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Skip to 0 minutes and 16 seconds ANNE BARTLETT: One of the problems of calling the conflict in Darfur a climate war is that it takes a centuries old set of dynamics and reduces it down to a very simplistic explanation, a monocausal explanation. In fact, across the entire life of this crisis what we’ve seen is that the situation is constantly explained by simple monocausal soundbyte explanations, which do not really account for what’s happening there. In fact, we’ve seen the climate war narrative, we’ve seen an ethnic war narrative. We’ve see all kinds of explanations that really don’t do justice to the complexities of land in the region.

Skip to 0 minutes and 52 seconds What we know about Darfur is that the people are incredibly resilient in the face of drought and famine and other kinds of environmental stresses, and have been for years. So it makes no sense to explain it in that way. My research in fact, shows that it’s the politics of centre and periphery that are really driving the conflict. The government has decided, for a variety of reasons, that the conflict in Darfur needs to be stopped. Because it’s a conflict between centre and periphery, which actually threatens the government in Khartoum. So most of the violence you’ve seen going on in Darfur has to do with that centre periphery conflict, rather than environment per se.

Skip to 1 minute and 34 seconds One of the problems with humanitarian intervention in that context is that people tend to look at this climate war narrative and assume that the best way to deal with it is to take people away from those stresses that are causing this problem in the first place. What this means in reality is that they put people into large camps. And those camps themselves become part of the problem in damaging the local ecosystem. What we’ve seen so many times is that the local people go out, they collect firewood. And they also collect firewood to make structures such as brick making. And this has resulted, in Darfur, in millions and millions of trees being cut down, as a result of this.

Skip to 2 minutes and 9 seconds So the very narrative around climate war then creates the same problem that it seeks to solve.

Skip to 2 minutes and 21 seconds I think the main thing to say is that we need to look at this as a complex phenomenon that has many different pieces to it. So to take people and put them into camps may not in fact, solve the situation at all. What we might need to do, or might need to think about instead is to try to work in situ to resolve some of those issues, rather than moving people away from them. The other issue might be to take a humanitarian infrastructure, such as the one in Darfur, the largest humanitarian infrastructure in the world of its kind at the time, and to think about how that might be placed in relation to the population.

Skip to 2 minutes and 54 seconds When it was put into the local urban centres what we found was it actually destroyed local markets, created environmental problems, such as I’ve explained, displaced people from their housing, and then created more security problems in fact, than was originally the case. So to summarise here, as far as the conflict in Darfur is concerned, this kind of environmentally determinist or reductionist explanation is not really that helpful in explaining the complexity of the crisis that we’re seeing there.

Skip to 3 minutes and 25 seconds PAUL MUNRO: Environmental determinism has been a very influential body of thought for interpreting or understanding conflicts in Africa. And in particular, there’s been two very influential theses that have framed scholarship and popular understanding of conflicts in Africa. The first is the Resource Abundance Thesis or the Resource Curse Theory. And that’s the idea that an abundance of resources act as a prize that different groups fight to control. Examples are the Democratic Republic of Congo— which has conflicts over tantalum, gold, diamonds— and similarly, Sierra Leone with its diamonds in the 1990s. It was often called the Blood Diamond Conflict, where there was different groups fighting over diamonds. And so the argument of this thesis is these resources are driving these conflicts.

Skip to 4 minutes and 3 seconds Their presence is causing the conflict. There’s also kind of the inverse thesis— but still based on the environmental determinism— the Resource Scarcity Thesis, that groups are fighting over scarce resources, whether it’s water or agricultural land. And often the conflict in Rwanda during the 1990s is framed with this idea— it’s got a high population density and minimal arable land, and that’s what caused the conflict.

Skip to 4 minutes and 33 seconds In critical scholarship, in the Environmental Humanities, we try to challenge these kind of simplistic thinking of resources as being determinants of conflict, but rather they’re situated in a much more complex context. There’s whole histories behind these conflicts that date back to the colonial period in Africa, and there’s broader political economies of trade that shape these conflicts. Who’s buying these diamonds? Who’s buying this timber? It is linked to a broader world economy. So for example, with Sierra Leone, diamonds did not cause the war. There were many other factors behind its cause. What diamonds did, perhaps, was prolong the war, where different groups were able to sell diamonds to buy weapons.

