The Terrorism & Poverty Myth

Does poverty breed terrorism? Best-selling author Jared Diamond says it does, in a piece this week on the New York Times op-ed page. That’s not really Diamond’s point. He’s writing about the need for Americans to reduce their level of per capita consumption, before we use up all the world’s resources. And he makes the very important point that we can reduce consumption without significant sacrifice to our comfortable standard of living.

Did you know that Western Europeans consume, per capita, only half of the oil we Americans consume? At least so says Diamond. His figures may be a bit off. But he is surely right that the Western Europeans live as comfortably as (more comfortably than?) we Americans on less oil. And probably on less other non-renewable stuff too. A Swedish reader comments on the piece:

We can indeed cut huge amounts of CO2 emissions without sacrificing anything—in fact Germany and Denmark have shown that switching to renewables and corporate recycling actually generate economic growth and increase employment.

The whole Diamond piece is well worth reading. The main point is that per capita consumption of resources in the industrialized world is a full 32 times as high as in the developing world.

But what caught my eye was this tangential paragraph:

People in the third world are aware of this difference in per capita consumption, although most of them couldn’t specify that it’s by a factor of 32. When they believe their chances of catching up to be hopeless, they sometimes get frustrated and angry, and some become terrorists, or tolerate or support terrorists. Since Sept. 11, 2001, it has become clear that the oceans that once protected the United States no longer do so. There will be more terrorist attacks against us and Europe, and perhaps against Japan and Australia, as long as that factorial difference of 32 in consumption rates persists.

For this claim Diamond presents no evidence. He can’t—not only because it’s not his field of expertise, but because real evidence to support the claim does not exist. It’s one of those cliches that get repeated over and over, even by really smart people, because “everyone knows it’s true.” But the people who have studied the phenomena usually lumped under the umbrella term “terrorism” tend to see it differently. People who join non-state groups planning to do political violence are not especially poor. They are not typically living immiserated lives. There’s certainly no clear correlation between a nation’s poverty and its incidence of non-state actors planning political violence (a.k.a. “terrorists”).

The kind of “terrorism” that gets most all of the press in the United States is usually planned by people who see their cherished cultural values being washed away by the values of others. Why they cherish those values, and why they think violence will protect their cultures, are tremendously complicated questions. There are far too many causal factors involved in “terrorism” to explain it by any one factor. Economic factors may very well play some part. But it seems to be a relatively small part. When an author as smart and respected as Jared Diamond makes this kind of sweeping statement purporting to explain “terrorism” he throws us off the track and makes it harder to do anything constructive to reduce the violence.

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