Tag Archives: Conflict

Climate disasters are now causing more displacement than conflicts

Violence and disasters, often caused or worsened by the impact of climate change, forced 40.5 million people to relocate within their countries last year — the highest annual figure recorded in a decade, according to a global report.  This came despite strict restrictions on movement in efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19.

A flood in Bangladesh last year. Image credit: IDMC

In its latest annual global report, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) said 55 million people were living away from their homes but within their countries at the end of last year. Storms, floods and conflicts drove up the figures that have been growing for more than a decade. Sometimes people were forced to move two or three times.

“It is particularly concerning that these high figures were recorded against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, when movement restrictions obstructed data collection and fewer people sought out emergency shelters for fear of infection,” Alexandra Bilak, the director of the IDMC, said in a statement

The organization, which is part of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the number of internally displaced was more than twice that of refugees, those who flee to another country, at the end of last year. They said that the figures were likely a “significant underestimate” because COVID-19 travel restrictions impeded the collection of data.

Weather-related events such as storms were responsible for 98% of all disaster displacement. Intense cyclone seasons in the Americas, South Asia and East Asia and the Pacific, and rainy seasons in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, displaced millions. The Atlantic hurricane season was the most active one on record. 

At the same time, escalating violence and the expansion of extremist groups in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Burkina Faso fueled some of the world’s fastest growing displacement crises. Long-running conflicts, such as those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also continued to force large numbers of people to flee.

The highest number of internally displaced people last year was in China, which faces severe floods on a regular basis — and authorities encourage or require internal displacement to get out of the way of rising waters — followed by the Philippines and Bangladesh. More than five million people in China were forced into internal displacement last year.

“It’s shocking that someone was forced to flee their home inside their own country every single second last year. We are failing to protect the world’s most vulnerable people from conflict and disasters,” Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement.

The number of displaced people has been steadily on the rise for more than a decade. It reached a record high last year, when there were more than twice as many internally displaced people than refugees. A convergence of conflict and disasters led many people to be displaced for a second or even third time.

Still, the authors of the report said there have been significant advances in the development of national and regional policies, and global attention on the issue is growing. Countries are beginning to invest in proactive measures, such as planned relocation and community-led initiatives to reduce displacement risk. 

“Today’s displacement crises arise from many interconnected factors, including climate and environmental change, protracted conflicts and political instability. In a world made more fragile by the Covid-19 pandemic, sustained political will and investment in locally-owned solutions will be more important than ever,” said Bilak.

Cooperation and polarization have the same root, study finds

Could civilization and nasty political debates on social media be borne from the same source? One study, surprisingly, found that it may be true.

Image via Pixabay.

Ask a thousand people what they think humanity’s greatest invention ever is and you’ll get a wealth of answers. ‘Fire’ would probably be mentioned often, along with a few others such as ‘the wheel’, ‘antibiotics’, or ‘food delivery’. They’re all wonderful mentions and definitely helped shape society into what it is today, but they only work in a very specific context — which, in my view, is our actual greatest invention.

I’m talking about the division of labor.

A new study using an ant-based model, however, suggests that it may also have a dark side. The same processes that made the division of labor possible, the team believes, are also driving political and social polarization, which are seen as destructive, destabilizing factors in society.

Ours with ours, yours with yours

“Our findings suggest that division of labor and political polarization — two social phenomena not typically considered together — may actually be driven by the same process,” said Christopher Tokita, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, the study’s lead author. “Division of labor is seen as a benefit to societies, while political polarization usually isn’t, but we found that the same dynamics could theoretically give rise to them both.”

Division of labor is the process by which individuals in a community specialize in different tasks and exclude others. Overall, specialists can perform their respective tasks much more efficiently than generalists, and through trade, this improves the wellbeing of the community. A village that has a doctor, a craftsman, maybe a hunter, and some farmers would be a much better place to live in than one in which every individual had to grow their own food, heal their own diseases, produce their own goods, and hunt for themselves. If you’re into economics and familiar with the concept of comparative advantage, you have a pretty good idea of how the division of labor works.

Together with co-author Corina Tarnita, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton, Tokita added two forces known to drive political polarization to existing models describing how the division of labor arises in an anthill. The authors report finding a feedback loop between these two forces that resulted both in specialized workers and polarized social networks. These two, the findings suggest, go hand-in-hand.

“It suggests that maybe there’s a common process underlying the organization of societies,” Tokita said.

