Nature

“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”—Mark Twain

Climate change will affect our world in many ways and governments are slowly becoming more cognizant of the potential hazards and risks involved. However, much of the debate around climate change has centered on how it will affect conflict around the world, with fantastical predictions of a 54% increase in civil war if the temperature rises even one degree Celsius by 2030 (Burke et al. 2009), as well as other studies that link conflict and interpersonal violence directly to temperature (Hsiang et al 2013, Ranson 2014) . Unfortunately many of these articles and policy papers are being written by researchers who lack a solid background in anthropological theory, especially regarding work on peace, warfare, conflict resolution, and most importantly, the disproven theory of innate aggression. Innate aggression and similar themes keep cropping up in these papers like bad apples, spoiling this important discussion with western cultural biases on human nature. Most alarmingly, this discussion may promote the warlike future it prophesizes, as nations prepare for inevitable war. However, war is not inevitable, nor is it the ancient ancestral state of the human species. Human resiliency and adaptation are both possible and necessary to work with the changing world, and should be the focus of the conversation on climate change going forward. Rather than focusing on an apocalyptic future, the problems facing us that can contribute to conflict, like poverty, inequality, governmental corruption, and hatred of “the other” should be the focus. Humans have great capacity for working together and for peaceful resolution of conflicting needs. As anthropologists, we need to continue to step into this debate and share what we know about what it means to be human, and assert that culture has a much stronger pull on our destiny than biology.

The Climate War: Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

What we do know about the climate-conflict nexus so far, is that much of the collateral damage associated with climate change will be due to social variables that affect adaptive capacity, which may be negatively impacted through changes in the environment. One of these factors is population density. Another is migration. However, things like food scarcity and water scarcity are unlikely to be as big of problems as they have been painted to be. Earle Ellis recently presented his views on the Anthropocene saying that humans have every capability with the technology we currently have to grow the food we need on less land than we are currently using. This fact combined with changing agricultural zones may result in more food, rather than less. However structural issues surrounding food distribution, which is a cultural variable, may cause real problems for people experiencing food insecurity all around the world. Likewise areas that already experience water scarcity may face more severe challenges, but there is hope for adaption here too (see Schewe et al. 2013).

New Reality collective work. Photo courtesy Trintira and wikicommons

New Reality collective work. Photo courtesy Trintira and wikicommons

One of the biggest debates surrounding climate change (other than its existence), is whether the changing climate will spark inevitable war as we scramble for land and resources, and feel our very blood boil with rage at the increasing temperature. This is barely an exaggeration of the way the dangers of climate change have been portrayed in the news media, and even in some academic journals. The environmental security field suffers from a number of problems, including lack of grounding in theories of culture and human nature, artificially selected data sets, sensationalism and poor methodology. Schrodt (2013) states baldly that many contemporary quantitative political analysts have “accumulated a series of dysfunctional habits that have rendered much of contemporary research more or less meaningless.” Douglas P. Fry, an anthropologist known for his work on peace and conflict studies, emphasizes this point further in War, Peace, and Human Nature, saying, “Are deeply ingrained cultural beliefs about human nature currently affecting our research on peace and war? Disturbing as it may be, I suggest that the answer is ‘yes’” (Fry 2013:3.

The main opposition Burke et al. (2009), Hsiang et al. (2013), and others have faced, is from Nordic peace researchers, such as Halvard Buhaug , Nils Petter Gleditsch, and Ole Magnus Theisen; no surprise given the well-known peaceful values of modern Scandinavian countries. Theisen particularly has stressed that in the climate-conflict field, “the policy debate is running well ahead of its academic foundation—and sometimes even contrary to the best evidence” (Theisen et al. 2013). However, they seem to be facing a hydra of mythological proportions. The disconnect between the camps goes back to different basic assumptions about human nature.

Red in Tooth and Claw: A Martial Society’s Fairytale

I first entered this debate during my warfare-themed anthropology senior capstone course at Grand Valley State University. There, I was given to understand that there are at least two sides to the debate on war (hawks and doves, of course) and that it is basically impossible to come to an agreement on how to define war exactly. Much like the obscenity statute, we know it when we see it. Taking advantage of the young and impressionable age of my then five-year-old nephew Michael, I asked him to define war: “Mikey, what is war?” to which he replied promptly: “Killin’.” This being pretty simplistic, I asked him to elaborate: “Why do people go to war?” I asked. “Because they’re bad…” he replied. “Yeah, but why?” I asked again, whereupon he thought very hard for a moment or two and said, “Umm… through history” and nodded as if he was satisfied with his answer. After which, he un-paused his video game about war, and went back to “shootin’ bad guys.” I was amazed at the depth to which he had grasped the predominant cultural message about human nature at such as young age (though early exposure to video games might have helped). Mikey knew that war is killing, and had been taught that it happens because people are bad, and have been since the ancient past. Who would have thought that a five-year-old would have so good a grasp on one version of anthropological theory? During the class, I learned from many anthropologists, but also picked up some biases of my own. While I learned about the fallacies surrounding innate aggression, the readings lead me to believe that Richard Wrangham’s research on chimpanzees was fundamentally misleading. Having since read Wrangham’s 2010 response to criticism of his book, Demonic males, and his denial of accusations that he believes in or promotes an idea of inevitable biological violence, I have come around to a very important perspective. We have all been arguing for peace, but doing it in different ways. We can all agree on peace. Now some have seen evidence of violence and tendencies towards war in our ancient past, while others focus on the altruistic nature of our species and our near relatives the Bonobos. Whether you debate that it is bad nature, good culture or good nature, bad culture (Sahlins, 2008), we have all been searching for the capacity for peace. However, our perspective has been muddied by a ca. 2,500 year-old meme of human savagery. It’s been written into our philosophy, our laws, our entertainment; ask anyone. Humans are basically awful, greedy creatures or so we’ve been acculturated to expect.