Skip to 5 minutes and 5 seconds Another example, I guess, to challenge the Resource Scarcity Thesis, is the Machakos district in Kenya. And in the 1930s, this district had about 250,000 people living there. It had quite poor agricultural resources and I guess was a prime candidate for conflict in future, should population increase. But population did increase to about 1.5 to 2 million nowadays, and yet there’s not been resource conflicts there. Actually, it’s turned quite green. There’s been lots of changes to the landscape, lots more trees planted. And the actual increased population density’s changed labour relations, brought in new ideas of how humans and the environment interacted, quite directly challenging the Resource Scarcity Thesis.

Skip to 5 minutes and 50 seconds The idea of climate wars in future in Africa is a very popular topic of discussion. And no doubt, future climate change impacts in Africa are going to have many impacts in terms of water resources, in terms of agricultural production. But often the idea of climate war gives out the imagination of two armies with tanks fighting ever a scarce resource, whether it’s water, whether it’s forests. And Ken Conca’s done research on this in terms of the area of water wars and those conflicts. And it’s not going to be these two opposing sides, but rather much more diffuse conflicts in terms of local communities and access to water. Who gets access within these areas?

Skip to 6 minutes and 25 seconds I guess the other area’s also going to be in terms of our response to climate change. How to respond to climate change, and what are the impacts of these? So for example, a response to climate change for adaptation might be to build more dams to secure water supplies. But the building of these dams will displace communities and will affect some people’s water supply while benefiting others, such as urban populations. And already, we’re seeing many conflicts over dams occurring around the world. The other area is the idea of privatising water resources as a way to protect it and conserve it. Putting a monetary value on a scarce resource.

Skip to 6 minutes and 56 seconds And obviously this is going to have impacts in terms of equity— those that can afford water and those that cannot. And already we’re seeing much movements towards the idea of water as a human right. That’s kind of an oppositional movement in terms of commodifying water in different outcomes. So when we talk about climate wars in future in Africa, we need to move beyond simplistic, deterministic thinking, but understand that future impacts of climate change are going to mix with existing political economies, existing histories of resource extraction and society-resource relations, and existing social processes. So we need to get context specific and think through all these different dynamics in unpacking what climate change would do with conflicts in Africa.

Political ecology

Another sub-discipline of Environmental Humanities is Political Ecology.

Political ecology typically emphasises how environmental change affects society in different ways due to power relations. It critiques the ways in which political, social and economic factors influence engagement with ecological systems and also seeks out ways of doing things that could offer greater justice. As a sub-discipline, it emerged out of geography and ecological anthropology in the 1970s. Topics often explored include environmental conflict, social movements, environmental identities, conservation and environmental degradation.

This video illustrates critiques of environmental conflicts in action through two interviews. The first interview is conducted with Anne Bartlett about her research in Darfur, Africa, and the labelling of the conflict in Darfur as the first “climate war”.

The second interview features Paul Munro discussing resource conflicts in West Africa and challenging commentary that the conflicts are caused by climate change.

What do you think?

How do these two interviews complicate “climate war” narratives and move discussion beyond the simple belief that a changing climate can be the sole contributor to conflict? What do Anne and Paul’s arguments reveal about the impacts that such determinist thinking has on humanitarian intervention?

The notion of environmental determinism—the problematic claim that environmental conditions determine the character and attributes of (geographically distinct) cultural and ethnic groups—will be further critiqued in Week 2, Step 2.8.


Associate Professor Anne Bartlett has worked on Darfur and Sudan for close to 15 years. Her research centres on three key areas: armed insurgency, related humanitarian crises and the effects of refugees/IDPs on host communities. Her research for a book entitled Insurgent Identities: Conflict and the Politics of Difference in Darfur is the result of over ten years of ethnographic research with the armed movements and population of Darfur.

Bartlett was the chair of the United Nations hearing on the Darfur crisis, UN commission on Human Rights, 60th Session, Geneva, Switzerland, April 2004. She has published extensively on the Darfur crisis and has given numerous talks on the subject worldwide.


  1. Philippe Le Billon, “The Political Ecology of War: Natural Resources and Armed Conflicts,” Political Geography 20, no. 5 (2001): 561–584.
  2. Ken Conca, “Decoupling Water and Violent Conflict,” Issues in Science and Technology 29, no. 1 (2012).

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