Environmental ‘alarmists’ may cause more harm than good

Well-meaning lobbyists against unsustainable businesses and Government policy are likely to be inadvertently causing more harm to the environment than good, according to new research.

Economist Dr Petros Sekeris, of the University of Portsmouth, discovered that by making ‘sometimes exaggerated claims’ about a natural resource such as clean water or land, some lobbyists could actually be deemed ‘alarmists’ by speeding up the rate at which others rush to use up what’s left.

“Peace prevails when a resource is abundant, and conflict will occur when a depletable resource becomes scarce,” said Sekeris. “Alarmist talk by individuals, groups or the media on the low stocks of some resources and on the inability of resources to regenerate could very well prove detrimental for the conservation of the environment.

“As countries anticipate a rise of violence for the control of the remaining resource stocks, this incentivises world actors to accelerate their use of the remaining resources prior to the sparking of violence.”

The research claims to be the first of its kind to establish that natural resources are being depleted due to the threat of future violence over the control of these same resources.

Future conflict

Shared common resources, which range from common land for grazing sheep to the world’s oceans, can be managed by many groups when the resource is plentiful because, Sekeris says, either the parties negotiate a sharing agreement and all adhere to it, or a strong ‘state actor’ such as a Government or a council oversees and controls whether agreements are respected.

But all arrangements and agreements start to unravel once a shared resource is running low, according to Sekeris.

“Nations fail to enforce international agreements on the environment, or on the protection of endangered species, or on the use of shared rivers because as a resource becomes scarce, conflict is likely to break out for the control of what’s left.

“The very expectation of such future conflict prevents putting a plan of how to control resource use into action.

“It seems counter-intuitive to say we shouldn’t draw attention to a resource running low, that doing so will make things worse, but in the context of a tragedy of the commons that is what happens.

“People may resort to fighting for what’s left and this expected future violence over resources harms the chances of us co-operating and accelerates the rate at which people use the resource.”

The research is published in the RAND Journal of Economics.

Luke Nicholls

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