Why we go to war is a deeply complex and philosophical question that we have puzzled over for thousands of years. Since the ancient Greeks at least, we have been profoundly troubled by human nature, war, and why bad things happen to good people; how savage impulses have appeared to take over people and make them into monsters. However, this perspective is deeply embedded in Western psyches and cultural history, and colors the way we view the world even today. Indeed, it’s easy to think that peace may be beyond us when we see the horrible things that people do all around the world, from people we hear about in our own neighborhoods, to the recent killings of Muslims in Africa. It is no wonder therefore, that any new disruption in our world leaves us wondering if war could result. Climate change has loomed large in this respect, leaving us slouching towards Armageddon, wondering if this change will be the next great disturbance to unleash the animal within. You will have seen the stories, “Hotter Weather Actually Makes Us Want to Kill Each Other”, “Study: Global Warming Will Cause 180,000 More Rapes by 2099″, et cetera. However much innate aggression and pressure valve mechanisms of anger have been discredited by science, they are still very present in the public consciousness, and loath though some may be to admit it, within the hearts and minds of many scientists as well, biasing their research. Why else would so many be so fervent in their desire to correlate, nay prove causation, between higher temperatures and warfare? On its face the concept is ludicrous. No one goes to war just because it’s hot out. Wars are the result of complex social interactions and cultural perspectives.

We Shape Our Reality Through Culture

In Fry’s 1992 discussion of two Zapotec communities, he demonstrates clearly that we shape our own realities. The two towns, both alike in dignity, had subtly different ways of living up to their ideal characters. In La Paz, children were viewed as good and expected to behave, and they did. In San Andres, children were viewed as mischievous troublemakers, and generally lived up to expectations. While both cities expected people to be good, people of San Andres were more likely to make excuses and exceptions for bad behavior if the cause was justified. The children grew up hearing these mixed messages, and the results were clear in differing rates of domestic abuse, murder, and other unrest. This is the danger I see in our current discussions of climate change and conflict. To an extent, expectations shape reality; climate and policy researchers, who are perceived as experts, say that civil war will increase due to climate change, specifically with a direct correlation to temperature, and the Pentagon starts to prepare to contain any fall-out. Then problems that can really contribute to conflict, like human social vulnerability (including poverty, inequality, structural issues, and governance) and otherization (which can lead to hatred and polarization) are not addressed.

Another troubling aspect is that many of these flawed quantitative studies seem to be aimed at scaring people into reducing their carbon footprint to stop climate change. Unfortunately, it’s far too late for that, as the findings of many climate scientists support. While we may be able to reduce carbon emissions and the degree of total rise in temperature, a 2-4 degree C increase is certain at this point. However, in the Climate Desk article covering Ranson’s findings, the author closes saying that all of these rapes that will be occurring due to an increase in temperature can be avoided through “a third alternative—reining in the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming in the first place” (Schulman 2014). And is it any wonder that policy-makers run amok trying to get ahead of these so-called looming catastrophes? Meanwhile, the public becomes more fearful and confused. Are these researchers still under the false assumption that we don’t have to live with a warmer world, and scaring people with war is the only way they can think of to make the world leaders take climate change seriously? Because it is not working out as planned. Instead of climate mitigation, we are preparing for war. John Kerry has referred to climate change as “another weapon of mass destruction.” Others like Senator Boxer have said that climate change will be the “leading cause of conflict” in the next 20 years. The danger is that people will quite rightly disagree, but then others will take it a step farther, thinking that if climate change causing war is a lie, then climate change is too. Then either nothing will get done, or we will take irresponsible steps towards war, based on a perceived biological given that temperature will cause war, rather than focusing on adaptation to climate change and working to develop adaptive capacities, peace, and cooperation strategies between regions. In the end, climate change will not cause anything other than flooding, temperature, drought, and other biophysical changes in our environment. While these changes will surely affect our lives, some more directly than others through displacement, the way humans will deal with these changes will be through culture.

Concluding Thoughts

The maintenance of intersocietal peace is possible, but as Douglas Fry points out, “complexity of social organization correlates positively with warfare” (Fry 2012: 880). Nevertheless many complex societies have proven themselves able to maintain peace through a variety of cross-cutting ties, symbolism, values, and governance. However, our interaction with climate change and its fallout may force a moral issue to a point in this country, because in order to build adaptive capacity around the world to cope with climate change, the world has to address poverty, income inequality, density, and cooperation between nations and neighbors. In the United States, the narrative from many politicians has shown that they don’t care about poverty; poverty is the fault of the poor people. If we continue to, in the words of Jon Stewart, “tie people’s poverty to their own lack of virtue,” we are very unlikely to want to help other countries shore up their adaptive capacities. But if we can make money through war from their downfall… well, the war industry may be here to stay. However, this is our choice, choosing our values, and deciding who we want to be. And it certainly has nothing to do with the temperature. Whether you frame war as the invention or peace, we are clearly able to choose and destined for neither.

Meghan Mulkerin is an anthropologist currently working in Washington, D.C. as a museum collections specialist and research scientist contractor. Her research focuses on climate change, vulnerability, structural inequality, warfare and peace studies. She has a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies from The George Washington University.

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