Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 05/2009

Resource Scarcity: Responding to the Security Challenge

Richard A. Matthew

April 2008

International Peace Institute


For over two centuries, the social effects of natural resource scarcity have been the subject of lively debate. On one side are those who contend that the planet’s resource endowment cannot support increased consumption indefinitely. In 1798, for example, Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued “that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man.” The imbalance between human needs and food availability, Malthus predicted, would lead to famine, disease, and war. Writing 150 years later, Fairfield Osborn (1948: 200-201) reiterated this concern: “When will it be openly recognized that one of the principal causes of the aggressive attitudes of individual nations and of much of the present discord among groups of nations is traceable to diminishing productive lands and to increasing population pressures?” More recently, updated versions of the “scarcityconflict thesis,” developed by scholars such as Paul Ehrlich (1968), Donella Meadows (1972) and Thomas Homer-Dixon (1999), have been influential in both academic and policy circles around the world.