Human-Environment Conflict: Interdependence and the role of cultural attitudes

Interdependence and the role of cultural attitudes (in the context of the global economic crisis)
(This piece was written Fall 2008.)
Much of the literature on conflict has focused on determining drivers and predictors of
conflict. While most have not come to any decisive conclusions, we may still gain insight as to
what are the underlying factors involved. The goal for this type of investigation is to find ways to
build peace where conflict has done damage or to determine states that are at immediate high risk
for conflict. In this short piece, I will examine a few ideas that may explain some aspects of
conflict, but may yet be proven drivers. These are concepts that seem to come up in literature
from across disciplines. I will focus specifically on two: interdependence on a global scale, and
the role of cultural attitudes.

It may be true that we may never fully understand the nature of conflict or be able to
explain the causes for its occurrence in all of its forms. However, these two ideas are also
extremely relevant in discussion of events other than outright conflict, such as the ongoing global
economic crisis. The crisis is not an outright conflict, but the implications are important to
consider for conflict prevention and peacekeeping. It has already increased tensions between the
United States and the world, as many leaders of other nations have blames the lack of regulation
on the banking system in the US. As I will discuss later, the interdependent nature of the world
society will increase the reaches of any crisis. Analysis of these concepts may bring much
needed insight for economic recovery, which I will address in the last section after I have made
arguments for why and how these concepts are applicable to the economic situation.

Interdependence is a broad concept that generally means that groups rely on other groups
and if a connection were to collapse, there would be repercussions for all involved. This may be
perceived on political, social, economic, and especially ecological levels. The nature of
interdependencies are still in need of investigation and should become a priority in evolving
thought because, as Carius puts it, “mutual dependencies in global politics serve to strengthen
peace” (Carius 2006). Harff (2003) used a structural model to discern pre-conditions of geno-
/politicide. She examined past events and suggest that the “greater the degree to which a country
is interdependent with others, the less likely its leaders are to attempt geno/politicides” (Harff
2003). In this modern era, interdependence has become unavoidable for most nations. There is,
however, a certain reluctance to admit this and that is where cultural attitudes come in.

The reason for discussion of cultural attitudes may be less apparent, but also much more
delicate. Culture is developed over hundreds of years, and is generally resistant to change. This
may be considered an adaptation because social behaviors that have become acceptable will help
individuals survive in a harsh world. Anything that strays too much from the social norm may be
considered too strange, or even a threat to society. Harff (2003) cites “exclusionary ideology” as
another precondition that allows leaders of regimes to categorize people and thus alienate them.
This is an extreme example but may signify the purpose of ideology in the evolution of society.
Over time, outlying ideas or persons that are not adaptive are increasing likely to be eliminated
through extinction, expulsion or otherwise. However, when a cultural attitude has become
outdated or maladaptive, it may endanger the society if it is not changing to fit the circumstances.
Worst comes to worst, stubbornness in cultural attitudes may end up blocking important
connections with other ideas and groups that would create necessary interdependence.

One such example of the Norse in Greenland is discussed in Jared Diamond’s Collapse
(2005). Diamond develops a framework to analyze societies that have collapsed as well as
modern societies that may be showing similar symptoms.
The five points of the framework are (Diamond 2005):
1. Self-inflicted environmental damage
2. Climate change
3. Hostilities with other societies
4. Friendly trading relations with other societies
5. Cultural attitudes

Diamond argues that the decline of the Norse in Greenland in the late 10th century into
the 15th century may be partially explained by their rigid unwillingness to give up European
culture and customs. The Inuit, living in similar conditions nearby, were able to out-live the
Norse by several hundreds of years. Though there is archeological proof that the two groups
were in contact, the Norse never seemed to adopt the skills or traditions that helped the Inuit
survive, such as hunting ringed seals and whales and wearing one-piece parkas. The Norse held
onto their European identity, building elaborate churches and importing the latest fashions. In a
sense, the Norse exported their culture with them to a place where it was not well adapted, but in
their views it was unacceptable to change their identity. Doing so would have made them seem
less civil in the eyes of the Europeans back home, a connection that kept their settlement alive
through trade. However, when those trading ships stopped coming into port, their fancy clothes
and beautiful stained glass windows could not save them from starvation during the Little Ice
Age (the Norse grew hay, which failed with the cooling climate).