The forces this paper looked into are “social influence”, which is the tendency of individuals to take on traits or mindsets from those they interact with, and “interaction bias”, which basically says that people like to interact with others they resemble. The researchers combined these with a “response threshold” model of ant social dynamics, in which ants choose their activities based on which need meets a critical internal threshold. Under this model, if two ants both check the food stores and the colony’s young, but one of the ants has a lower worry threshold for hunger and the other for the health of the larvae, they’d each seek to address their major individual worry.

Over time social influence and interaction bias strengthened in-group connections and weakened out-group ones, the team found. This made one of the ants interact more with its hunger-sensitive peers and become a forager, and the other with its larvae-sensitive peers, becoming a nursing ant.

However, herein lies the proverbial rub. The same dynamics also led to a wider and wider gulf between forager, nurses, and other groups (partisanship or tribalism) — the more the ants in a group interacted with their in-group peers, the more they would only interact with their in-group peers. This is especially problematic as the division of labor only functions when different groups work together.

“Social insect colonies thrive on the heterogeneity that leads to division of labor, but sometimes they need to make decisions that have to be embraced by the whole nest,” said Dr. Tarnita. “For example, when honeybees need to move their nest to a new location, it would be problematic if the colony couldn’t reach consensus and it ended up splitting,”

Not all is lost, however. The team explains that fighting the tendency to interact only with those similar to you, and accepting different viewpoints is a very efficient way of preventing polarization and rebuilding consensus.

“Our model predicts that if you interact with those who are different from you, over time, you’ll become similar to each other,” Tokita said. “It basically erases those differences.”

“One of the things I hope comes from this project is that it causes people in different fields, coming at and thinking about social behavior from different perspectives, to talk to each other a little more. In this project, we learned a lot by borrowing theories from sociology and political science, and combining them with our biological model.”

The paper “Social influence and interaction bias can drive emergent behavioural specialization and modular social networks across systems” has been published in the Journal of The Royal Society Interface.

What is conflict theory? Looking at Marx’s main concepts

Although Karl Marx is mostly known for founding what became known as socialism, his work was prevalent in numerous fields of economy, philosophy, and even history. Conflict theory is one such area in which Marx developed, and one in which his ideas are still influential to this day.

As suggested by Karl Marx, conflict theory claims society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources. The idea, also embraced and developed by other authors, has been used to explain a wide range of social phenomena. Here’s a breakdown of its most important points.

As suggested by Karl Marx, conflict theory claims society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources. The idea, also embraced and developed by other authors, has been used to explain a wide range of social phenomena. Here’s a breakdown of its most important points.

For starters, the basis on conflict theory holds that left to their own, humans are not orderly creatures. Social order is maintained by domination and power, rather than consensus and conformity. Those with wealth and power try to hold on to it by any means possible, chiefly by suppressing the poor and powerless. Furthermore, individuals and groups will work to maximize their own benefits, even at the expense of others’ benefits.

Seeing the view through this lens leads to some important conclusions. Wars and revolutions, wealth and poverty, discrimination and domestic violence and conflicts over natural resources — they can all be viewed through the lens conflict theory. Even peaceful and noble aspirations can be explained through conflict theory. In this regard, most of the fundamental developments in human history, such as democracy and civil rights, to capitalistic attempts to control the masses rather than to a desire for social order.

At this point, it should also be said that Marx viewed social conflict theory as a component of the four major paradigms of sociology, while others might not agree with this view.


“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto, 1848

The classical phrase above says a lot about how Marx viewed the world. Take away some old words and replace them with their modern versions, and you end up with a vision that’s still shared by many people. You don’t need to look farther than the Occupy movement which protested against the richest 1%, or the anti-austerity movements prevalent in many parts of Europe. But the origins of these ideas go back a long time.

Protests during the Occupy movement led to massive friction between different social classes. Image credits: Michael Fleshman.

Conflict theory originated in the work of Karl Marx, who focused on the causes and consequences of class conflict between what was then called the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production and the capitalists — basically the rich people) and the proletariat (the working class and the poor).

Focusing on the economic, social, and political implications of the rise of capitalism in Europe, Marx theorized that this system, premised on the existence of a powerful minority class (the bourgeoisie) and an oppressed majority class (the proletariat), created class conflict because the interests of the two were at odds and resources were unjustly distributed among them.

Within this system, an unequal social order was maintained through ideological coercion which created consensus and acceptance of the values, expectations, and conditions as determined by the bourgeoisie.

In other words, the rich tricked the poor into accepting a deal that was bad for them, using ideological tricks.

Marx theorized that the work of producing consensus was done in the “superstructure” of society, which is composed of social institutions, political structures, and culture, and what it produced a consensus for was the “base,” the economic relations of production.

