Topic 11: Human Impacts and Social Change


See Moodle


The concept of development is a good place to start when we talk about human impacts in international relations. The label anthropocene is used to denote a geological period where humans are the dominant influence on the planet, and that’s not necessarily a good thing, although I confess there are days in February when global warming sounds like a good idea. Development, in a word, is how we got here – agricultural to industrial to information revolutions, with longer lifespans, higher resource consumption, and rising populations. That generally is a good thing, and we use indicators like the UN Human Development Index to assess progress. Longer, healthier lives, better standards of living, and better education (particularly of women) correlate to lower birthrates, which are generally experienced in developed countries, but many countries in the world experience a huge gap in human development indicators.  Gapminder is a great tool for visualizing how some of these difference have evolved over time, and I encourage you to play with it to see how fortunate is the accident of your birthplace or upbringing.

Environmental degradation, climate change, and survival migration, are linked to patterns of development throughout history, but with acceleration since the industrial revolution.  The effort to avoid a third world war was linked to the understanding that there were underlying economic and social causes of international conflict (see Watchtower over Tomorrow).  The film, Watchtower over Tomorrow, was a public relations exercise to keep America engaged in the world. It describes effectively the concept of a Security Council mirroring the allied powers, which would address physical violence, and an Economic and Social Council to address structural violence and the underlying economic and social problems that make violence of various types more likely.  The UN system intended to address health (the WHO), development (the UNDP),  food (FAO and WFP), refugees (the UNHCR), culture and education (UNESCO), and more. Although the UN and regional organizations have made huge strides to manage structural violence and prevent physical violence, human security in many parts of the world remains fragile.  If not for humanity’s sake (the idealistic rationale) dealing with these problems is a matter of self-interest.  Of course, disasters close to home matter more to us, as we can see from the reaction to hurricanes in Texas.

In 1972 the Club of Rome published Limits to Growthand raised the alarm about over-population and resource depletion. The OECD supported research on the harrying and carrying capacity of environments (Adler-Karlsson, 1974) and Willy Brandt, a former Chancellor of Germany, led a study on the risks of inequity between North and South: North South, A Program for Survival. The neoliberal resurgence under President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher in the 1980s set back the consensus on environmentalism, development, and internationalist agenda. Canadian social scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon began working on environment and conflict in the 1980s, and was an advisor to US Vice President Al Gore, during the climate change negotiations that led to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992The Ingenuity Gap (Homer-Dixon, 2000) highlighted the need for collective ingenuity to overcome the challenges of environmental change and resource shortages; ingenuity makes the difference between a malthusian world of shortages and conflict, and a cornucopian world of adequacy for all. Violence in stressed societies impede the solutions they need to find to their environmental problems.  Meanwhile, as global diplomacy made progress towards a framework for climate change negotiations, corporations ramped up funding of climate change denial science, using tactics honed by tobacco and sugar industries in their fight against regulation. One theme that runs through this narrative is the need for public awareness and education, a theme to which the Club of Rome returned (Botkin et al, 2014).

The cases we choose from this week span climate change, survival migration, information manipulation, and the development-disarmament-security triangle.

Learning objectives

  • Describe actors, events and issues in international relations
  • Demonstrate discrimination in the use and interpretation of sources
  • Understand political economy and world systems analysis as approaches to linking international politics, economics, and social change
  • Interpret the events, sequences, causes and effects related to alternative theories
  • Identify terms and concepts related to the study of international relations


Shiraev, Chapters 9 and 10


Student coordinators will select from the following cases to explore this week:

Activities before class

  • Review current events
  • Read the case summary or links
  • Check Moodle for case notes from the presenters
  • Apply your own aide memoire on theory: which ones seem most useful? What do they omit? What can be gained from other perspectives?
  • Are there alternative narratives for the cases under consideration?
  • What terminology or concepts are relevant in the discussion of this case?

Activities during class

  • Discuss current events
  • Relate current events to the events up for discussion
  • Present the cases
  • Discuss the cases from empirical and normative perspectives
  • Call-in speaker (if any) Q&A managed by coordinators
  • International perspectives from allied military academies (if available)
  • Frame an essay question addressing the issues raised in discussion
  • Offer suggestions for completion of the analytical papers following the presentation
  • List relevant terminology and concepts

Activities after class

  • Post comments on Moodle
  • Confirm understanding of terminology and concepts
  • Review notes and readings for essay question

Additional resources

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers William W. Behrens III (1972) Limits to Growth.  Universe Books

Botkin, J. W., Elmandjra, M., & Malitza, M. (2014). No limits to learning: Bridging the human gap: The report to the club of Rome. Elsevier.

Human Security

Bain, W. Ed. (2006) The Empire of Security and the Safety of the People. London: Routledge.

Waging Humanitarian War

Altman et al () Why Human Security Matters

Battersby et al () Globalization and Human Security

Bellamy () Responsibility to Protect

Development and Security

Meier and Stiglitz, Frontiers of Development Economics

Duffield (2009) Development, security, and unending war. Discussion

Beswick and Jackson () Conflict, Security, and Development

Williams and MacGinty () Conflict and Development

Choucri and North (1975) Nations in Conflict: National Growth and International Violence

Detter and Folster (2015) The Public Wealth of Nations: How management of public assets can boost or bust economic growth

Environment and Security

Buxton and Hayes (2017) The Secure and the Dispossessed: How the Military and Corporations are Shaping a Climate Changed World

Hunziker, R. (2017) “The extinction event gains momentum,” Counterpunch 

Rees, W.E. (2019) “Yes, the climate crisis may wipe out 6 billion people,” Tyee, 18 Sep.

Migration and security

Weiss (2016) Return of History, Ch. 3 the Return of Mass Flight

Beck, Ulrich () World at Risk (possibly chapter 1 – including the section on inundation and foreign policy)


Koser, K. () International Migration

Sassen,  S. () Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy

Betts, A () Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the crisis of displacement

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