It may be advantageous to look at these ideas in contexts other than conflict. The same
underlying assumptions may rule throughout society and may be analyzed not just in specific
categorical cases but also in other disciplines of research. The most obvious recent example of
global interdependence is the global economic crisis. The “credit crunch” has affected markets in
Europe and in Asia. Economies are now more globalized and interdependent than ever before, as
exemplified by the trade to GDP ratio of 51% (Dervis et al. 2008), which makes for great
disaster if any were to collapse.

Economic interdependence may be assessed on three levels: the real economy (trade and
direct investment); the financial economy; and economic policy (reciprocal influence and
cooperation) (Draghi 2008). At the New Vision Conference in October 2008 hosted by Carnegie
Europe, Kemal Dervis makes the statement that the “financial crisis needs to be managed with
much greater international coordination,” by achieving an “equilibrium between efficiency and
robustness in the global economic market” (Dervis et al. 2008). A global problem calls for a
global solution, though that is much easier said than done.

At the root of the crisis are the housing bubble and the freezing up of credit. Though we
may have an understanding of the immediate causes, Robert Wade suggests that the “cost of
capital should be more closely aligned with its risks” (Wade 2008). Changes will need to be
made at the regulatory level. At that same session of the New Vision Conference, Van den
Spiegel says that, “Economic models and risk management always fail because they are based
on, and simultaneously change, human behavior. If they are successful, human behavior changes,
leading to their ultimate demise. Intervention needs to take place before that happens in order to
correct the imbalances” (Dervis et al. 2008). Taylor states that it all may depend on “how
companies incentivize their workers” (Dervis et al. 2008). This suggests that policies regulating
the economy should be as versatile as the entities participating in it. There is no room for rigid
politics and policies that become outdated soon after they are passed.

We may be a long way away from recovering fully from the economic crisis. Deutsche
Bank (2008) estimates that growth in the US and in Europe will be restrained for the next 2
years. It will very likely take a lot of effective coordination and cooperation across many
disciplines even within one country. It may be unpleasant to change personal views on touchy
issues, but it may be in the best interest for certain cultural attitudes to pass into history, such as
the American tendency to overconsume and aspire to a lifestyle of luxury (which may also be
relevant to economic crisis, with bank executives raking in the millions while their companies
file for bankruptcy). Slight changes in consumption patterns and in production processes may
alleviate much of the problem, and may not necessarily require a lower standard of living. On the
macro level, the economy needs influx of investment in the right places, and opinions are always
changing as to where those places are. The global markets may be more connected and
interdependent than we think they are and it will be important to understand what those
connections are, how they are evolving, and how policies in the future will affect them.
Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we
used when we created them.” In this light, we should explore the possibility to adapt through
healthy interdependence and a revolution in cultural attitudes.


Carius, A. 2006. Environmental Cooperation as an Instrument of Crisis Prevention and
Peacebuilding: Conditions for Success and Constraints. 2006 Berlin Conference on the
Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change.
Dervis, K., P. Taylor, F. V. d. Spiegel, and D. Rennie. 2008. The Long-term Implications of the
Global Financial Crisis. New Vision Conference Session 5. New Vision Conference:
Post-Bush America and the World. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. Penguin Group.
Draghi, M. 2008. Deep interdependence – the transatlantic economy and its prospects. Aspen
Institute Italia International Conference.
Harff, B. 2003. No lessons learned from the Holocaust? Assessing risks of genocide and political
mass murder since 1955. American Political Science Review 97:57-73.
Wade, R. 2008. The First-World Debt Crisis of 2007-2010 in Global Perspective. Challenge


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