Main assumptions

Conflict theorists believe that competition is a constant and, at times, an overwhelming factor in nearly every human relationship and interaction. Competition exists as a result of the scarcity of resources, including material resources like money, property, commodities, and more. Whenever there is an imbalance, a shift of power, or something that disrupts the fragile equilibrium between different social classes, a crisis can emerge.

Larger entities such as governments or companies seek to prevent or manage conflict by reallocating resources and distributing goods. Progressive taxes, minimum wages, social assistance — in conflict theory, these are all done not for the welfare of the people, but rather to reduce conflict.

Beyond material resources, individuals and groups within a society also compete for intangible resources as well. These can include leisure time, dominance, social status, sexual partners, and many other factors. Conflict theorists assume that competition is the default, rather than cooperation.

Given conflict theorists’ assumption that conflict occurs between social classes, one outcome of this conflict is a revolution. The idea is that change in a power dynamic between groups does not happen as the result of adaptation. Rather, it comes about as the effect of conflict between these groups. In this way, changes to a power dynamic are often abrupt and large in scale, rather than gradual and evolutionary.

An important assumption of conflict theory is that human relationships and social structures all experience inequalities of power. In this way, some individuals and groups inherently develop more power and reward than others. Following this, those individuals and groups that benefit from a particular structure of society tend to work to maintain those structures so as to retain and enhance their power.

Conflict theorists tend to see war as either a unifier or as a cleanser of societies. In conflict theory, war is the result of a cumulative and growing conflict between individuals and groups and between whole societies. In the context of war, a society may become unified in some ways, but conflict still remains between multiple societies. On the other hand, war may also result in the wholesale end of society.

Modern conflict theory

In essence, conflict theory is a simple theory: there is always competition between groups within society over limited resources. But the more you look into it, the more opaque and complicated things become.

Many social theorists have built on Marx’s conflict theory to bolster it, grow it, and refine it over the years, leading to the development of what is called modern conflict theory.

Explaining why Marx’s theory of revolution did not manifest in his lifetime, Italian scholar and activist Antonio Gramsci argued that the power of ideology was stronger than Marx had realized and that more work needed to be done to overcome cultural hegemony or rule through common sense.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, critical theorists who were part of The Frankfurt School, focused their work on how the rise of mass culture–mass-produced art, music, and media–contributed to the maintenance of cultural hegemony.

More recently, C. Wright Mills drew on conflict theory to describe the rise of a tiny “power elite” composed of military, economic, and political figures who have ruled America from the mid-twentieth century. C. Wright Mills is known as the founder of modern conflict theory, and he described the struggle power between the ” elite ” and the “others”. Examples of the “elite” in the US would be government and large corporations.

Many others have drawn on conflict theory to develop other theories within the social sciences, including feminist theory, critical race theory, postmodern and postcolonial theory, queer theory, post-structural theory, and theories of globalization and world systems.

So, while initially conflict theory described class conflicts specifically, it has lent itself over the years to studies of how other kinds of conflicts, like those premised on race, gender, sexuality, religion, culture, and nationality, among others, are a part of contemporary social structures, and how they affect our lives.

Is conflict theory… right?

Marx believed that with rising inequality, social tension also rises. That much seems to be right, as a mountain of studies show that social and economic inequality are very dangerous to society. The theory is that if the wealth gap becomes too wide, social unrest will ensue — and that is pretty much what we’re observing in society at the moment.

But many things cannot be explained through this lens alone, and there is another, equally convincing and opposite theory: functionalism. Whereas conflict theory views all aspects of life as a competition, functionalism understands society as a system striving for equilibrium.

To say that conflict theory is right or wrong would simply not be correct. Sociologists develop theories to help explain social phenomena. These theories often work at multiple levels, from the macro to the micro — in this case, from describing how interpersonal relationships work, to describing how society works. However, such theories are dependent on context and specific to certain situations, so it is dangerous to over-generalize. Simply put, conflict theory is not the be-all-end-all of human society, but it can be a useful lens through which we can view the world.

The fact that Marx and his work are still so influential to this day is a testament to his value as a philosopher and an economist. However, Marx also paved the way for socialism and communism to emerge, with devastating consequences for millions of people. Blindly believing in such ideas and ignoring just how society really is can lead to disaster — we’ve seen that before, let’s not see it again.


Warming climate means more, hotter armed conflicts, paper reports

Climate change is poised to make the world a hotter place — ‘hotter’ as in ‘more armed conflict’.


Image credits Michael Gaida.

More intense climate change will increase the risk of future armed conflict within countries, a new paper reports. The authors draw their conclusion from a compilation of experts’ views, estimating that climate change has fostered between 3% and 20% of all armed conflicts during the last century. That influence, however, is likely to increase dramatically in the future, the team warns.

Cold war, hot war

“Appreciating the role of climate change and its security impacts is important not only for understanding the social costs of our continuing heat-trapping emissions, but for prioritizing responses, which could include aid and cooperation,” said Katharine Mach, director of the Stanford Environment Assessment Facility and the study’s lead author.

In a 4-degrees-Celsius-warming scenario — which is where we’re headed currently unless steps are taken to massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions — the influence of climate on conflicts would increase over five times, the team notes, reaching up to a 26% increased chance of substantial conflicts popping up. A tamer, 2-degrees-Celsius-warming scenario, which is the stated goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, would still carry a 13% increased chance of such conflicts flaring up.

But how exactly does climate change foster conflict? The team writes that climate shifts promote extreme weather events, which are related to natural disasters that lower farming output, livestock production, generally damage economies, and widen inequality among and within social groups. While these may not be enough to spark conflicts by themselves, they do increase the risks of violence — and, together with pre-existing tensions, can lead to conflicts.

“Knowing whether environmental or climatic changes are important for explaining conflict has implications for what we can do to reduce the likelihood of future conflict, as well as for how to make well-informed decisions about how aggressively we should mitigate future climate change,” said Marshall Burke, assistant professor of Earth system science and a co-author on the study.

Whether or not climate plays a role in triggering conflict within or between states is still up for debate in the scientific community, the authors explain, which is what prompted the present study. To get to the bottom of things, they interviewed experts in the fields of political science, environmental science, economics, and other fields, as well as looking at various debates on the subject.

Overall, they agree that climate conditions have indeed affected the risk of organized armed conflict in recent decades. At the same time, they caution against reading too much into this — climate, by itself, isn’t the main factor here. Low socioeconomic development, the strength of government, inequalities in societies, and a recent history of violent conflict have a much heavier impact on conflict within countries.

It’s still unclear how climate conditions affect conflict and to what extent. The study also notes that the consequences of future climate change will also likely be a new breed indeed compared to historical climate disruptions. Society as a whole will be faced with unprecedented conditions. Basically, we simply don’t know the full extent of what we’re facing, and we don’t have any comparable historical context to tell if society will be able to adapt to these changes or not.

“Historically, levels of armed conflict over time have been heavily influenced by shocks to, and changes in, international relations among states and in their domestic political systems,” said James Fearon, professor of political science and co-author on the study.

“It is quite likely that over this century, unprecedented climate change is going to have significant impacts on both, but it is extremely hard to anticipate whether the political changes related to climate change will have big effects on armed conflict in turn. So I think putting nontrivial weight on significant climate effects on conflict is reasonable.”

There is a silver lining here, however. Many of the measures we can take to mitigate the effects of climate change can also prove useful in nipping such conflict in the bud. Adaptation strategies such as crop insurance, post-harvest storage, and training services can help increase food security while diversifying economic opportunities for different communities. Both of these would reduce the potential of climate-induced conflicts, the team writes. It would also be prudent to include climate as a risk factor in peacekeeping, conflict mediation, and post-conflict aid operations, they add.

However, the researchers underline that we should take great care to understand and weigh the potential benefits of such measures against their side-effects. For example, enforcing food export bans in one area can shore up food security there while increasing instability — and thus fostering conflicts — somewhere else.

The paper “Climate as a risk factor for armed conflict” has been published in the journal Nature.

Old couple.

Humor and acceptance oust conflict and bickering in long-time marriages

Years of marriage puts bickering to rest and fosters humor and acceptance instead, new research reveals.

Old couple.

Image credits Ellen / Pixabay.

You may think all those old couples hang on through the sheer spite they’ve cultivated across decades of marriage, but you’d be very wrong. A study from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that couples in long marriages bicker less, laugh more, and embrace acceptance.

Long-time pair, don’t care

The team worked with 87 middle-aged (and older) couples, who had been married between 15 to 35 years at the date of the study. The participants — mostly in their 70s, 80s, and 90s today — are heterosexual couples from the San Francisco Bay Area. The team started tracking their relationships in 1989 and used videotape recordings of their conversations (taken over the course of 13 years) to analyze the emotional undertone of their conversation. The 15-minute-long snippets of interactions were recorded in a laboratory setting as the spouses discussed shared experiences and areas of conflict. As each couple recorded these on a nearly-early basis so the team could track emotional changes in their interactions over time.

Each spouse’s listening and speaking behavior was coded and rated — this process was based on parameters such as their facial expressions, body language, verbal content and tone of voice. “Coded” essentially means that the team labeled each emotion as an expression of anger, contempt, disgust, domineering behavior, defensiveness, fear, tension, sadness, whining, interest, affection, humor, enthusiasm, or validation.

As the couples aged, the team reports, they showed more humor and tenderness towards one another. The team also reports an increase in positive behaviors — such as humor and affection — and a decrease in negative ones — such as defensiveness and criticism.

“Our findings shed light on one of the great paradoxes of late life,” said study senior author Robert Levenson, a UC Berkeley psychology professor. “Despite experiencing the loss of friends and family, older people in stable marriages are relatively happy and experience low rates of depression and anxiety. Marriage has been good for their mental health.”

The team also found that wives are generally more emotionally expressive than their husbands and tended toward more domineering behavior and less affection. However, across all the study’s age and gender cohorts, negative behaviors decreased with age. The study is consistent with previous findings at Levenson’s Berkeley Psychophysiology lab, the team adds.

“Given the links between positive emotion and health, these findings underscore the importance of intimate relationships as people age, and the potential health benefits associated with marriage,” said co-lead author Alice Verstaen, who conducted the study as a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System.

Researchers further found that both middle-aged and older couples, regardless of their satisfaction with their relationship, experienced increases in overall positive emotional behaviors with age, while experiencing a decrease in overall negative emotional behaviors. I find these results quite uplifting. Instead of the slow erosion of emotion most people expect to see in a long-term marriage, the findings point to things getting better and better instead. in Verstaen’s words,

“These results provide behavioral evidence that is consistent with research suggesting that, as we age, we become more focused on the positives in our lives.”

The paper “Age-related changes in emotional behavior: Evidence from a 13-year longitudinal study of long-term married couples,” has been published in the journal Emotion.


Humans and chimp brains may have a turbo-charged fight-or-flight response

Humans and chimpanzees have a much more active fight-or-flight response than any other primates, a new study reports. The findings point to the role aggression and warfare played in our evolutionary history and that of our closest relatives.


Image via Pxhere.

Biology has no qualms letting organisms get dirty, even downright aggressive, to secure their interests. Faced with so many potential crazies, our brains (along with those of most complex organisms) have evolved a protocol whose single purpose is to determine whether we should throw the towel or a fist when faced with a threat. New research suggests that this protocol is unusually active in humans and our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, suggesting an evolutionary history fraught with aggression and large-scale conflict.


Aptly dubbed the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, this hard-wired security protocol is primarily controlled by the automatic nervous system (ANS) — a division of the nervous system that oversees the activity of smooth muscles (those in your organs) and glands throughout the body. For the most part, the ANS works outside of our conscious perception or control and regulates heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal.

According to a new paper by a team of US and Korean researchers, this system is much more active in humans and chimps compared to other primates. They note that humans and chimps are the only primates known to frequently engage in warfare (i.e. large-scale conflict), suggesting that this adaptation of the fight-or-flight response evolved in response to frequent aggression or threat of conflict.

To find evidence of this adaptation, the team looked at how different primate species regulate a gene called ADRA2C. The gene’s main function is to temper the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which plays a central role in forming the fight-or-flight response. To that end, they analyzed the genomes, transcriptomes (the entire set of genes expressed in a cell), and epigenomes (the compounds external to DNA which can bind to it to affect gene expression) from humans, chimps, and other primates.

They report that humans and chimps evolved both genetic and epigenetic changes that decrease ADRA2C expression — in other words, that increase both the fightiness and the flightiness of their brains. Macaques don’t have these changes, and they’re not universal in bonobos, suggesting that the gene variants spread through the population recently (after we parted ways on the tree of life), most likely in response to the threat of conflict. The team further used CRISPR/Cas9 to show that reverting to the genetic states of macaques and bonobos will restore ADRA2C expression to higher levels.

Variations in ADRA2C gene expression can have significant effects on behavior. For example, changes in the gene that occurred during chicken domestication likely resulted in the somewhat aloof and un-aggressive birds we know today. The team notes that finding adaptations associated with a reduced expression of ADRA2C in chimps and humans but not in their relatives suggests that it was inter-group aggression — rather than an outside threat, such as that of predators — which shaped these genes. They also believe such adaptations could form the evolutionary roots of human warfare — which, in turn, could have shaped much of society as we know it.

The paper “Selection on the regulation of sympathetic nervous activity in humans and chimpanzees” has been published in the journal PLOS Genetics.